I carry my cup of tea and binoculars out to the cliff edge. Sunrise, the far horizon strung with orange cloud. Winter lyrebird song drifts up from the sea of mist in the steep valley below, bright and clear. It is yet quite dark but a treecreeper is also up, busy searching the loose bark of the grey gums clinging to the edge.
I find a flat boulder that offers the best views. The rock is cold to sit on so I choose a thick piece of sloughed bark to lay over it. When settled, I raise my binoculars to the new horizon. Is that Dandhara Crags I can see to the north-east? This is a new mountain, a new view. It is difficult to place familiar, known landmarks from this entirely different angle. There is a map that would tell me what lies so far away, but I left it in the car. It is not the usual 1:25,000 topo that we rely on for routes and details. It is instead a huge, colourful square of paper, first published in 1971 and again in 1985. It is the Glenn Innes State Forests map - a 1:125,000 gem that stretches from Armidale in the south, north to Washpool National Park, east to Dalmorton and west to the headwaters of the McIntyre River. It is Map 3 in a series of 18 State Forest maps covering the entirety of NSW. The back of each map features a list of Points of Interest and a brief summary of what each area offers.
For this one: "While access is often difficult, there are several safe, negotiable roads to where breathtaking views of mountains and gorges and high quality forests can be experienced."
We are sitting smack-bang in the middle of those mountains and gorges and that high quality forest, east of Glen Innes, perched on the northern edge of the tableland. Much of the forest around us remains State Forest, vacant Crown Land or Private Property. But we dip in and out of an isolated pocket of Guy Fawkes River National Park.
Our original plan was to camp at an old lookout point called Lands End, tucked at the end of this range high above the Henry River and the farmland of Newtown Boyd. But, it proved disappointingly crowded with treetops and a sign on the gate said 'private property'. So, back along the range, we veer off-track to the summit of Ben Nevis, a granite topped mountain with stunning views, small cliff-lines, brush-tailed rock wallabies and open woodland rowdy with white-naped & white-eared honeyeaters, bronze cuckoo, crimson rosellas, eastern yellow robins, and a swarm of spotted pardalotes.
Ben Nevis is 940m above sea level. It appears on maps to be neither National Park nor State Forest but is just 2km (as the crow flies and as our upstream view offers) to the heart of the Guy Fawkes River Wilderness Area. The Henry River, directly below us, comes through the hills like an errant serpent. It is a surprisingly steep-sided valley with sections of sheer cliff.
After our stunning sunrise, the mist swirling atmospherically across the ridges and spurs below, we reluctantly pack up camp. Walking back along the Lands End Road I ponder the naming of places. How do two distinct and famous UK land marks get named side-by-side on this one range – Lands End is just 1.5km from Ben Nevis. I imagine two early settlers or maybe forest workers way out here – an Englishman and a Scotsman – and the kind of rivalry those two nations are renowned for. Who got in first? Was nomenclature about friendly one-up-man-ship or bitter land grabbing. Surely, neither location bears a resemblance to its namesake. Homesickness, perhaps, lends itself to nostalgic rather than empirical place naming. There is also a theory that naming things is how you create culture. In this case, naming these peaks must also be about one culture usurping another; the European trying to eliminate the Aboriginal.
Through another gate, along an overgrown track of dew-wet bladey grass we climb to a vaguer high point, take a cross country bearing and dip down into Blacks Creek (an isolated pocket of Guy Fawkes River National Park – a highlight of the walk, remarkable, radically delineated rainforest – we are transformed from sun soaked forest oaks and grass trees into deeply shadow with corkwood, towering Round-leaved Gums and Messmate, coachwood, a luminous green understory of cordyline palms, maidenhair ferns, crabapple fruit underfoot) before climbing out again to Hewitts Peak Road where the car is parked.
Finally reunited with that sheet of map, I get to see the real reason we ventured out here – a line of text that Caz read decades ago and which has remained with him all those years – the map reads: "Hewitts Peak to the east can be climbed by the more intrepid for its spectacular gorge views."
We re-load with supplies and begin the short, intrepid climb to the summit. It is late afternoon and the west facing slope is unseasonably warm. There is very little underbrush beneath tall stringybarks. Mainly it is holly pea. I recommend long pants to guard against its unending, painfully spiked leaves. There is no definite track to the summit although hints of an old route. The final push is through scrappy oak saplings and taller shrubs. From the old trig cairn on the summit the best views are north a fraction, atop a long sloping bare rock face. It is a darn good view.
At 1100m we are the highest point around and so have winter sun until as late as is possible so soon after the winter solstice. And how nice it is to sleep out on such a fine evening. There is no room for a tent on the narrow summit. Eagles are performing along the western edge. There is a mystery peak to the north, seen through my binoculars, as big and imposing as Mt Warning but more likely to be one of Gibraltars rocky crags – Old Man's Hat perhaps. Small birds visit; thornbills and treecreepers.
Hewitts Peak is most easily accessible off the Hewitts Peak Road (also known as Kingsgate Trail, topo Henry River 1:25000) which veers off Lands End Road, which veers off Tablelands Rd, which heads out of the small village of Red Range which lies 19km east of Glen Innes. About 5km along Hewitts Peak Road is a patch of clear bladey grass on top a flat, high point. We park here. Alternatively, 1km further along the trail, down a steepish incline, there is a small parking area at the base of Hewitts Peak itself. We travelled here just last week and the road had been recently cleared by bulldozer. It is a basic road, but AWD accessible as it was dry. It continues through and down off the range to the Old Grafton Glen Innes Road but low range 4WD is needed for this.
Dawn on Hewitts Peak proved not quite as spectacular as the previous morning on Ben Nevis, but I blame atmospheric changes not a less spectacular view. The cup of tea is as good, the lyre bird song more prolific, the new view equally confounding in the best possible way.
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