Friday, 10 October 2014

Rosewood River deep - Dorrigo National Park

It's pitch dark and raining steadily. The river is invisible even though we are camped right beside it, lying on a gravel bank in just our bivvy bags. As rain drifts across my face, the misted beam of my torch dances around in the dark. I fumble to give Caz enough light so he can rig up some sort of system that will lift the bivvies off our faces and allow us to sleep without our heads completely buried in their claustrophobic, suffocating confines. We use his tripod and some string and the result is nearly useless. There is also a growing pool of water at my feet. The bags are proving to be completely waterproof which is lucky because they are all we have to keep us dry since it was me, that morning, who casually looked at the blue sky and reassured Caz the tarp was unnecessary and we could leave it behind. I said, this is a light-weight summer adventure, who needs a tarp? Turns out, we did.

It is true the most important ingredient in World Heritage rainforest is rain. The Rosewood River, at the heart of Dorrigo National Park in northern New South Wales, is lush, ancient and world class rainforest. And the rain did not let up all night and all the next day.

Cedar Falls

We previously explored the upper reaches of the Rosewood River (when it was raining) and wrote about this in an old blog post.  But last summer we headed down and deep into the Rosewood River valley, where the water crashes off the Dorrigo Escarpment and works its way through a rugged, steep valley hundreds of metres beneath the Dorrigo National Park Skywalk.

We begin our adventure at the Never Never Picnic Area, 10km east of the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. To start, there is a beautiful wide track and we pass a few massive old blackbutt and tallowood trees. At a right hand turn, we begin a zig-zagging descent to the base of Cedar Falls. Here the Rosewood River plummets off the Dorrigo Escarpment in a series of cascading and dropping waterfalls, losing 270 metres in elevation in just half a kilometre. The spray at the base of Cedar Falls makes the rocks in the creek slippery as we clamber up onto a bushy 'island' where the Rosewood River flows either side before continuing its headlong plunge off the steep mountainside. The route we take doesn't really look like a route. Pressing my body against the rock of the creek bed, I inch my way down and across and follow Caz along the top of another drop. We clamber past a moist pocket of vivid green cunjevoi and continue down to a final 25 metre waterfall that forces us to make a tricky and vertiginous detour into the forest.  At the bottom we stop to rest and drink. Crouching beside the dark pool I feel so tucked away, deep in a secret rainforest room with high stone walls and just a narrow window of sky directly above.

Black Apple

Climbing around a couple of pools we arrive at our first swim. It is a humid, hot day so it's nice to cool off.  We wade along, chest deep, through a pool of water so clear we can see our feet and every stone beneath them. Tall, bushy Black Apple trees are growing on the slopes either side of us. Every now and then their round, dark fruit drop from the trees with a loud plop before rolling onto the river bed and into the water. Another quick swim greets us around the next bend, and then the next. We surprise a water dragon basking on the rocks and it executes a world-class belly flop straight into the next pool. A flock of doves clatter out of the forest up high and drift down the valley to their next feed tree.

By late afternoon we have travelled 6 km downstream and are just below Kingianum Falls, which we can see high up on the escarpment. The river is tight and rocky so there are few options for campsites. Eventually a small gravel beach appears, tucked below a mess of fallen trees which we scramble over. With a bit of construction work we manage to scrape out two separate pads. I'm on the upper level and Caz will sleep closer to the water. As we are travelling light, we have no cooker or hot food and so tuck into some pre-made sandwiches for our dinner. The afternoon light begins to fade as our sunny day disappears behind thickening clouds, rolling in from the south and dropping into the valley. We are just thinking about crawling into bed when light rain begins to fall. And so, the wet night begins.

After a damp and restless sleep we set off the next day in the rain, sloshing down the Rosewood River, absolutely drenched to the bone. Our clothing is still wet from yesterday's swims. Thankfully the summer humidity keeps us warm but consulting the map for our preferred exit route, back up to the top of the escarpment, is a bit trickier in the pouring rain. We decide to take a risk and keep walking along the Rosewood River to where it finally meets Little North Arm Road, another 5 kilometres downstream. We have no plan for getting back up the mountain road, to where our car is parked, but we decide to worry about that later. It is worth the risk, because the Rosewood River is one of the most beautiful I have ever walked and I am eager to see what lies ahead, to keep exploring its wild, green reaches.

We negotiate a few more rugged sections where the river slides over bedrock in small cascades ending in deep, pellucid pools. Then the river swings ninety degrees from a south heading to an easterly direction, and we join up with the route of a second adventure we took into the Rosewood River where two large feeder creeks join from the right bank.  Both of the side-creeks begin high up in the park (about 700 metres in elevation above the river) where the main tourist track - the Wonga Walk - meanders through tall rainforest trees cloaked in pothyrus vine and mist. On our other adventure we peeled off the Wonga Walk and dropped down a ridiculously steep ridge, onto the northern feeder creek, then followed it down onto the river. I remember that clearly as a long and physically taxing walk, hot and dry and sunny all the way. It ended in a wonderful swim where we shared the crystal clear pool near our camp with an enormous fat eel that wouldn't budge. For both adventures, the final day's walk is the same.

Blue Quandong

After the feeder creeks join the Rosewood River, it turns the bend towards the east, and the terrain changes. Tall Bangalow Palms tower above the river as it widens and flattens. Our rainy day persists, although it is gradually getting lighter.  Sloshing along the river bed proves more and more difficult. The rocks are slippery and slick but up in the forest, along the banks, the going is easier. It is flat and soft underfoot with an easy obstacle course of walking stick palms and laurels that we dodge and weave between. Enormous fig and yellow carabeen trees form a thick canopy above and spread their wide buttress roots through the undergrowth. Fallen red leaves and bright blue fruit from Blue Quandongs make colourful rafts floating on the still edges of the water.

We stumble upon an old road,  now completely overgrown with lantana. The first river oaks appear. One is so heavily festooned with staghorns and elkhorns it resembles an overdecorated Christmas tree hanging with trinkets and jewels. Towards the end, the river opens onto a series of gravel and sand channels which wind through the forest of oaks. And then the first, or last, bridge is visible and we see some geese from the first, or last, farm. We reach the road and here our adventure faces its next challenge - how to get 15km back up the mountain to our car.

We are dripping wet but at least it has finally stopped raining. It is a 1.5km walk along Little North Arm Road to reach Waterfall Way. We find a suitable spot where cars can pull in and we stick our thumbs out and hope for the best. I haven't hitchhiked for more than 20 years but it brings back good travel memories. Perhaps the big smile on our faces, after such a beautiful and exciting adventure, makes us look like a safe bet because within five minutes we have a lift. The amazing woman who picks us up is a former truck driver and has more interesting stories to tell as she takes us all the way to our car.  It is the perfect end to a perfect adventure through a perfectly beautiful rainforest valley.

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