Saturday, 5 March 2016

What lies below - Dandahra Falls, Gibraltar Range National Park

By the time we reach camp I am barely capable of simile, let alone anything as profound as metaphor. Some adventures seem to exhaust my vocabulary. Diary notes are sparse. The concentration required throughout the day, and the physical nature of the route we have just taken, has exhausted not just my body but my mind. It is enough now to lay in camp and just observe – not to describe or compare or analyse. I lie back and just be: disappearing into the spectacular world that lies below Dandahra Falls. 

Reaching the base of Dandahra Falls, in Gibraltar Range National Park in northern NSW, has been on our adventure hit list for years. The fact we have also been unable to find any photos online showing what lies below this grand waterfall, inspires us further. An earlier attempt to reach the base of the falls has given us a good understanding of what is needed:  rope, harnesses and prussiks. It is a matter of satisfying our curiosity for wild perspectives. 

There is no track to the base of Dandahra Falls and the old NPWS track to the top of the falls has been closed for many years. There is, however, always a way. From Mulligans Hut campground we follow the formed track to the Forest Walk. The point where we leave the Forest Walk is marked by pink tape. When we first reconnoitred this ridge approach a few years earlier, there was a rough foot pad that plunged straight down the mountainside. Now the pad is becoming increasingly well used. The amount of pink tape marking the route has also increased. It is still steep and rough in parts but we begin to wonder if NPWS might be behind the growing usage and visibility of this once 'secret' little track.

It leads to a terrific, small, flat area on the ridge with remarkable views across to the crashing face of Dandahra Falls. When we reach this spot, more tape is strung across the trees at the edge of the ridge where it plunges to the creek below. Waterfalls are a major drawcard for national parks. People are attracted to the grandeur and spectacle of big drops – sometimes just a trickle of water, sometimes thunderous. This viewing point seems an obvious choice for NPWS to utilise.  It would be a short walk – 40 minutes from the carpark – and the full frontal view is a real crowd pleaser. At the same time, however, NPWS have also closed access to the top of the waterfall by placing signage saying the track is dangerous. I would argue that this is a misguided decision – the track is in need of a small amount of maintainenace but is a fine walk, the section of creek above the falls is a beautiful combination of deep pools and smaller cascades and one of the prettiest spots in the entire park. The open, expansive view from the top of the falls across the deep valley and rocky hills is wonderful. I can only guess the track has been closed due to safety concerns at the exposed edge. Safety, near such a large open drop, should always be an individual's responsibility. One of our best nature writers in Australia, Quentin Chester, says it well: "We live in a time when accidents are rarely allowed to remain accidents. There have to be enquiries, fault has to be found and lessons learned…the fear of liability and litigation infects even the most innocuous activities... Out of regard for others we need to take care and step wisely. At the same time, however, there is a responsibility to guard the essence of wild places and our right to experience them."

Our descent, from the end of the pink tape to the creek, is where the challenges begin. It takes us two hours to cover about 300m. It is near vertical.  The terrain is open, dry forest with leaf litter and sticks so deep underfoot that we sink in with each step. Route finding slows us down as we begin descending the knife edge of the ridge. We set a rope in place where we have to scramble around and down some airy granite slabs and protrusions. The first short, 4m, abseil with full packs helps settle me into this escapade. The final abseil, onto the rocks of the creek below, is down a 15m ledged slope of granite. We dump our gear in the shade of a grove of stunted, thin brush box trees growing stoically amongst the rocky creek bank. Some energetic scrambling, leaping from one giant rock to the next, balancing across tilted edges of boulders, we finally reach the pool at the base of the falls. It is a narrow lap pool of black water heading at a ninety degree angle from the base of the fall itself. The perspective is worth the effort. 

There is one boulder, the size of a small car, and it has a flat top enough for us to pitch camp on. The forces and processes that have littered this creek with such enormous pieces of rock, defies my imagination. We are surrounded by towering, jumbled boulders. Once the tent is pitched, the exploring up and down stream all done, I collapse in the tent ready to rest everything – head, soul, body.  

The water flowing beneath the tent is sweet and fast. It is forced to hunt its way down the creek bed, searching out hidden cracks and gaps between the boulders and the sheer rock walls. A grey fantail lives in the little gully on the bend. Butterflies drift and lift through the pocket of dry rainforest with its staghorns and elkhorns. The sky seems a long, long way up. The ridge top where we started is blown by a wild wind that does not reach us down here.

We are dwarfed by the gorge: tiny specks of humanity that have delved into the ancient history of rock - thylacine stripes along the walls and a sense of deep separation from the human world. 

When we leave the next morning it is by the same route. I prussick up our rope, through mist and drizzling rain. Then I drag our large packs up, one by one. Caz climbs up last. We have left a second rope on the first abseil. This time Caz heads up first and hauls the packs up this drop. Then I prussick up after him. Caz re-sets the ropes further up, this time to act more as a safety line as we continue upwards. Finally it is back on wider ground and we begin the slow, physical walk up the steep slope through the thick leaf litter. The pink tape, is a sign of our return from geology's depths. 

Makes me feel like Jules Verne's characters returning from a journey to the centre of the earth, returning from that undeniable drive to always know what lies below.

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  1. Wow what a beautiful place thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks anon. It was another of those 'wow' places that nature is so good at producing.

  2. Hey, we are thinking of doing this on the weekend!

    Could we do it all in one day? How long does it take.

    Thank You!

    1. Hello unknown…sorry we only saw this message today. How did you go on the weekend? Send us an email if you still want more information.

  3. Saw it today - from the semi-official perspective up high, not down below, but I was tempted so funny I should see this now! Mist enveloped the top and was getting thicker as I reluctantly left. Mind blowing, soul-lifting; a breath-holding experience.

    1. Hi Craig - glad you got to the new unofficial official lookout spot. It is a real gem of a waterfall, isn't it, and such a great viewing location. Happy adventuring!