October 2 – 5, 2013.
- Distance: Approx 75km
- Party: Saul Richardson.
Summary: A long report, so the short version is that I walked from Blackheath station to Richmond station following the Grose River. It took 3 ½ days and was a tough but rewarding walk. The landscape was varied and beautiful, the sense of solitude intense. Through the Devils Wilderness until Wentworth Cave the old Engineers Track is quite clear in many places. From there to Springwood Ck it is almost totally gone, and then is patchy from there until the water level guage near Yarramundi.
Warning: contains some strong language in the 4th last paragraph.
There was only one other taker for this trip, but he didn’t have his own camping gear and left it too late to borrow some, so it was just me for this walk.
My original plan was to leave on Tuesday morning from Mt Victoria Station and to follow the river from Victoria Falls. However some last-minute work combined with, if I’m honest, a great deal of pfaffing about, pushed meant I didn’t get away until Tuesday evening. With a day lost I moved the starting point to Perry’s Lookdown via Blackheath.
I caught an early evening train up to Blackheath, leaving Central about 5:00. After a quick change of trains at Katoomba, the first one not stopping at Blackheath, I arrived at about 7:30pm. It had been warm in Sydney and in the train too. Getting out at Blackheath was a shock to the system, as it often is in the Blue Mountains. It was chilly and very, very windy. I stopped out of the wind in a shelter in the park and put on thermals and a warm hat before heading off along Hat Hill Rd the 8km to Perry’s Lookdown where I would camp for the night.
About 10pm I arrived at Perry’s, finding it deserted save for a single lonely car in the carpark. Someone camping at Acacia Flat far below in the valley, perhaps? I chose a safe-looking spot in the camping area, out of the wind but with a minimum of trees overhead. Having been struck by a falling branch on a recent windy walk I was a bit nervous.
Day One: Blue Gum Forest to Grose Gorge
45 minutes later I was at the four-way track junction in Blue Gum Forest next to a curious information sign that gives no information about Blue Gum Forest or the history or importance of the location to the conservation movement in NSW. Not that I stopped to look at it this time, I was in a hurry making haste while I still could: I knew what was to come!
In 1857 a team of Army Engineers were given the task of building a track from Yarramundi, near Richmond, to the Darling Causway at Mount Victoria following the valley of the Grose River. They were given six weeks to complete their task. Eighteen months later they were still going, apparently rather enjoying the bush lifestyle with a steady stream of supplies being sent up from Sydney. A bureaucrat put a stop to the exercise and that was that. The purpose of the track was to allow a survey of the route as a possible east-west Blue Mountains railway crossing, with a tunnel under Darling Causeway. It was abandoned as too expensive in favour of the current route up and over the main ridges.
The Engineers Track, as it is now known, has survived amazingly intact in places. As I was to discover, any time it ventured down to river level, it has been mostly obliterated. Other long stretches have been wiped out or covered by landslides. But elsewhere, where it rises high above the water level and the slopes are more stable, there are surprisingly clear sections left, including stonework. The only portion of the route still in use today is the well-worn bushwalking route from Burra Korain near Victoria Falls to the Blue Gum Forest.
Originally for some reason I’d envisaged the Engineers Track as a wide trail, like a fire trail. Probably encouraged by descriptions of it as a “bridal trail”, in my mind maybe like the Six Foot Track. Of course it isn’t, and never was. It was a single track footpath.
After a quick crossing of Govett’s Creek via a couple of fallen trees the track continues for a little way. Almost immediately the track up to Du Faur Head heads up the hill, so time to strike off to the left to follow the Grose River. A faint track lasts for a while before vanishing altogether. The section from Govett’s Creek to about 2km after Mt Hay is a mixture of scrub and/or creek-side boulder- hopping. From time to time through the scrub a vague trail comes and goes, maybe human maybe animal, probably both. Other times, should you choose to brave the scrub it is just a matter of “swimming” through the never-ending thicket. Inevitably you will grow tired of the scrub bashing and retreat to the river bank. There you’ll find yourself painstakingly picking a cautious route over, around, and between massive boulders and great rafts of flood debris and old driftwood. The debris goes high up the banks, maybe to six or seven metres above the water level.
Adding to the difficulty for me was the fact that virtually every small tree along the banks was bent over parallel to the ground, all pointing downstream. In this early section of the river there is basically no section of clear walking. Adding to my misery, I lost one of my two water bottles somewhere in that scrub, leaving me with a single 1L bottle. Lucky for me I was walking along a river, albeit one that many people say they’d never drink from. I had no choice and refilled from the Grose every hour or so, adding a chlorine tablet each time. Luckily I suffered no ill-effects from the water. I did read somewhere about high levels of zinc leaching into the river from old mines upstream. I’ve also read that zinc aids recovery and tissue repair in the body: given the mess of scratches my arms were from the scrub, maybe the zinc was a good thing.
I camped the first night on the river on a sandy rock shelf overlooking the river at a spot south and just a bit east of Mount Dixon, where the creek from Shaw Gully trickles down into the Grose. I made no fire, but spent a little while watching a large eel nosing about in the pool below me. It was afraid of my head torch and retreated every time I looked at it.
It was mild night with no wind and a clear sky.
Day Two: Into the Devil’s Wilderness
After the iconic and famous Grose Valley, the massive chasm visible from places like Govett’s Leap lookout, the river flows through an ever-narrowing gorge as it heads eastward. The Grose Gorge features towering cliffs on both sides. Further on, and out of sight from the tourist lookouts, it swings away to the north and into a region called The Devil’s Wilderness. It was named by the explorer/botanist George Caley in his failed attempt at finding a viable route over the mountains. He only just failed, as many of them seemed to have. Caley missed striking the Bilpin ridge by just hundreds of metres. The Bilpin Ridge is where today the Bell’s Line of Road crosses.
The day began well for me. I set off at 5:30 and progress was much faster and sections of the old track became clearer. The best going for the rest of the walk was wherever the track moved higher up the slope and through rainforest-like conditions. With relatively little undergrowth the way was fast and clear. It is a well-formed track: flat, compacted and lined with an obvious border of stones all along the downhill side of the way. Occasionally I saw bits of old retaining wall too.
However, any time the way moved down to river level the going was slow again and the old track was just obliterated. Often, when the track was higher up the slope but in sunnier spots it was choked with scub and vines, constant fallen timber and rock slides. In places it was blocked by massive moss-covered rocks that looked like they had been there for ever, but have obviously come down since 1857.
I eventually learnt that, as a general rule, the quickest way was always to follow the old track, even where it was totally overgrown. I was wearing gaiters and thermals so my legs weren’t hurt by the scrub. My arms were pretty badly cut up, so sometimes I wore my rain jacket to walk in, despite the heat.
The slowest way to go was along the boulders along the bank or through the flood debris and fallen trees. The river banks promised only tricky rocks, a tangle of fallen trees and thick patches of scrub that I had to not only bash through but actually climb through as well. Once or twice I even resorted to walking in the water to get around really tough bits. That was pretty slow too.
But overall the going was pretty good and the landscape was beautiful and wild. One setback came when I realised that I was still many Km further back than I thought I had been. I had a GPS, maps and compass with me. The GPS did struggle in the narrow gorge, often losing reception. For some reason I misread my map and ignored what the GPS said when I turned it on to double check. Then, bizarrely, I decided the GPS was wrong (due to poor reception) and tried to make what I saw around me fit what the map said. I also decided that the map was not quite accurate, because it didn’t show this bend in the river or that creek in quite the right place!
Maybe I was tired, maybe it was the Devil’s Wilderness messing with my mind. Anyway, luckily, I snapped myself out of that stupidity and read the map properly. Where I assumed I’d moved off the Mt Wilson topo into the Kurrajong topo, I hadn’t. I had a proper look and of course where I was fitted exactly with what the correct map showed. Now I felt despondent: I had to walk all that section again! The tricks the mind plays. Happy to say that before long I snapped myself out of it, abandoned all negative thoughts and pressed on with renewed determination and simply enjoyed the spectacular surroundings.
Sometime during this day I discovered that the battery in my camera was flat. A shame – meant I couldn’t get photos of this infrequently seen area and was carrying useless weight. It also made me nervous: now I was certain to encounter a yowie or maybe see a UFO.
That night I made camp in a cave north of Martindale Hill, about 4km along the river before Wentworth Cave. The floor was dry and sandy. There was a short shower of rain at sunset before a cold, clear night set in. I shared the cave with dozens of weird cave bugs. They were not timid, but didn’t ever tough me or get into my sleeping bag.
Day Three: To Springwood Ck
I got up about 4:45, pfaffed around doing thing like taping up hotspots on my feet for nearly an hour and set off at 5:50. I managed to leave my gloves behind in the cave, a nice pair of leather work gloves that had saved my precious fingers from the worst of the scrub (I work as a guitarist and need them in good condition!). They were not to be the first thing I lost that day.
The old track was excellent from just beyond my camp until just before Wentworth Cave where it got pretty overgrown for a while. But by 9:00 I was taking a break there. There is another cave a few minutes upstream that would be an ok camping spot too. It had some garbage left in it, the first sign of humanity I’d seen in a while. I took a little of it, but didn’t feel like adding too much of its disgusting weight to my pack. Someone needs to take it out, but it should by the people who left it there not me!
On the Linden Point side of Wentworth Ck the landscape changes suddenly and dramatically. It is much drier and the ground is crumbly and shattered. I could find some bits of the old track, but mostly it was gone. Down at river level it was washed away. Higher up it was almost all covered or wiped out by landslide. Where it wasn’t, the scrub was just absurd and best described as aggressive.
Sometime mid-morning I washed my shirt in the river and cooled off a bit. In doing so I took off my compass, which I always wear around my neck, and of course left it behind. By the time I realised I was a good 45 minutes on and couldn’t face backtracking. I still had the GPS and, besides, had just to follow the river anyway.
The river banks along that section, as well as the usual boulders, were thick with short scrubby but utterly inflexible trees plus the usual debris and fallen trees. It meant picking a route was very slow. At one point I wondered if the going might be faster if I climbed up the ridge a bit to where there seemed to be a flattish contour running parrallel to the river. I thought at least it couldn’t be any worse.
I was wrong: it was worse. Much worse! I was greeted with the most outrageous tangle of bracken over feet of unstable detritus and crumbly, shifting rocks, all woven skilfully together into a constant thorny barrier by hidden lawyer vine. I instantly made the wise and only viable choice to head back down the way I came up. To save wasting the time I’d just…well, wasted, I stopped up there for a shortened lunch break on a shady rock with a not unpleasant view over the sparkling river below.
From there it was a matter of methodically picking the best way through the riverside tangle which either got easier as I went or I got better at it. I passed the massive pool where the river turns abruptly to the south and saw two more signs of people. First was a thin cord hanging from a tree by the water. Not a rope, not a string but in between. Second was a solitary footprint in the sand under an overhang. Next to it I added my own in an act of lonely companionship.
At 3:00 I was at the next bend in the river where the walking track comes down from the Faulconbridge Point fire trail on the ridge far above. I took a short rest there and checked my map. I’d been careful to know exactly where I was ever since the embarrassment the day before. I was delighted to realise that it wasn’t that far to go now. Actually, had I been prepared to walk into the night a bit I could have been out that night and celebrating at Richmond McDonald’s, enjoying the fine company and impressive vehicles on display on a Friday night in the carpark as I waited for the next train.
I settled on camping by Springwood Ck, however and set off in a more relaxed frame of mind the couple of Km to that spot. From the walking track junction to Springwood Ck the river bank is characterised by many very long and flat rock platforms which made for nice and easy walking. Then, in a pleasant yet exhausting and abrasive development, long stretches of sandy banks appear with a minimum of scrub and debris. Lovely! The sand was very dry and soft.
By 5:30 I was at camp and set up on a sandy bank a the junction of Grose River and Springwood Ck. The spot was at the foot of Kariwoga Ridge and was obviously frequently visited. For some reason the name of the ridge made me think of some old TV game show: “And Helena is tonight’s Kariwoga champion”… Well I was alone and only had a little campfire for company.
The night was milder with a slight breeze setting in late.
Day Four: Springwood Ck to Richmond
I woke up at 5:00 to a chilly and clear morning and was away at 6:50. The first 25 minutes were slow picking a way through the big boulder field at the mouth of Springwood Ck. After that, though, it was some of the easiest and most pleasant walking of the trip. From Springwood Ck and onwards someone has marked out a route with ribbons. The old Engineers track is fairly clear again in many places along here, for the first time since Wentworth Ck.
By 9:00 I was at the river gauge, just after Burralow Ck. From there there is a clear and well-used track which also follows the old Engineers route until meeting a fire trail that becomes Mountain Avenue, the first sealed road since Blackheath seemingly so long ago. At this point the topo map really is a little bit out, and there are side trails that aren’t marked. The correct way is pretty obvious, though, sticking to the ridge and heading east. I passed a camp ground belonging to Grace Lodge on the right and came to a locked gate and passed a house on the left. Another little while and another gate and the sealed road begins.
The last 8 or 9 km was along roads though Yarramundi and then, at last, to Richmond. I’d been on the road for only about 20 minutes before the inevitable bogan shouted abuse at me from inside an aggressive-looking white Holden Commodore. I couldn’t quite make out what the man said, as he was speeding, but I assume it was something helpful like “don’t you know that there are moronic, inbred shit-for-brains like me on the road and that it isn’t safe for pedestrians with us about, you fuckin’ idiot”.
Worried that I might have lost weight during the walk I stopped for a quick pie and chips in Richmond at 11:30 before getting the 12:17 train back home. It was novel and enjoyable to end a big bushwalk in the ealry afternoon.
During the walk I saw many birds but not much other wildlife: 2x snakes (1 large, 1 small); numerous lizards; 1x duck; 1x giant possum; 1x eel; 2x tiny, tiny fish. There were also two aggressive and dangerous attack dogs in a yard on Mountain Avenue, but luckily behind a good fence.
A great walk, but very tough particularly on my own. With company I think it would have been easier, but I’m certainly glad to have done it. As someone else who did the same walk told me, having done it I do feel like I achieved something.
*The photos are by me from a previous foray along the Grose.