Wind shakes the tops of stunted mallee trees. Small birds lurch from branch to branch, fighting the strong gusts. High cloud holds the sun at bay. But, nothing can hold back the joy of the view ahead. We are back at Mt Bushwalker - undoubtedly one of NSWs grandest viewing points - looking across the Clyde River valley, southwards to The Castle and into the wild heart of Morton National Park.
This trip we have four days of hard walking, along a largely untracked route that drops in and out of the deep river valley below. It is winter and cold. I am wearing most of my gear - gortex jacket and pants, gaiters, and a long sleeve merino. But, as we head south from Mt Bushwalker and begin weaving along the sandstone escarpment, finding the next cairn and the next cairn ahead, it gives me time to warm up - not just my body but also my off-track instincts. These first few kilometres are the time to purge my soul of the lazy comforts of home, get sluggish blood moving, stretch the underused lungs, take the time to tune my mind into the challenges of the Australian bush, before the easy, track walking runs out.
After an hour, we reach Gadara Point and use a length of rope to lower the packs and help down-climb the short drop. After this, the track disappears. Hazard reduction burning has obliterated all trace of it. It re-appears over the next peak, then disappears again. After an uphill grunt to Pallins Pass we find it again, weaving through layers of sandstone to emerge onto a small plateau below Talaterang Mountain. What stops us in our tracks here, however, are more fantastic views of the surrounding wilderness. There is still 1km to the summit but we can't walk past these open cliffs and begin sniffing around for a flat section of rock to pitch the tent. Honeyeaters are busy in the candlestick flowers of banksias. The sun finally comes out but the wind is still strong. The campsite we find is lumpy. The extra water we gather from rock pools amongst the sandstone has wrigglers and a strong taste from the purifying tablets. But, it is worth it. The time is only 2:30pm and I now have a whole afternoon of blissful isolation - resting quietly with cliff edge views, my warm down jacket, a cup of tea, snacks, my notepad. What more is there?
"I can truly say that some of the happiest hours in a life, which has certainly had its bright as well as gloomy passages, have been passed in my bush-tent, when, after a good day's sport, supper finished, and pipe lit, I have thrown myself on my opossum rug, and the toils of the day fairly over, have spent the hour before turning in yarning with my mate over "the days past, the present, and the future." At such a moment I would not exchange the rough freedom of the shooters life for the best situation in the colony." Writes Horace William Wheelwright in his 1841 book; 'Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist'.
Day 2 consolidates this joy. The night has been windy with a couple of squalls of rain passing through but the morning is all beautifully aglow. So much so, we start unusually late. The walking is easy in parts but tough in others, scrappy and beautiful. Talaterang Mountain summit is a field of black sticks and a burnt carpet of coral fern. I can smell the charcoal. We find the summit cairn with the logbook inside but, there is only time to stop briefly. Today's walk to the Clyde River will be long and slow and with the late start, time is ticking away.
It is an hour's walk along the length of Talaterang Mountain, pushing through the dense, six foot high mallee. There is a black and white photo by Henry Gold, which appears on page 6 of the paperback version of the wonderful book Wild Places by Peter Prineas. It is an inspiring, scenic image. It shows an open plateau covered in a carpet of grass and dotted with heath and small stands of low trees. The photo shows seven bushwalkers strung in a loose line walking towards the same point as us, the southern end of Talaterang Mountain. The difference between this picture and the dense, unbending mallee scrub we encounter is phenomenal. I have always admired that Gold image; tempted by its idyllic, open walking and distant cliff lines. Now we push and weave and duck and guess our way out to the pass that leads to Dummell Creek.
Once down off the mountain the land drops away into a lush green gully with attractive emergent eucalypts. and we veer right to begin the descent to Dummell Creek. The walking is off-track joy - tough, filthy, blocked by repeated small cliffs and drops as we get closer to the creek. It takes thought and back-tracking, intuition and decisions, to find a feasible way down. There is no sign of any path but we arrive on the creek directly below a small waterfall. It makes a good resting spot but we barely pause. We have read only a few other track notes online about this route but all state that the walk down Dummell Creek is tiring. The rocks in the creek are conglomerate (in Wainwright's day, it was commonly called puddingstone) and it is chunky. There are a couple more waterfalls to bypass. It is picturesque in parts. There are large fallen trees to clamber over. Cabbage tree palms appear dotted through the forest and moments later we stumble out onto the gravel banks of the Clyde River - wide and tannin stained to an interesting red colour. The big river valley is like a different world. Soft, leafy green trees line the banks. There are some really big stringybarks, blue gums, brushbox. Turning right we begin the walk upstream. At the first crossing, we roll up our overpants to find our shins and calves black with ash and soot that has drifted up our trousers while walking through the day's burnt forest.
The next day, Day 3, is when the previous two days choices catch up with us - the decision to camp early on the first night, the late start on the second day and now we have too many kilometres to cover on a short winter's day. After camping on one of the Clyde's picturesque riverside terraces we wake to an amazing dawn chorus and platypus ripples on the river's red water but we still have 4km of the Clyde to walk up before reaching Claydon's Creek which will lead us back towards the escarpment. There are signs of other walkers before us - a campsite at a split in the river, pink tape on a tree, an old fire ring, two camp pads scratched out in the gravel at the junction with Claydon's Creek.
The first hour heading up Claydon's Creek, towards the escarpment and Mt Bushwalker, is absolutely delightful walking. After passing Rixon Creek, more bed-rock appears and deep pools. There is some pink tape, heading right and up into the forest. It is tempting to believe someone else's route should be ours but we ignore their idea and stick to our own plan - walking up an unnamed side-creek and following it through a gap in the lower escarpment before climbing towards Gaol House Pass. There is a moment though where we have to stop to discuss options. From here up, it is unlikely we will find any campsites as the terrain begins to steepen. It is unlikely we will make it to the plateau either. Should we camp now while we can? Should we do a bigger day tomorrow? Should we continue on and risk pushing on into the dark or not finding a campsite.
If you chose the final option - to push on and take the risk - then this is what would happen...climbing up past two small waterfalls (river left, then river right) the creek becomes a mess of huge boulders which at times completely hide the water beneath. The sides of the valley close in until cliff lines appear either side. The light starts to fade. The water disappears again beneath boulders and becomes sound only. Fatigue sets in. There are a couple of small climbs to get up. Finally, the last half hour of light has to be used to find some kind of campsite as it is unsafe to keep walking in the dark in such rough terrain. And there, tucked up on river left, beneath a sloping cliff-line is a triangle of flat ground. There is no chance of pitching the tent. The backpacks are used as props to expand the amount of flat space. It's not bad but only just enough. Cosy though, and we sleep well.
Day 4 dawns slowly tucked in our tiny gap on this tiny side creek amongst the vast wilderness. It is a special kind of joy, waking as a small thing amongst the wild lands after days of wandering and with more ahead. "Such a life offers charms of wild independence, which can never be realised by that man who is tied to one spot; no matter with what comforts he may be surrounded." Again, this comes from Wheelwright, and our little wandering adventure within Morton National Park has left us feeling the charm.
|Gaol House Pass|
The varied and scenic walking continues afresh as we pack up our meagre camp and proceed up the little side creek before peeling off to the right up a steep ridge, immediately after the side cliffs finish. We eventually find a rough pad marked with cairns but it is easily lost as it zig-zags upwards towards the final escarpment. Then, we enter the maze of Gaol House Pass. It feels like a game. We search for the most obvious route through, guess at the direction of the faint foot-pad, spot the occasional cairn, and enjoy the challenge. Mid morning, we pop over the final sandstone cliff, follow a now distinct path weaving through the ti-tree, saw sedge, mallees and banksias and finally emerge at an obscure point on the Mt Bushwalker trail.
It is time to reverse the tuning now - we retrace our steps along the wide, easy track, across manmade boardwalks, incrementally increasing the level of comforts, reaching the car, changing into warm clean clothes, sitting in the comfortable car seats, driving not walking, hot pies at Milton, sleeping in four poster beds.....missing the life we have left behind, such charms and the happiest hours.
For more detailed track notes on how to get as far as Mt Talaterang see the Bushwalking NSW website. You will also, I believe, find full track notes for this walk in the exceedingly excellent guidebook Bushwalking in the Budawangs (Author: Ron Doughton. Publisher: Envirobook. ISBN: 0858810727.)
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