Bushwalking / Camp cave / Canyoning / Historical / SUBW

A chilly trip through Fortress Canyon and Darks Cave

Party: Tim Vollmer, Kosta Seiler, Sierra Classen, Todd Harford, Saul Richardson, Damian O’Connor, Phil Davey, Ross Davey and Barnaby Heaton – photos

There was a chill in the air at Leura as we stood around waiting for the train to bring the last of the group. All week the weather forecast had been miserable, with some showers expected, but we were determined to push ahead with our trip through Fortress Canyon.

I’d done this trip a few times before — in fact I did my first ever abseil in this canyon — and had unknowingly explored the small upper canyon section on a bushwalk with friends years before I even knew this canyoning caper existed.

Because it is a perfect place for beginners, with an easy canyon and some spectacular views, I decided it would be perfect when a few old mates who hadn’t abseiled since high school asked me to organise a trip where they could come along.

'Swamp canyoning' on the way in. Now I know why I don't go this way usually!

It also appealed to several members, being a perfect trip for a few who also hadn’t done much canyoning, or at least not for a very long time.

We drove out Mt Hay Road to the car park, quickly sorting out gear and heading down the track. I’d decided to try out Tom Brennan’s track notes for this one, despite the fact I’d entered a different way in the past, so we turned off one ridge earlier than usual.

The others were still gibbering about theoretical mathematics when we hit the swamp. The recent rain made for slow going, and there were plenty of holes ready to swallow you up. Eventually we were at the creek, and after following it for a few hundred metres my preferred track came in and we were at the little clearing where people usually don their wetsuits.

Moving through the second canyon section

(Note: I don’t normally provide track notes, but for this one I will. On the walk in ignore the old fire trail on the right about 1.5km along. Instead walk a couple hundred metres up hill and turn right out the next ridge line. There is usually a cairn here. You miss no canyon, but do avoid the swamp section!)

Once we were suited up we moved down the creek. Eventually we got to the small climb down or jump which marks the start of the first small section of canyon. While the walls are only short, the fact that you have to swim makes it seem a little more impressive.

Some more pleasant wading and walking down creek took us to the next section of canyon. The creek began to drop, with a fun little hole to scramble through before we got to a rock and a 2m jump into a deeper section of canyon.

Abseiling into the final constriction. This can be jumped, but there is a rock to dodge!

The pool is very deep, so most of us had no trouble, although one unnamed person looked very uncomfortable on the edge, requiring a mix of encouraging words and the threat of a push to get them to make the leap!

This section is again short, but more attractive with some nice winding rock formations. Unfortunately it ends all too soon and we were back to the creek.

From here the scenery improves, with towering cliffs in the distance, lush green foliage, and on this trip several water dragons, including a mother and child pair on a log.

Impressive canyon formation near the end

Eventually the creek dropped again towards the final, main constriction. Here most of us chose to abseil, although Kosta demonstrated that the drop of about five or six metres can easily be jumped, as long as you avoid an area of rock.

The actual abseil is quite simple, although there is an awkward start and a small overhang to deal with, but no one in our group had any troubles.

At the end, where a large rock collapse has created a small tunnel, I’d always walked up and over, but this time we slid through, which made for a slight novelty. The overhang just past this is incredibly large and dwarfs the creek.

Kosta and Sierra enjoying the natural spa at the end of the canyon

With a few last boulder hops you are at the end; an amazing 70m waterfall that plunges into the Grose Valley, offering spectacular views.

It was the perfect spot to get out of the wet gear and have lunch, with Kosta and Sierra briefly trying out the ‘spa’ — a rock pool carved by the creek near the edge — despite the chilly conditions.

We made good time up the steep exit track, pausing at a spectacular rock to look back upstream, as well as soaking up the only direct sunlight of the trip!

Looking down on the canyon section of Fortress Creek from the exit track

From Fortress Ridge the views were amazing, which is why this is one of those perfect places for an easy bushwalk with friends or family when you are after something simple, stunning, yet crowd free for a stroll and a picnic lunch.

I’m a firm believer in always trying to incorporate something new in my trips, so on the way back I wanted to take a detour to Darks Cave, which I’d heard was an amazing point of historical significance, as well as aesthetic beautify.

Less than a kilometre from the cars we dumped our gear, following an old fire trail west to a spectacular lookout over the gorge where Arethusa Canyon joins. Kosta decided to scramble out to an incredible nose of rock that juts into the valley, balancing on one leg for maximum heart-stopping effect.

Kosta balancing precariously. In the background Arethusa Canyon enters the valley

From here we retraced our steps until a footpad appeared on our left, which would take us to the cave. It was quite steep as it dropped down a slight gully into the main creek, which was enough to convince a few members of the group to bail on this part and head home, but half a dozen of us pressed on.

The creek was beautiful, with crystal clear water gurgling along. Our track followed it for a way before moving up to the base of the cliffs which eventually brought us around to the cave.

The cave came in two parts. The main section, entered through a narrow ‘doorway’, was well protected, with natural rock chairs, a big fireplace and a stone wall around a good sleeping area. Looking down the valley we could make out the reflection of a swimming hole. The escarpment views were truly magnificent.

Exploring Darks Cave

Around the corner an even larger overhang opened up, and it was here that the large collection of old camping equipment dating back over 70 years can still be found. It was also here that a pleasant waterfall enters and forms a good pool of clean water.

This spot inspired a little bit of wrestling and mixed martial arts, the dunking of heads in water and a recreation of a shampoo commercial. (To be honest, I can’t quite describe it all, but look at the photos, they make it a little clearer).

I suppose at this point I should explain the historic significance of this place. It was found in 1937 by Dr Eric Dark and his wife Eleanor, and they used it for many decades as a family escape.

The spectacular view from the cave

Dr Dark was the father of rock climbing not only in the Blue Mountains, but the state. One of the first doctors to head to France at the outbreak of WWI, where he won the Military Cross for “great gallantry and disregard of danger”, he moved to the mountains in the 20’s, forming the first ever climbing club in NSW.

Named the Blue Mountaineers — but dubbed the Katoomba Suicide Club by locals — they pioneered climbs on the Three Sisters, Narrowneck and in the Grose, as well as making famous first ascents of Belougerie and Crater Bluff in the Warrumbungle’s (some with the amazing Dot Butler). The gear used was minimal, with their climbing ropes made up of 32mm manila (the stuff you used for tug-of-wars in school!)

Eleanor Dark, who was also an active climber and bushwalker, was an iconic Australian author, publishing 10 novels as well as poems, essays and articles.

There are quite a few old relics from the Darks

This cave was central to their story. They named it “Jerrikellimi” (a composite of their and their childrens’ names). During WWII Dr Dark, aged in his 50’s, joined the Volunteer Defence Corps, with the Army tasking him and five others to find spots in the mountains from which guerilla forces could harass occupying Japanese troops. Years later he told a journalist he thought the task was futile, that the Japanese would invade shortly, and “I quite expected that after a short resistance I would die fighting a guerilla war in the Blue Mountains.”

After the war he was accused of being a communist in Federal Parliament, monitored by ASIO, was a founding member of the Doctor’s Reform Society, and for many years the chairman of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. Perhaps it was this left-leaning politics that led to ongoing rumours that the cave was used as a guerilla training camp, with Eleanor writing in a letter the latest rumour she’d heard was that “we have a year’s supply of food hidden in our cave!”

This is a truly amazing spot, and I can see why it was so sacred to them. I have no doubt from the quality of the cave that they were not the first people to use it.

There is something really communal about camp caves. A sense of shared ownership, of common experiences and stories. A feeling that sitting around a camp fire in that cave would provide a timeless experience shared with amazing people long departed.

Anyway, with the philosophical juices nicely flowing we finally departed, making the steep slog back up to the ridge-top then on to the cars.

Here we bid one more trip member adieu, before five of us headed to The Alex for a rewarding beer after a most enjoyable trip. Of course, the adventures didn’t stop there…

Part two — Nude Canyoning: the Empress has no clothes

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4 thoughts on “A chilly trip through Fortress Canyon and Darks Cave

  1. Hmm. I noted the track that follows the ridge about two years ago, and we took it on our last trip down Fortress about a year ago. I thought I’d updated my track notes to refer to it instead of the swamp – but obviously not!

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