Monday, 24 April 2017

Walking the wild river - Oxley Wild Rivers National Park

The lead stallion stops just five metres away. His small herd gather behind him, dripping with water, their sides heaving with exhaustion. A couple of young horses are visibly shaken, their hind legs quivering. For two days we have unwittingly pursued these brumbies up this narrowing valley. The riverbed is now so rocky they have been forced to return downstream and confront us.

We struggle to stay hidden and quiet, crouched awkwardly behind a boulder amongst trees on the river's edge. The stallion may not be able to see us but he is suddenly, acutely, aware of our presence. His nostrils flare and he snorts loudly, staring intently ahead. The nervous energy in the air is intense as he snorts again and again. A stand-off begins. 

This is not our first exciting wild encounter of this 4-day trip walking along the Chandler River from Long Point to Wollomombi Falls. This is, after all, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and hiding behind a rock with my heart pounding, it seems 'wild' has been the order of the day, every day.

The journey begins

On day one, Caz and I access the Chandler River down an untracked ridge off the Long Point Picnic Area. It drops nicely at first, through sparse Forest Red Gums with views showing the wild valley opening up beneath us. The last 200m in elevation becomes intensely steep and ends in a cliff that forces a traverse across the slope. Clinging to loose tufts of grass, we drop into a gully and follow it to the valley floor. 

And there, wandering towards us along a rocky flood channel, are two echidnas, foraging quickly and moving intently. If we stand still and stay quiet, they will march straight over the top of our boots. But, it is too good an opportunity to resist. Caz slowly reaches for his camera and unzips it from its case. 

Despite his stealth, the closest echidna spots us and dashes off, disappearing beneath a pile of nearby flood debris. The second echidna is just as alert and heads for a high embankment, hauling itself up big rocks in search of an escape route or hiding hole. It is beaten by a final, too big boulder and simply presses itself into a crack. Its distress is obvious and so we back off, put the camera away and move further upstream to find a quiet lunch spot.

We begin the long walk upstream, towards Wollomombi Gorge, enjoying avenues of towering river oaks and the wide, grassy river flats dotted with gnarly and shady apple gums. Well-worn tracks hint at the presence of substantial feral cattle and horse traffic but their deep pads make good tracks that we happily follow. 

On our first day, we stop early and set up camp near a deep pool. There is time for a swim and an afternoon brew. Then, as it gets dark, there is time to wonder at noises across the river where a prow of rock and dense foliage hides some kind of small creature scrabbling around and sending loose rocks tumbling. 

The skittish noises may be brush-tailed rock wallabies, the one wildlife encounter we are hoping for on this walk. Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is home to the largest confirmed population of these endangered wallabies, an estimated 10,000 in the park. But, they are notoriously shy.  They elude us all night and all the next morning, as we pack up camp on day two and shoulder our packs once more. 

Not far upstream, a natural spring feeds out of a hill on the eastern bank. The water is gloriously clear. We drink deeply and fill up a bottle for the morning ahead. Then, just a few hundred metres further on, we come across five dead cows and one dead horse. It is a surprising and momentarily unsettling sight. Have they all drunk from a poisoned spring? 

I sniff the water in our drink bottle. Of course, there is nothing to be done now.   The mountains that loom either side are a quick reminder that we are in fact remote and isolated, tucked in the heart of more than 140,000 hectares of wilderness. Caz and I shake hands and wish each other luck. 

Soon after, we pass a dump of fencing wire, star pickets, sledgehammers and sundry equipment. We can only hope the carcasses are part of an intentional culling program. Feral animals are a problematic management issue in these isolated river valleys but for us, feral horses will be the ongoing challenge.

The chase

On day two we cover nearly 12km of river and stop the night at Slaughterhouse Creek, a major tributary from the west. We are woken in the night by clattering hooves on the river rocks. It is definitely not rock wallabies. Whether horses or cows, all we can tell is they are heading upstream, the same direction as us. 

In the morning, we think nothing of last night's noise as we have new visitors - two dingoes on the opposite bank; curly tailed, sniffing about. The dogs seem not to see us and finally move off upstream at a steady trot. When the sunshine hits the ridge tops, we shoulder our packs and follow. 

Mid-morning we come to a remarkable little bluff I name the 'Needle and Reel' – a pointy pinnacle of rock with another square shaped outcrop beside it. These loom over a deep, clear pool and dotted around this pretty grotto is our herd of wild brumbies.

A beautiful dappled, charcoal-grey mare catches my eye. Her black mane is dreadlocked and her black tail trails to the ground. She has a small foal. The stallion is drinking from the pool with another mare and foal. Three young horses mill together upstream. All of them spook at the sight of us. Their hooves clatter noisily on the river rocks. They circle and pause. We step forward and they are off, upstream, into the narrowing confines of the river. It is the beginning of a long chase. 

We repeat this routine three times as the day wears on. We walk. They see us, spook and take off. 

Around one big bend, we stop to take pictures of a tremendous wall of rock that towers over the eastern bank. It is a grand view with Church Rock looming in the background. The valley is narrow, the sides rise 500m. The river is purely boulders now. There are no grassy flats and barely any gravel or rocky shoals. But, the brumbies will not stop. They see us again, spook and take off into the impossible rocky gorge. 

This can't go on. I envisage a 200-kilogram horse with a broken leg, lying heaving and panicked and us with just a tiny Swiss army knife to put the animal out of its misery. We make a plan to hide up a side gully. We have lunch. We lie back and rest. But, we cannot hide all day. 

Eventually, with no sign of the herd, we have to continue upstream. We veer up high into the trees to stay out of their way. It is thick, steep rainforest and tough going; rocky and strung with vines.  We both brush against a giant stinging tree and the flush of heat and pain tingles fiercely. It is exhausting and frustrating walking. After half an hour, we are forced to head back to the river and come up with another brumby bypass plan. 

As we near the edge of the tree line and are about to come out onto the river the brumbies also arrive, heading downstream. We have just seconds to hide and that is where you find us at the start of the story, crouched uncomfortably, behind a large boulder. 

It is only when the stallion is immediately level with us that he stops, his ears prick and his nostrils flare. I wonder if he can smell us. The herd bank up behind him and the stand-off begins. 

It feels like 5 minutes and then 10 minutes, as he snorts and stares intently downstream searching for us. It is the beautiful, charcoal mare that makes the final desperate decision. She has the smallest foal and suddenly she leaps over a huge boulder into the deep pool in front of the herd and begins to swim. The stallion gives three enormous snorts, plunges over a boulder and into the water. In a roar of clattering hooves and flying spray the herd follow. They look like the kin of Pegasus, leaping into the pool, jumping boulders and flying furiously across the water as they make their escape. It is an extraordinary moment of wildness. 

As they go, Caz tries to rip his camera out for a picture but the horses are gone in a matter of seconds. We track their wet hoof prints upstream. It is staggering the size of some of the boulders they have negotiated. We see the spot where they were forced to turn around. Impressive stuff.

A final encounter with 'wild'

On the next kilometre of river we encounter a series of pretty cascades as we pass below the towering spire of Church Rock. After the cascades, the valley opens out again with the return of nice gravel banks and sandy shoals. 

It brings us to a campsite-of-the-year contender – a big sandy beach, swimming hole, another echidna on the opposite bank nosing amongst the dirt, and dozens and dozens of swallows diving and skimming and chattering above the pool where we swim. 

And finally, our most sought after wild encounter on this wild trip is gifted to us in the morning. Once again, working our way upstream across bleached grey bedrock, we surprise a brush-tailed rock wallaby basking in the morning sun. It is reclining on a small ledge on the east bank. It has soft, caramel-coloured fur and muscled shoulders, pretty face markings and that long, dark, bushy tail. Again, we sneak quietly upstream.  But this time the wild animal barely moves. It opens its dozey eyes as we pass but not until the shadow of a wedgetail eagle drifts overhead does it snap to attention. 

It really feels as if we have moved out of the feral zone and into a more pristine stronghold. And yet, it is here I feel less like an intruder. With a few strong hops the rock wallaby is quickly a safe distance up the rock face, watching us warily but with less panic than the animals we encountered in the crowded lower reaches of the valley. Maybe because he is little, maybe because he is descended from how many thousands of generations of rock wallabies in this valley, but there seems to be room for all of us here. 

Our end point: The Inaccessible Gulf with Wollomombi Falls in the distance

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