FIRE IN THE EYES

A PLACE OF EXTREME CONTRAST

I’d read good reports about it but hadn’t really done a lot of research.  I’d copied out details of what to see and I moved out as soon as I had the car rental keys in my hand.  The road north from Las Vegas is straight and, when you turn off after just over 50 kms, it’s straight again, albeit with only one lane either way, even if it does go into a few dips.  I’m keen to get my rock photography under way and the road climbs to the edge of the valley and there’s a nice view but, it’s the desert big horn sheep that I hit the brakes for.  I catch a glimpse of them beneath a steep drop and head over to get a picture.

THE ROAD IN

They scatter like scared rabbits when I lean over to get a snap but, the camera won’t focus.  Quickly I try to rectify the situation, taking the lens off and on etc.  Nothing works.  Despair reigns.  For the next two weeks I’ll have no functioning camera.  I try manual focus and it clicks but the picture doesn’t come out.  There’s a strange blackness with some light here and there.  I change battery (like that’s going to work!) but it’s what you do in desperation.  The lens gets removed again and then, inspiration!  There’s a mechanism that leaves your shutter open.  I click that, then click it shut and, bingo, camera is working fine again.  The sheep, however, have moved well away.

THE GEOLOGY IS EXTRAORDINARY

Where I’ve stopped looks down the valley and around three quarters of an hour is spent here scaling the steep ramparts to get a better angle and then scrambling back down what seemed like an easier route from above but isn’t.  Still, that’s why we have hands, to stop us sliding down.

ON THE LOOP

2 miles on is the entry gate where a cheery woman takes my cash.  At this point the reason for the name of the valley is readily apparent.  There’s a rugged outcrop of deep rust red misshapen rocks in the distance that’s imposed itself on the landscape and that’s where I head next.  A dirt loop road takes you around one side but I can’t help stopping at least four times and exploring its uneven nature.  It seems that wherever you walk there’s some sort of picture.  All this chews up probably another hour because there’s an arch and petroglyphs around the far side that have to be visited.  Eventually I reach the visitors centre and a worm in my brain keeps wriggling and saying “Why is the centre so far into the park?”

THERE ARE SO MANY PLACES TO EXPLORE, YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

Not to worry, I can buy a Fanta here (did you know it was invented in Germany in 1941 and has 100 flavours?) to quench some of my thirst and refill my water bottles.  Warnings abound on the internet about the importance of bringing fluids though they mostly refer to summer…..or so I thought!  I’d already drained my two containers and was refilling them already.

THE ROAD WILL TAKE YOU TO PLACES YOU NEVER EXPECTED

I learn that from here there is more to see, the main part apparently, but what form it takes I don’t know.  From the central area the road dramatically does a short climb right into an elongated rock formation and, at the crest, you can see it traverses a couple of miles through it.  More places to stop and another half hour slides by.

SO MUCH TO SEE

Then, cresting a small rise at the far end, the day suddenly changes.  The panorama from here is breathtaking.  It’s called Rainbow Vista and it’s hard to know where to look first.  All manner of hues are sprinkled on the horizon.  It’s photography heaven.  Days could be allocated to this area, which is probably why there’s two campgrounds inside the park!  The word “wow” keeps tumbling out of my mouth.  It’s better than I dared hope for because, mainly, I’d come to see The Wave, a patterned piece of rock that’s shaped like a roller when viewed from a certain position. 

SO MANY FORMATIONS, SO LITTLE TIME

It’s hard to drive more than 500 metres without pulling up but eventually the end at the White Domes is reached and it’s time to head off for the second last time with the cameras.  Because I’m tired I forget the ranger’s instructions about this walk.  Down you go and turn right into a slot canyon.  By the time I arrive nearly at the bottom half an hour later I’m overcome by desire to get up where some other tourists are high above and that’s where I head.  It’s good but my legs are looking for some energy source.

DEEP IN THE WHITE DOMES

Back at the car there’s only one thing left to see, Fire Wave, and it’s back about a kilometre but in a totally different direction.  To get there you first go past a dramatic upright outcrop, the end of which is named Gibraltar Rock.  Like so many features in the park, it seems so out of place.  Well over 100 metres high, it’s mildly popular with rock climbers.

GIBRALTAR ROCK

Lots of movies have been shot in the park.  Star Trek Generation was almost exclusively shot here and the outside scenes of Mars from Total Recall were just a couple of many, which is why I shouldn’t be surprised to see a crew turning up for the golden hour at Gibraltar Rock.

FIRE WAVE

Down at Fire Wave there’s a scattering of tourists and a few have to climb all over it, something to do with man dominating nature I expect.  However, it’s the trip back that gets me excited.  There are all these different coloured bands in the foreground and Gibraltar Rock as a backdrop and the bands are constantly changing.

NOTE FIGURES ON ROCK

If you’re into photography, this place is a must-see.  On reviews some make comparisons with Zion and Bryce and say how much better they are.  For me, it’s not better or worse, but different, and it’s different in spades.  So much variety in such a relatively short space gets my recommendation.

THE PETROGLYPHS

THE HEATHLAND – BEYOND HOLLYWOOD

Having researched the location I picked something I would remember, Hollywood Street, no boulevard here.  The street I wanted was two past that.  I’d chosen not to use google maps in order to save batteries, don’t want to run low while I’m taking photographs. The Princes Highway was busy despite lockdowns so I gratefully turned off and headed up Dowling Street to one of two main entrances.

It was there I was stunned.  For decades I’d tried to get a meaningful book on wildflowers, I’d even spent money for heavens sake.  Yet, for some reason, I could never crack a relevant one.  In Thredbo I was assured that the volume I’d just purchased would identify plants I’d seen and photographed that day.  It didn’t.

WOW, I WAS IMPRESSED

So, imagine my surprise when I stopped at the entrance to South Pacific Heathland Reserve.  Here were some laminated sheets with relevant plant information but, just in behind them, was a free pamphlet that identified half the plants that I’d seen today.  If there’s an annual contest for the most useful brochure, City of Shoalhaven would surely romp in.  There was a map as well, take a bow Shoalhaven.

THE BUSHFIRE SCARS STILL REMAIN

The trustees in charge of the 14 hectares of reserve won a best in the state award in 2017.  The brochures, track and lookouts are all well developed and when you get a brochure it actually relates to the trails.  There are appropriate signs so it’s almost impossible to get misplaced and you certainly can’t get lost because you’re only ever 500 metres from an intersection.  In the whole reserve there’s less than 4 kms of trail, no hills, protected by the forest.  No wonder it’s popular with locals.

NATIVE FUSCHIA CAN BE SPOTTED IF YOU KEEP OUR EYES OPEN

There’s only 14 hectares of the reserve but it’s clear that people care about it, particularly bearing in mind that there was a protest just two days ago about developers wanting to clear more of the wonderful forest that’s left at Narrawallee just down the road.  It’s always sad when some of the reasons for people moving to an area disappear.  Glossy black parrots are already endangered here and the bushfires didn’t help. 

LOOKING TOWARDS RENNIES

Rennies Beach was my ultimate destination, so I thought.  I didn’t even know it existed until one week earlier.  There’s many kilometres of coast around here and everywhere I’ve been, you can’t help but notice there’s small unnamed islands and adjacent rock shelfs in many places.  Their influence on wave patterns is undeniable but, today, the swell is having a day off.  However, on the plus side, the colours are brilliant, the blues and greens as stunning as any you’ll see.

TINY FLOWER OF THE ALLOCASUARINA, MORE COMMONLY KNOWN AS SHEOAK

Getting there IS half the fun.  The recent sunshine has sparked interest from the plants of the coastal heath.  Windblown though it is, flora survive and thrive here on either side of the narrow bush trail that I decide to ride.  Here in the land of acacia, she-oaks and banksia there’s any number of flowers competing for space on the floor.  On the reverse side, the fire, started by arsonists in 2018, has left its scars on more than one place and the remnants of the banksia stand like wizened old men at odd angles.  In time, their seeds will take hold and it will all come again but, for the time being, the low growing flowers are having a field day, literally and figuratively.

The wash sound of the sea floats up the escarpment, enchanting in its own way, controlled by the offshore winds that were dipping over the hill to the waters.  Sitting on the cliff edge on this gorgeous day I took time out just to recharge my batteries. 

RUNNING POSTMAN THRIVES IN THE BURNT OUT AREAS

The lookouts here and on Wardens Headland appear to have no maintenance schedule as the vegetation steadily climbs in front of the lookouts, blocking some of the view on all but one I’d been to.  Many are the feet that have gone outside the protective barriers in order to get a decent shot.  Still, parts could be viewed and the presence of that ocean sound just wafted all over you, something soothing about being beside an active sea.

COASTAL BANKSIA IS MAKING A COMEBACK

However, not far away, along a narrow unnamed track, there’s a better viewpoint because of the fires.  Naked banksia branches indicate dead trees whose seeds will take a few years to re-emerge.  Meanwhile, the view is significantly enhanced so I sit down with a pie and drink and soak it all up.

HARDENBERGIA AND WATTLE LOVE THE PLACE

Just north nearby is Rennies Beach, access to which is via a steep path off Dowling Street but, from this viewpoint, defining individual beaches is problematic, especially when you’re not a local.  What you see is a long stretch of sand interspersed with small headlands and/or a rock shelf.  It’s quite beautiful, enhanced by the sublime colours of the ocean, changing from green to blue the further offshore you look with dark patches indicating rock slabs.  It’s the definition of sublime, and it would draw me back time and time again.

  WITH FRONDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ANEMONES

THE EIGHT ARMED SEA STAR

“What’s that blue thing?”  People had texted me after I sent the photo out.  Truth is, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it.  The Eight-armed Sea Star (Meridiastra calcar) is, according to some sites, quite common and its colours can vary greatly.  It’s omnivorous so living in a rock pool offers many opportunities, but getting to see some this day was more luck that good management.

ONE OF THE COLOURFUL CRABS

Beneath my listlessness, curiosity raged.  Had to go somewhere.  I’d promised myself that I’d return to the rock shelf beneath Warden Head lighthouse and have a go at shooting crabs again, since I hadn’t done as well as I might have the first time.  I’d tried yesterday but high tide and high swell meant that the area was unattainable.  Shame about the stiff breeze today, but the tide was right.

THE DANCE GROUND

There’s a drop off point beyond the “dancing ground”, an aboriginal sacred sight I found out about one day outside the local library.  A man with indigenous heritage dressed in traditional garb and carrying boomerangs looked like a photo opportunity so I took advantage and, since he was available, I queried him about the dancing ground.  Apparently natives would gather there and summon the good spirits from the ocean to spread their joy inland. The Coomee Nulunga Walking Track is named after the last recorded survivor of the Murramarang tribe.

THE CLOUD STAYED THE WHOLE TIME I WAS THERE

It was in good spirits that I left the bike at the lone picnic table just past the Bunan Bagan dancing ground and descended the stairs.  Everything looked fine except a strange cloud that hovered over nearby Ulladulla Head.  The good news was that it was blocking the sun, so even light was promised.

Where I’d been blocked yesterday was now available.  A small swell still kept popping up now and then, spraying skywards in key places.  I paused to capture the explosive foam before heading for crab country.

I knew they hid under rocks but, after checking a dozen or so, worked out that I was still short of where I’d seen them previously.  The cloud kept me interested though, couldn’t quite work out what is was going to do.  It threatened to do something, but what?

Luckily I’d chosen the right footwear, my waterproof work boots allowed me dry foot access to the shallow pools though the best crab shots were to be had on the very edges.  Eventually I found some, a near albino one arousing my curiosity before I gravitated towards the sea.

The further I went, the more depth in the rock pools and the greater diversity in sea life.  I became entranced and went to inspect every pond.  There were some amazing finds, such as a multi-coloured hairy conch like shell with a small black and white whelk on top of it and a pink urchin elsewhere but I felt the stunningly patterned star shaped jelly was their equal.

I moved to the ocean wash, seeking anemones but the brightly coloured kelp flexing back and forth caught one’s attention.  Couldn’t help but think “with fronds like these, who needs anemones”.  Couldn’t help myself there.

Every pool offered something different and the colours and contrast with the 270 million year old bland headland were a photographer’s delight.  I felt blessed to be here.

It was around then I looked back up at the position of the lighthouse and figured it must be about halfway, might as well do the full loop trail, along the beach to the south and back up through Warden Head Reserve and the carpark.  It took me away from the winds and along the sandy waterfront, which was empty for the first time since I’d been there.  It’s where the surfers ride the best break in town, called the Bombie, and the local council have put a row of bench seats so spectators can watch the action.  It’s a favoured spot for lunch, there’s always a tradie or two hanging around at that hour and say g’day to a couple of them as I pass up the staircase, through the carpark and across the main road then back on the Coomee Nulunga Trail and there was a feeling of gladness that I’d come out today and my curiosity had taken me to the rock pools.  Sometimes exploration has rewards, today had been one of those times.

COOMEE NULUNGA TRAIL

THE HEIGHTS

The now famous Waterfall Way is rightly becoming a “must-do” for Aussie travellers.  There’s a tendency however to do the most famous three or four and overlook the rest, not to mention other attractions.  A well-produced new brochure has hopefully gone some of the way to rectify that and make for a more complete experience.

It even includes the other attractions less visited, particularly Cathedral Rocks, a granite massif that rises to 1,563 metres and its nearby cousin, Round Mountain, at 1579 metres, is claimed to be the highest point north of the Snowy Mountains.  Sadly, all you can do is walk around it because it has a large air safety installations up there.

JUST AFTER THE SWAMP

There’s an eight kilometre drive in off the main road on dirt that is sometimes maintained better than others.  On this occasion I lucked out as the pathway to Barokee rest stop was in quite good order.  A few granite outcrops along the way start the adrenalin flowing because you know if they are interesting, just how good is the main display.

It’s school holidays and Covid all rolled into one.  What that means is that, while Sydney is excluded, the rest of the state can still visit so there’s a smattering of tourists there.  Indeed, more than I’ve ever seen previously but still only about 10 vehicles can be viewed.

Guess who’s coming to dinner

The basic campground sits beside a swamp that isn’t quite humming at the moment because it’s the middle of winter so a lot of wildlife is in absentia.  Of course, that excludes the ubiquitous magpies who decide to join me for a pre-walk cheese cracker fest.

Though it’s late in the morning the chill of the night remains as the first steps are taken on the 6.2 km loop trail and side excursion.  It’s an undulating path that is rated 3 mostly but adventurers are here for the 500 metre loop that takes you to the top.  It’s rated 5.

En route I add a few hundred metres doing my usual off piste photography.  There’s a bubbly streamlet beside the trail that feeds the swamp.  The flow, though small, is much more than I’ve seen it previously and is audible here and there. 

The climb starts in earnest after about a kilometre with regular fixed wooden steps to be taken.  Massive bags can be seen at the side of the route with replacement steps.  They appear to have been dropped by chopper like the concrete ones I’ve seen at the Grand Canyon in the Blue Mountains.  I feel good inside knowing that there’s some money being spent on national parks.

ON THE WAY UP

The turn off is reached and rocks now have to be climbed.  If you think anything was hard before, you’re bound to suffer on one of the hardest trails in Australian bushwalking, just be thankful it’s less than a kilometre. 

SOMEHOW, YOU HAVE TO GET TO THE TOP

100 metre rock walls tower over you and, at times, the trail is tricky to follow as you scramble left and right up uneven natural stairs.  Thank goodness for the occasional arrow.  Eventually you get to the seriously hard part and take the path of least resistance.  Ducking under massive boulders through a couple of ragged tunnels, ever upwards until you come out onto the final clamber up the last 50 metres, at times holding the heavy safety chain, at others jumping to the next boulder before clawing your way to the top.  Fortunately, it’s not wet and the granite is grippy which gives one a little confidence going upwards but it’s not a place for the faint hearted.

YES, YOU HAVE TO GET THROUGH HERE TO REACH THE TOP

There’s a small natural crown on top where you get your picture taken and I’m fortunate to have someone handy to snap me.  In the background there’s Round Mountain and its distinctive dome, elsewhere there’s the vast New England and two or three other large outcrops of granite boulders.

AT THE TOP AT LAST

It’s hard not to tarry awhile and admire the drama of the formations, the vast panorama and reflect on where you’ve just come from.  The more effort, the more satisfaction.  It’s a noted place for sunrises and sunsets but, in the middle of winter?  I’m not that keen anymore.

THE CHAIN SECTION

Bum slides are the go on the way down until you reach the ragged steps and it’s here that I miss the main trail, hard to follow except for the occasional arrow.  By the time I intersect with the main path I’ve gone 100 metres further than I needed and have to regain that height.  It’s still a climb after that to get around the northerly part of the formation, something my legs don’t need. 

There are scars here from the bushfires; fresh growth flourishing from blackened bark and healthy grasses on the forest floor.  I once read about a forest in Canada that had been totally devastated by a similar event but they had monitors in place.  Amazingly, within two years there was more wildlife there than they’d ever previously recorded.  I hope that happens here.

EVIDENCE OF THE BUSHFIRES ARE OMNIPRESENT

Around the eastern side there’s another huge outcrop, it’s just not as tall as the main one though it covers an area just as large.  It’s now pleasant as it’s a gentle downhill route most of the way on the coarse sandy track and back through the swamp again.  For the adventurous, this is a must-do in New England.

IT’S RUGGED, BUT IT’S SPECTACULAR

NOT ALL CATHEDRALS ARE CREATED EQUAL

Chartres was the goal, the “jewel in the crown of Gothic architecture”.  We’d left Charles du Gaulle airport in record time, heading south in a rented Opel that smelt like a 50’s pub in Oz.  It absolutely reeked of cigarette and, had it been easy to turn around and go back, we would have returned it.

IT’S BIG FROM ANY ANGLE

As it was we drifted around Paris for ¾ hour before being released by “Miss Direction” (as I call my GPS) into the countryside.  The verdant fields of the north flowed by until we reached our first destination, parking beside a culvert beneath the hill on which the standout edifice was positioned nearly a thousand years ago.

RUE DES TANNERIES

These days there’s a thriving perfume industry in the town and, as we crossed over the Rue des Tanneries (Tannery Street), where traces of the old skinning industry and Normandy style half-timbered houses can still be seen, I couldn’t help but think of the difference in odours then and now. Soon we crossed the stream named River Eure that they had used for transporting goods and headed upwards, past St. Nicholas fountain, a Middle Ages water supply, through ancient stone walls and ramparts, up to this wondrous spectacle, a story on its own.  Just before we reached it however, there, on a small door, like a cellar entrance, was a graffiti portrait of a woman’s face with a shawl.  It had a haunting power about it, the eyes were so penetrating and there was an incongruity with this thing of beauty set upon an old rustic entry.  It haunts me still.

WONDERFUL STREET ART

Though only a few parts of the original Romanesque cathedral building remain after a disastrous fire in 1194, the classic arches and sculptures (4,000 plus, though some with heads missing on the lintel) over the entry ways will retain your interest, as will the more recent elongated Gothic colonnades.  There are stories represented in all of the three main portals but some are still in dispute as to their meaning.

IMPRESSIVE PORTALS

Then you step inside and when you see some of the 176 stained glass windows that cover 2,600 square metres, your attention is immediately and irrevocably locked into the wonders of this place.  Perhaps just as fascinating is the fact that all the windows were removed during WWII and put into safe storage.  I can’t get my head around how they could get all of them down from the great height that many of them are set in.  I also learnt about the American Texan army leader, Colonel Welborn Griffith, who questioned the need to destroy the cathedral when it was believed that the Germans occupied the site.  Along with another trooper, they bravely reconnoitred the area and discovered no German presence, then signalled back to other forces, thus it was never attacked.  Almost as amazing as the original building.  Welborn was killed in another heroic action a couple of months later and posthumously received many awards.

THE STAINED GLASS IS IMPRESSIVE

On looking at the glass, you have to bear in mind that 800 years ago so few people could read written text that the windows had an importance beyond their beautiful colours.  They invariably told stories in pictures and thus the bible and daily life, usually of those that donated the windows, are reflected in their brilliant hues.  The quantity and quality are mesmerising as you can’t help but constantly rubberneck at those on high.  You also have to read them (if you can work it out) from bottom to top, unlike British windows that read from top to bottom.

DETAIL OF THE CHOIR STALLS

Another standout highlight is the 16th C screen that entirely surrounds the choir and it’s probably the best quality work in the whole cathedral. The choir is entirely surrounded by the wall, which is intended to better isolate it from the ambulatory. Entirely sculpted (40 groups, 200 statues in total), it is partly the work of Jehan de Beauce who started the construction at the beginning of the 16th century.

The high-altar (1771) is also brilliant and is the work of the sculptor Bridan and portrays the Assumption of the Virgin Mary based on Victor Louis’ drawing, in a baroque style, which was very much in vogue at the time.

GET YOURSELF LOST IN THE LABYRINTH

The cathedral was suffering the dreaded European scaffold disease inside while we visited, but its magnificence was undiminished.  In the middle of one of the floors is a labyrinth and such is its fame that while we were there people were continually walking around and in it, perhaps to unravel its mysteries.  Though labyrinths predate the Christian era, they continued through the centuries and supposedly “….. its principal purpose, both physical and spiritual, is to lead us intelligently to a contemplation of that which is within us.”  Personally I contemplated why you had to walk around (on your knees if you were really serious) in a maze to do such a thing.  I can do the same sitting in my lounge chair.

GIVES YOU SOME IDEA OF THE HEIGHT

The height of the ceiling is another thing; it’s over 120ft high. At 154ft Beauvais is the tallest but it’s in such a chronic state it’s been propped up with unsightly brackets everywhere whereas here you have an uninterrupted view to the overhead portions. 

IMPRESSIVE FROM ANY ANGLE

The entrances were also special and full of meaning.  Over one of the three doorways, with a combined title of the Royal Portal, are sculpted the seven liberal arts and those who best exemplified them, like Euclid and geometry, Cicero and rhetoric, Aristotle and dialectic, Boethius and arithmetic,  Ptolemy and astronomy, Pythagoras and music, Donatus and grammar.  Also present are the zodiac signs and representations of their correlated monthly activities.

SALON DE THE

We left via this portal and dined beside the church, looking back on it in a wonderful salon de the, not only for the repast but to escape the bitter wind that pushed around the corners and buffeted your clothing.

AU REVOIR CHARTRES

Thus refreshed we once again moved, first back down the bastions and then onwards to Blois, a town we practised saying for weeks before we went.  It’s about the only one we’ve gotten right so far this trip!

It is a delightfully situated town, as so many of them are, beside the Loire and resplendent in some of its former glory such as the royal chateau and a few memorable churches.  For us that night, it was a place to spend our first night in France.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

I remember saying several times before we left, “We’re going to Cinque Torri”.  Invariably, the reply would be, “Oh, Cinque Terre, that’s nice, we’ve been there.”  It’s perhaps a reflection on how tourism works.  Some place gets a name, the busloads start coming and, presto, everybody has either been or is going to go there.

SOMEWHERE UP THERE IS CINQUE TORRI

The thing about the Dolomites however, is that it’s more oriented towards Italians, Austrians and Germans.  The English speaking fraternity and the Asians haven’t yet really arrived and, if they did, I’m not sure it could handle them.  There’s a smattering of the discerning ones but they’re not thick on the ground.

We had a list of possibles and Cinque Torri was probably number 2 or 3 but this day we chose it because the drifting misty clouds were obscuring the higher peaks but we would be able to view the Torre, and so it transpired.  We reached the lift and had already passed the snowline so excitement reigned as we unpacked the cameras from the car.  You can’t see the towers from the base so we had no idea how far and got slugged around 50 dollars for the lift tickets but the ride wasn’t even as far as Thredbo.  So much for cheap European lift tickets.

CINQUE TORRI AT LAST

As we rolled over the last stanchion the tips of the rocks came into view.  In terms of overall height they aren’t as significant as most of the other outcrops around Cortina, but they more than make up for it with shape and the fact that you can get up close and personal, even touch them.  From the chairlift exit, Torre Grande’s (2,361 metres) large presence is the one that immediately grabs your attention and the trail leads straight to it.

IT’S FURTHER THAN IT LOOKS – NOTE FIGURE IN DISTANCE

Stepping out onto snow is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, but this time there will be no skiing.  The line of the path has already been exposed by those before us and Lorraine’s frantic almost, trying to avoid the puddles but it’s useless.  Your shoes, socks and feet will all get wet, whether you like it or not.  The vision before proves to be such a distraction that you almost forget about it anyway.

Across the road far below, to the right of the Passo Falzarego rises the Tofane massif where the mist is clinging to the exposed buttresses, flailing like coat tails in the wind before eventually being wrenched from the cliffs to make way for the next errant cloud.  Other bits plunge into crevices as if searching for something, sending shafts of moisture from the sky driven by a sudden downdraft.  It’s all so moving, literally and metaphorically, and it inspires awe in us both but it’s hard to say just why.

NO, I DON’T WANT TO CLIMB THAT

We’re getting closer to the towers and a British male climber, laden with ropes, and his partner are looking for a route up one of the peaks.  It’s a popular area for such pastimes and I can but shake my head at such folly yet I have read many a climbing book and find them fascinating yet the death toll is high.  Optimism springs eternal. 

Up close, the one that grabs my attention more than any other is the outcrop shaped like an upturned surfboard fin.  It’s narrower, smaller and sits at the extreme left, slightly apart and looking like it wants to depart the scene which, in geological terms, I expect it is.

WIEW FROM THE BUNKERS

Scattered around the trails here are the leftover bunkers and lookouts from WWI and their stories are told on instructive signs relating the historical record.  Today people from those same countries share the mountains, again highlighting the folly of conflict.

SPRING IS COMING

Our feet are now well and truly saturated, at times in puddles, at times in ankle deep snow.  We console ourselves with the fact that the snow makes for better photography as we wend our way around the at-times awkward path that turns now back to the Refugio adjacent to the chairlift.  Here we decide to have lunch and the place is packed but some pleading gets us a table and we are seated, without expectations of anything special but, when my tagliatelle turns up and is coloured dark grey, I’m taken aback.  Even more surprisingly, it tastes delicious, flavoured by fungi and other stuff, and Lorraine’s soup is jam packed with goodies.  This is so unlike the basic fare you can expect beside chairlifts in Oz and better than many restaurants we’ve eaten at this trip.

VIEW FROM THE RESTAURANT

It seems almost everyone is inside the restaurant because there are few now outside as we finally depart, thoroughly sated after such an impressively scenic walk and satisfying meal.  We suspect this will be one of the highlights of the trip.

DEFINITELY A HIGHLIGHT

LIFE ON THE ROCKS

I’d picked up some lunch from Bakers Delight.  A cold pizza and an almond scroll to be precise.  Now, while the westerly invaded every space, a rocky perch was found with a modicum of protection and I sat down to savour the sea; to become immersed in its rhythms, to see foam lurching above the small rocky island just beyond and cascade elsewhere into the channel before me.

The rock platforms of Ulladulla are a listed walk, though preferably not at high tide with a big swell.  Today the westerly wind had flattened the ocean’s undulations but chop was everywhere offshore.  Another swell washed over the island, propelling the current in the clear channel waters right beside me.  I imagined there’d be all sorts of marine life in there, though just what I couldn’t name.

For the casual stroller signs of life might be few but there’s always something.  As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.  Here, pools of water only millimetres deep reflected the sky so, at times, it seemed like you really were walking on air.  Well, if not for the splash of your footfalls.

This is the world of the sooty oyster catcher and assorted herons.  Under every second rock that’s been cast aside by the ocean there’s small crabs hiding, waiting for everything to disappear from view before they’ll scurry out again to grasp a morsel or two.  All feeding on the microcosm of life that exists here. 

Neptunes Necklace and Waratah Anemone

Beneath the abundant Neptune’s Necklace growth there must be small shells aplenty and there are other strange jelly like limpets that look like chocolate blancmange with vivid strawberry topping. Turns out they are Waratah Anemone (Actinia tenebrosa).  

LIKE A MOSAIC

Some outcrops support uncountable colonies of barnacles and small black and white snail types are everywhere.  The water surface is rippled so that you would swear you’re looking at a fresh shimmering mosaic.

On high behind me there is Warden Head Lighthouse and the twisting single lane bush track I rode, through heath scrub that leads to half a dozen lookouts, the last of which being where I securely left the bike before hiking the access trail that descends to the platform.  It’s called Coomee Nulunga Trail and passes through what used to be dance grounds for the indigenous culture.  Here the natives used to gather for a corroboree to summon the good spirits from the ocean and send them inland.

The trail makes its way towards the beach, winding through the last contours in the way of the Rainbow Serpent, the creator in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories.

Below, fissures denoting the lines of least resistance are a feature of the rock shelf early on, a clear sign that the seas will ultimately have their day.  The strata that makes up the cliff face is a bland insipid grey with only occasional telltale streaks where minerals have leeched through indiscernible gaps.

A fisherman comes to try his luck 200 metres further south but, after only about 10 minutes, packs up and leaves.  I really couldn’t tell how long he stayed actually because time here is played out by movement of the sun and the rise and fall of the tide, the ageless metronomes of the planet and my mind is tuned in to the point where nothing else seems to matter.  It’s as though your thoughts have been cleansed of worldly matters like Covid because nothing here will infect you and it’s only when I return to base that such matters are regurgitated.  For now the mind engages with the flavour of the almond scroll washed down with tropical cordial and reflects on how lucky I am, not only to be here, but to be able to savour the wonders of the moment.

SAMPLING A DROP

In one’s memory bank there are images that can always be dredged up.  Favoured or horrible, they never disappear entirely.  One of those for me is of standing on a bridge facing the camera.  Behind me the metal structure is swaying back and forth because it’s covered with roaring floodwaters trying to rent it from its supports and send it tumbling into Chandler Gorge 230 metres in a vertical direction.

THE BRIDGE BEHIND ME IS ACTUALLY MOVING

That this epic place has never quite made it onto mainstream tourism has always been something of a mystery to me. Hit a search engine for top waterfalls in Australia and rare are the mentions for Wollomombi, yet Ebor, not far down the road towards the coast has been, and remains, popular, along with Dangar at Dorrigo.  Perhaps it’s the couple of kilometres you have to drive in that puts people off.

THE THREE CHIMNEYS

Remembering for once to stop and take a picture of the three chimneys ruin on the way in I cruised into the carpark because it was my overnight sojourn.  However, there were still a few hours, the weather was clear and cool and the gorge is a magnet.

SPECTACULAR IN ITS OWN RIGHT

It can be argued that, in dry times, there’s not a lot of moisture in the Wollomombi River and the falls themselves aren’t a great sight but, I’ve always found the spectacular gorge enough reason to visit on its own. 

The Wollomombi Walking Track takes you ultimately to a lookout at the end that overlooks Chandler Falls.  Before you get there you cross the Wollomombi River above Wollomombi Falls.  Years ago, I stood on the first panel while behind me the whole bridge flexed.  I was there with a National Parks officer who was checking to see if the bridge would disappear, like it had the previous time the waters were high.  Behind me it warped alarmingly but, ultimately, it stayed, despite water flowing over the panelling.

Today had a solid flow, but the bridge was in no danger.  Ascending to the lookout on the other side there was a spring in my step as I reached the viewpoint that opens up the top section of Wollomombi Falls.  The abyss that it plunges into is partly visible from here but not all the falls.

Further on, one sees “the island” separating Chandler and Wollomombi rivers though it isn’t actually an island but a ridge and years ago the New England University Climbing club were out there taking photos on the end of the ridge just before they packed up and moved on.  30 seconds later the section where they’d been collapsed entirely into the gorge below.  Whether there was a mass purchase of lottery tickets the next day isn’t recorded.

CHANDLER FALLS

Viewing Chandler is difficult because of the passage of the waters down the cliff.  Like others in the region it switches this way and that, driven by the hardness of the geological fault lines.  The gorge that it ends up in is also named Chandler and once there was a trail that allowed access but, these days, it’s deemed too dangerous and the track has been closed for a couple of decades.

“…and so the life’s blood flows through the great arteries of this land”.  Just who wrote that defied my research but it is certainly apt at this location, where you can see the gorge meander and merge with others before joining the Macleay downstream somewhere.  On the way back the soft afterglow of the fading sun settled on the few placid areas of the stream lending a surreal tinge to the atmosphere.

WOLLOMOMBI RIVER

Next morning I went out early and managed to get a bird shot or two before taking in the view from Chandler Lookout, the main one that faces Wollomombi Falls.  All those years ago when it was in flood, there was so much volume, the spray, carried on the updraft, meant there was a perpetual mist in the canyon.

HOW TO BUILD A LOOKOUT

The modern lookout, an example on how to build them to avoid vegetation getting in the way, offers the finest view of all.  Every few seconds though, you just can’t help but cast a side glance at the enormity of the gorge, it’s such an eye magnet. 

RUGGED COUNTRY BELOW THE CAMP GROUND

Meanwhile, up at the camping ground, half a kilometre away, twisting chasms of lesser streams also plot their path to the main channels.  It’s wild and untamed country, one that you don’t forget easily, which is what keeps drawing me back.

WOLLOMOMBI FALLS IN FLOOD. THE “ISLAND” IN THE MIDDLE OF PICTURE

LIFE ON THE ROCKS

I’d picked up some lunch from Bakers Delight.  A cold pizza and an almond scroll to be precise.  Now, while the westerly invaded every space, a rocky perch was found with a modicum of protection and I sat down to savour the sea; to become immersed in its rhythms, to see foam lurching above the small rocky island just beyond and cascade elsewhere into the channel before me.

The rock platforms of Ulladulla are a listed walk, though preferably not at high tide with a big swell.  Today the westerly wind had flattened the ocean’s undulations but chop was everywhere.  Another swell washed over the island, propelling the current in the clear waters right beside me.  I imagined there’d be all sorts of marine life in there, though just what I couldn’t name.

LIKE WALKING ON THE SKY

For the casual stroller signs of life might be few but there’s always something.  As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.  Here, pools of water only millimetres deep reflected the sky so, at times, it seemed like you really were walking on air.  Well, if not for the splash of your footfalls.

REEF HERON

This is the world of the sooty oyster catcher and assorted herons.  Under every second rock that’s been cast aside by the ocean there’s small crabs hiding, waiting for everything to disappear from view before they’ll scurry out again to grasp a morsel or two.  All feeding on the microcosm of life that exists here. 

NEPTUNES NECKLACE

Beneath the abundant Neptune’s Necklace growth there must be small shells aplenty and there are other strange jelly like limpets that look like chocolate blancmange with vivid strawberry topping. Turns out they are Waratah Anemone (Actinia tenebrosa).  

Some outcrops support uncountable colonies of barnacles and small black and white snail types are everywhere.  The water surface is rippled so that you would swear you’re looking at a fresh shimmering mosaic.

On high behind me there is Warden Head Lighthouse and the twisting single lane bush track I rode through heath scrub that leads to half a dozen lookouts, the last of which being where I securely left the bike before hiking the access trail that descends to the platform.  It’s called Coomee Nulunga Trail and passes through what used to be dance grounds for the indigenous culture.  The trail makes its way towards the beach, winding through the last contours in the way of the Rainbow Serpent, the creator in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories.

Below, fissures denoting the lines of least resistance are a feature of the rock shelf early on, a clear sign that the seas will ultimately have their day.  The strata that makes up the cliff face is a bland insipid grey with only occasional telltale streaks where minerals have leeched through indiscernible gaps.

A fisherman comes to try his luck 200 metres further south but, after only about 10 minutes, packs up and leaves.  I really couldn’t tell how long he stayed actually because time here is played out by movement of the sun and the rise and fall of the tide, the ageless metronomes of the planet and my mind is tuned in to the point where nothing else seems to matter.  It’s as though your thoughts have been cleansed of worldly matters like Covid because nothing here will infect you and it’s only when I return to base that such matters are regurgitated.  For now the mind engages with the flavour of the almond scroll washed down with tropical cordial and reflects on how lucky I am, not only to be here, but to be able to savour the wonders of the moment.

THE CHANNEL BEHIND THE ISLAND
VIEW FROM ONE OF THE LOOKOUTS

RAIN FOREST DREAMING

COACHWOOD FALLS

There’s an odour in the air.  A not unpleasant fragrance of rainforest.  It feels like you’re walking through it, like it’s a wall or something.  After days on the high rolling plains of New England, the rain forest is as a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.  The tall box woods and blackbutts have littered the forest floor with their leaves so there’s a flexing carpet on the soft soil.  My knees, forever in pain on the hard inland trails, feel no hardship at all on this benign surface.

FERNS TO BE BRUSHED ASIDE

The Rosewood Trail out of Dorrigo is level at the start, if you go round it the “wrong” way, though just why clockwise is the preferred way to go remains a mystery to me.  Bushwalking is bushwalking after all.  The other thing about the wrong way is that when you do get there, the waterfalls are seen from a ways out, they’re enjoyed before you reach them and they’re not suddenly below you as occurs from the other direction.

At times the ferns are so dense you have to brush them aside to make headway.  I’m getting into a rhythm now, the aura of towering timbers envelops one and the immersion is as a swimmer gliding through water.  You’re there, you don’t want to be anywhere else, just enjoy yourself.  There’s time for thought, thoughts away from today’s electronic world, thoughts of nature, friends, family and travels you’ve done before.

Here and there the forest is scarred.  Lightning has struck on occasions, mud has weakened the roots of others and trees have fallen, clearing the vegetation for some new primary and secondary growth.  Moss and fungus flourish on the fallen bark, continuing the recycling work, degrading the timber until, decades hence, it will merely be fodder for the new.

FUNGI WILL ULTIMATELY BREAK DOWN THE TREES

Elsewhere the corridor remains constant, light filters through the canopy enough so you can see but, when late afternoon is nigh, it’s banished quickly from the scene.  Some of the giants are estimated to be over 1,000 years old, though you can only guess because evergreens don’t have growth rings.

SMILE

An Irishman from County Galway passes and I entreat him to take a picture of me on the trail.  He’s keen and snaps half a dozen in quick succession before I find out he’s working as a nurse in Port Macquarie.  He’s a much needed and appreciated type in these Covid times.

Two moms and 5 children also pass, one of the little ones entreating to be carried until I look sternly into her eyes and explain, “I’ve told you once and I won’t tell you again, no carrying today!”  Her mum smiles and we head our different ways while I reflect on how good it is to see children in the outdoors.  They might rather be at home with a phone but, in later life, they’ll hopefully cherish these times.

NICE PLACE FOR A DIP

The sound of crashing water now permeates; white foam flexes in the stream far below as Coachwood Falls come into view.  They’re a classic cascade with a drop into a swimming hole where I’d taken a dip in the past but now, in the middle of winter, it’s not an option to be considered.

UPPER COACHWOOD

Further on come Upper Coachwood Falls, a taunting three pronged drop into an unattainable chasm.  There’s branches over the top marking where the recent high water levels were.  It would have been something to view that torrent first hand as the branches cluttered down and failed to take the 90 degree turn but instead jammed against the rock wall ahead.

DINNER PLATE FUNGI

Now you’re down in the depths of OreocaVis Gully, walking past plate fungi and hearing trickling water below, though it’s covered by matted low growth that I’m unfamiliar with that’s made a home on the solid rock bed that guides the waters.

PUT YOURSELF IN THE PICTURE

The trail starts gently rising, climbing towards the car park.  The vines are fewer in number, there’s a hope you’ll soon be finished but it’s tarnished by the thought of how relaxing and joyful this walk has been and you know you feel so much better for having done it.  Perhaps you might enjoy it someday too.