Cedar Valley Traverse, March 2012.
Party: Saul Richardson, Jono Savery.
At the start of 2012 both of us were looking to improve our fitness and lose weight. I challenged Jono to do the Blue Mountains Three Peaks walk with me in July, and he agreed. I thought it would be good to get him to do a shorter day walk that would give him a taste of some of the things he should expect in the three peaks: Off-track walking and navigation, long and very steep hills/ridges to climb up and down, moderate vertical scrambles, creek crossings, leeches and long hours on the move. This walk had all of those things.
Cedar Valley is a wonderful place. It is very close to Katoomba, the biggest town in the upper Blue Mountains. You can see it from frequently visited tourist destinations like The Ruined Castle, Mt Solitary and Narrow Neck. It is home to one of the most beutiful and pristine creeks in the mountains and lovely, varied forest. And yet it is totally isolated, inacessable, trackless and almost never visited. Most people have never even heard of it. It is the place where English backpacker Jamie Neall was lost for a staggering 12 days.
Cedar Valley is not a place for inexperienced bush walkers. Before you go in you absolutely must know where you are going, have all the relevant maps, a compass AND KNOW EXACTLY HOW TO USE THEM!!! A GPS and PLB are also adviseable. It is hard to find a way into. As Jamie Neall showed, it can be almost impossible to find a way out. I had been through before on a solo walk a couple of years earlier. I also had the maps, compass, backup GPS, and so on. People at home knew our plans and when to expect us back.
Our route for this walk was a west to east traverse of the valley. The “traditional” way across is to abseil down Walls Pass off the cliffs of Narrowneck. No abseiling for us. We went in off the end of Narrowneck. Down Tarro’s Ladder and via my previous route off Cedarland Ridge at the south west end of the valley, right at the edge of the water catchment area exclusion zone.
We started earlyish in the morning, around 8:30am leaving the car at the Golden Stairs carpark. From there we had a 2 – 2 1/2 hour walk down the fire trail to the end of Narrowneck.We made good time walking briskly and even jogging down the hills. Halfway Cave and the fire tower were passed before we knew it. Under grey skies we reached Clear Hill, the very end of the great isthmus of Narrowneck. The “Neck” juts out like a long, spindly finger to scratch at the edge of the Kanangra Boyd Wilderness beyond. It marks the extreme boundary of the inhabited plateau of the Blue Mountains. From Clear Hill, if the weather is clear, you can see way over to distant Kanangra Walls and the Blue Breaks to the south. You can see the broken hills of the Wild Dog mountains closer to hand off to the south west, that tangled area after the rural Megalong Valley surrenders at last to the bush. You can make out the winding valley of the Coxs River. You can see the towering forms of the three peaks: Cloudmaker, Paralyser and Guougang. To the south east you can see the upper reaches of Lake Burragorang, the mighty body of water that is Sydney’s main water supply held back by Warragamba Dam. And to the east, far below at the foot of the still towering cliffs is Cedar Valley.
It is a deep green gash, a densely forested rift between the cliffs of Narrowneck on one side and Mt Solitary at the other. The only way out on the eastern side is through a narrow opening between Solitary and The Ruined Castle. Every other way is impassible.
The way down off Clear Hill is via Tarro’s Ladder. You follow an overgrown track through the heath down to the west, just before Clear Hill. You pass a Kanangra Boyd wilderness warning sign just before the track plunges steeply down through a chimney with a steel ladder installed into it. This isn’t Tarro’s Ladder, not yet. The track skirts around the cliffs along a ledge, past a couple of caves that are handy for shelter in wet weather. Then you reach the nose of the ridge and begin following it down a series of broken rocky ledges until, at last, the navigable way seems to run out. Off to yur right, looking down off the western edge are a series of metal rungs ad climbing spikes hammered into the rock face. This is Tarro’s Ladder (named after Walter Tarr, a famous early bushwalking pioneer who first hung a wooden and rope climbing ladder in this spot as an way in to the Wild Dogs for other walkers to use). It is only really about 15 metres to the bottom in two pitches broken by a ledge in the middle, but feels like more.
There is another way down, to the east with no climbing involved but it is longer, muddy and overgrown and not without danger if you slip! It is sometimes called “Duncan’s Pass” or “The Wallaby Parade”. Both routes end up in about the same place.
We followed the Sydney Water service trails down to the east through first rainforest and then dry eucalypt. We turned off at the Cedarland Ridge junction along a very overgraon firetrail. Instead of turning east down the ridge where it swings away perpendicular from Narrowneck, we stepped off the trail and into the trackless bush to begin contouring around the end of the Banba Yacka Creek gully towards a point further up the valley from where we would descend at last to Cedar Creek itself.
There are plenty of patches of very thick scrub down in the valley, as well as a few steep gullies to cross, minor creek crossings, sudden and hidden cliffs to avoid and steep scrambles. It can be slow going indeed, though lots of it is truly beautiful. Once on the western side of the valley it is necessary to choose a ridge down to Cedar Creek. They are all steep, all jut out from very steep-sided gullies and there are many high cliffs still to avoid. We followed a ridge down and had a number of vertical scrambles before finally hitting the cool, rainforested banks of Cedar Creek.
After a short lunch stop we pressed on. The idea was to follow the creek north until we reached a huge cave that parties often use for camping in if they are making a two-day crossing of the valley. Soon we ran into a bit of a dilemma: the going was extremely slow! The vegetation along the banks was dense. Often the side steepened into canyon-like proportions meaning the only way forward was to either make a lengthy detour high up and over these little cliffs, or just splash along through the water. The day wasn’t cold and we were wearing thermals ready for exactly this. But there had been a lot of rain recently and the creek was flowing high and fast. Pushing upstream against the current was hard work, and it was impossible to see the bottom, so we had to make our way gingerly, probing ahead with long sticks to check the depth.
We finally made the huge cave and stopped for a few minutes to explore the massive overhang, and to rest before the long steep climb ahead. The it was over the creek one last time and up, up the ridge towards the ruined castle far above. At first there was a light footpad to follow, but it didn’t last. We had hoped to be able to avoid some of the climb by contouring around to Cedar Gap, a saddle between Mt Solitary and the ruined Castle. However, it soon became clear that doing that would take just as much time and effort as heading straight up. It was quite rugged and there are many overgrown gullies running down the side of that hill.
So up we went. It is a long steep climb indeed, and it was starting to get dark by the time we finally reached the track just below the rock formation known as the Ruined Castle. Not before time too, as we had both had about enough of that hill! Through the gathering darkness we plunged down over the other side, now safely back on the tourist highway. It was a relief to be on clear track again. We heard a family setting up camp for the night somewhere away to our right, with the delighted whoops of children, and saw their head lamps darting about but didn’t see them.
It probably didn’t take anywhere near as long as it seemed to rush along the track back towards the Golden Stairs. It is a flat and clear track, once the site of a small railway line in the days when the Jamison Valley was used for coal and shale mining. You can still see lots of the old workings along the track today.
The Golden Stairs came into view at last, and it was a bit of a struggle to heave our weary bodies up the cliff again, but the promise of the warm car and something to eat in Katoomba kept us going. That and the phone call every five minutes from Jono’s anxious mum to see if we were back yet!
In total the walk took 13 hours. I think it was a good introduction for Jono to the kinds of thing he should expect on the Three Peaks. It was a good reminder for me too and a bit of a wake up call. I needed to get a lot fitter. Insanely, I had signed up to go on a canyoning trip the next day, so would get my chance for another workout all too soon.
It was an epic walk and a great one. Glad Jono was able to come along. I hope he enjoyed it, but suspect maybe he didn’t. He has refused to come on any other walk with me since that day!