Sunday, 21 August 2016

Coonarma Peak - Gibraltar Range National Park, NSW

Many of our destinations are points on a map with no access track. Walks with no right or wrong way, in or out. This is one of those – to a peak perched on the edge of wilderness, a day's walk there and another back again, a weekend spent in conversation with the topography of the Gibraltar Range. 

Coonarma Peak is located in Gibraltar Range National Park in northern New South Wales. The national park is located 69km east of Glen Innes or 92km west of Grafton and within it, Coonarma Peak is an obscure outcropping of granite that juts out of the highland swamps and breaks open the ridges of dry stringybark forest. It is topped by an old trig marker and the sugary blossoms of grass tree spears in flower.

To reach the peak, we took the route of easiest navigation, following Piggi-Billa Creek through recently burnt forest that marked us with charcoal tattoos on our arms and shins. It was late October, but we bring you this walk now, in preparation for spring. Plan ahead, get the timing right, and Gibraltar Range National Park is one of the best spring wildflower destinations in New South Wales. On this walk alone we saw pink boronia, matchheads (heath milkwort), king orchids, giant wedge pea, hairy bush pea, hakea flowers. As we weaved through the green shoots of new stringybark growth, the narrowing creek valley forced us high amongst the granite boulders and here we found the delicate purple flowers of trigger plants, bright bunches of pink rock orchids in the cool cracks between boulders, and in the sandy soil along the ridge-side were startling, blood red waratahs in full, glorious bloom. 

According to the excellent NPA Guide to National Parks of Northern New South Wales, written by Peter Wright, the Gibraltar Range forms a border between three Aboriginal groups, including the Bundjalung people whose Dreamtime story tells how the stunning waratah flower came into being. A group of Bundjalung women had been abducted by an inland tribe and a young warrior called Balugun was chosen to lead a raiding party to recapture them. His fiancĂ© Guangan travelled with him to the top of the range. On their first night out, Balugun killed a wallaby and made a cloak for his lover and decorated her hair with red feathers from the Crimson Rosella. The next day the warriors set off while Guangan waited on the range. But, Balugun did not return with the rest of the party that night. Guangan waited for him for 7 days, until she finally slipped from her rock in exhausted sorrow and sank into the earth. It is said that nothing grew beneath her rock until spring, when a green shoot emerged and the plant that grew was crowned with huge scarlet flowers like the rosella feathers in Guangan's hair. 

The waratahs became our track markers. We planned on walking in and out along a similar route and their distinct arrangement amongst the rocks were an easy landmark to remember. We noted their position on the map that was forming inside our heads. These flowers, along with a tall rock shaped like an obelisk, the gradient of the slope, the peak to the right, replaced all need for human introduced track markers. The trick to off-track walking is to pay attention, turn around, observe and remember. 

Man-made cairns, pink tape, arrows scratched on rocks or trees, gps coordinates, grid references, track notes – these are our unconscious attachment to the human herd. On a walk like this, they would serve no purpose but a poor psychological one: that need for reassurance that others have made it this way, that we must be on the right track, safe in the footsteps of others. This need is a subjugation of our senses and our independence. Without realising it, by living and walking on paths and tracks and sign-posted routes that require no thought, we lose our autonomy. Having said that, most of the time we do carry a man-made topographical map. But, like Balugun and Guangun there is a way of knowing a land just by living in it and learning from it. 

As Caz took photos of the beautiful waratahs, I wandered around, surrounded by charcoaled branches of burnt hakea, the blood of waratah flowers, the grey leaves of stringybarks and thought how not another soul knew exactly where we were at that moment in time. It was a powerful feeling of freedom: letting go the herd, losing sight of them. 

Coonarma Peak is perched above the deep cut of Wollomogo Creek. The view south shows the creek valley snaking its way into the Mann River Wilderness. From the summit, we took in the blue folds of a hundred spurs and ridges. To the west, were other granite peaks: Old Man’s Hat, Anvil Rock, Waratah Trig - islands of rock amongst the wild trees. We arrived early enough for exploration, scrambling around the remarkably balanced rocks, and sitting in the sun as a scarlet honeyeater returned for regular visits to the flowering grass trees. We found a spot to lay the bivvy bags for the night. No matter how unknown the destination, there is always a camp spot. Two people don’t need much space. On Coonarma we had a hemisphere of the stuff – huge skies, a brilliant sunset and bright stars.

Our route back the next day was different. So much for those nicely observed landmarks. It didn’t matter. The line from point A to point B is always arbitrary. We dropped off the steeper side of the peak, into the headwaters of Piggi-Billa Creek, drawn by the siren call of a waterfall. We then stayed high on the ridge to the west of the creek before eventually reaching Murrumbooee Cascades and rejoining the wide, easy walking trail. Another mystery peak explored and the next mystery…how to maintain our freedom as we are drawn back into the world of signposts and into the footsteps of a thousand others. 

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  1. Gorgeous pics! I'd never heard of this park before and it's not all that far for me to travel to, so thanks for the post. :)

    1. Hi Jane, glad you enjoyed the blog. Gibraltar Range is one of our favourite spots. If you get there, we would recommend the Dandhara Crags walk, and the new pink-taped track to view Dandhara Falls. Also some nice pockets of rainforest in the park. Happy adventuring.

  2. that looks spectacular
    i love it up there, it is a great part of the world - i had the pleasure of driving from glenn innes to grafton in may this year - a drive i have done more than 15 times - but it was the first time i stopped to 'smell the roses' - visited boundary falls and raspberry lookout which were both beautiful...also spent some time on the mann river around jackadagery which is also spectacular.

    1. Hey Solo. Thanks for dropping by our blog. Gibraltar Range is spectacular, isn't it! Glad you managed to stop on your last drive through. Good luck, too, with your own blog. Keep on stopping to smell the roses!