The journey ahead is about bringing into focus the essence of our blog - off-track wanderings, a vague route, changing direction depending on the demands of the terrain, searching out campsites, pressing on into rarely visited corners of wild country. The anticipation, the unknown, the mystery - these seem to shimmer in the humid air as we set off from the carpark.
What we find is this - a remote river valley, untouched forest, trees towering 50m high like city high rises, a fruit laden canopy and hour after hour of beauty. It's been to long time since we've seen beautiful, wet rainforest. It satisfies our longing to escape the dry oppressive summer and disappear into another world.
The rough route is this - we leave the Williams River Picnic Area (outside Dungog in Barrington Tops National Park) and take the Blue Gum Loop Trail to the Fern Tree Creek picnic area. From there we cross the creek and follow an old, faint road for 100m. It is going the wrong way, continuing up the Williams River and so we drop back to Fern Tree Creek and begin walking our way upstream, criss-crossing. It has rained heavily the night before and it is extremely slow walking, creeping along the slippery rocks, clambering around fallen trees. The under storey is dominated by, funnily enough, prickly Tree Ferns. They make a pretty green filter for the sunlight. Eventually we veer off the creek and begin to climb onto the Chichester Range. It is hot and humid. We are acutely aware of the amount of sweat seeping out of us. The gradient is steep then flat then steeper until we reach the rocky spine of the range and turn left (north-west) to find our preferred descent spur that will drop us into the upper reaches of the next valley - Dixie Creek.
Our descent ridge starts perfectly. It is open, narrow, with views into the headwaters of Dixie Creek, the Chichester River and up onto the plateau of Barrington Tops. Steep, deep country. Nothing visible through the carpet of green forest rolling and rising and connecting us. We descend through a band of bushfire affected forest and things get a little scrappier. Eventually we transition - rainforest trees are scattered through the sclerophyll forest, then they take over completely. The slope begins to dissect with gullies and we cross a small cliff that would be a nice waterfall in downpours.
Dixie Creek is nothing spectacular but it is pretty. That's it for the first day. We set up camp and I let exhaustion take over - the 400m elevation up and back down again, a lack of off-track fitness, the slower hard walking, leads me to sleep; a quick afternoon power nap. I wake feeling completely refreshed. The forest is peaceful. I feel so spoilt - relaxed, quiet, remote, a nearby pool in the creek proves to be home to a fat crayfish hidden amongst the muddy leaf litter on the bottom, pigeons coo softly in the trees above.
The next morning we pack up and head downstream. We are on the corner of the Chichester 9233-4S 1:25,000 topo. We need to cross onto our Glouester Tops topographic map but it is an old series - the two maps use different geodetic datum and don't quite line up. It is hard to judge distances and marry them to our visual cues. As always, off-track walking along new rivers and terrain is slower than it feels. We are aiming to reach a distinct saddle along the range that separates us from the Chichester River. Crossing at the saddle will save us 100m in elevation. The Chichester is today's target.
But, we go too early. More steepness, more sweat, 200m up and 200m down the other side. Of course, it doesn't matter. This is the joy of this route - no right or wrong. In fact, it means we get to see more of the Chichester River than anticipated. When we reach that river it is the best decision we could have made.
The Chichester River is terrain we have never explored and have been curious about for a long time. I stop moving to take it all in. Ancient trees tower above the lower rainforest canopy which is draped in vines. Unlike other rivers in this area the rock is granite, smooth rounded boulders. The water is original - clear, sweet, from a pristine, uninhabited catchment. It is overcast; long moments of sunshine. There is bird call, the sound of the river. A big-leaved tree spreads out over a deep pool. Birds nest ferns exploit tree forks, rough bark, vines and rocks.
Several kilometres of river walking lie ahead. We criss-cross to take advantage of long, wide flats on each bank. The rainforest here is similar to the remote reaches of Washpool Creek (Washpool National Park) and the Rosewood River (Dorrigo National Park). Tall, buttressed rainforest trees are interspersed with bangalow palms and prickly tree fern. White Beech trees are fruiting and their round, purple plums litter the ground. Water dragons hide in rainforest logs and scare me as they dash for the river when we get too close. Emergent Blue Gums stop me in my tracks, they are so tall and straight and crowning high above everything else. I am impressed.
It takes a long time to reach Waterfall Creek, a major tributary that joins from the north, flowing off the flank of Mt Nelson. At this point the Chichester River suddenly resembles the nearby Williams River for the first time with wide flat shelves of mudstone and a deep, narrow pool walled in by rock. It is temptingly green. Looking at the map, I get a real sense of being a long, long way from the car. As tempting as it is to camp a night on the banks of this beautiful river we rest for only a short time, continue downstream a few hundred metres, then cut back up and over to Dixie Creek where we work our way back upstream to a junction with the largest side gully feeding off the Chichester Range.
It is another idyllic, remote, rainforest campsite up high off the creek this time. The tent is nestled amongst hard water ferns and prickly tree ferns. Next day, our spur onto the Chichester Range is a perfect, steady, gradual climb with a final steep push. Sitting on the spine of the range a flock of young crimson rosellas divert their flight to come in for a look at us. They twitter and gossip amongst themselves, bicker every now and then and switch roosts with a noisy kerfuffle of feathers. They leave when we do. It is a steep down. There are distinct animal pads though - perhaps euros and kangaroos, maybe the odd feral cow or horse. Farmland is now visible below us and to the east. We are coming in out of the wilds. The unknown is now known - the forest and the seclusion and beauty and the hard work and rewards and those amazing old trees - the journey is shimmering inside me now.
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