Friday, 26 December 2014

A Royal Affair – Mt Royal National Park

Fireflies flicker through the darkening forest and thunder drums inside the roiling clouds moving in from the west. Frontal winds whip through the treetops. A storm is approaching.  Raindrops arrive, but they pass over quickly. Then after all the noise, silence moves in. Until an hour later, another frontal wind, lightning and thunder, more rain, followed again by silence. A second storm moves on up the ranges. I drift off to sleep but five times the routine repeats itself. Wind, lightning (counting it closer), thunder and rain, then silence. It's a long, fitful night. 

Perhaps the numerous storms have something to do with our location, sitting high on the end of a running range of mountains, which spear southwards from the Barrington Plateau in NSW. We are camped in Mount Royal National Park, above Glennies Creek Dam and Lake St Clair, outside the Hunter Valley town of Singleton: tucked up high in a wet forest of silvertop stringybarks and New England blackbutt.

Our aim is to complete a traverse of Mount Royal after discovering rough track notes in an old copy of Greg Powell's excellent book, Bushwalks in the Hunter Valley (1989). This is a completely new national park for us, and an inspiring new world of wonders. 

We walk up Mount Royal from the south, the opposite direction as described in Powell's book. This means the final grassy descent, through sparsely timbered forest, which Powell describes as a "heart stopper" is for us a heart starter. Straight up. The calf muscles are burning after just twenty minutes as the ridge climbs in a series of marked steps. Five false summits. The same sort of strange repetition as the night's storms.

Breaking out of the trees and onto a bare patch of alpine grass, we discover spectacular views to Lake St Clair in the south – it looks like a puddle from up here. But, as we scramble up a rocky spine and past another alpine grass opening we suddenly walk through the back of a magic wardrobe. I think "Narnia" but the landscape is more "Lord of the Rings". From the grassy area, we clamber up some more rocks and duck under thin, low trees and enter this amazing new world. Every branch is festooned with hanging moss and lichens. The remarkably sudden transition adds to the sense of wonder. The rocks are now covered in bright green moss. The slope levels out and we find ourselves in a magic rainforest of beech and then a unique stand of Hill Water Gum (Tristaniopsis collina). And yet, just off to the west we can see an abrupt line that marks another "bald" of alpine grass, open to the sun and sky. 

Past the trig, that marks the summit of Mount Royal, is another remarkable change of environment – a copse of giant grass trees form an impenetrable canopy and we shelter here out of the midday sun and have lunch with our first views to the north across the front of the Barrington Plateau. All those well-known landmarks – Carey's Peak, The Corker ridgeline, Mt Allyn, Mt Patterson are spread out in a blue wash of undulating, hazy sweeps. Lunch is interrupted by a scrub turkey whose startled expression suggests not many humans come this way and the size of its turkey mound (at least 1.2m high on the uphill side) suggests he has been here for years enough to count how few of us come and go.

After the grass trees, the fun begins. We walk down into a deep saddle then climb up again and emerge onto a rocky, bare, knife-edge ridge. The views are outstanding as we traverse along the top-line. This is turning into an exciting, spectacular walk. The variety of environments, the stunning wilderness views, the small technical challenges – there are some outcrops to climb over on the knife-edge ridge. Then we are struck by a wildlife wonder – tens of thousands of soldier beetles are clustered in the low trees on the warm, sunny open edge of forest along the ridge top. Even the slightest hint of movement causes a chain reaction as first one beetle drops to the ground and then it rains as hundreds of them fall off the leaves and branches where they huddle in large black, writhing blobs. 

At the northern base of Mount Royal the old Sneaky Pinch Road is easy to find. It is now closed to vehicles but still clear enough to walk along. We turn left and head back along the western foot of the mountain. Succulent, sweet, wild raspberries, crimson rosellas and king parrots, glossy black cockatoos in the forest oaks and a shy swamp wallaby on the track – all of these encounters add to the days adventurous walk, and a truly royal day out, a royal affair, because I love this walk. I'd rate it in my top day walks. A right royal encounter.  

My Royal viewed from neighbouring Pieries Peak to the south
Although technically an unmarked track, the walk to the summit of Mount Royal is listed as a walk suggestion on the National Parks signage at the Youngville Campground. There are also two listed track walks in Mount Royal National Park. One is a terrific little 2.5km return walk up to Pieries Peak which gives lovely views back to Mount Royal and south over the valley. There is also a long walk down to Carrow Brook which we did not attempt but, for an interesting take on this walk, visit Kevins Wilderness page.

All rights reserved. Craig Fardell and Christina Armstrong.


  1. Another one added to the 'bucket list'! A nice read -very atmospheric.

  2. Great account! I've lived in the Hunter most of my life but this park only registered after flicking through Greg Powell's book as well. How long would you recommend setting aside for the loop walk you did over the summit? And how was the access road in?