Monday, 20 February 2017

Sliding into the green room - Williams River Canyon, Barrington Tops

Moss-green walls of rock rise either side of the river, forming a narrow chute where the water curves right then left, drops into a small hole, and continues around a final bend before disappearing out of sight. I edge my way down the slippery, smooth channel and test the depth of the first hole. Caz is waiting at the top. I give him the thumbs up. It's time for his next water slide.

I scramble out of the way as Caz gives a little "woo-hoo" and splashes to the bottom of the ride above. The water is freezing cold and a rich emerald colour. We swim as quickly as possible across the large, deep pool that lies hidden around the final dip. Our small packs are like buoyancy vests and our wetsuits keep out the worst of the cold. We are both grinning from ear to ear and the day has only just begun.

Ahead lies hours and hours of slides, wild rock jumps, and stunning rainforest river walking as we make our way downstream from Williams River Falls to Rocky Crossing in Barrington Tops National Park. This popular, yet demanding, canyon trip takes in the most scenic of all rivers draining off the Barrington Tops. Twice this summer we have completed this trip, each visit just weeks apart. What better way to escape the record-breaking, catastrophic heat of the valleys below than to slide into the green room of this cool and beautiful natural fun park.

We begin each of our big days out at Lagoon Pinch Picnic Area before tackling the steep uphill track known as the Corker Trail. At a point on the topographical map we veer into the steep bush and begin a long and slow traverse to the base of Williams River Falls, a 25m waterfall framed by dripping rainforest spinach and tucked beneath forest ridgelines that loom high above. This is a relatively new access route to Williams Falls with more detail available on the Bushwalk Forum.

It takes us 3 hours to walk from the car to the base of the falls where we change into wetsuits and prepare for the long return trip, following the river for more than 6km to the exit point. The sides of this valley are steep and rugged and its remoteness, and the physically demanding length of this trip, is not to be underestimated. A small metal plague, glued to the rock in a cave near the base of the falls, is a sobering reminder of the risks of canyoning - dedicated to Gary Pearson, who lost his life here in 1993. The Williams River canyon is also renowned for a number of serious injuries requiring rescue (and here).

Downstream of Williams Falls the river is narrow and the shaded rocks slippery with moisture. Vines and forest trees encroach on either side as they search for light.  It is not long before we come to our first section of canyon, requiring a small downclimb to reach the head of a short, steep slide. This is where the fun begins. I can't recall the exact order of all the day's slides and jumps but for the next hour we tackle a string of challenges. At each new impasse one of us first climbs or scrambles ahead to check the depth of water and ensure it is safe and deep with no submerged rocks or logs. At some of the more open pools we can see through the clear, sunlit water. The rock walls on either side of the river form long narrow alleyways luminous with filtered green light seeping through the thick rainforest canopy. Green moss carpets the walls and luscious swathes of rainforest spinach line the edges of the river.

Water levels are extremely low, which makes the trip easier and less treacherous than in high flows. After checking ahead on each jump or slide, we throw ourselves into the water and whoop and holler, slide on our bums like little kids in a fun park, and swim the deep cold pools on our backs staring up to the narrow band of sky above.

After the first series of jumps and slides we enter a long section of rock hopping, passing through some stunning rainforest, flanked on both sides by huge figs, red cedars, and giant stinging trees (watch out for the leaves littering the pools and rocks). We pick our way slowly and quietly downstream, concentrating on each uneven step. Caz looks up at one point and whispers and points ahead - we are approaching a wide, shallow pool and in the narrow confines of the river a grey goshawk is hunting. Taken by surprise it barely lands on the rocky riverbed before seeing us, changing direction, and flying frantically away. Two soft white feathers remain, floating upturned on the small pool. Looking more closely we spy a large crayfish in the water, then another, and another. In all, we count seven crayfish of varying size in the one small pool. Could the goshawk have been hunting these for lunch?

As the day wears on the Williams River seems to never end. Huge moss covered logs form a chain of bridges through a high-walled section of canyon, left there in a jumbled mess by some old raging flood. Some of the slides we encounter are steep and fast and drive us into the pools below. Others are more gentle, curved and remarkably made. Three quarters of the way down we approach one of the larger jumps. We search for options, something less daunting than the 5m plunge into the black pool below. There is nothing for it though, and Caz begins a tricky down climb using our trusty rope, so that he can make a safer entry before giving me the all clear. He waits below in the water with his thumbs up. I try to tell myself to just walk to the edge and jump, don't pause, just do it. It takes a few of these pep talks to finally get me off the cliff edge. I can't help but squeal as I freefall. The force of hitting the water drives it up my nose but I pop to the surface quickly laughing at having survived another small fear.

In the past, the Williams River canyon has been popular because of its reputation for not requiring rope or abseils for the descent. Things change though and nature has altered the river - a massive rock fall in the riverbed now chokes one short section of canyon. A previously deep pool has been filled in with rock and the cascade now crashes onto a boulder the size of a big car. A short length of rope and some webbing (to thread for a rock anchor) is a great help here as we now have to down climb the treacherously slippery waterfall and the new boulder, before dropping into the pool below.

The approach to this new block-up is through one of the most scenic sections of the river - a long, beautiful rainforest laneway, only 6 metres wide, green sheer walls either side and interspersed with pools and boulders. After the block-up, the river changes ever so subtly. Flat mudstone terraces become more frequent. Big eels loll in some of the shallow pools. They do not move a muscle as we sneak past their fat tails.

The river keeps on giving adventure until the very end. Upstream of the pull out point we pass through a final and fun little slide that kicks left then right then left. Ahead lies a small shoal of rocks, a spot we have secretly camped at a year or so earlier. (see here). Then comes the final jump, possibly the biggest on the river, about 5-6m again, and this time into a clear, green pool covered in a spattering of yellow leaves. I give myself the same pep talk and am convinced that I will just walk to the edge and immediately jump. But it always looks so much more daunting from above. I do better, and pause only once. This time I don't squeal. I let out a high-pitched blasphemy instead as water drives up my nose again and I pop to the surface one last time.

The exit point, Rocky Crossing, is a marked walking trail. As we make our way over the final terraces towards the foot track some day trippers are swimming in the pools below. They barely cast us a glance. Their lack of curiosity at us bedraggled, wetsuit-clad, weary walkers is reassuring - the Williams River canyon will remain a haven for wilderness adventurers. We squelch up the track, 1.6km back to the car and arrive at 4pm, making a total of 6 hours on the river,  9 hours for the full round trip. A full day of fun. Ready to rest and makes plans to do it all again.

Williams River Falls...ready to do it all again.

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  1. This looks amazing guys!!! I love Barrington Tops and this area is new to me. How often do you reckon people canyon here? P.s is there an access to these falls that's k=just on a bush track?

    1. Hi Catherine, thanks for visiting our little blog page. Barrington Tops is an amazing place to explore but with Williams Falls and this canyon, there is no marked or easy track access. And, unlike some other canyoning areas in Australia (ie the Blue Mountains) this canyon does not get traveled often. Feel free to email us at awildland at gmail dot com if you want more info. And good luck with your new blog, it looks terrific.

  2. Hi there, amazing read! Any chance y'all might be doing another run down the upper Williams this summer and were happy for two person to tag along

    1. Hey Bruce. This is a good spring/summer to try the Williams River canyon as water levels are currently quite low. Grab some mates and as a tester try doing the section from Rocky Crossing downstream (that is, from where this trip we blogged about ends, and then canyon downstream from there). A walking track runs parallel the whole way and there are fewer big drops but still some jumps and slides and stunning rainforest. Wetsuits still essential and the usual outdoor precautions and fitness. But, adventure awaits!

  3. thanks for the trip notes.. we did it last week.

    Found the tree marker pretty easy. the route down not so much. We bush bashed down the hill. Ended up following a gully which became a stream a little to the north of the tree ( headed WNW ) which had 3 nice 7-15M abseils.. so was glad we still took the gear.
    I have coordinates of these if anyone wants to follow our route.
    (it took us ~3.5 hours to get to the river from the gate) Was definitely a bit of bush bashing :)

    We didnt hike upstream to find the falls, as had a bit of a time constraint.

    The river is amazing. Stunning.

    And the campsites in the state forest just down the hill had some great swimming spots too.

    7.5 hours to be back at the cars.
    email: canyon AT

    1. Hey NZ punter. Sounds like you had an adventure and loads of fun. Thanks for sharing!

  4. does anyone have notes/GSP coordinates of the altenative entry point. with the pink tape?

    Would be keen to find a faster route in..


    1. Hey NZ punter. Don't have GPS coordinates (we don't use one) but the pink tape track detailed on bushwalk forum is where you went in at the marked tree. It traverses across to the Base of Williams Falls. There is no fast route in...even via the pink tape it is roughly 3 hours from the car to the base of the falls.

  5. ah.,. got it. I found a map of someones route, and yeah, we went too far down the hill, and didn't spot the tape. Will just have to run the river again :)

    1. Any excuse to run that river again will do...!!