Bushwalking / Pass finding / SUBW

Narrowneck Passes: Black Billy Head, Dunphys, Glenraphael Head and Duncans

Party: Tim Vollmer, Bjorn Sturmberg, Stephen Sheehan, Adrian Spragg, Peggy Huang, Lilian Donoso — photos

When I was first grabbed by the idea of exploring all the passes of Narrowneck I knew of just eight. By the end of this trip a dozen had been completed, at least another two uncovered and few areas on this massive peninsula of sandstone have jumped out as spots worth searching for more.

Arguable some of these passes are a bit marginal and might not be a route you’d walk ordinarily, but each has a interesting history and in most cases a great significance to early bushwalkers. Indeed, two of the passes on this trip only barely scrape into the category of bushwalking passes. It might be pedantic, but if you need to abseil, it’s not a pass, so for the really tricky ones we always go up because you’d be mad to go down.

Peggy and Stephen check out the remains of Black Billy Head Mine

Lazy planning had initially meant a party of nine for this trip, including three people I’d never walked with, but some last minute drop outs  made things more manageable. (I got a call from Joshua the night before saying his back had gone — he tried to claim it was from too much sex but it most likely due to him getting old and fat — while I got a text from Mel in the morning after she’d been bailed up by drunks in Glebe.)

We set off reasonably early from Green Gully, racing along the fire trail to Black Billy Head. We had our requisite navigational error, reaching some private property belonging to a reportedly trigger-happy local landholder, before a quick backtrack had us at the old mine. We checked out out the rusting remnants and blown-in mine entrance before pushing up the steep slope to our pass.

Looking north-east along Narrowneck from Black Billys Head

The views only got better and better with each level we scrambled up. About half way we paused at the wall that most people abseil, waiting a few minutes for Bjorn to free-climb it and set up a safety belay for the rest of us so that we could do the more exposed but easier scramble up the nose.

Just as we were about to pack away the rope an old bloke popped out of nowhere. His arms were bloodied — which was not a good sign about the scrub we could expect coming up next.

He had looped around via Carlons Head, and after one look at the drop he realised how lucky it was that we were there. All he had was a short tape — not long enough for the drop — and without our makeshift abseiling gear (tape harness, 6mm rope and a munter hitch on a carabiner) he would have had to return the way he’d come.

Peggy climbs the tricky exposed section of Black Billy Head

In no time he was gone and we made the last easy scramble up to the tops, deciding the stunning views made it the perfect spot for an early lunch.

Setting off across Fools Paradise towards the fire trail the scrub was thick but pleasant. We made pretty good time, commenting that this was nowhere near as horrendous as what we’d been led to believe. Then it happened, we hit a section of scrub so thick you had to pretend you were a wombat to push through, and too tall to allow any visual navigation. It probably lasted just a couple hundred metres, but it felt like much more.

Emerging from the thick scrub in Fools Paradise

Back on the road, we flew past the fire tower to Glenraphael Swamp, admiring the stunning views in the distance. Given it was already 2.30pm, and one of the next two passes was going to be particularly difficult, the two beginners agreed to sit them out, heading for Clear Hill where they could explore and enjoy some of the best scenery the Blue Mountains offers.

The remaining four raced down the ridge, picking up a footpad through the swamp, then straight up the other side. Before long we were on the track down to Dunphys Pass, sliding down the wet muddy slope that cuts through the top cliff line. The views were marvellous as we followed the red shale ledge, and the lush valley at the end full of majestic tree ferns was gorgeous.

Once below the cliffs we skirted around to the base of Glenraphael Head, scrambling up the slope towards the slightly dodgy scramble up the nose that is used to access Harmil Ledge. We’d done that trip before, but this time we were after the much more exposed Glenraphael Head pass, accidentally pioneers 80 years ago by a group of adventurous but navigationally challenged youngsters.

Pausing on the lower nose of Glenraphael Head, with the imposing cliffs of our next pass behind us

The instructions, to walk about 200m then scramble up, seemed simple enough. Given most of the cliff is overhung, when we got to an area with a few possible routes and a slight gully above us we figured this must be it.

With the sun getting very low, and the chill wind whipping, I was less than keen about the ‘pass’. One option seemed too exposed, another better but involving some wet slippery rock, but a third one up a crack seemed a bit better. With the cliff plunging 100m behind you they all seemed pretty dodgy, but after a slow, meticulous free climb Bjorn shouted out that it was too easy and urged the rest of us up.

Once up the climb there was a short scramble to the top where we were stopped dead by the thickest scrub of the trip. Turns were taken by Adrian and Stephen to push through, with a huge effort needed to make just a few metres. Eventually it eased off and we dropped over the hill and crossed Glenraphael Swamp for a second time, racing up to the road and off to Clear Hill.

Bjorn free-climbs the difficult final section on Glenraphael Pass

It was dark, and the wind had really picked up, when we spotted the girls who had packed up ready to go, so we wasted no time heading down Duncans Pass. We were going to check out the Wallaby Track, but after walking along it for a short way we realised there was no way we would know for sure that we had done it with just torchlight, so we backtracked and dropped down Taros Ladder.

From here no time was wasted. We raced over Mt Debert (a walk which is quite pretty even in the dark), had some chocolate and Tim Tams at Medlow Gap, a quick drink from the gurgling Breakfast Creek, ignored a light rain shower and were at the cars before 8pm.

There were some quick goodbyes, with the girls heading home, while the rest of us went looking for a pub with an open kitchen. The Ivanhoe and the Gearin were both shut, so we grabbed a pizza from Rene’s in Katoomba, scoffed it, then hit the road, keen to get out of the freezing mountains weather.

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2 thoughts on “Narrowneck Passes: Black Billy Head, Dunphys, Glenraphael Head and Duncans

  1. Hi Tim,
    Some more info to either annoy or entice you.
    Black Billy Head : Part way up, instead of going left to do the rockclimb, go right for an easier route – at least it was in 1988 when there was a near dead tree to grab hold of. Frank Bendeich (CBC) has also commented that he doesn’t know why nearly everybody does it the hard way. From memory a single 3m length of tape is helpful going down .
    Dunphys: For a much better walk. If going up, rather than ascending the usually gully at the top, follow the main terrace all the way round into Breakfast Creek just above the falls. Found this on 15/10/88 and haven’t heard of anyone doing it before or since. One part was very narrow around a shaley corner. There was a camp cave that didn’t look like it had been used for a long time about 50m upstream from the falls on the eastern side. It would be interesting to compare the state of the cave now with my photo.
    Regards,
    Graeme Holbeach

    • Definitely more enticing than annoying!
      I think I know the spot you mention on Black Billy. I had a look at it and thought I could get up, but figured we’d still need rope for some of the others. It is an easier scramble but more exposed in my view. Going down you are probably correct that it is the easiest way if you don’t want to abseil. Going up I’d probably stick to the climb on the very nose now that I’ve done it and know how good the holds are.
      As for Dunphy’s, that sounds like a great little diversion. I’ve been meaning to check out Glenraphael Falls anyway, but that gives more reason to do it. And the camp cave next to water sounds like a better choice than Clear Hill or the overhang half way down Duncans Pass. If I get there before you do I’ll take a photo for comparison.

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