Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Hidden Falls - Oxley Wild Rivers National Park

We call this place 'Hidden Falls'. It is not named on any map. The location is remote, the access roads tricky and obscure. The walk in is steep and challenging. It is hidden at the end of a narrow gorge that opens into a large, dark pool and the waterfall crashes 40m off the river bed above.

The last time we visited Hidden Falls, in winter this year, was one of those late night departures. We headed off after work on a Friday evening and at 9:30pm, in the pitch black, found ourselves on a rutted forest road out in the boonies. The last piece of road was barely visible, covered in clumps of grass, matt rush and shrubs. We forced the car over one fallen tree and around the base of another. I walked in the headlights, guiding and checking for obstacles in the regrowth. Strange shiny pinpoints of light in the forest turned out to be the eyes of wild cows. They disappeared quietly into the dark scrub.

At the end of the track, wind howled up and over the gorge edge into the forest, sounding like huge surf crashing on a rocky beach. Through the trees, a pit of blackness just 10 metres from our parking spot, showed where the land dropped directly to the river hundreds of metres below. On the other side of the gorge we watched a bushfire growing and spreading in a slow, eerie glow as we set up camp. We had no tent, sleeping on the ground in our bivvy bags. I had a nervous wee before bed.

The moon slowly emerged; two nights off full. The wind continued to roar. The place, and the dark, had a wild feel about it.

We headed off from the car at 8:40am the next morning and out onto a knife edge ridge which looked down on the river below. The air was dry and white with smoke. The view was toe-tingling. From the ridge we dropped into a narrow scree gully and slowly picked our way down, down, down. A climbing orchid, in full flower, hung from tree trunks and branches. We passed black booyong trees and at the bottom of the scree slope found a grove of red cedars; mainly small but one large 'mother' tree. As we neared the river, a brush tailed rock wallaby hopped out from the shadows and perched itself at a safe distance to watch us clamber down the steep, rocky drops in the side gully we were following.

The first time Caz and I visited this place it was the middle of summer but this time it was mid-winter. Our first trip had also been at the end of years of dry weather when water levels were low. Now we had just emerged from a record-breaking wet summer and autumn: same place but a very different story. At the river, the water level appeared much higher and some essential rocks were treacherously slippery. Heading upstream the going proved much slower and we needed our small, blow-up boat more often. We had our shoes off at one point for a tricky negotiation of wet, greasy rocks and a narrow cascade. The river was painfully cold.

We had planned to camp on the main bend upstream and we lucked it - recent floods had dumped a nice pile of gravel, tucked into the corner under trees. The sun was gone from the gorge floor by 1:15pm and it began climbing the eastern cliff face quite slowly. We had lunch at our camp spot, then left the packs and headed up to the hidden waterfall.

The final two pools in the approach gorge proved challenging just getting in and out of our small boat onto slippery rocks. Where last time we had casually rock-hopped the final part of the gorge (to the entrance of the big pool below the waterfall) now it was a shoes off, knee deep wade through freezing water. The whole experience was nerve-wracking and treacherous. Every step and every decision proved risky. Being winter, we were relying so heavily on our tiny boat - the water was deadly cold and the pools either side of us so long that swimming out of trouble was not an option. Every rock and ledge was wet and slippery and a cold breeze gusted down the narrow gorge.

Caz went ahead to check things out on the big pool but I could already see a huge drift of spray coming off the waterfall, despite the waterfall being hidden around the gorge end. Photography up there proved extremely difficult.  The volume of spray hampered every shot.

It was all so different from our summer visit. I had paddled happily in the big pool until my arms ached. The sun had been high and warm. Caz had jumped around the rock ledges taking photos, but without a wide-angle lens at the time it was difficult to capture the whole magnificent scene. Last time, we had paddled our tiny boat out onto that big pool like happy ocean adventurers, emerging from the calm gorge onto the wind swept pool with its choppy waves and spectacular waterfall. This time I didn't even get to see the waterfall. Caz managed a few spray-washed shots and then withdrew quickly. 

The final approach to the Hidden Falls pool (above and below)

Images from our first visit to Hidden Falls

A small cove on the waterfall pool gives views back to the gorge entrance, opposite.

Getting back to camp proved a bit quicker; familiarity and practice make for good travel but plans to return to the waterfall for nice evening shots were cancelled due to the challenging conditions. And so, the afternoon was spent exploring around camp: finding rocks striped like grey tabby cats and closely watching the flying skills of the welcome swallows. If they were trying to impress me, they did. Around us, small rock figs and sandpaper figs grew out of cracks and hollows in the rocks but they had been stripped of all leaves from the big floods earlier in the year. Their small clusters of roots and twigs were now sprouting tiny new growth. By 5pm the last bit of sun lit up the razorback ridge directly above us then 10 minutes later was gone.

During the night I woke twice, firstly to the sound of some kind of rodent rummaging around our heads in the gravel and then again at 1:20am as the waxing moon breached the gorge rim and filled the river with strange, cold shadows.

Our last day in the gorge began with a relaxed morning but, if we thought getting in to the gorge in winter was tricky, getting out was even harder. More of the rocks were wet and greasy, this time with dew and spray from the increasing breeze.  It was slow, tense progress.

Spot the awildland explorer
The bottom waterfall before leaving the river

We stopped and had lunch before walking out, with views of a second, smaller waterfall, downstream of the access point. The little rock wallaby from our walk in appeared in the exact same spot and watched us as we scrambled past again. The walk out was straightforward although physical, extremely steep, but mercifully short.

I suppose now I should give other keen walkers exact directions, the names of the roads and river. I am loathe to do this. Probably it is selfishness: we love having these places to ourselves. I tell myself it is about liability, the drive in may be straightforward but this is remote, isolated and rugged country. I would also hate to see it loved to death by too many walkers.

It makes me think about the difficult interface between sharing and caring. But, I'm also going to make a case here against our human desire to be led, particularly when it comes to adventuring. Just because there are no GPS points given, or track notes written up, and even if a map looks empty and blank with no waterfalls named or peaks labelled, doesn't mean you can't go there or that it is not worth exploring. A hint, a picture, a vague idea - surely that's enough to start with. Even if you don't find what you are after, you will find something else.

In the end, people will find this place, local walkers know it already, and looking at the photos here you would be crazy not to search it out somehow.

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