With an unseasonably hot sun bearing down through the crisp spring sky, about 80 bushwalkers joined in a chorus of “The People’s Flag” — an old socialist classic — while the ashes of Wilf Hilder were scattered from that lovely rock slab on the cliff tops of Clear Hill.
It was a surreal moment, but for a man described interchangeably as a “rebel”, “colourful character”, “legendary yarn spinner” and “well known bushwalker”, it was a fitting tribute as his remains returned to a part of the bush he had so loved to explore.
It was significant enough that we were on Narrowneck, where Wilf had famously rediscovered Walls Pass — one of only two passes on the entire eastern escarpment — but perhaps the view in the distance over Lake Burragorang (and by association it’s exclusion zone) was what made the song most relevant to the occasion.
It turns out Wilf infamously has the honour of receiving the most fines for ‘trespassing’ in the magnificent bushland of this area — as well as the highest number of unpaid fines — and even negotiated the creation of the walking corridors of Mt. Cookem and Beloon Pass with the Chief Medical Officer of the then Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board after being caught on White Dog Ridge in the ’60’s.
He supposedly once explained that he never disobeyed “no trespassing” signs, it was simply that they were always facing the other direction when he came to them!
Wilf even laid down a final challenge from the grave, with Ian Wolfe from the Sydney Bushwalkers finishing his valediction with a story that just weeks before his death Wilf had disclosed that there was another secret pass off Narrowneck, not too far from Clear Hill. What a way to ensure his spirit of exploration would live on!
Wilf was well known to younger walkers like myself for his efforts searching out old routes through the bush, whether those used by the indigenous inhabitants over thousands of years or newer routes with great historical significance in the development of the Blue Mountains.
On Narrowneck his most famous find was Walls Pass — which he rediscovered in the ’60’s — an old route used by the Wall brothers in the late 1880’s to access their nearby mining lease.
Elsewhere he was instrumental — along with his close friend Jim Smith — in the reopening of Lindeman Pass and Bruce’s Walk, two amazing tracks that had been forgotten for decades and lost to the insatiable appetite of the bush. Perhaps (if anyone from the NPWS is reading this), a fitting legacy might be the formal opening of Lindeman Pass — 100 years after its construction — in Wilf’s memory.
Of course Wilf didn’t just love walking, or pass finding, but he was passionate about history, which is perhaps why he cheekily re-formed the Warragamba Walking Club, which was arguably the state’s first bushwalking club, created in 1895.
I greatly regret never having the opportunity to meet Wilf, or better yet pick his brain around a camp fire, but that doesn’t stop me feeling a great affinity with him. As bushwalkers, I think our approach to the land — and each other — is far more aligned with its traditional owners than modern man.
Bushwalkers don’t own the land, if anything it owns us. We’re drawn to it. We feel complete in it. It is a part of us, and over time we become a part of it. We are bonded together by these shared places. We try our best to protect them and pass them on, unspoilt, to future generations.
Some of my very early bushwalking was directly inspired by Wilf, with the mystery of Walls Pass drawing me in. Rocky and I did it twice (although we only set out to do it once), and it was also part of the first overnight walk I ran for Suboir, the notorious ‘Cedar Creek Death March‘ (several years on, almost everyone from that trip is talking to me again, some are even walking with me!)
So with that lengthy background as to why T1 and I did this walk, I’ll start from the beginning of the actual trip.
We set off fairly early, with the plan to do Wilf proud with a bit of exploration on the way out to the memorial. Inspired by a recent Dave Noble blog post and a comment from Graeme Holbeach I wanted to check out a few caves, so we started off exploring the climbers cave near the pumping station, where you can wake up to some magnificent views.
Next was a drive to the locked gate, before we raced along the fire trail to the headwaters of Coral Swamp to examine the nearby cave. While small, it is very nice, and has an uncanny resemblance to the Grotto Of Uranus!
Then another bash to the point where Glenraphael Swamp narrows into a creek before plunging off the plateau. Graeme had mentioned a nice camp cave near the falls, so we dropped in and went looking. We followed a great foot-pad in, and were feeling cocky, before our attempts to follow the creek forced us through swamp, cutting grass and ferns so thick that movement becomes almost impossible.
After some bouldering to avoid the water we decided to abandon the creek and head to the falls, with T1 managing not one but two spectacular falls on a slippery scramble, thankfully without injury.
Dropping back down near the end of the spur, we quickly found the cave, that while nicely sheltered and close to reliable water was rather disappointing in size. The scrub bash back to the road also confirmed why it seemed rarely used!
From here it was on to Clear Hill for a pleasant lunch and then the memorial service. As we ate Mitch arrived, amazingly on time despite sleeping in to well after he was meant to be on a train up.
The service itself was brief, but touching, with Wilf’s fellow SBW’s sending him off with a round of ‘Day-hooo’s, and afterwards there was a great chance to meet some fellow bushwalkers (including Graeme!)
Just after 2pm we set off back along the ‘Neck, chatting away about politics. As we approached the fire tower I suddenly got the urge to detour down Walls Pass — a fitting tribute to Wilf I thought — and while mature middle-aged Mitch decided to pike, T1 was keen, so we set off at a cracking pace.
For those that know the area, the folly of this is already clear, especially when you consider I didn’t have any extra food, or a map, compass, torch etc. Of course, T1 being the boy-scout he is we did actually have all those things, but he kept this secret, wanting to see how I’d do navigating blind!
An old fire trail leads much of the way, then a sketchy footpad along the ridge, so it was fairly easy going to the large cairn that marks the gully down (in fact, a second large one a few metres away has sprung up since I was last here).
By 3.10pm we were at the chains down an impressive rock face, but we didn’t dally to enjoy the view, instead racing down and heading along the pleasant if a little scrubby shale ledge to Cedar Head. A couple scrambles had us to the base of the main cliffs, including an interesting move straddling a large fallen tree which was a little steeper than I’d have liked (for those planning on doing the trip, there is an easier way, but we couldn’t be bothered traversing along).
Going down the nose there are a few more fun scrambles, along with several sections of loose scree that challenge your footing, but before too long we were below the worst of it. From here the navigation is more difficult, and as usual I got it a little wrong. As a general guide you should aim towards Castle Head for a fair way, then turn on the ridge and aim to the right of Ruined Castle. In the past I’ve always gone too far right, so I overcompensated this time, drifting off the left of the ridge and taking us down into Cedar Creek about 600m upstream from where we wanted to be.
Cedar Creek was magnificent as always. It is so pristine, with clear, tasty water, moss-covered banks, interesting cascades, thick coachwood forest, lush ferns, rich organic soil, and a feeling of complete solitude. It really is hard to believe that thousands of tourists get so close to it each year, yet it is so completely untouched.
Rather than turn up the first ridge that would take us to the Ruined Castle I took T1 to the famous camp cave, which has to be one of the most impressive overhangs anywhere in the mountains. Better still, it has perennial water right out front, along a stunning straight section of creek that looks like a natural cathedral as the trees arch overhead.
With water refilled, and a quick Berocca downed, we set off up the pleasant little pass in the creek almost opposite. Once on the ridge the walking was pleasant, if a little scrubby, and we managed to do the whole climb without getting tangled in any lawyer vine (which for those that know the area is quite a feat).
The higher we climbed, the steeper the slope, and the tireder the legs. I managed to hit the top first, just, mocking T1 for his lack of fitness, but he turned the tables when he demolished his last muesli bar and got his second wind.
By the time we had dropped onto the old shale tram line, it was night, but the almost-half moon made walking at a good pace quite reasonable. It was only as we got further along and the canopy thickened that the light situation became dire, so we paused for a head torch.
As he dug through his bag T1 managed to find a second one — with batteries so flat the spot of light was less than what the pale moon was producing — but I still gratefully accepted it.
Walking again, T1 was keeping up the cracking pace, and I was feeling more and more lethargic as my body ran out of energy. I forced a couple quick breaks on him, and by the time we reached the Golden Stairs we decided to split up (which meant I’d be able to dodge the final 800m trek up Armco Hill to the car).
I finally know what people mean by “hitting the wall”. That final climb, which should only take about 15 minutes, felt like an eternity. My legs were like two concrete blocks, while my mind kept trying to convince me to just to lie down and sleep.
From what I do remember, between the dull torch and my exhausted delirium, it seems a fair bit of work has recently been done on the Golden Stairs, with new rock and wooden steps and several new handrails along the old miners route.
Finally at the top I collapsed on the side of the road, working hard to keep my eyes open so that I could admire the starry sky.
When T1 arrived I had only one request: I needed a Mars Bar!
We headed to the servo in Katoomba, where I grabbed said snack, and a soft drink and packet of snakes, then proceeded to gorge. In much the same way you never let a dehydrated person scull water, this was a bad move, and by the time we had ordered at the Blue Mountain Hotel I was feeling very seedy.
I managed a bit less than half a beer, and about three or four mouthfuls of food, then realised my stomach couldn’t handle any more, so I had to ask for a takeaway container. It is probably the first time that anyone has ever seen me leave food, or a beer for that matter.
Thankfully T1 was chauffeuring me home, as I dozed on and off the whole way, stumbling up my driveway and falling into bed, completely spent.But despite the physical pain, there were no regrets. It was great to be part of the memorial for such an amazing bushwalker, and I’m certain in his younger days he’d have taken the same detour back, on the road less travelled.