Party: Tim Volmer, Carina Lucchinelli and Kandice Pierce — photos
I love the splendid isolation of the Blue Breaks. Rugged sandstone plateaus, intersected by deep, plunging gorges, and almost completely untouched by modern man.
I’d argue that they are among the most remote, wild, isolated places on earth — that still allows glimpses over a major metropolis.
While it is all deep within national park, the area’s real protection lies in Lake Burragorang — the impoundment of Waragamba Dam that so successfully shut off almost all access half a century ago. The combination of nature and human activity has conspired to lock this area away as a completely pristine wilderness.
On my first walk here, last June, I completely fell in love with the place, inspiring me to return again on Dave Noble’s trip in September. That trip only gave me even more of a desire to come back and further explore.
Preparation for this trip hadn’t been great — we were all still finishing our packing in the morning that we were due to drive to Yerranderie — and I still needed to do a gear stop in Katoomba for a few final items. From there we made better time, even detouring into Oberon for a burger from one of my favourite take away shops.
Once in Yerranderie we did a quick drive through the remnants of the historic mining ghost town before heading back to the free camp ground, which has the main problem of requiring you to scrounge for firewood. We’d barely collected a pile of kindling when a ute rocked up, and Troy, one of only seven full-time residents, appeared with a pile of wood for us. He was trying to do his bit to reduce the fuel for bushfires, and we were happy to oblige.
We enjoyed a pleasant night around a cracking fire, with a stash of Joshua’s home-brewed ginger beer, before we finally hit the hay.
We woke to a warm morning and glorious sunshine — something that would be a feature of the whole trip. A lazy breakfast around the fire, along with some repacking of gear as we looked for any final grams we could lose, and we were off.
A shorter than expected drive down a fire trail — not all the locked gates appear to be marked — and we had to dump the car, saddling up with our packs and continuing on foot.
As we pounded along the fire trail, away from Yerranderie, our escape from civilisation seemed almost complete. The road steadily deteriorated, and by the crossing of the Tonalli River it became clear no vehicle had driven it in decades.
Up the other side we paused for morning tea, before strolling through a grassy clearing that is all that remains of an old farm, before turning off up the slope towards our pass.
After negotiating a weird wiggle of ridge, we found the faint remains of an old road, which led us most of the way to our pass. With a final steep push we arrived at the towering, overhanging cliffs of the detached block near Tonalli Pass / Lacys Gap.
We skirted underneath, admiring a couple reasonable camp caves, before dropping our packs and scrambling up to check out the views from on top. We made it a fair way out — and the scenery laid out before us was magnificent — but we decided against a final exposed scramble across a deep slot to get to the very end.
Back at the packs we climbed the easy final section onto the Tonalli Tableland, pausing on a rocky slab for lunch.
While there had been a clear footpad (or possibly even an old bridle trail) this far, from now on there was no sign of other people. In fact, we saw only faint, occasional traces of other people’s visits for the next six days.
My original plan had been to push out onto the Tonalli Tableland, before looping anti-clockwise through the Blue Breaks, but with a couple less experienced walkers I decided we’d probably be better off heading for the section of Lacys Tableland where I’d walked before, and knew we’d find reliable water and shelter (I figured we could save the real suffering for later in the walk!).
After lunch we made our way towards Terni Head, which is not only an amazing pass off the tableland, but offers up some incredible views.
The wildflowers were stunning, often coming in clumps that turned the whole foreground a single colour!
We dropped packs a short way before the point, startling a Lyre Bird as we made our way out to the nose. Not only is it an impressive (if a little dicey) pass, but the perspective of the Axehead Range is incredible.
I also took the chance to retrieve the sling I’d left behind when we’d abseiled down here a year earlier. (Yep, one of the few signs of humanity in the wilderness and it was my own rubbish!)
Back at the packs we turned down hill, crossing a small creek next to our first camp site. Neither of the girls had slept in a camp cave before, and they don’t come much better than this one. A huge, curving overhang, in a sheltered valley, with an attractive ferny outlook and water close by.
We set up camp before clambering up to the nearby cliff edge to admire the views. The sunset was magnificent.
In the morning we enjoyed a sleep in, before eventually pushing on. We stuck fairly close to the cliff edges most of the way, admiring the towering sandstone walls.
We passed Cuff Links Pass and Presidents Pass — both discovered by Sydney Uni Bushwalkers in the 70’s — filling up with water just before lunch at a spot that was the furthest north I’d made it on my first trip last year.
After lunch we came upon a great little canyon, which we scrambled down into. As we followed it, an almost-bottomless crack opened up among there ferns. I was very excited to see the geological process that created this magnificent escarpment country — huge slabs breaking away and falling into the valley below — first hand.
From here we headed inland slightly to a distinctive hill that not only offers some impressive views, but marks the start of the Bimlow Tableland. Finally, on my third trip that had planned to visit this area, I’d made it!
We took a few minutes to look for an old log book that had apparently once been there, but found no sign of it, so continued on our way.
Back on the rim of the cliffs we found a fairly nice camp site, and we settled in for the night. Once it was completely dark we moved away from the fire to an open rock slab, soaking in the magnificent starry sky, until the chill night air convinced us to return to the fire’s cosy warmth.
In the morning we collected water from the upper reaches of a nearby creek before again setting off, moving inland along a chain of small hills. It was amazing how much different the walking was just a short distance from the nearby escarpments.
Eventually we made our way back to the western walls, where the ridge at times narrowed down to just a few metres. There were some easy, but very exposed scrambles that took us directly up the ridge while the gorge plunged away beside us.
As the afternoon lengthened we decided to look for a camp. We were hoping to find somewhere good, with water nearby, so we could use it as a base for the next two nights, doing an ‘out and back’ walk with day packs to the northern end of Bimlow.
What we found was a great little camp cave, with spectacular views nearby, and a creek that looked promising for water, but after following it a long way we found nothing.
We did manage to find a muddy spot in the creek, which was full of brown water when we dug out the leaves and rocks. It looked unappetising, but by morning it had cleared enough to be a drinkable emergency water supply.
Given the lack of water, and the fact that there were no more guaranteed sources on our route, we decided to abandon that side trip and instead take a nearby pass down to Lacys Creek.
This pass was great, an easy walk down an attractive creek, with ferny boulders and huge towering trees. Unfortunately, once it broke through the cliffs it became more scrubby, so we pushed off to a slight ridge nearby.
Mostly this worked out, except for a wide patch of Kangaroo Thorn. This bastard of a plant seems to enjoy growing at a certain band of the geology, so we had to deal with it on every pass, but this was by far the worst patch. By the time we’d pushed through it, we had what felt like thousands of the little thorns stuck in our hair, clothing, skin and packs.
From here the ridge was quite nice, and plunged down to Lacys Creek. We were very relieved to hear a nice flow of water, given my experiences the year before of long, bone-dry sections in Butchers Creeks, which is nearby.
The banks were fairly scrubby, but the creek itself was open and pretty, flowing over smooth river stones.
We decided to stop here for lunch, with the plentiful water being greatly appreciated in the hot sunshine. I took a quick dip in a small waterhole, but the other two declined after seeing how quickly I jumped back out of the icy water!
After lunch we made our way up the slope slightly, finding it to be easier walking away from the creek, and before long we’d found the ridge we needed to climb. We were hopefully it would lead us up onto the Tonalli Tableland far above.
The higher we went, the more defined the ridge got, with impressive views of the valley opening up below us.
Eventually we made it through the steep, loose shale sections which are a feature of the Blue Breaks, to the rocky scrambles above.
Things were all going well, with a relatively easy climb, then we hit a fairly impressive cliff. We paused here, exploring for an easy way up, before eventually decided on a steep, exposed scramble that was clearly our best bet.
I went up first, struggling a bit with an awkward move about 3m up, but made it to the top without too much trouble beyond that. (An interesting knee-jam in the wide crack higher up also made me very glad Bjorn had tried to get me to climb an off-width crack a few months earlier!)
At the top I set up our rope to haul packs and top belay the other two. With heavy packs — we’d just refilled the water at the creek — it wasn’t much fun, but soon they were up.
Next came Carina and Kandice’s baptism of fire on a really tough rock scramble (for the uninitiated, if you see this in an advertised trip, it basically means easy rock climbing, only without any climbing gear!).
On cue the wind also decided to come up, adding an extra layer of complexity. I think Huey was calling me out on a broken promise, as a few days earlier, in the stinking heat, I’d said “I’d kill for a breeze”, which was almost immediately met with a cooling zephyr.
As with my climb, the hard part was clearly an awkward move out of a small overhang and up a smooth bit of rock, where all the holds seemed just out of reach.
Eventually we were all up that part. From here there was just one more scramble, which was technically easy but massively exposed, and we were through the last of it. However we were running out of sun, so we needed to find somewhere to camp quite quickly.
As we continued up the narrow ridge, we came to a large rocky outcrop with a huge crack down the middle. Given it was wind, not rain, that we were expecting, this seemed the perfect shelter, so we set up camp.
A wall of packs down one end completed the protection from the now howling gusts. Best of all, there was a great little spot for a camp fire just outside that was also protected from the wind.
A few hours after we’d gone to bed I was woken by the almost-full moon rising, which seemed to be exactly in line with our crack. It was an amazing sight. Unfortunately, not only after that some clouds decided to blow over.
The next time we awoke, it was to a flurry of light rain drops. The bursts were short, and the rain never heavy, but it was enough to wake us each time.
The three of us lay there, silently, praying it wouldn’t get heavier, because there was absolutely no sheltered spot to sleep, and nowhere that we’d seen to set up flies. Thankfully, after what seemed like at least an hour of threatening to open up, the clouds retreated and left us to sleep.
By morning we had a new problem. Some sort of stomach bug was playing havoc with the other two (let’s just say, the end of the crack that led to the cliffs was declared “dead to us”).
We were already up to Plan F by this time, which was a day walk without packs to the northern end of Tonalli — Maxwells Broken Rock. However, seeing Kandice hunched over in the foetal position, I figured even that was pushing it.
Instead we decided to siesta in the sunshine, before eventually heading down to a nearby creek to collect water. We had lunch here, then climbed back to camp, packed up, and continued at a fairly relaxed pace.
We didn’t make it too far, given we hadn’t started walking to mid afternoon, and we hit some pretty nasty scrub up on top of The Frowner — a peak with impressive views along the length of Lacys Creek.
Given all that, we decided to make camp in a small open area near the top, but sheltered from the wind. Like all our camp sites, this one was only a short way from the cliff edge, so we once again got to sit down, sip whisky, and watch the glowing escarpments before settling in around the camp fire.
Next morning we knew we’d have to improve our pace, even with the illnesses, because we were a long way from Yerranderie. Things didn’t look good for our plan early on, with very slow walking through thick scrub for a couple kilometres (although I did find the remains of a helium balloon, the second I’ve packed out from this area!)
Eventually we made it onto the main ridge-line that runs the length of the tableland, and the walking improved drastically. There was a lot of little ups and down, but most of it took us across interesting rocky knolls.
My goal was simply to get Bob Higgins Creek that night, which not only would give us water, but would take us to within an easy days walk from the car. By lunchtime we’d nearly done this, with only a couple kilometres to go, which was a great feeling.
The other wonderful thing about lunch was that we stumbled upon a nice little overhang, protected from the wind, which was perfectly timed as a few minutes later a burst of sleet came down. It was the only precipitation all day, and we didn’t cop a drop of it!
From here it was pretty easy walking. The biggest challenge was finding a pass down the minor cliff lines into the creek. Once down, we were very happy, with a strong flow of crystal clear water welcoming us.
We had been expecting (or at least hoping) to find a good camp cave nearby for our final night, but after a very slow walk upstream, involving lots of a scrub, ferns, slippery rocks and log walking, things weren’t looking good. The one cave we’d found had a few drips, and seemed a bit dingy.
Our desire to keep exploring the creek was even more diminished when Carina stood on what seemed to be solid ground, but was just a thick mat of ferns, sending her tumbling a couple metres down to the creek. Thankfully she landed on a heap of soft ferns, so wasn’t hurt, but it gave us all a fright.
We decided to simply fill up our water and head up the ridge through an easy break in the cliffs. Once up, it was immediately open forest, so things were looking good. Within ten minutes the ridge had flattened out, and we found a great spot to set up camp, with a nearby log to sit on next to the fire.
The wind, which had whipped up two days earlier, continued to roar through the treetops all night, but thankfully we were protected enough to not feel it at ground level.
We set of reasonably early the next morning, all wanting to knock over the bulk of the walking. The ridges in this southern part of Tonalli were great, with a mix of rocky outcrops and fairly open bush. Soon enough we were starting to spot glimpses through the trees of the southern cliffs approaching.
Popping out to the cliff edge, we looked to the west and could clearly see our pass from the first day. It was great admiring that distinctive detached slab of rock, especially as it meant we were on the home stretch.
Heading inland slightly, where the walking was easier, we enjoyed some of the most attractive bush of the whole walk. While there are no showy views, it is almost park-like, and very worthy of exploring. Best of all, there were plenty of flowers about, convincing me again of how good September is for these longer walks.
We had morning tea at Tonalli Pass before following the old track back into the valley.
Here disaster almost struck, with Kandice taking a nasty fall that left her completely unable to move or feel her hand quite a while. We were very worried about what she may have done to it, but thankfully it started to improve and she was able to continue.
The only other calamity was my navigational stuff-up (it was pretty embarrassing as we were simply retracing our steps from the first day), when I led us down the wrong ridge to the Tonalli River. Rather than an easy stroll, through a grassy paddock and down an old road, I took us through scrub then down a very steep, loose slope.
While I didn’t win any friends with the route finding, it did lead us to a stunning waterhole on the river, with a nice grassy area nearby. It was the perfect spot for lunch, and definitely somewhere to return to for a swim on future trips!
A quick bash up the slope on the other side and we were on the fire trail. We made a good pace, despite it being rather steep and unrelenting in places, and by mid-afternoon we were back at the car.
Our thoughts had been to crash in town that night (possibly even enjoying a hot shower), but with so much daylight left we simply hit the road for home.
The road from Yerranderie seemed shorter, and in better condition than it had a week earlier, and we made great time, arriving at the Hampton Halfway House for dinner (I’d been talking up their “Shearer’s Special” — which is basically just a plate containing every meat known to man — for days).
The trip had been a new experience Kandice and Carina — an extended off-track wilderness walk — but they’d both been great company. Hopefully they’ve caught the same bug as me that makes me want to go back out and continue to explore some of these amazing wild places that lie hidden on Sydney’s doorstep.