Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A walk in the light green - Washpool National Park

The most exciting spots on a topographical map are where contour lines gather tightly side by side and blush the map with a patch of bright pink. The background of light green is barely visible between each squiggle. Sometimes additional straight lines, drawn across the curves, lead you to the map legend – "steep slope" it says, or cliffs or escarpment. 

In Washpool National Park, along Coombadjha Creek, on the Coombadjha 1:25000 topographical map, there is a short 1-2km section that draws the eye like this – a small square of tightly packed pink that glows enticingly. It's been on our explorers' list of 'things to do' for some time  – surely that piece of steep-sided country hides crashing waterfalls and spectacular remote rainforest. 

We start this trip by following the Washpool Walk, one of NSW's best day walks – an 8km circuit trail that criss-crosses Coombadjha Creek then winds up into wet schlerophyll forest where huge bluegums tower above the undergrowth. It is a popular walk and in summer, in good wet conditions, leeches crowd the path waiting for the next easy meal. It is a plague upon our shoes – we can see leeches waiting on the path ahead and on leaves beside the track; thin stalks of black muscle waving in the air as we approach. Fortunately, once we head off-track the leeches subside. We stop to get rid of one little fella found hitchhiking in Caz's left nostril. After that, we see no more for the rest of the day. 

Off-track walking is, for us, often about an unrelenting desire to discover what is hidden on patches of  topographical map where no roads cross and no paths wind. According to our topographic map we want to head down Cedar Creek towards Coombadjha Creek and this should put us smack bang in the middle of the pink, squiggly lines and, we hope, on top of some spectacular waterfalls.  It gets me thinking about exploration or, rather, our kind of weekend curiosity.

A piece in the New York Times last year, written by Daniel Engber, summed up the annual Explorers Club Dinner by saying: "For all the triumphs of the past, today’s explorers face a daunting prospect: our maps are fully drawn, and there is not much left for them to do. We may still search the ocean floors and rappel into uncharted caves, but it is hard to shake the feeling that these expeditions are not fundamental. It’s like we are dabbing with a napkin at the few blank spots in the atlas. The “instinct to explore” may still persist, but it’s lost its whiff of derring-do…Do we really need explorers now, in the age of Google Maps?"

For us the instinct to explore always persists and my derring-do even showed itself on the way to Coombadjha Creek. Initially, the track walking was quick and easy and it seemed surprisingly early when we arrived at a gully that boasted an old, small wooden sign saying Cedar Creek. But, as that was our marker, we veered off down the side of the steep gully. Not far in, I tripped over a palm frond. In a split second I hit the ground then executed a full-body, sidewards commando roll, across the steep slope, with a 65 litre backpack on. Caz watched in amazement and wanted to know where I pulled such a spectacular trick from.

Really, exploration (and derring-do) is something every person can try – it does not have to be about filling in the blank spots on the world's atlas. It is about filling in the gaps of our personal knowledge of place. Caz and I had never explored this section of Coombadjha Creek. We knew no-one who had. We had never read reports on what might lie downstream. Only exploring will fill in the gaps. 

The rainforest is cool and dark, the colours vivid from days of rain. The smell is rich and overpowering – an incense of sweet soil and sassafras. Following Coombadjha Creek is difficult. It is choked with boulders and the banks are steep, rocky or dense with vines and trees. An hour downstream we find a small, flat area of forest and choose this as a campsite. It is midday, and as we dither about, unable to select which of the uneven sites will do us best, thunder cracks overhead. We have just enough time to pitch the fly and dive under its cover when the heavens open. It pours with rain for twenty minutes as we sit on the damp leaf litter beneath the fly and rue the fact we didn’t have time to bring our packs under cover. 

That afternoon, after the storm passes, we continue downstream more easily without our big packs. It is still rugged walking. With the rocks now slippery with rain, we end up clambering along like our chimpanzee ancestors, arms and legs getting a workout. We eventually find a waterfall although nothing like what we had conjured in our imaginations. The sides of the valley are indeed steep, almost sheer, and the waterfall slides over a narrow band of bedrock. It is about an 8m angled drop; not what we expected. We check the map. If indeed we came down Cedar Creek, then we know exactly where we are amidst the pink blush of contours. 

Honestly, we are both slightly disappointed and set off back to camp for an afternoon cup of tea. It rains again as we head back, photography is a mighty challenge in these conditions. The valley, though, is stunning; the rainforest sparkling in its coat of rain. 

In the morning we backtrack to Cedar Creek. It is interesting the things we remember as we retrace our steps – Caz remembers a vine that tangled him both ways, we both recognise a small overturned rock as it is orange and out of place. We can see our old footprints in the deep leaf litter. Rather than head back up Cedar Creek we continue upstream along Coombadjha Creek to where we had heard hints of a waterfall. Again, it is a pretty little cascade sliding over the smooth bedrock but it is not the sort of grand drop we expected. From here it is easy to climb back up to the track and blast our way through the leech obstacle course and back to the car where we peel off our wet clothes. 

Back at home, as I write this blog, my curiosity remains unsatisfied and Caz's instinct for map reading has me sure there must be a waterfall down there somewhere. I am doubting what we actually found. I jump on to Google Maps and zoom in on Washpool National Park. There is a strip of Coombadjha Creek that clearly has three waterfalls – it is open and rocky, the top waterfall is long and ends in a large pool. Beside me, the Coombadjha 1:25000 topographic map is spread open. I can compare the two and when Caz comes to have a look, we both concur. The gully with the Cedar Creek signpost is not the same as the Cedar Creek that is marked on the map. We were tantalizingly close, but misdirected. Another 500m downstream and we would have found what we were looking for. So now we are planning another exploration into the depths of that wonderful rainforest. Turns out, in this age of Google Maps and the over-explored world, there is plenty left for us to do. 

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  1. Thank-you for your interesting post, photographs and the passion. Have not walked in this area but am keen to start. Have a few of the topos now and can certainly see those "pink" lines within many of the maps. Live in the Blue Mtns so may have to wait for holidays to explore your beautiful area. Thanks again and love to hear about your return trip exploits.

    1. Hi Bernadette and thanks for visiting awildland! You have so much to explore in your own backyard and plenty of those pink lines in the Blue Mountains but hopefully you will make it up to Washpool some time - it is world heritage for a reason, truly lovely rainforest!

  2. What an inspiring and erudite (and humble and humorous) post. Thanks for sharing and can't wait to get to Washpool. Please arrange absence of leeches for my journey tho. Great photos too.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comments. Despite that, not sure we can help with absenting leeches from that part of the world. Hope you still enjoy your journey though!