Party: Tim ‘Alfred’ Gastineau-Hills, Tim ‘Wombat’ Vollmer, Joshua ‘Rocky’ Hill and Andy Fulton
We made the long trek down to Bungonia after work on Thursday night, gathering in the campground and setting up tents by about 10pm before setting off on our first cave. For Joshua and I it was our first time caving and we had very little idea what to expect.
We set off in the dark for Dinosaur, climbing a few fences and bashing our way down into its depression, but after about 10 minutes of fruitless searching for the entrance among the blackberry’s we decided that given the time we should just head for Grill instead.
Off we went, coming eventually to the most touristy of the bungonia caves, which comes complete with old iron ladders in places. For the next four hours we scrambled, slid and searched each and every crevice we could find until eventually hitting bad air. We pushed our luck and went a little further, but the panting breaths and headaches made it pretty clear we couldn’t go any deeper. Like most caves in the area they’re isnt a huge amount of formation, but we saw some amazing flowstone and crawled into some very tight crevices where some beautiful and undamaged areas of straws and stalactites / stalagmites could still be found.
Eventually at about 2am we made it back to camp, lit a small campfire and cracked open the booze. Despite me taking a couple terrible bottles of wine, the others had enough beer and whisky to leave us more than a little merry.
Friday morning was a slow start thanks to the night before, but after breakfast we decided the best plan of attack for us newbies was to spend a good chunk of the day exploring B4-B5. A quick single rope abseil in and we pushed down towards Hells Kitchen through the rather tight squeeze. From here hours were spent crawling, squeezing, scrambling and generally contorting our way through the dusty caves. There was the chocking dust of Cement Bag, the perilous fun of the Hairy Traverse where a sheer drop fell away inches from the crawl space, and some very pretty but incredibly tight squeezes up through Route 19 where a party had become lost and trapped some years back. Eventually, with a couple dubious scrambles we made our way out, walked over to recover our ropes and headed for a late lunch.
Joshua, who was suffering the worst of the hangovers, decided to head off on his 4 or 5 hour drive to Orange, and Andy had to head back to Sydney so it was down to the two Tims. We checked out a couple more small caves, went on a short walk and found a good rocky outcrop to admire the late afternoon sun across the spectacular Bungonia Gorge.
Another good camp fire, some better wine, and a stunning sky full of stars made for another very pleasant evening, but we decided not to push it too much knowing we had the hard part of the weekend still to come.
Saturday morning we got up early(ish), did breakfast, packed our excessive car-camping setups away and prepared our packs for canyoning. We eventually made it out to the car park at the end of the Trestle Track and set off along the other fire trail towards Spring Creek. It is a decent walk, with a little bit of navigation needed out to Mt Fordham and onto the scree ridge down into the creek, but it all went surprisingly smoothly. We wandered along the creek to just before the first wade, stopping for a nice warm lunch before gearing up and steeling ourselves for the cold water.
This whole section is very pretty creek walking, and already the rocky walls tower above, but it was no preparation for the spectacular canyon section where abseil after abseil take you plunging down towards the Shoalhaven, snaking hundreds of metres below. The abseils are all very pleasant, with a few multi-pitched ones and a huge 45 metre drop ensuring full use of the two 60’s we were carrying.
All the Bungonia canyons are more open than the sandstone slots of the Blue Mountains, and having done Long Gully I expected that, but nothing could prepare me for just how spectacular this canyon is. The broken rock gives an amazing texture and the walls rise for hundreds of metres, nearly vertical, giving an amazing scale to the whole place.
Eventually we hit the river in the mid-afternoon, wandering downstream to a beautiful little grassy camp site right next to the river where we set up the tent, collected fire wood and began to relax. We soon discovered the one problem with our perfectly selected campsite when walking a few metres from the tent the ground gave way and I fell about a foot into a hole. It seemed we had pitched right above the maze of tunnels dug by a friendly wombat. Thankfully the ground held and there were only one or two more minor cave ins.
We built a wonderful fire, which was raging by sunset and kept us company as we made our way through the wine, whiskey and chocolate that had been lugged down. About 10pm a few sprinkles of rain made us pack our necessities in the tent, and within 10 minutes a torrent came down, inspiring us to call it a night.
At some point the weather cleared, and we woke to a warm, sunny Sunday morning with the sun just peaking over the towering hills above the river. We packed up camp, carrying our gear downstream to the rapids, then dumped all the non-essentials and geared up for Fordham canyon.
Crossing the river, we made our way to the ridiculously steep scree ridge on the right of the canyon. Going 500m almost straight up, most of the time was spent on all fours, testing every rock before weighting it. Despite that, Alfred nearly followed a large boulder back down into the valley and I copped a nasty injury to the leg when part of a rock sheared off. Eventually we made it to the top, dropped down into the creek and bashed our way to just above the first abseil. We had a quick hot lunch, using some of the tea-coloured creek water available in the small pools, before setting off.
Fordham has about 6 abseils, spectacularly falling hundreds of metres in quick succession with pitches of up to 58m stacked one on another. Another day of poor coiling and rope tosses ensured the first down each abseil had to clear ropes from more than a few shrubs, rocks and coiled messes. In the huge centre section, where a dicey scramble leads to a 35m abseil on a small ledge then the epic 58m drop, the distraction of tangled ropes meant I went right past the next anchor, ending up on a rather small ledge without enough rope to get me to the bottom.
Rather than risk a dangerous scramble down, and not keen on a prusik up, I sat tight and called out to Alfred to abseil half way, re-rig the ropes, come down and then swing the rope over to me. While the perch was precarious, and more than a couple loose rocks whizzed down, the spectacular views made it rather pleasant.
The rest of the drops were uneventful. There were no stuck ropes on the long pull-downs which was good and the last little creek bash down to the river was very pretty. Back at our packs we dumped the gear, jumped in the river for a well earned cool down, then packed up and started on the long slog back to the car.
Avoiding the first steep ridge which we both had bad memories of using as an exit we decided to try the next ridge along which eventually intersects with the Trestle Track and a road bash back to the car. My poor fitness caught up with me, and the legs were very unhappy with the second long hard climb of the day, especially with a full pack on this time. Speed improved slightly on the fire trail, and we were back at the car just before dark.
All up a very fun few days in the bush. A great introduction to caving and two superb, geologically unique canyons.