This is a tale of two extremes. A story from different ends of the one valley as well as different ends of the social and economic spectrum.
It begins, however, with a unique and beautiful ass – Donkey Mountain which is part of Gardens of Stone National Park. Donkey Mountain sits alone in the middle of the Wolgan Valley, north-east of Lithgow on the western fall of the Greater Blue Mountains.
Driving into the valley from the west, we reach Wolgan Gap and cut illegally across double lines to park the car, so we can gawp at the view. The wide valley of cleared farmland is lined on either side by steep, forested slopes that rise to the base of bare, sandstone cliffs – sheer walls up to 130+ metres in height extend east for 20km. The plateau above these cliffs is undulating and broken, littered with the domes of sandstone pagoda formations.
We drive through the gap and onto the valley floor, stopping where Wolgan Mountain and Donkey Mountain loom out of the surrounding farms like rocky islands in a desert of grass. A small car park and a metal stile mark the access point for the walk. After this, we are on our own. There is no marked trail. There does not need to be. The idea is to aim for the obvious saddle above, between the two towering rock summits. A couple of well-worn pads appear the higher we get. The terrain is open and dry and the walking tricky in parts where the sandy loose soil has been eroded on the steeper slope. We stop to catch our breath at one point and a spotted pardalote perches nearby with strips of stringybark for its nest hanging like a moustache from its beak.
Once up high, the exploration begins. Hours disappear as we climb pagodas and wander the narrow gullies and blind alleys between the rocky turrets of Donkey Mountain. It is great fun and there are fantastic views from on top of the pagodas, looking up and down the immense Wolgan Valley. Particularly prominent is the sprawling Emirates One&Only, situated below us to the south, on 7000 hectares of former farmland. The resort features about 30 private villas and occasionally offers discount packages that allow you to stay for a meer $1800 a night. I whip out my birdwatching binoculars to see if anyone famous is reclining by the pool. Too cold.
Later in the afternoon, once we have selected our much cheaper but also more spectacular sleeping spot for the night I return to the top of a sunny pagoda as a large helicopter approaches from the south-east. Landrover's are waiting at the landing point and a group of six, are whisked off to enjoy whatever it is that kind of money buys you.
I wonder if they know how much they're being ripped off. Here I am, sitting high above the resort, a mountain all to myself, watching a burnt orange sunrise across the cliffs, stars are slowly being placed into the night sky, birds are coming in to roost in the large forest red gums growing amongst the rocks. I am poorer, but richer, than those down below.
After a wonderful night on Donkey Mountain and another morning exploring more of its secret summits and alleyways, we return down the rocky slope and drive to the eastern end of the valley where a National Parks campground is nestled beneath sandstone cliffs and surrounded by brilliant blossoming wattle trees.
This is the far eastern end of valley, and the location of the once thriving village of Newnes which existed to support a shale mine and processing factory. Operational costs and the availability of lower priced crude oil finally closed the shale factory in 1932. There is now just a collection of old shacks and some newer houses spread along the access road. The former hotel is now Newnes Kiosk and only open on weekends. Ruins remain of the factory, and the train line that serviced it is part of an 8km walking track that loops through the well-known Glow Worm Tunnel.
At the pretty campground, kangaroos and euro's graze on the open grass and a wombat is busy on the edges eating with an intensity I admire. Our backpacks are sitting on a picnic table, as we consider setting up camp, when a white ute pulls up nearby and an old character gets out and wanders across to us.
In the warm, midday sun, a long conversation ensues. The old-timer's name is Glen and he moved to Newnes in 1975 after buying a 99-year lease on a small bush block. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday and lives alone in a shack without electricity and from the down-wind smell, it being winter, he possibly has no hot water either. Glen tells us about the old settlement here, the flood that washed the original pub away, and the fact that they used to bring the mail twice a week but now his mailbox is at Wolgan Gap, 22km away. He laughs about the possums that have learnt to open his cupboard doors and the feral cats that have wandered in and decided to stay and live with him. He has satellite television thanks to a government-funded programme for pensioners. One litre of fuel in his generator runs the tellie for an hour.
After nearly an hour of chatting, we wrap up the conversation and Glen heads home. As he leaves, a One&Only Landrover arrives, does a loop around the campsite, for the customers we can see in the rear seat behind tinted glass. Chalk and cheese, I think, as the two vehicles pass. Donkeys and thoroughbreds maybe, although I won't judge which is which.
Donkey Mountain is a popular day walk and there is plenty of information out there in the blogging world for those wanting more detail or a different take on this wonderful landscape. Visit Dave Noble's blog for several pieces. People love the maze of rock and its potential. See Fat Canyoners post from 2012. And more here at Sons of Desert.
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