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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It permeated everything. Seemed like no matter where you were it wouldn’t leave you. It almost made one’s eyes water, so penetrating was it. The ferns, rainforest and splash of the water were all just background to this foul smell of a rotting carcass. What and where it was I had no idea but moved around searching, trying to both locate it and get away from it at the same time.
I inched closer to the waterfall, because inching is all you can do in this vegetation where so few have walked before and, who knows, the last footsteps could have been mine from the first time I came down here, this idyllic gully beside the main road that escapes attention by being invisible to traffic rushing by, mainly because people are rushing somewhere else with nary a thought for what unseen treasures they might by. That’s why these occasional places still exist for the enquiring mind.
Moving steadily closer to the falls, the reason for the stench became evident, for gently bobbing up and down in the pond below the falls were two dead sheep. As to the cause of their demise you couldn’t help but speculate that, at some stage, they’d panicked, as sheep are wont to do, and couldn’t stop quickly with their hard feet on the slippery creek bed above the cascade and thus fell to their doom.
There’s ever a sadness viewing something like this but the stench seemed to cancel all other emotions and senses. It’s a scenario I’ve never forgotten.
It’s now a couple of years later and, once again, I find myself at what I’d since dubbed “Dead Sheep Falls”, easing my way through a rusty fence line that’s clearly seen better days. Thankfully it has no barbs, I’m a bit over them. Age brings with it less flexibility and what was a bit of fun in your youth turns into a difficulty, but the sight of all those ferns and proud, straight eucalypts in the fertile gully quickly erases most of the memory of the previous visit.
Today, the light is good, the stream has a nice flow and it’s simply bliss just being here. There’s a strong gurgle where the clear stream flows beneath a ribbon gum that’s left its tell-tale sheddings scattered across the waters. The gully is like a little enclave divorced entirely from its surrounding rolling plains; a verdant showcase of what happens when water and shade are added.
A fern frond flexes in the passing flow but the stream generally appears to have been recently cleansed by the abundant rains as I chance a mouthful of the crystal clear water below a small drop beneath a sphagnum moss laden limb. Upstream I can see bits of the main falls and trudge carefully through the scrub, trying not to stumble over vines, catchy branches and broken twigs hidden beneath fresh grasses.
At the splashing waters its full beauty is on view. Back lit by a midday winter sun, the spreading droplets flash in the light before becoming part of the downstream pool. The sound of water on rock entrancing as ever and it’s hard to depart the scene but, after about 10 minutes, I drag myself away and head for the entry point again.
Here I decide to attempt shots above the falls but, what looks like an electric fence acts as a deterrent. There’s another way through with a greater degree of difficulty so I choose that and get the required vision before returning the easier way because I can see the suspect wire is actually attached to another to that will short it out if it’s alive, which I very much doubt anyway.
Back in the motorhome it’s time to scroll through the photos. I hope you find as much pleasure in them as I did.
I stopped, the cooling breeze and the shade taking the edge off the heat. High above was an osprey, perched on the tallest tree around. I wondered if he’d do anything. Perhaps he hadn’t planned to but all that went out the window when a couple of raucous crows started dive bombing him…..or her, and, after about eight attempts, the crows won out.
I’d just finished shooting (must be careful, that can have more deadly connotations in America) a couple of squirrels grooming themselves and was looking forward to returning to the car. I’d returned to Circle Bar B Reserve because my morning had been taken up with an R.C.I. presentation that started late and went longer. Too late to travel to the space centre that was two hours away. I’d hoped for a calming effect after my photos from Homosassa disappeared without trace off the computer. It had been devastating and I couldn’t get it out of my head but, just being here was helping.
There was water either side of me. The primaeval swamp was on the left and Lake Hancock, the headwaters of the Peace River, was on my right.
I’d started out at the first carpark, wanting to take a different trail to the first day but not knowing exactly what to do. As I’d been getting my gear out of the car, a gent who was obviously a nature lover, due to his attire, struck up a conversation. I hoped he might give me some information but, it was his first time here and he assumed I was after bird photos, as did I of him but, no, he was an insect photographer; the smaller the better. He elaborated on how one of his photos had won a significant competition recently and told me to be careful of the fire ants as he’d been bitten by a couple while pursuing a target and was still scratching. I made a mental note – beware the fire ant!
He added that, considering where I came from, I had heaps more things that bite people. I queried as to whether he’d studied entomology but apparently he hadn’t. Either that or he didn’t understand my Aussie accent.
We parted and I set out on the trail that would ultimately take me to where I’d been on Monday. Apart from one couple I saw no-one for the first half hour through scattered forest and was rewarded with my first sighting of a red bellied woodpecker; an attractive bird with delightful black and white patterned wings and a red cap for its head. I also couldn’t get over how many dragonflies the place had. During the course of the afternoon I would see over a thousand which went some way to explaining why this place had no mosquitoes, despite all the stagnant water.
I broke out between two swamps where I’d been before. Here the shade disappeared and the heat affected me so I took off my shirt, something I should have done the other day like more sensible people.
Though they’re not in abundance, the variety of birdlife is so diverse, but even they were feeling the heat. I smiled as a Great Blue Heron made its way out of the water right near me, turned its back to me and let out a significant squirt of white excretive matter. I wondered if that was some sort of comment.
I reached the intersection where Alligator Way came in, offering an alternative route back to the car but I’d been told the other day it was closed due to hurricane damage. Still, thought I’d go as far as I could and have a look anyway. In the end it transpired that repairs had been effected and you could walk the whole way, but I didn’t find that out till later.
Walking along this way is inspirational. You’re in a zoo but, there are no barriers, nothing to stop you patting an alligator if you’re so inclined. Fish keep breaching the surface of the pondages, keeping one alert but there’s so much wildlife; you just have to remember to stop regularly because otherwise you miss so much.
I come across what, in my ignorance, I thought was a lizard but no! It’s a looks-like-a-lizard green anole, something I’ve never heard of. On a parallel bank on my right a raccoon makes its way through the vegetation while warblers squawk in the branches beside the trail. The therapeutic effect I’d sought is working but, wait, what’s that ahead – an alligator speed hump.
As I approach he eyes me off with one lazy eye and has the appearance that he’s not going anywhere. Three people are arriving from the opposite direction and they’re not chancing anything either. You just don’t know with reptiles; not a lot of emotion showing there. He’s not a huge specimen, but you know he could do you some damage if things went awry. That’s why this place is so amazing. There are no fences, no barriers, no restrictions. It’s just you, nature and the wildlife plus, entry is free. I’m loving it.
I’d found out that the way has been repaired and I want to go ahead because it’s a long way back but I’m stymied and Mr. Sun Baker’s not moving his rough leather skin anywhere. The impasse continues and I finally give up and retrace my steps. I’ve only gone about 30 metres when a pair of cyclists cruise by and I jovially quip that they might want to consider a reverse gear.
However, it transpires that Mr. Gator is frightened of something after all. Pushbikes with flashing headlights are something he doesn’t want to tangle with and he re-enters the water in haste, much to everyone’s relief.
Now, the people who’d been on the opposite side have something else to worry about The raccoon is minding its own business scratching along the bank beside the trail and one of the three people is dead set frightened of him. He’s a young black dude and there’s a look of terror in his eyes and he’s raised his voice exponentially.
“I’m more frightened of him than the ‘gator man. They supposed to be nocturnal ain’t they? This one must have rabies!” He’s serious and I ask him if his last will and testament are in order and can’t help but crack a broad grin. I tell him “You should get out more, you’ve been watching a computer for too long.” The raccoon works its way past him and sanity is returned.
It’s yet another of the numerous wildlife experiences you can have here, and now, with Lake Hancock approaching and an Everglades-style swamp on my right, I’m revelling in it. It’s further than I think back to the car and when I reach the first carpark I scrounge a lift with some gentleman who takes me the 1 ½ kms back to the Nissan and I’m so grateful.
Hours later, when I download the photos, I’m in ecstasy because suddenly, out of nowhere, my lost pics from Homosassa pop up. They’d been caught up in a Microsoft update and now the world had resumed its normal shape again. Peace was at hand.
Thus spake the lady and, by the time she uttered these words, I was wondering just how good it was. Heck, judging by the number of binoculars and cameras with obscene lens, it had to be good.
I’d finally found Circle B Bar Reserve after I used a street number off Trip Advisor that turned out to be around 8 kms short and, after I asked someone, was told it was the next traffic light and turn left. Sounded good except it wasn’t down that road, it was the second lights I should have ventured to. All of which set me back about half an hour but, hey, I’d arrived at last.
I chose here because someone on the internet suggested the wildlife was fairly abundant. That, and the fact that it seemed not that far away, set me out in my first quest for Florida nature and, as I drive in through the sphagnum moss laden trees, you can’t help but get the feeling that you’ve arrived.
The carpark was ample and around 5 chemical toilets were adjacent. I’d only just gone past them when it was hard not to notice about two dozen people gawking up at a tree. Binoculars and cameras all pointed in the same direction so I enquired as to what the excitement was about. “Barred owl” came the bug-eyed reply.
Indeed there were a couple of said owls but you couldn’t get a decent angle on them. I figured you needed to hike about ten metres into the knee length grass to get the right angle and wondered why no-one else was over there. Oh well, off I went, was about to take a snap when Mr. Pedant said I wasn’t allowed to do that. Apparently going off piste is verboten! I meekly returned to the group thinking I’d wait for them to move on and then have another crack but, hardly anyone broke ranks, so I moved on.
The paths are easy to follow and you can’t get lost…..unless you leave the trail which you’re not allowed to do…. I’ve been friendly to a few twitchers and they’ve reciprocated and bird sightings are readily shared. Thus it is that I see my first cardinal, a bright red/orange bird that I get excited about but the twitchers are almost bored because they’re fairly common apparently. One twitcher who had similar equipment to me said he took 3,000 pictures in a day. That put my record of 900 into perspective. Apparently he’s after birds in motion and does multiple shutter clicks while they’re in flight.
There are also dragonflies everywhere, I’ll see hundreds before the day’s out but it’s hard not to note that I’m the only one bothered with them. Wherever you walk, water’s not too far away, and it’s that which supports the wildlife. I mean, if you glance out across the swamp, there’s not a lot happening. It’s when you stop and watch for a minute or two that you realise just how much life there is out there.
Fish constantly flick the surface, birds wade through the plants, squirrels scurry up and down the trees, often at times when you’re least expecting it (much like the lizards), dragonflies dance on the tips of sticks and raptors constantly soar overhead, and sometimes not. I’m startled when a golden eagle speeds across the track at eye height with a large fish in its mouth only 15 metres in front of me. Wildlife? It’s right here, right now. Earlier there’d been an osprey on a distant dead tree branch ripping something piscatorial apart but it wasn’t up close and personal like this.
Then, of course, no walk here would be complete without seeing an alligator and I spot my first one, though it’s only just out the egg, basking right next to me. Well, it was around two feet long but not really what you hope to see. A larger one slid ominously further out in the pond, but it wasn’t anything to get excited about either.
I move on, the heat and humidity starting to take its toll, even though it’s only around 9.30. The trail is flat, just like all of Florida actually. I stop at a shady crossroads with seats and pause for refreshments, blissfully unaware that the biggest reptile I’ll see all day is about 20 metres away on the other side of a mound. It will be ¾ hour before I come across him.
I head out again, into the world of grackles, limpkins and gallinules, none of which I’ve seen or heard of before. It pays to pause, because much of nature is stagnant and there’s a lot of it to see for the patient eye. When I reach the end of a shady lane I turn back, not wishing to swelter anymore and when I get back to the + intersection someone sends me right to where they just saw a ‘gator. I move 50 metres up and get a shot of its upper bits then turn around and head back and, bingo, there it is, the biggie I’d missed earlier and had just walked past without seeing. They’re not frightening like estuarine (salty) crocs, but a little more ominous than Johnson River crocs and they have a presence in this place where dog eats dog and gator eats gator (and dog). There’s a famous pic on google search of a big one chomping on a medium sized one of his brethren at this very location. I’m not scared, but I wouldn’t want to upset him either!
I’m sated now and slowly move towards the carpark, getting lucky twice on the return. First up it’s a mum with a little alligator on her back and another two beside. They’re much brighter and look like snakes almost. Then, when I get back beside the toilets, the owls have moved to a much more accessible spot and I manage to get 5 metres off the trail without chastisement and nail one, giving him a bird call so he’ll face me, though he’s probably wondering who the idiot is. I’m over the moon, and stuffed as well.
It’s past midday so I’ve been out there around four hours and the air conditioning in the car is such a relief. I reflect on what someone had said. “This park is a lot more friendly than others. People talk to you, take their time and share their finds, unlike other places.” I had to agree, even though I haven’t been to the others yet.
After another month in America, this place left all others far behind in terms of wildlife and access to same. It’s hard to believe that there’s no charge while other places, that did charge, had nowhere near the experience value of Circle Bar B. May it forever continue.
Imagine, for whatever strange reason (to the normal world) that you’ve decided to build by the water with no road access whatsoever. It’s around the turn of the 19th/20th century, just living is a significant problem. However, there is a whole world out there of which you know very little in terms of current affairs. Enter the postman…..except there’s no roads, remember.
Thus, in 1910, just four years before the Great War, the Riverboat Postman came into being. It’s stating the bleeding obvious that the wooden ferry style craft that once plied the river delivering stuff have been superseded by a two storied modern catamaran, times two.
Up until March 2012 it was run by Hawkesbury River Cruises who also handled the Dangar Island ferries. After their liquidation they were split up and the Postman is now the province of Hawkesbury Cruises.
We all boarded and arranged ourselves into “friendly” tables. It was hard not to notice the lack of screaming children and active people. It seemed that if you weren’t on some sort of pension you were excluded.
Once departed from Hawkesbury River, where there’s an oh-so-convenient railway station, photographers tended to head to the exposed upper deck as we cruised between Dangar and Long Islands. Though the former is well occupied and has its own restaurant, Long Island is a nature reserve and access, other than by difficult water landings, borders on impossible and will involve scrambling over rocks, something I did the following week.
Today we smoothly transition by the extraordinary sandstone formations after heading beneath the significant railway bridge. The original one, whose pillars are still standing, was constructed by the American Union Bridge Company who unfortunately used inferior concrete which later cracked and the complete bridge we now see was opened in 1946 after being imported piece by piece from England with the trusses cut from the sandstone just to the west of the bridge.
The original pillar supports, despite being a navigational hazard, were left standing because to demolish them may have interfered with the structural integrity of the replacement.
Next bridge we come to is the road one (1945) and the freeway one adjacent which opened in 1973. Also pointed out is a pine tree at Brooklyn that featured on the first five pound note. It’s a long time since I’ve seen one of those!
Under the bridges and, on the right, is Deerubbun (means wide, deep water) Reserve where there’s always heaps of cars, motorhomes and caravans plus the odd fishing boat being launched. Right next to it is the once famous Peat Island where women with an alcohol problem (I know a few even now) were sent to try and sober up. Later it became an asylum for those with mental problems and once two inmates escaped, swam across the water and scrambled up to the main road where they hitchhiked and were picked up by, wait for it, two off duty policemen!
Deeper into the estuary the next island is Milsons and it was where male alcoholics were catered for, but it has also been extensively used for bacteriological research and as a quarantine station. One of the uses was for myxomatosis trailing before it was released into the rabbit population.
Thankfully, after Milsons use-by date, the accommodations have been kept and it’s now a sports and recreation centre with a high ropes course, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, archery, bushwalking and abseiling. Our captain at the helm has a special take on the kayakers however, he calls them “targets”. They’re marginally more popular though than his main scourge, houseboats.
Then we’re heading upriver where, here and there, mangroves put in an appearance. Governor Phillip first probed these waters over two centuries ago and Australia’s first warship, the Parramatta, was wrecked after a distinguished career before being converted to a coal carrier. On the southern side we come to Bar Point where there were 42 residents at last census. It’s a bit of a haven for artistic types and the socially disenchanted.
Here, at Milsons Passage, resides the self-proclaimed ruler of the Republic of Milsons Passage, John Carrick, who will query the ferry crew to find out if there have been any pirates sighted. He normally waits with his ceremonial sash and little white dog who, according to John, is “a specially bred albino dingo who helps keep the sharks at bay.” Sadly he’s a no-show today.
At our next stop the crew have some treats for the numerous dogs that come down with their owners to collect the mail. Some have to walk for up to half an hour just to get here but the daily chore gives them something to do and promotes social intercourse. However, a fisherman who resides way back in the mangroves doesn’t feel a need and has a wooden pole with a hook on it where mail can be left.
At Marlow Creek, a rounded little lady comes toddling down from the cottage atop the hill. “Her name is Boots and she so loves our Anzac biscuits” explains the commentary. I hasten to add she’s not alone in her like of the snack, they were simply the best we’ve ever tasted. They’re served up with morning tea as you leave and you get lunch on the way back.
At Mullet Island we learn that James Stanbury, once world champion sculler, was born here in the late 19th C, though he later moved to the Shoalhaven district.
A little above the southern side there’s a slightly larger building. Turns out it’s actually a restaurant, accessible only by water or helicopter. Imagine the drama when, one day, two helicopters turned up around the same time. The drama came because there’s only enough space for one.
We’re on our way back and we point out Muogamarra Nature Reserve, where once Lorraine and I visited to view the spring wild flowers during one of the rare opportunities allowed at this site. It’s a fond memory that lingers, just like the one we’ve had today.
It seemed no matter how you braced yourself the torrent of air was just as determined to push you back. Try as one may, holding the camera/phone steady was bordering on impossible. I found a place to sit down, offered less wind resistance, bent over a little. Still the lens was twisting in my grasp.
Meanwhile, the sea below was in turmoil. The forecast big swell was trying to push the land over but the defiant conglomerate sent it in different directions. It was polygamous in its intentions, wherever there was a hole or crack it probed violently, at times roaring skyward with a frightening loud whoosh just below me.
Two headlands away, a few people on Snapper Point were watching the pounding seas as others strolled past. Further over is a notorious spot for rock fishermen; at one point 17 died in 7 years, although two were a bit quirky; one slipped and hit his head on a rock while another fell in the water while trying to take a discreet toilet break. It’s also a fact that most who’ve perished have been of Asian derivation, possibly unaware of just how dangerous the ocean can be.
Between Snapper Point and the next, unnamed, headland there’s Snapper Point Blowhole where pebbles were mined in the late ‘70s and a female Asian student’s body was recovered just a few years ago. At low tide, in calm seas, it can also be reached, though there have been rescues from here as well. Today the swell fills most of the cave and kawoomps back out as it hits the back walls.
I’d started over that side, briefly shooting where I’d been yesterday, but this time I opted for Bongon Head, one further north of the unnamed one and hardly ever visited, though a narrow track, overgrown with hardy windswept vegetation constantly brushing at your ankles, winds a twisted path towards the ocean,.
Looking north you can see Ghosties in the distance and its sand spit where, in the right conditions, an excellent surf wave can be had, while a little closer there are invisible caves sought out by adventurous souls at low tide on calm days.
It’s a tortured coast, but mesmerizing in a big sea, and today I was succumbing to its hypnotic effect. The constant irregular smashing of waves in all directions and the punishing roar demands your constant attention. A large swell wrecks itself on the point and spume reaches for the sky carrying the fine salt spray that drifts into my face, spurred on by the relentless southerly buster.
The salt water channels through a hole it’s blasted previously through the conglomerate, ever seeking to enlarge it before the rock merely becomes a pile of pebbles that make traversing these cliffs a dangerous pursuit if your feet roll on a couple of loose ones. Elsewhere, clefts in the cliff lead the breaking waves upwards, spewing towards the sky before succumbing to gravity in a shower of foam. The energy of the spent waves creates a turbulent washing machine effect as the water seeks to escape the narrow passages before the onrush of the next roller.
A shadow crossed over beside me. I didn’t have to look up to see what had caused it. A white bellied sea eagle had been around earlier, soaring upwards on the turbulence to gain the height advantage over its prey but it was so much quicker than normal. A small seal bobbed up just off the rocks and just as quickly disappeared. This was nature at its best and I loved it, despite the challenging conditions. It was one of those special days that you never forget.
If you’re a hiker and you live in America, you can’t really call yourself a hiker until you’ve done Angels Landing. It’s an icon in one of the world’s great national parks. Over a decade ago I gazed up and saw ants crawling around the top. Only, of course, they were people. I wanted to go, see if I could it. The bus tour I’d been on had given us 1 hour 20 minutes free time. It would take at least that just to get up there I reasoned.
For years it gnawed at me, along with the rest of the magnificence of the park. Towering cliff faces, a multitude of hikes, lots of slickrock (that’s a common term here for coloured layers of sandstone). When photographers who have been good die, this is where god will send them. But only if they’ve already been to Angels Landing.
My chance had come and I sat down to do the research. Quite recently it had claimed its sixth victim. There’s a poignant sign letting you know before you actually do the tricky bit.
I’d watched a few videos about the climb and it looked seriously scary. To be honest, I looked at the last section and knew I would be lucky to do it. Hanging on to a chain over vertiginous drops was getting to me and the videos didn’t help. I literally was scared just viewing the footage. I cringed while I saw people going up this razorback ridge that was seriously steep.
Another little voice kept nagging at me saying that, if you take it one step at a time, it might be possible.
Now, the day had arrived. I was up well before dawn and headed down through the unlit tunnel of the eastern entrance (it’s the scariest I’ve ever driven through, just under 2 kms long but seems more like 5) to one of the park’s two entry points. It was still dark and another car pulled up beside me. The driver’s name was Kurt and, with a couple of other guys, he owned three hotels in Springdale (nearest village), one in Salt Lake City and was in the act of building another at Bryce Canyon and then another at Salt Lake City. He had the aura of someone who was a go-getter and he filled me in with all the trails in Zion while we waited for the first bus at 7 a.m., because you can’t drive your car in there.
I had a flannelette shirt, jumper, wind jacket and beanie on and was still feeling the cold. Kurt had shorts, a thin full length top and not much else. Obviously he was more accustomed to winter than I was. The bus pulled up, already half full, and we motored on, arriving at stop 6 not that long after. We’d done two stops, no-one had gotten out, but now it was like we’d been warned of a terrorist attack and everyone was rushing for the exit. The sun was making a small effort to put some light into the canyon, kissing the tops of the highest peaks but not yet Angels.
I bid farewell to Kurt with the retainer, “See you on the way down”, and set out after a pause at The Grotto trailhead. Everyone has a toilet stop here. They warn you to do so with prominent signs and there was a queue by the time I rocked up. Eventually, deed done, I got under way and was soon last on the trail where it crosses the Virgin River. It was quite pleasant walking, slightly uphill but you hardly noticed that with the scenery taunting you. Then you start to climb up a number of switchbacks that leads you into Refrigerator Canyon, a narrow affair where the sun rarely shines and the wind glides down, but the trail levels out for a short while. It’s here that I see Kurt again – he’s on his way down already and he’s running flat out. No time to savour anything.
The next busload are starting to pass me but I can’t help but notice that some of them are puffing. It shows when we reach Walter’s Wiggles, a direction-changing (21 times) steep zig-zagging route that gains elevation quickly. I repass some of the others here while they’ve having a break, using the short step technique I figured out in Germany many years ago, confirmed when scientists analysed Cliffy Young’s shuffle after he’d won the Sydney-Melbourne ultra marathon all those years ago. It’s the best way to conserve energy and you just keep going without breaking into a sweat.
The upshot of the Wiggles is that you reach Scout’s Lookout. Most people opt for a break here, most don’t go any further. For it’s here that you can see the ridge, tempting you, flaunting its epic majesty if you dare. We that are paused query those coming back. None of them made it. Oh dear, more fear. Especially when one guy was wide-eyed like he’d had an epiphany and shook his head about a section without chains. Then someone arrives who has made it, we find that mildly reassuring.
I remove my jumper and head out. I fall in with a couple of black girls, Gabrielle and Sarah. As we pass and repass each other, I learn that they’re on a week’s holiday, shacking up with friends and relatives. I’ll move on from them but we’ll catch up later.
It’s odd how in places the wind howls around you and in other spots it’s perfectly calm and you never quite know when a gust is going to hit you.
The chains. Yes, the chains, the chains of Hogsback, for that is what this ridiculously steep ridge is called. Now I’m hanging onto them because it makes for easier walking and it’s strange. When you’re walking you don’t notice just how evil this trail is. It’s when you pause and look into the distance that doubt erupts all over again and makes you cling onto the chain just a little bit harder. The bits without chains aren’t bad except for one short bit of track where you aren’t too sure where to go but you’re positive where not to go! On and on, one step at a time.
You actually have to haul yourself up in a couple of spots, it’s so steep, but fear is on the ebb at the moment because I realise I’ve done one of the worst sections and only have another to go. Climbing, climbing and then, just before the summit, you’re on your own. The flat section is only about 15 metres away but there’s no help here. I garner up enough courage and take the final few steps. There’s no real feeling of ecstasy, just a huge onrush of awe at the overwhelming majesty of the place. For 360 degree views, this is hard to beat.
While I gingerly make my way to the end about 60 metres away, I can’t help but notice a youth sitting on the precipice, seemingly inviting doom. When I settle down to some refreshments, I spy Jack, a lovely young lad I’d seen a few times during the ascent. He insists on a fist pump, he’s so impressed that I made it. Apparently I’m a “dude”, because that’s what he calls me. It’s a real head swell moment and, looking around, it’s fairly obvious that those in my age bracket don’t feature heavily here. Jack’s from just north of San Francisco and he’s climbing with some friends. He knows the lad sitting on the edge and shrugs, saying “He’s a rock climber”. To each his own.
Everyone spends time here. It’s something to wallow in after nearly 1,500 feet of climbing. I’ll not see its like again in my lifetime. Cameras are out and clicking and Jack and I exchange shots before we pat each other on the back and part. There’s a wonderful camaraderie up here. People are in such a giving mood it’s almost worth the climb just to be a part of it.
I’m just about to descend when Sarah and Gabrielle arrive and sit down. I’m just reaffirming our friendship when Gabrielle lets out a terrified shriek. Sarah and I are almost immediately in tears. A tiny chipmunk had just scuttled past Gabrielle and she’s frightened of it. I explain how Lorraine and I were feeding them in Glacier a couple of years ago but Gabrielle says she thought it was going to bite her backside which brings forth more laughter from her audience.
It’s a lovely note to leave on and I do most of the chain descent backwards and it’s surprisingly quick and easy. The holdups come when later busloads arrive on the scene, one of the main reasons for me leaving early. The internet is full of stories about the crowds and having to wait at the chain sections.
I’ve travelled surprisingly well, only needed my small bottle of water but, going down the steep switchbacks does me in. My legs are found wanting. My mind wants to keep going but my legs are in total disagreement. I try and channel famous breakaway cyclist Jens Voight and say, “Shut up legs”, but it’s only a partial cure. Then, the bliss of Refrigerator Canyon with its relatively level section before more murderous switchbacks to return to the river crossing. I stop several times and am amazed no-one passes me except those running down. Perhaps I’m not the only one suffering.
The bus stop is such a blessed relief. I’ve made it in something just over 4 hours I think and it more than lived up to expectations. I’ll have some boasting rights when I get home but you have an odd feeling that somehow you’ve just bonded with a unique piece of nature.
It’s day two of Kiama excursions. I’ve made the decision to come again because of Bombo Rocks and the thought of watching some more pounding swells. Stumbling onto Bombo on the internet and later being urged by Lorraine had been too much, the lure had succeeded.
After hooking up my bike on the rack in the carriage I deliberately chose to sit next to the other cyclist on the train, opening a conversation that flourished as time passed. Here was a man who not only knew where to go, but just about every other track within 100 kilometres and passed on that knowledge in a slow and concise manner. In time, not only was he going to inform me, but he made a conscious decision to get off the train one stop early so he could actually show me the way.
I guessed, with his slow, precise delivery, that he had been a school teacher. A science one in fact and, as Ian was his name, how could we not become friends?
Alighting at Bombo, an unmanned station that had me asking why it was ever built in the first place other than to help people go to the beach, we set out. Every nuance of our route was detailed by Ian, seemingly eager to dispense his considerable knowledge on the subject and, in no time at all, I was heading for Bombo Rocks.
Bombo is a dramatic basalt outcrop, much favoured by the photographic and film making communities, especially at sunrise. Once mined for blue metal, these days its historic, unique geography and tourist value have made it untouchable, except for the swell that is. Here it is epic, the sea a boiling cauldron of frustrated ocean as it slashes out in every direction to bring these bastions down but ends in an inconclusive wash that wallows in every direction. The noise is constant, no outcrop sacrosanct from the pounding seas. Everywhere foam bounces around the warped surface, still seeking a way past this spectacular outcrop of litite. In all my years of surfing, I’ve never seen a more chaotic seascape.
The thrashing whitewater roars upward, sideways and over, all in its attempted destruction. I’m mesmerized and spend well over an hour watching it, later joined by a trickle of tourists whose oohs and aahs indicate they’re equally impressed.
It took 20 years for its 1979 heritage nomination to become fact as the Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board had plans to build a pollution control plant on the flat area behind the spires. It draws less than a tenth of the tourists that visit the famed Blowhole yet, when the surf is up, is much more spectacular.
Sated, I ride back to Kiama and, while enjoying a pulled pork hamburger, make the fateful decision to negotiate the Coast Walk to Gerringong.
The whole day had been spent in the motorhome, literally. With stories and photos to catch up on there was days of work to do. That, and the fact my body was sending me messages – “No more stairs today please” being the foremost.
That all went well until the sun dipped low in the sky and photography reared its ugly head. I often reflect that, back in the days of the box brownie, you were told to have the sun behind over your shoulder and believed that the sun was your friend when it came to taking snaps. These days, for me, that’s mostly turned on its head. The ethereal atmosphere of being in a canyon after the sun’s direct rays have departed is hard to beat. Soft light tinges the walls and you’re ushered along by unseen dripping waters echoing their presence, though you can’t be sure just exactly where they are, just the constant drip, drip as you move stealthily beside the ferns.
Thus it was that visions of such a place beckoned me to rise and move beyond the confines of comfort, the only decision being whether or not to take some warm clothing, even though I knew I’d get sweaty, but I took a jumper anyway. The door slammed behind me and I was surrounded by cool mountain air as I moved along the ridge, away from the popular lookouts to the descent, the first of many hundreds of steps now taking me past some huge sandstone outcrops that looked like a dinosaur had been eating them, so unruly were the patterns. They were coloured as well, rich lichen red being foremost on a background of black with occasional blotches of yellow.
Down, and now the forest of ribbon gums takes over. You can’t help but look at the wonderful stand of Eucalyptus viminalis in various stages of bark shedding. In my experience it’s rare to see so many having the forest almost to themselves and their pristine creamy trunks are in stark contrast to the dull background, some of which is the blackened vegetation of bushfires, whose charcoal remnants still remain, but this is a land of harsh extremes and people speak of floods in these times and the fresh growth now tinges the forest green.
The way becomes steeper, the steps deeper, and a huge green mossy wall looms before me marking the beginning of the slot canyons. Noisy streamlets accompany every movement now as there’s one either side of the path, though they’re mostly unseen, cloaked by lush fern growth occasionally flexing vigorously as leaves extend too far into the water and now are condemned to endless swaying back and forth.
A fine stand of coachwood trees finds the environment to its liking, the gum trees having vanished a quarter of an hour ago. Deeper into the gloom I go, the two streams converge and the noise is more noticeable where the occasional cascade hastens its descent.
Then, where the streamlet meets the main creek, the canyon is wide and almost bright by comparison. There’s a T-intersection. Left takes you to a serious vertical drop to the valley floor while right heads up the creek. I follow the latter, splashing in some of the steps where water hasn’t yet escaped the heavy rain residues. It will be some time before enough sunlight penetrates to dry them all up.
Now the noise becomes a roar, the waters are brown and debris can be seen in any direction you choose to look. I follow the sandstone footsteps, noting the excess flow and photographing waterfalls wherever possible before reaching the reason trails have been closed. There’s a significant log jam that’s obliterated the track, an impressive reminder of the natural forces at work. To go further requires that I surmount this obstacle which isn’t really all that difficult because there’s so much to grab hold of and lots of foot holds on ravaged logs.
My goal isn’t that much further, the weeping rock I’ve always wanted to photograph when there’s no sun around is dripping as ever, there just happens to be a tad more flow at the moment. It’s when I pause that the atmosphere is overwhelming. To be where no other soul knows you are, to truly immerse yourself in wilderness, to clearly hear the sounds of the bush without intrusion is a kind of bliss.
I’m awoken from this dream by the reality that I still have to ascend hundreds of steps and it’s getting dark; the slot canyon can get very dark I imagine, but the moon is rising somewhere above so there’ll be some light for some time to come. It’s almost reluctantly I head back up and, yes, the stairs were strength debilitating to the point where I stopped half a dozen times to catch my breath, especially on the sharper inclines. It was a blessed relief indeed when I saw the massive rock formation because I knew then I was nearly home, or should that read motorhome!
I stopped momentarily at the lookout and saw the waxing gibbous moon rising over the valley far below. A group of half a dozen had sat and watched the sunset’s aftermath and I wondered what they must think of a stranger in their midst, huffing and puffing still from the final exertions of the ascent.
Sleep would come easy tonight, I hoped there was still enough energy to cook a meal. It had been a magical couple of hours.