Steady rain forces me to pull tight the hood of my jacket. All I can hear are fat drops pinging and thumping on my head and echoing inside this cocoon of Gortex. Walking, in this sort of weather, is an exercise in blinkered observation and internal journeying – I watch the mud at my feet, the puddles to dodge, rocks to step over; think about the strength in my legs and the energy in my soul as we march steadily uphill. Then, I glance up and catch sight of Caz, a few steps ahead. It snaps me out of my reverie. I can no longer take this walk so seriously.
Caz has rolled his shorts up to keep them dry, so they are hidden under the hem of his long rain jacket. Below this, he is wearing knee-high gaiters. His remaining naked white thighs fill my small view of the world. It is quite a look.
Humidity makes it too warm to bother with waterproof overpants. In addition to the muggy air we are walking up a long steady ridge and it is a hot, strenuous climb from the Allyn River valley to the sub-alpine heights of the Barrington Tops National Park, following the aptly named The Corker Track.
Beginning at Lagoon Pinch car park, The Corker Track is a local legend, climbing 870m (starting at 670m and rising to 1540m) over nearly 12km. There is no easing into the ascent. From the car park the trail rises steeply and immediately but, as we make our way uphill, our rain-limited view of the world does not blind us to nature’s wonders – a big white slug with a red diamond on its back, a lyrebird startled from its foraging loses its worm, a white orange blossom orchid blooming. The track is running with water up at Williams Spring and my shoes feel wet beyond saturation point. A hole in the right boot means my sock has gone sloppy and squelchy.
As we climb, the forest changes from blue gums and white box to messmate and brown barrel then higher again it changes to sub-alpine forest with snow grass and an understorey of thick pepperbush. On top of the range, we wander through big stands of Antarctic Beech forest.
After two hours of walking in the rain, our gear is soaked through and as soon as we stop to rest not even the afternoon humidity prevents the cold seeping into our bones. My arms are now icy cold inside my wet jacket and my bare legs feel numb (I too have rolled up my shorts and am giving Caz as much entertainment as he is giving me). Fortunately we have a safe, dry haven in sight.
A tiny, hidden foot track heads off The Corker Track and into the mountain gums. It winds down to a creek lined with rainforest. A little waterfall crashes into a dark pool that is banked by vivid green moss. Above it, through the trees, sits Selby Alley Hut.
This simple hut was built in the late 1960s and is named in honour of a founding member of the Newcastle Bushwalking Club and avid wilderness walker, Selby Alley, who mentored many young bushwalkers. The hut is filled with information dedicated to the man and his obvious influence on those to whom he passed his skills and sense of adventure. There is also a log book in the hut and as we settle in for a warming afternoon brew (our wet clothes now hanging from the rafters) I flick through the pages to see what people have experienced and what stories they have to tell. It looks like it has been a good winter for snow in the Barrington Tops with plenty of entries from people recording heavy falls, up to 20cm. Rainforest ferns covered in a mantle of white snow must be an amazing sight. There are entries from outdoor education trips, even some old friends, and plenty of international and local walkers, some staying overnight and some just visiting for lunch and a sticky beak.
However, our favourite entry of all lies on the tattered inside cover. Someone has written: “Where do the old log books go?” And, someone has replied: “They are made into paper boats that float down the river and inspire people downstream to go adventuring and into paper planes that fly into cities and land on busy streets where only the most observant and open minded discover them amongst the litter and decide to leave their lives and take to the bush!”
Bravo, we say, and switch from water to wine to toast the success of adventurers the world over, as we prepare dinner, talk about the future and listen to the drumming of rain and sleet on the hut roof.
The simplicity of day one's wet walk, with limited distractions and on a formed road, is replaced in the morning by a disorientating off-track adventure across the top of the plateau, stopping first at Basden Falls just below the hut and then continuing toward Double Falls, Cobbers Falls and finally Far Eastern Falls. Caz leads us off from Selby Alley Hut, twisting through the trees and small shrubs, turning across open patches of snow grass and clambering over fallen trees, then going left to duck under vines and left again to push through a thicket of saplings. After 45 minutes, I feel completely bamboozled and swear we are turning back on our tracks. It takes a confusing conversation, and a lot of pointing this way and that, for me to get my bearings again. Fortunately the escarpment edge is clearly visible and navigation from there is straightforward. We turn east, keeping the sky to our right. It is not raining and, although overcast, there are good views to distant farmland in the valleys to our south.
But the real challenge with this route is not navigation but the off-track walking itself – we wrestle with the terrain. Even in patches of cool temperate rainforest, beneath giant beech trees, there seems a surprising lot of vines and fallen timber. Brilliant red leaf growth, new shoots that are as spectacular as crimson flowers, cover the spindly branches of a low shrub. There are also a lot of pale orange balls of honeycombed myrtle fungus, clustered on thin branches and fallen on the ground amongst the moss-covered boulders.
The first two waterfalls we reach are difficult to see. They drop steeply off the rocky cliff line that runs the edge of the mountains. We creep as close as possible, clinging to trees that are clinging to rock. Cobbers Falls is about a 10m drop and on the slope below we can see the tops of huge tree ferns with spreading and interlacing fronds. It is tempting to scout for a way down. To our right there looks to be a break in the cliff line. Everything is vividly green. But the going is slow and we decide to continue on across to Double Falls. From there we traverse the steep slope above the cliff line.
It is tiring stuff, trying to untangle the forest to make a path. The ground is uneven and often invisible. Each second step is a guess. There are slippery objects (rotting timber, greasy boulders) underfoot. For balance, I grab at something in my peripheral vision but it is a sharp, thorny branch and I come away cursing and bleeding. As I duck under another coil of vines my pack gets snagged and yanks me back. I squat lower and reverse a fraction and try again until the world finally lets me go. The conditions force us up and down from the edge, wherever the going looks easiest.
We end up a few hundred metres back from the escarpment when we come to Far Eastern Creek. It means traversing along the gully edge until we come to a 10m waterfall. It is unclear from the map, and our estimate of our position, whether this is truly Far Eastern Falls. From the lay of the land, and the creeks feeding in, it seems we are a few hundred metres upstream but our route out of Far Eastern Falls will brings us back this way so we leave our packs by the creek and take just the camera and tripod for the final bush-bash downstream.
Again, it is a scrappy affair. We are forced high and then down steeply and emerge onto the creek for a short clamber to the base of the waterfall. It is painstakingly slow, physical, slippery and a gymnastic endeavour as we clamber over massive logs and push through thick barriers of interlaced tree fern fronds.
If the true Far Eastern Falls is further downstream, struggling along the creek for that distance is hardly appealing. Ah, but what about our curiosity? What if a grander, more spectacular waterfall lies a fraction downstream? Even the thought of retracing our route back to our packs is daunting. Will we ever see every inch of forest? Can we leave every stone overturned? It is a balancing act for the soul, this adventuring and exploring. It is filled with wonderful discoveries and tantalising unsolved mysteries.
In the end we opt for a direct route to our backpacks; climbing up a series of terraces on the right hand side of the waterfall. So much easier than the route down! We are back at our packs in no time, enjoying a late lunch, refuelling before the next challenge.
From the top of our questionable Far Eastern Falls we follow the creek upstream and finally the forest lets down its guard. Thin trees covered in hanging lichen, a carpet of hard water fern underfoot and few vines mean we make steady progress. After an hour and a half Caz leads us to higher ground, pushing through more tree ferns and heading for the thick green trunks of Antarctic beech on the ridge above. It is not long before the clear path of The Link Trail is visible through the trees. I let out my usual refrain, 'we're saved' as we burst onto the open track. The Link Trail is an old road that connects Gloucester Tops and Barrington Tops in a 19km relatively straight line across the mountains. It feels like a motorway after hours of bush-bashing.
We reach the campground at Wombat Creek at 4pm and I am quietly tired. The afternoon cup of tea is a welcome tonic as we sit in dim, white light on a fallen log. Low cloud has chased us through the snow gums and the sky is coming down to put us to bed. I am grateful for its encroachment. It is a satisfying feeling at the end of a physical day's walk, to cosey down in a dry bed and sleep.
A day of rain, a day of overcast misty forest and now a day of brilliantine blue skies. On our last day in the mountains, we continue along The Link Trail for a few hundred metres to once again meet The Corker Track, which we follow back down off the mountain ranges to Lagoon Pinch and our car. But it a more serious walk downhill than it was uphill. What we take seriously on the return walk is the sudden change in the state of the Corker Track. While we have been wandering around in the mist, National Parks have brought a bulldozer down The Corker to "upgrade" the existing anti-erosion mounds and outlet drains that feed water off the track into the surrounding bushland. What the bulldozer has done is make a great big muddy mess, leaving behind a thick bog, deep furrows from its dozer tracks, and a rutted and sloppy road that we find difficult to walk. It reminds me of a pig wallow in parts. What to do? Take photos? Complain, to whom? The worst affected areas are the higher, sub-alpine and rainforest sections. Now I am worried I am taking things too seriously? With the sun shining there is hope the mud will dry out quickly.
And, with the sun shining we at least get the wonderful views we missed on the way up: an old landslip has opened up the forest at the edge of the trail and Carey's Peak is visible across the adventure-filled depths of the Allyn River valley. Further down, we get fantastic views into the Williams River valley. The steepness of the northern valley walls is terrific. More mysteries await down there, I can tell. More waterfalls for sure. Perhaps little paper boats from an old log book are drifting slowly along to meet a lucky wanderer and fill their head with longing.
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