Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Mt Donaldson, Sundown National Park, Queensland

Hidden amongst the information on Sundown (in print and online) is brief mention of a three day, wilderness loop walk - tantalizingly remote and untramelled. The walk starts at the main southern campground in the park, called The Broadwater. A picture of The Broadwater, in the same print and online info, shows a deep, wide pool on the Severn River. It looks peaceful and refreshing, a long stretch of still water disappearing upstream and out of view. The 3-day loop walk circumvents the Broadwater. It begins across the other side, following a tributary of the Severn (McAllisters Creek) upstream for many kilometres and past two waterfalls. The route then veers up a ridge onto the summit of Mt Donaldson before dropping back down to the Severn River valley.

It has taken us many years to make it to Sundown National Park to try out this off-track, wilderness walk. And, when we finally arrive – like so many advertised holiday destinations – it looks nothing like the brochure.

The rocky ranges of Sundown National Park, slopes of cypress pine, box and ironbark dissected by narrow gorges containing vine thickets and rainforest, bear the influence of opposing natures.

The park contains elements of both arid and temperate coastal bioregions. The mix of native animals and forest types is fascinating. The endangered regent honeyeater has been reported feeding in rare white box forests. While Turquoise parrots, an endangered western species, has been identified in the park along with Superb lyrebirds which occur at the northern limit of their distribution. The Severn River, which cuts through the middle of Sundown, supports a range of aquatic species typical of the Murray–Darling system. The vulnerable brush-tailed rock-wallaby has one known population in the park at Nundubbermere Falls, and according to the park's Plan ofManagement, there is a case for the spotted-tailed quoll, which is known in Sundown from tracks and scats but has "not been sighted". 

The remoteness of Sundown keeps many visitors at bay. It is located in Queensland, on the edge of the Granite Belt, 70km north-west of Tenterfield. The QLD/NSW border forms its south-east boundary, along the Roberts Range. The Park conserves 12,647ha of rugged landscape with two main visitor access points, 2WD access in the south (The Broadwater) and 4WD access in the north.

We arrive in winter. It is 2016 and cool but not cold. It is mid-afternoon when we park the car and walk out to soak up the beauty of The Broadwater. The Broadwater, however, is nothing but a broad sweep of brown rocks. The river is nearly bone dry. One large, pale brown waterhole lies downstream. A few shallow pools are hidden amongst the boulders on the riverbed. With plans to head out walking for three days, we wonder if the smaller side creeks will be completely bone dry.

Having driven such a long way, there is no question of turning around and going home. We elect to pack enough food for three and a half days of walking, and enough water for an overnight walk. If there is no way of resupplying with water up McAllisters Creek we decide to simply walk back to the Severn River the next day.

With fingers crossed, and heavy packs weighted down with 4kgs of water each, our walk begins at 9am the next morning. Both us strap on gaiters to guard against the tiny Prickly Pear hidden amongst the grass and rocks. The air is cool and smells of earthy, mud-caked rocks. I can hear birds but don't stop to listen closely as they blend with the backdrop of rustling grass, the swish of my gaiters rubbing against each other, as we walk the banks of the river searching for McAllisters Creek.

At least crossing The Broadwater is easy with no water to negotiate. We find McAllisters Creek and about 500m upstream we hit the first pool of water – feeding out from underneath rubble on the creek bed. Criss-crossing upstream the amount of water grows and grows and it is crystal clear. There will be no turning back, we are set for our big loop walk as hoped.

Further into the hills, more and more bedrock is evident in the creek. The water forms deep pools and cascades. Cool shady pockets of dark green forest begin to appear, then the lovely surprise of Split Rock Falls. This sloping and broad cascade sweeps through a section of bed-rock, cliff-lined on one side with a steep crumbling slope on the other. In my excitement, I climb on quickly up the open bare rock beside the cascade and find a large clear pool above. It disappears into a narrow rocky, cleft upstream. I keep climbing upwards, not thinking, just enjoying exploring. I cross over the cleft and look for a way into the shallow slot canyon, at the head of which drops the true Split Rock Falls. It looks possible, getting down there, but I would likely have to swim a pool of dark water to get back out.

There is nothing for it but to retrace my steps down the rocks and make a high traverse around the waterfall (true left or river left), kicking in steps on the crumbling dirt slope, with the powerful scent of coleus and dusty grass in the air.

Above the waterfall the creek grows increasingly pretty with rainforest trees lining the banks – sandpaper figs, rock figs, lilly pilly and giant stinging trees. The sides of the little valley get steeper and rockier and more gorge like. There are red cliffs up high and then suddenly Double Falls appears at the end of a captivating alleyway of rainforest – dense, dark green foliage, vines and rainforest, the close sides of the creek are ledged with chunky rock that is laced with fig roots in every crack. It reminds me of a top-end or central desert stone gorge, the colour of the rock and the shady contrast to the hot, dry hills either side.

The waterfall itself is even more impressive – a 20m double drop, sliding over smooth red rock. It is pretty; the pool at the bottom ringed by a pebble beach and the walls either side sheer and close.  The traverse of this waterfall is tiring – steep and crumbly – but once up a perfect campsite welcomes us just a few metres upstream. It is only 2pm but we plonk our heavy packs down and claim it as home. In the afternoon I head upstream for a little birdwatch and spy a Rose Robin (stunning), Golden Whistler (always so brilliant), blue wrens in their eclipse phase, and the ubiquitous thornbills and fantails. Again, I think of the brochure we had read on Sundown. This time it does not do this place justice, giving no sense of the beauty of these creeks and forests, the enchanting secret scenery of cliffs and waterfalls.

At 6am the next morning we are awake and packing gear away. It is only just light. I go to the creek to gather water for breakfast.  There is a noise on the other bank. Something in the rocks on the tall cliff face. I catch sight of a long tail, spots. In that first moment of hopeful recognition, I can feel myself hold my breath. The creature moves across the rocks – nimble, quick but inquisitive. It stops at each overhang and ledge to sniff and seek. It is a quoll, as large as a cat, lovely light rust colour and big white spots. I watch for a while then try to gesture to Caz. I am desperate for him to see this but don't want to make any sharp movement or loud noise. I try to keep an eye on the quoll and on Caz as I gesture to him. By the time Caz arrives on the creek edge the quoll has disappeared. I am so disappointed.

We wait a while but nothing appears and so we return to camp, make a morning cuppa and head back to the creek. Sitting there quietly, not chatting just enjoying the dawn air, suddenly, out pops the quoll again. And, what a show. It sniffs and scurries here and there. After nearly 10 minutes in full view, it begins to get further and further downstream with more purposeful travelling and less hunting around. Then, it disappears around the next bend and is gone.

Today it proves tricky to pinpoint where we need to leave McAllisters Creek on the 1:100,000 scale topographic map we have for this park. As it turns out, we leave the creek too early, heading up a ridge after the first big gully on our left. Having said that, all ridges along this stretch eventually lead to Mt Donaldson. Because we plan to camp on the summit we also load up with water again. This is not a well-used walking route, we don't expect there to be a distinct pad, so, away we go, pushing up through the rocks and trees. Our ridge forces us west and we hit horrible scrub – 5 to 8 foot tall stands of scrappy and thick native rosemary and hop bush. It is energy sapping, eye poking, leg scratching, frustrating walking. We top out and emerge on a cliff. It is not Mt Donaldson. To the north and above us, I point out a high bluff. That is Mt Donaldson.  

Pushing around the headwaters of Donaldson Creek there are welcome patches of easy walking but also plenty more rosemary and hopbush thickets. We stop to rest in the shade of an amazing, ancient Kurrajong tree – the largest I have ever seen and with spreading branches that remind me of African nature documentaries where leopards laze in the forks of trees with a gazelle hanging from their jaws. 

We finally arrive on Mt Donaldson at 12 noon and it is, again, prettier than any brochure description or photo I have seen. It is quite open, covered in knee-high shrubs beneath lovely, multi-trunked stocky gumtrees covered in bark that is spotted apricot, peach, grey, white and purple.

The day is overcast and a cold north-east wind gusts across the summit but the view from this high point is vast. To the north is High Pinnacle and Mt Lofty. Below, we peer straight in Stoney Creek, aptly named as its sheer sides are covered in fingers of bare scree. The distant rocky sides of Blue Gorge lie to the north-west and high cliff lines are visible above the western bank of the Severn River. Wedgetail eagles soon circle, checking us out as we search for a spot to pitch the tent.

Despite the overcast conditions, at sunset Caz sets up his tripod on the rocky summit edge in the hope of some nice light. He has a sixth sense for gaps in the clouds and the angles of the sun.  On cue, warm orange rays filter through. Every tree is daubed in soft light. It lasts just 10 minutes and is a desperate battle between enjoying the moment for itself and documenting it as a photographer. The sun dips beneath the horizon and colour spreads across the rippled clouds.

That night, hiding like a pair of rock wallabies in the tent, we are buffeted by ferocious wind. From 6:30pm, it is a long 10 hours of roaring, tent-shaking, powerful darkness. The wind gusts ferociously but lulls at times. It wakes me at about 2am and I lie there listening to the tent crack and shudder like a sailing boat. I wonder about supernatural causes, if there is something akin to punishment in its fury, anger at trespass. But I remember the wind we encounter in many high places and the twisted, stunted trees that surround the tent  - testament to the inherent nature of exposed high points. At 2:30am there is a long and complete lull and so I venture outside. The sky is clear of clouds but heavy with stars. At 5:30am we both wake. Again, the wind has risen and the clouds returned.

To get down off Mt Donaldson our route heads off the west ridge, keeping Stoney Creek to our right. The eagles return early to check our progress. Their company is a welcome reminder of our wildness and isolation. The descent is rocky and some sections are nearly single-species stands of Cypress with just the odd Iron Bark or Kurrajong or smooth-barked gum.

Back on the Severn, River Red Gums line the dry rocky bed. At lunch, beside Red Shelf Waterhole, my feet are aching from the mixed terrain and we decide not to walk too much farther as we have enough food for one more night out.

We pitch camp near a good, long pool of water. Again, birds visit us all afternoon – rose robin, honeyeaters, golden whistler, silvereyes. The usual crowd. There is something about the company and curiosity of small birds that makes me feel at home, makes me feel welcome. They seem to forgive us, or rather not judge us, for our destruction of their homes. As I sit watching, an azure kingfisher dives and plucks a small fish from the pool right outside the tent door. Currawongs call in the distance. Nearby, one River Red Gum is creaking, but the wind has dropped. Crickets are starting. There are ripples on the pool. It is a picture perfect moment, fit for any colourful brochure.

Sundown, yellow moon
I replay the past
I know every scene by heart
They all went by so fast

If she's passin' back this way
I'm not that hard to find
Tell her she can look me up
If she's got the time

- Bob Dylan

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  1. Great post, makes me want to go back. We did a two day loop around Ooline and Blue Gorge a few years ago.

    1. Thanks Sandy. And thanks for visiting our little blog page. Your own adventures look great. Looks like we have some reading to catch up on at http://theconspiracytimes.blogspot.com/

  2. Hi, I've always wondered about this 3 day walk so thanks for sharing a great post about it. I camped at the Broadwater during a heatwave and explored the relatively dry Severn River for a day. It's quite rugged country and the experience really varies depending on the rainfall. When I was there in September there were a series of very large waterholes linked up by intensely hot dry black stony river bed sections. I'd wished I'd taken a filter or purifying tabs. I would love to go back and do further exploration but after more rain and in cooler weather. In my blog post you'll see there was probably a little more water than during your visit. Permanent water hole was quite deep and long. It's hard to believe it can be a raging river! Loved the pics and narrative. Makes me want to return despite the lack of water!

    1. Thanks for reading Jane. We had read your blog on Sundown when you first posted it, and for our blog visitors here's the link to it - https://mildlyextreme.com/2017/11/26/sunrise-at-sundown-national-park-exploring-time/ - some great photos pf the surrounding countryside. Definitely a park worth re-visiting. A day walk up McAllisters Creek to the falls and back is a great option.

    2. Wonderfully evocative. We dream of seeing a quoll in its natural environment one day. We are definitely planning a return visit to Sundown National Park.

  3. Cruel of you to write and photograph (as usual) so evocatively, as now I want to run there, then slow down, and walk the thing. Maybe a halfway walk on the way from Sydney To Carnavon Gorge and the six day walk there that heat stopped me from doing. Keep 'em coming - and love the photo of sitting in the tree, pure class.

  4. This is really an awesome and important article!


  5. Thank you very much for sharing this information. It is very useful.