Thursday, 27 March 2014

Upper Falls - Hastings River - Werrikimbe National Park

At 4:30am, half dozing, I listen to the continuing rain on the tent. It is like sleeping inside a drum; each drop amplified and resonating as it hits the taught roof and walls. It has been going all night and beneath the rainforest canopy the drips filter down to us as fat, heavy notes with no rhythm. Then suddenly, above the drumbeats, comes a loud, long and tortured scream. In the treetops, a woman is being murdered. Twice she screeches out and we are both instantly wide awake. It is pitch black. I sit up, listen and wait. It comes again, slightly further off, one final drawn out scream then all is quiet.

I am immediately reminded of a story I read, of a similar encounter. Alex Gaddes, who started work as a cedar getter at just 14 years of age, describes how he was left alone for days on end in rough bush camps in the steep forests south of here, terrified of the dark and the night sounds of the creatures.

"There was one particular occasion which stamped itself indelibly in my memory. My father had gone away for a few days, and left me in the camp, as usual...(our camps were usually open-ended affairs, built of the ubiquitous turpentine bark)…I was barely holding my own with my apprehension, when suddenly a blood-freezing scream rent the night air. Now it was not just any old scream, but one which ended in a gurgling death rattle." (Alex Gaddes, Red Cedar: Our Heritage).

Gaddes explains that he heard the scream repeated two more times and every other creature in the bush fell quiet. His father later called it a 'yahoo bird' and in more than 50 years working in the forests of the North Coast, Gaddes says he only ever heard the bird on one other occasion. 

Upper Falls - Hastings River

Caz and I are camped in a remote patch of forest, miles from other people or any farmhouse, but in similar terrain to where Gaddes spent his formative years cedar getting. We are camped above the Hastings River in Werrikimbe National Park's wilderness zone, with deep valleys in all directions. The scream is still fizzing in my blood with its spookily human sound and the undertones of a raptor-like hunger.  I stay awake listening for more, but instead catch the distant call of kookaburras and closer, outside the tent, the morning chirrups of a golden whistler. Dawn arrives and the mystery of the screaming woman bird leaves us wondering exactly what we heard.

We have been tent bound since 4.30pm the previous afternoon due to the persistent rain so a certain amount of "cabin fever" forces us out into the forest for a wet breakfast. The night sounds have been a distraction because what we are really here for is a big day's adventure - a trip down off this ridge to find the Upper Falls on the mighty Hastings River.

If you are based locally, the walk to the Upper Falls can be done as a day trip, although undoubtedly a long and tiring one. Essentially it is about a 15 km return trip with 4-5 km of that being off-track as you follow Gorge Creek through a narrow band of stunning coachwood rainforest to a point where the creek drops over an 18m waterfall. To bypass this obstacle the suggested best route is down a steep gully immediately south-east of the small waterfall.

We begin the gully descent in the rain and everything is steep and slippery. At the top, the terrain looks like more of a landslip than a gully and it is a wild scramble, carefully picking our way over rocks and fallen trees, using our arms and shoulders as much as our legs. The gully spits us out onto Gorge Creek immediately at the base of the waterfall and it is so pretty one I wonder how it has not received more of a mention in the few track notes we have read.

Gorge Creek Falls

We continue down Gorge Creek towards the Hastings River and it is still a scramble, every muscle turned on and working hard. But, stepping out onto the rocky bank of the Hastings, the Upper Falls is immediately visible and surprisingly impressive. The last 24 hours of rain has perhaps lifted the river level as there is a good amount of water pumping over the 50m, spectacular drop. Getting to the base of the falls scores us wet feet as we criss-cross upstream. The rocks near the top pool are slippery like verglas, covered as they are in black lichen and wet slime, mist from the waterfall and light drizzling rain. Every now and then the waterfall lets out a muffled boom as water hits water in just the right way.

We have plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular scenery so we stop for lunch on the rocks and the sun even comes close to shining through a tiny patch of blue sky. At least it is enough to dry our jackets and shirts. On the topographical map this section of the river is labelled as Nothofagus Canyon and at the top of the falls it looks like there is a tempting, dark, deep rock walled gorge stretching back out of sight.

It's equally wild, returning after lunch back up the steep gully beside Gorge Creek.  Rocks shift and move under us. But, we are in camp by 2:30 and drinking hot soup at 3pm with the rest of the afternoon to explore the forest around us - the pretty waterworn boulders in the creek, the huge variety of fungi that seem to have sprung up overnight. We make the rainforest our home. The clouds have lifted and so we string out our wet gear. Caz sniffs out a stinkhorn fungi and I am off stalking the golden whistler that seems to call this patch of forest his. The rainforest only stretches a short distance from the creek edge and then the landscape is dominated by large eucalypts. 

The weather holds for the afternoon and evening, long enough for us to cook a hot meal but, as the clouds drop and the forest mists in, the rain begins to fall again so we crawl into the tent and the drumming takes up its beat. The forest gets dark and another night of murder and screams threatens.

Back home and we have tried to identify the call we heard. Gaddes writes, that an ornithologist friend of his suggested the 'yahoo bird' could have been a Powerful Owl, something Caz and I both feel would be likely. However, having scoured the modern resources of the internet nothing really comes close. A good sight for Australian bird calls is Graeme Chapman's site but the only thing we find here that sounds slightly similar is a fox mating screech! Unfortunately foxes are not known for roosting in the top of tall eucalypts. The Barking Owl has some history of being known as the 'screaming woman' bird but the recorded calls we find are not nearly blood-curdling enough. 

Our chances of hearing the call again are probably slim, if Gaddes reports are anything to go on: more than fifty years in the bush and only ever two encounters. I am not sure if this is reassuring or disappointing. 


  1. The reason that Gorge Creek Falls isn't mentioned in the notes is that it is usually dry, a least that was the way it was when we were there.

    1. It was a VERY wet weekend that we were there so that could explain things. Sounds like it was lucky for us to find it flowing - which is great because it was extremely pretty.

  2. I'm not sure if you monitor this page anymore but your post has solidified my desire to explore this region. I am in the planning stages of organising a hike from the upper falls, right through to the lower falls, and photographing everything in between. Yours has been the best source of information i have managed to find on this region. I would love to know more if you would like to discuss with me.

    1. Hi Anthony. We do still monitor this page (but have been away for a few weeks adventuring, hence the slow reply). Would be happy to discuss your adventure plan as it sounds great. Feel free to send us an email on awildland at gmail dot com and we will be in touch.

    2. Anthony the Hastings is a very serious undertaking - you can get around upper falls by descending on the right with no problems - lots of compulsory swims after that and a rope needed to get down the 15 metre waterfall a few kilometres down - then the blue slide and the side trip to the cobcroft cascades - then middle falls , the inner sanctum and finally lower falls with its 93 metre drop - no way around except by abseiling through the inner sanctum tunnel and then over the falls on the left - or pull out at Middle Falls and ascend the ridge directly west onto the Mesa management trail and walk back to the car - long day .

    3. Anthony It took us six days to do the through trip carrying two one hundred metre ropes harnesses etc and we entered the river about a kilometre upstream from upper falls, abseiled and swam our way to upper falls and abeiled down from bolts and pulleys on the rock wall above and to the left of the drop - swam and walked after that down to Blue Slide and camped here that night - on day three we did the cobcroft cascades - amazing - on day four we swam and scrambled our way down to middle falls and camped there on the left - day four was the big day - we abseiled over middle falls then swam down to the point of no return , abseiled that double waterfall and one hundred metres later reached the squeeze and the beginning of the lower falls inner sanctum tunnel - it is about two hundred metres from the squeeze to the edge of lower falls - very technical inside the tunnel with two three metre drops and a 25 metre drop into the final 30 metre chute - the bolts and pulley for lower falls are on the left hand ledge which can be tricky to reach in high water - the 93 metre abseil is also tricky with twisting slippery ledges to negotiate - we then walked back up to middle falls campsite via the first ridge on left after the bottom of the falls - this was a very long day - this path can only be found going up , not down and is not for the feint hearted as there are two rock climbs near the top best done by the best climber in the group who then puts a rope down for everyone else - on the final day we ascended the ridge opposite the middle falls campsite and walked back along the mesa management trail to the Cobcroft rest area where our cars were.I would have to say it was a peak experience in my life that first time we did it successfully - there were many unsuccessful attempts before that though - I must acknowledge though the help we got from the Ralphs from Port Macquarie who were the first to do the whole river - wonderful people.

    4. Wow!! Thanks Doug for sharing your hard-won insider knowledge of the Hastings River. It sounds like an epic trip and an absolute cracker. Technical and tough indeed. Would love to get in touch to hear if you have any photos of the trip and to hear the full story of what must have been a classic adventure. Thanks again for sharing. Made our day! (PS our email address is if you feel like getting in touch).