It was the mid-80’s. Three bushwalkers from the Sydney Uni Bushwalkers, Roger Lembit, Ian Wilson and Michael Donovan, were exploring an area of the Wollemi near Numietta Creek. Then, quite by accident, they stumbled upon what would become known as Midwinter Canyon. While there had been a few earlier attempts to look for canyons in this northern region, this was the first quality canyon located in the area, and its serendipitous discovery sparked three-decades of exploration which still continues to turn up exciting new canyons in this amazing, remote wilderness.
Roger Lembit has generously agreed to share his account of that amazing trip:
A big high pressure system had placed itself over south-eastern Australia. The winter drought meant short, sunny days and cold nights. We left the car at a suitable spot and shouldered our packs, ready to explore an accessible yet rather unknown part of Wollemi National Park.
We were on the western side of a creek which flows down beside Mount Coorangooba, cascading between sandstone cliffs and over and around large boulders. To the east was an escarpment, seemingly impassable although we noticed the odd weakness which would tempt us to later exploration.
Our chosen route was up a steep, knife-edge ridge to our north. There were three of us ready to attempt to find a way up that ridge, Ian, Michael and myself. We had explored other parts of Wollemi before, but not here.
Winter in Wollemi is a time for ridge-bashing. Creeks are generally to be avoided. The pools are so cold your legs feel numb all day. That is, if you are just wading. Canyons with chest deep pools are an item any sane person would avoid. Canyons with compulsory swims are another story altogether.
Our packs were light, we had no waterproofing as our intention was to traverse the knife-edge ridge and explore the crest before descending to the main creek to camp, then follow its banks back to the car.
We made our way through scattered boulders and amongst trees and light scrub. The ridge steepened and narrowed. Minor bluffs and walls stood in our way. We tested various options for making our way up and around these obstacles, alternating the lead depending on who found the best route and our respective scrambling abilities.
As we climbed the difficulties increased, as did the exposure. Views across the Capertee Valley opened up. When taking a break from the incessant scrambling we could see across to Pantoneys Crown, Genowlan Mountain, Tayan Peak and the Red Rocks. We traversed narrow ledges to reach steep, but passable leads between the bluffs. Bloodwood trees leant at awkward angles among the rocks, surviving in the shallowest of soils.
After a long period of searching for leads and complex upward navigation we reached a flat sandstone bench at the top of the cliffs. We rested, satiated ourselves on junk food — Ian on his usual packet of jelly snakes — and took in the expansive views. We had climbed a total of 300m from the valley floor. Whilst complex, the ridge had involved no extreme scrambling and our lack of a rope did not cost us. The sky was relentlessly blue and the temperature a rather unseasonal 20C. A great weekend to be exploring a new ridge out in the wilderness.
The plateau widened to the north. Our route involved a flattish plateau covered by open forest, a brief descent through a saddle and further traversing across rolling hills. A basalt capped mountain lay to our north guarded by a sandstone bluff on its southern flank.
We made steady progress through the forest. As we approached the bluff we checked out options for getting through the steep sandstone onto the higher slopes of the mountain. The mountain sat to the left hand side of the generally north trending ridge. The bluff seemed less distinct on the right and as we ascended the steep lower slopes we edged right to line ourselves up with what seemed like a continuous belt of trees leading up the mountain.
We climbed up the steep pass, eager to reach the summit for a well earned break. Once we were through the sandstone we walked across the grassy basalt plateau a short distance to the summit, avoiding scattered patches of nettles. The plateau supported ribbon gum trees, their smooth, fresh bark shrouded in strands of older bark. Possum scratches were evident on the ribbon gum trunks, the higher fertility of the basalt soils providing more food resources for native wildlife. We dwelled on the mountain for some time, enjoying the open, grassy summit, the warm winter sun and a billy of hot tea.
Descending north from the summit we reached a fire trail. Our dallying on the summit meant it was now mid afternoon and we needed to make good progress to reach our intended destination on the creek. We continued north along the fire trail to reach a grassy saddle. The basalt flow which made our lunch spot on top of the mountain so enjoyable extended to this saddle. A few spiny Blackthorn plants gave further indication of the basalt influence.
We needed to get from our ridge down to the main creek. I reached into the pack, retrieved the map and we discussed options for reaching the creek. Leading east from the saddle was a short, smaller creek which curved in an arc to the main creek, which was about a kilometre and a half away. The map indicated that the contours were well spaced with only a short steep section immediately before a junction with the main creek.
It looked like a goer. Just a short romp down to an early camp.
We quickly walked down through the meadow-like slopes to reach the highest reach of the minor creek, our intended highway to our campsite. The valley narrowed and we passed off the basalt onto sandstone. The creek curved through the narrowing valley.
The skies were darkening as the low winter sun was covered by a bank of dark clouds. Our path ahead darkened as the sandstone walls corralled us within an ever thinning creekline. Rounding a bend we came to a shallow pool, bordered by cliffs. We were still a kilometre or so from the main creek.
The sandstone walls were only a metre apart, the creek winding between them. The arc of the creek meant we could not see very far downstream. Was this a short obstacle which we could overcome by bridging across this pool, or a portent of something more serious. We were hoping it was the former, but suspecting it was the latter.
We hummed the tune of a then well-known cigarette ad, our rather perverted sign that we had entered ‘Canyon Country’. Ian tried bridging the pool to see what lay ahead. He reported that the pool got deeper and the walls got wider removing the dry option of bridging as a possibility. It seemed that the canyon continued for some distance, possibly all the way to the main creek. We were not equipped for canyoning, even if our descent did not require a rope. We knew that to follow the creek down required compulsory deep wades, at best, and if an abseil was ultimately required, we would need to turn back anyway.
Of course, if it was summer we would have pressed on regardless.
The available time before the early sunset was dwindling, we knew we needed to find an alternative route to the main valley, or spend a dry night up on a scrubby ridge. Faced with a choice of heading either north or south to the ridges which flanked our midwinter canyon, we chose north. I’m still not sure what guided this selection.
The scrubby ridge was rather indistinct and broad, with lots of false spurs evident on the topographic map. We navigated carefully towards the point which descended to the main creek junction. As we reached the top of the steep broken bluffs which stood in the way of our descent, the light grew dimmer as dusk set in. We spread out looking for a suitable lead. After a mercifully short time we spotted a likely route and slowly made our way downslope taking care not to dislodge rocks or dead branches.
Sure enough, the pass went and we reached a dark creek valley. We found a likely flat among some coachwood trees, gathered some firewood and set about making our camp. We chatted excitedly about our discovery — a new canyon. Fancy finding it on a winter ridge-bashing trip!
We rose next morning and chose to explore the lower reaches of Midwinter Canyon. After a short, steep section close to the main creek we passed coachwood trees and ferns to enter a walled chamber terminated by a pool. It looked a bit deep, but Ian and Michael thought they’d give it a go. They followed the canyon up for some distance, impressed by its dark water carved walls. Apart from the lower pool, there was little in the way of serious obstacles and they returned with cold legs, but happy to have been the first canyoneers to explore the delights of Midwinter Canyon.
We still had about seven kilometres of, to us, unknown creek to explore, the first kilometre or so looked rather narrow on the map, before entering a wider valley. We alternated between travelling along the banks and wading in the very cool, but shallow pools along the creek.
The vegetation was a mix of eucalypts and rainforest trees — sassafras and black wattle mixed with coachwood. The ground vegetation was ferny, the occasional fallen tree impeded our progress.
Once through the narrow section, the creek came to a sweeping right hand bend at a major junction. We noted on the map a long, narrow creek entering from the north-east. Surely it too had canyon. Something for another time, unless someone beat us to it.
An island-like knoll rose to our left, the creek to its south apparently leading up to a basalt saddle. I was later to find out that the basalt on that particualr ridge supported thickets of blackthorn and nettle, more so than grassy flats.
The valley trended south-west, the flats became more frequent, so we spent less time wading the pools and sinking in the quicksand. Occasionally the creek bed was blocked with house-sized boulders fallen from the fringing cliffs at some distant time in the past. A series of side creeks entered, more sites for future exploration.
The cliff walls reached higher and further apart and the creek started dropping more steeply. Boulders choked the creek and we clambered over them, through the creek unperturbed by the need to wade as the unusually warm winter sun marked the middle of the day. Teatrees had replaced the rainforest trees of the narrower sections of the valley.
After some time we caught glimpses of cleared flats and slopes and the ridge to our right, which we had ascended the day before, receded to provide views of further ridges and peaks to the west. A quick trip across partially cleared flats saw us safely back to our car, eager to report our new find to our lazy mates back in Sydney.
They and others would come to explore the area in future summers, finding any number of new canyons. A series of Easter trips would reveal many canyons, now given appelations appropriate for the season.
I eventually returned to Midwinter Canyon one summer to do it properly and further explore the area. The canyon is straightforward, and provided one is prepared for a few wades and a bit of scrambling relatively trivial. Like other canyons, the walls are spectacular and the combination of dark pools, green, mossy clefts and carved sandstone make it an awesome place to visit.
On that first trip all the way down Midwinter Canyon, we encountered a large goanna part of the way through the canyon proper. Our efforts to convince that goanna to move were fruitless. We were in a quite narrow section, with a pool further down. There was virtually nowhere for the goanna to escape, unless it decided to swim. Not wanting to upset it more than necessary, we chose to bridge upwards and over the goanna hoping it didn’t decide also to climb. We didn’t want to learn the power of its jaws.
Fortunately it was not keen on moving and we managed to pass safely by, continuing through the canyon to that lower pool I had refused to wade on the warm winter morning. At last I could claim to have completed a trip down Midwinter Canyon.