Thursday, 30 January 2014

Platypus Creek - New England National Park

A narrow foot track leads through snow grass and twisted gums to a little visited rocky point called Platypus Lookout in New England National Park. The outcrop provides a bird's eye view from the edge of the New England escarpment across the deep valleys and forest far below where we plan to venture for a three day exploratory walk. From this perspective, the terrain looks inspiring but a little daunting and an aerial perspective presents only a broad brush of the landscape. You can see the forest but not the trees. There are few clues as to what really lies beneath the gently undulating tree tops and amongst the steep gullies that break the escarpment.

The ridge we plan to follow is clearly visible, flat and about 1km long. It is initially covered in a dark uniform canopy that suggests easy walking through cool temperate rainforest. Towards the end of the ridge, large eucalypts emerge from the canopy then it narrows in before dropping directly to Platypus Creek, more than 900m in elevation below us. On the other side of the lookout fence, the escarpment forms an almost unbroken cliff line stretching away to our left and right.

Truth be told, I am contemplating not joining Caz on this walk and letting him head off solo while I lounge around the campground for no other reason than I think I need a rest and the walk could be tough. But, I am also tempted by the adventure; sometimes physical distraction is the best thing for a tired soul. Down there, below Platypus Lookout, is the quiet and solitude I am really seeking.

But I go, and the adventure begins as we peel off the marked walking track and begin a slow traverse across the face of the escarpment as we search for a way down. Underfoot it is a jumble of small rocks and rotten earth. Vines and large logs get in the way. We encounter our first cliff edge but there is a small, steep gully cutting through the rock. It looks as if below this another cliff line looms. Caz scouts ahead and gives the all clear. Working our way across and down the gully we lower the packs with rope before jumping off the last drop.

With route finding, and our long off-track traverse at the start, it takes us 2 hours to get onto the flat ridge viewed from the lookout: a distance of just 300m on track and 500m off track.

The flat ridge proves to be what it seemed from above. Big straight Antarctic Beech trees are covered in moss and the going is clear and open. Eventually we hit the first of the giant, emergent eucalypts - a massive Tallowood towering above the rainforest canopy.

There is only one litre of water left between us for the final drop off the flat ridge to Platypus Creek (1km of downhill and another 450m drop in elevation) and I am regretting the hastily drunk bottle of red from last night. My mouth is dry and sticky. We are circumspect with our water consumption. It is a hot, hot day. The cicadas are booming in a rhythmic crescendo. Conversation is minimal. Neither of us want to say anything that might jinx our descent as there is still a chance a cliff may prevent us reaching the creek. I try not to imagine the harrowing, thirsty walk out if we are forced to return up the escarpment the way we came. But, the slope is quite dry and open and its steepness is our main challenge. 

It is 1pm when we hit the blessed, clear waters of Platypus Creek. A total of 4.5 hours walking time. Fresh cool water to drink, a light lunch and long rest and we are revitalised. After searching out a camp site it is straight to the deepest pool for a swim: freezing enough to make the skin tingle and yet we dip in a few times to scour off the day's sweat and dirt. 

Day two begins a little like day one - hot, humid, cicadas thumping by 6am but that dusty feeling is gone: fresh air, clear water and the physical challenge of an adventure have scrubbed my blood clean. We continue exploring down Platypus Creek and by 10am the cicadas are deafening as we rock hop down a long straight section with our preferred exit ridge in sight. I call this ridge the more humane option, due to the look of the contour lines on the map. Any of the earlier ridges are steeper than the walk in.

Then, after passing a beautiful patch of cunjevoi, vivid green and caught in a window of sunshine, the creek turns a corner and everything changes.

The boulders disappear and the creek becomes a string of pools flowing over smooth slabs of exposed bedrock, shot through with thick veins of red and white quartz. Skirting the first sliding cascade, we drop the packs at one possible campsite but decide to continue looking downstream for something better. Around the bend the creek drops even more and Caz urges us on. Before long we are looking down upon some truly pretty stuff: secret beauty no aerial view from a lookout can tell you about.

The waterworn bedrock is carved into a series of tightly spaced cascades dropping from one pool into the next pool and into the next. One after the other, five deep pools drop away before us and the side of the creek has become sheer and bare. The water is utterly transparent, tinged green and luminous in the dim light of the rainforest. At the end of this string of threaded water the creek changes again, just as suddenly, returning to its bouldery, rocky bed and disappearing in a steady, barely perceptible drop around a distant corner.

We spend the afternoon relaxing by the cascades and wandering around discovering silver slithers of rock we guess are antimony (there is a long abandoned antimony mine downstream another two kilometres), we find a fat green skink tucked in the crevasses of a rotten log, and there is a rodents den littered with cicada wings. A light breeze drifts upstream shaking pale leaf tips that overhang the creek as they stretch towards the thin gap of bright sky above.

Creeks are food for rivers and this one eventually joins Sunday Creek which then flows into the Bellinger River. Above us, Robinsons Knob Fire Trail runs along the ridge top, turns onto Grass Trees Fire Trail, which leads down to the Bellinger and into the Thora Valley and is the route for the popular 2-3 day New England Wilderness Walk.

The day is overcast and seems to promise rain. We make camp but leave the fly off the tent. It is too hot but it is also difficult to know if the night will hold the weather, or let it drop. We can see very little of the sky yet when darkness finally comes we have a starry night of a different kind - hundreds of glow worms line both banks of the river, as pretty as the milky way. A few fireflies thread their strange light through the trees. When I next open my eyes, at 5am in the morning, someone has already turned the fireflies off and a distant kookaburra cackles its morning chorus.

We are are walking by 7am to beat the summer heat as we tackle my 'more humane' exit route and leave the pretty pools behind us: tucked away, hidden, unknowable but for a sense of curiosity. Gaining height above Platypus Creek the forest becomes mainly Tallowood, Brushbox and Blue Gum but the understory is scattered with a strange mix of rainforest species: giant stinging trees, corkwood, a flowering flame tree. It makes me wonder about the history of this forest as it feels like rainforest is reclaiming this slope and moving in beneath the giant eucalypts: another enormous Tallowood has us craning our necks back in wonder.

We hit Robinsons Knob Fire Trail and it is all track walking back to our car, parked way up near Platypus Lookout. The last two hundred metres of ascent is a series of rocky steps. Each one feels like a mountain. This is the biggest height gain I have managed in a single day, climbing 940m in elevation from breakfast to lunch, from start to end. Finally breaking onto the top of the escarpment though, I look back into the now distant valley of Platypus Creek and the view has changed - not outwardly but from inside, from my knowing I have been in it.


  1. You guys seem to nail it every time! I'm inspired to improve my camera skills after seeing these pics. A pleasure to read as always.

  2. "Finally breaking onto the top of the escarpment though, I look back into the now distant valley of Platypus Creek and the view has changed - not outwardly but from inside, from my knowing I have been in it." - beautifully written Christina, I have felt exactly the same way but could never express it so eloquently.. Agree totally with what Darren said as well. You guys have given me so many ideas and I have spent hours looking at maps - just a shame that 'life' never affords the time to act on it.

  3. Thanks Darren & Phil for your very kind words. And on the point of giving ideas and inspiration, I think that goes for all our blogs. It is reciprocal. The more of us out their sharing ideas, images and destinations the more we all benefit.

    P.S. Phil, often the hours spent looking at maps are as much fun as the trip itself! :)

  4. Your beautiful written words and photos make me feel I am there.