Serendipity at night and the ever-spectacular Whungee Wheengee Canyon

Party: Tim Vollmer, Kosta Seiler, Sky Reidy, Todd Harford, Joshua Hill and Drew Morcom

Night canyoning is a truly unique activity. The darkness completely changes the experience, making even the most familiar places seem alien. Add to that the millions of glow worms illuminating the rock walls, countless more stars twinkling in the sky above, the absolute silence, the need to feel your way rather than just see it and the scents of the bush at night and you end up in sensory nirvana.

This trip had been Joshua’s idea — a repeat of a similar weekend about a year earlier that I’d been unable to make — but after our plans were made he had work commitments come up, meaning Drew and Joshua would have to miss the night canyoning part.

The remaining four of us pressed on, heading up to Mt Wilson late on the Saturday afternoon, arriving at the Cathedral of Ferns at about 6.30pm.

We made quick time of the walk in, down the exit track to Why Don’t We Do It In The Road (Serendipity) Canyon, arriving at the camp cave at the very end of the canyon right on sunset. We dumped our packs, set up camp, collected a good stash of firewood and geared up in the twilight, before heading back up the track.

It was pretty dark by the time we reached the junction with the entry track, with the half moon casting feint shadows on the ground in front of us. Darkness made the walk in a little tougher — allowing a large tree that had fallen during the wind storm earlier this year to confuse the track and send us off on a brief detour. Thankfully we’d soon worked out the error, backtracked, and started the downhill run into the creek.

Two easy abseils, both beside waterfalls, had us down into a pleasant room — with two waterfalls and towering rock walls which came complete with our first impressive display of glow worms.

There was a brief, canyonish section here, with glow worms nestled along cracks and crevasses in the sandstone walls, but all too soon they opened out and we started the rather pleasant creek walk.

Soon enough we got to the real canyon section, where I was totally blown away by just how tight the constriction was. It was much better than I recall, although it has been a long while since I’d done the full canyon rather than just the section that can be reversed from the Wollangambe River.

There were several short but enjoyable abseils — made a little more technical in the dark — and a number of very cold swims, especially as I had popped the zipper on the back of my wetsuit!

With lights out the curving canyon walls could be traced above us, dimly lit by the glow worms’ feint blue glow.

All too soon we were at the end — walking along the slippery side of the distinctive cavern just before the junction with the river — turning a corner and arriving at our camp site for the night.

Within minutes we were out of the wet gear, the fire was going, the wine was open, dinner was cooking and the conversation flowing.

Outside the weather defied the forecast, with clear skies putting on a vivid display of stars that can only be experienced when far away from the light pollution of suburbia.

At some point Todd crawled into bed, seemingly oblivious to the increasing volume of our conversation. The topics must have been rather interesting given we were still going strong at 2.30am when we saw some flashes of torchlight approaching.

Joshua and Drew had finally arrived after a late night at work, a long drive from Orange, and a walk in that had also been hampered by the added complexity of doing it at night. They briefly joined in the conversation, but when the rest of us discovered that they’d failed to pack any more liquor — ours was all consumed by this point — we became less hospitable.

Come morning we barely stirred when the alarm went off, dozing off until the first rays of sun light started hitting us. At this point we finally got moving, aware that the Orange boys needed to be back at the cars by 3pm to make it to their evening’s commitments.

After a quick breakfast we packed our gear, leaving our packs in the cave, before gearing up and heading off towards Whungee Wheengee.

After a short walk it was time to get wet, slipping into the ‘Gambe for the start of about 400m of swimming and wading to get to the gully that would take us to our canyon.

We reached a small climb (the water jump / small down climb near the start of Wollangambe 2), where Drew provided some solid entertainment for the rest of us. Three times in a row he tried to get up before slipping back into the water then waving the next person in the group through. For a moment it looked like he’d be spending the day there! Thankfully Joshua came to the rescue with a helpful leg-up and we were on our way.

The climb up the gully onto the ridge top was steeper than I recalled, with the wetsuit combining with the humid weather to make it a rather sticky and unpleasant experienced. Once on top it was a short stroll along the tops before we dropped quickly towards our canyon.

I’d only done Whungee Wheengee once before, about four years back, and my memory was hazy. The first abseil into the creek was very familiar — I’d got a leg loop caught in the coachwood that grows next to it — but from then on it seemed like a totally new experience.

From the start of the shallow upper constriction this is an amazing canyon. There are several duck-unders, with just an inch or so of air between the water and rock above, and the most amazing little glow worm cavern.

It was in these that we started to get familiar with Sky’s squeal — a confusing combination of terror and delight — with a fair few gasps of amazement from the rest of us. (Actually, a few of our gasps probably had something to do with the freezing water temperature!)

The canyon sections in Whungee Wheengee are long and sustained, with narrow swims, interesting climb downs, several enjoyable abseils, tunnels to explore, and an amazing mix of canyon styles — from long straight sections along fault lines to swirly windy areas snaking through the rock.

Eventually, like all good things, it came to an end, with the noticeably warmer water in the Wollangambe most welcome. With dark clouds in the sky, and more than a few cracks of thunder, we had no desire to hang around, so we began the long trip upstream to our gear.

All up it is only about 800m, but three quarters of it is made up of long swims with a healthy current flowing against you.

It was in one of these swims, with canyon walls on each side, that we stumbled upon a poor wallaby that had apparently fallen in or simply gotten lost. It was looking rather tired, with its head only just above the water, and was desperately following the side of the canyon hoping to find a way out.

I swam over and tried to lift him out of the water a bit, but he was scared and started kicking, so I quickly let go. Instead we decided to carefully shadow him, pushing him upstream to an area he might be able to get out.

Eventually he got to a slippery rock slab that led up into some bush above, but it was too slippery and he was too tired to get out of the water. This time when I swam up behind him there was no flight and he let me grab him by the hips and lift him onto the rock, happily hoping up the bank and into some scrub as soon as his feet were on dry ground.

The rest of the swim was uneventful, although notable for the fact that we didn’t see a single lilo floating the other direction.

Soon enough we were back at WDWDIITR, scrambling up to our packs and pulling on some dry clothes. We ate lunch on a large rock, enjoying the momentary bursts of sunshine through the increasingly rare gaps in the clouds. While we ate half a dozen groups must have come out of the canyon, with the last a scout group including the 15-year-old daughter of Adrian Spragg who has done several club trips with us this year. Talk about a small world!

With the weather worsening we packed up and got walking — the third time in 24 hours we’d been on this section of track — and within minutes we saw a thick fog roll through the valley, bringing with it some very light rain.

The walk out was cold, windy and we endured the constant threat of rain, but that kept our tired legs moving fairly well and ensured we were at the cars in time. Thankfully the storm that hit other parts of the city missed us completely!

The Orange crew set off on time and the rest of us headed back towards Sydney, with Sky and Kosta ending up at my place for some beer and pizza in the spa, which I can confirm is the most incredible follow up to a cold weekend of swimming through canyons!


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