Party: Tim Vollmer, Mary Merlo, Todd Harford, Michael Arrell, Dave Lee, Adrian Spragg, Emma Spencer, Bjorn Sturmburg (with Nicole and Oli as base-camp support crew)
So when Sydney has its hottest day ever (global warming anyone…), where better to be than a canyon, right? Except when that canyon requires you to climb several hundred metres up an impressive sandstone escarpment, only to discover an unnervingly strong smell of smoke once you’re on top, then turns out to be the driest poo-smeared slot you’ve ever entered!
We’d driven out to Glen Davis the night before. Dinner was enjoyed at the excellent Capertee Royal Hotel — where nervous locals had spent their time trying to worry us about the potential for dry lightning and bushfires — before we made the final push into town.
It was dark, and late. No one wanted to worry about the river crossing, or setting up tents, so we crashed in the now familiar campground which while very well serviced with bathrooms and showers, is also notorious for overly friendly locals of the mosquito variety.
Sleeping under the large pergola was great, but it did involve a few midnight adventures for us. Mostly that meant hopping up to douse ourselves head to toe in insect repellent (it was too hot for sleeping bags) but for one lucky member it also meant being trapped in a toilet cubical with a frog that liked to provide surprises! Needless to say, the blood-curdling scream had us all awake, firstly with concern, then with hysterics once we discovered the scale of the amphibian prankster’s attack.
In the morning we made the final push to the Coorongooba Campground. The Capertee River was barely deep enough to wet the tyres at the ford. The turgid trickle was in stark contrast to our trip a year earlier — when a balancing act along a fallen tree was required to avoid a swim through the rushing waters.
Up Coorongooba Creek we went, wandering along the sandy reaches, scrambling over boulder chokes and occasionally being forced up onto the scrubby sides, before we reached the gully that would hopefully provide our pass.
It was already stinking hot, and the sweat was pouring down as we made the steep ascent. The lower section was easy — following a bone-dry creek bed — but then we hit an imposing looking waterfall (complete with a crack that had the climbers salivating). Thankfully it was easy to bypass, and a couple of exposed but uncomplicated moves had us making the final push to the ridge top above.
We hadn’t really noticed the smoke down in the valley, but up here it was unmistakable. The smell was strong, and a light haze hung across the mountains. We made our way to a lookout to check just what the situation was, but despite being able to see for miles in all directions we couldn’t spot any definitive evidence of where the fire was actually burning. With no wind around, that was reassuring enough.
We’d previously discovered some pretty impenetrable scrub in this part of the world, but for some reason the ridges we followed were pretty tame. In places they opened right out, providing some stunning walking of their own. Eventually a big loop took us high into our canyon.
Despite how high we’d dropped in, the valley still opened up below us, so there was an abseil required to drop past a large overhang. Despite looking like more drops might be required, some skirting to the side provided us with an easy enough pass down.
We’d all been looking forward to some respite from the sapping heat, picturing a mossy-walled creek shaded by towering coachwoods complete with a babbling brook. Instead we got a bone dry creek bed that somehow seemed to be just as hot as the ridge top.
We followed it downstream, admiring oversized fungi and impressive cliffs, but no canyon. Finally, when we reached a shallow pool of water next to a shaded overhang we decided to stop for lunch.
The food was great, but better was the company. This tiny pool of water was home to two massive lobster-sized yabbies, one complete with thousands of eggs and baby yabbies under her tail. It was to be the start of a theme.
After lunch we moved on, soon getting to the first section of canyon. We replaced the sling between a boulder and the wall, then the nice short drop took us into a pleasant, if short, constriction.
I can’t recall exactly which pools provided which yabbies, but needless to say from this point on almost every tiny patch contained some. When I jumped into the first waist-deep pool to cool off, a big bastard came right at me. All up we would have seen a dozen monster crustaceans, and dozens if not hundred of smaller fry. Considering the miserable look of the canyon, it was a great vote of confidence in the health of the natural system.
We continued on, mostly able to scramble our way downstream. All up there were four unavoidable drops, including the infamous poo smear abseil (Em went first, discovering an ooze that was the colour, consistency and smell of diarrhoea) and a very funky abseil that required a climb down into a small cave.
Unfortunately, each canyon section was only short, and with the lack of water it hardly looked its best. Lower down there were a few small slides and jumps, which were quite fun, and had us convinced that in higher water this would be a more reasonable day out.
Finally, as we approached the end of the creek, we found the most substantial pool of the day, and being quite early still we paused to escape a bit of the heat with a quick dip and a relaxing snooze.
Back in the Coorongooba, the weather was just as sapping. We paused a couple times when we found a pool deep enough to wade into, but the recent scorching weather meant the water felt more like a bath than an icy mountain stream.
Then with some peals of thunder, a storm rolled over, giving us hope that things would cool down. Instead the handful of raindrops evaporated on impact, and the thick clouds continued on their way, further locking the humid heat in.
Back at camp we set up tents, had some drinks, and started on dinner. The only thing more oppressive than the heat were the flies. Then as darkness fell, the flies gave way to the mozzies — day shift handing over to night shift.
Thankfully a few in the group had gone searching for the mythical lake in the Capertee, just downstream of the camp ground. I was pretty dismissive, given the state of the river, but sure enough they’d found it. With the promise of cool water, the rest of us followed, following the river until a big open reach of water opened up in front of us.
With clothes left strewn on the sand, we set off. Firstly wading, then eventually swimming. In the darkness we couldn’t see far ahead — except to see it kept going — so we swam onwards searching for the end. Unfortunately we never got there, although for all we know we may have been close.
Just as we’d decided to turn back a blast of wind had rolled across the waters. But with the wind had come something else. A layer of ash briefly rained down on us, along with a smell of smoke, which confirmed the wisdom of our decision to swim back. While the ash soon ended, and the smoke dissipated, the wind continued, bringing rain and a cold change.
By the time we were back at camp everything was wet, and the rain continued in patches through the night. By morning it was decidedly chilly — a huge shift from the oppressive heat of the day before.
Our first canyon had been somewhat disappointing, but we had high hopes for today’s choice. We ignored some track notes that suggested heading back towards Glen Davis, instead forcing an easy pass up an impressive ridge that overlooked our campsite. Again it was mostly easy, with just one point where the rope came out to help with an awkward exposed move.
Up on top we enjoyed the expansive views, with Capertee and Coorongooba gorges opening up on all sides. Then, with a final dip across a narrow rocky saddle, we made out way to the long series of winding ridges that we knew would keep us busy for some time.
We knew of another group that had used this pass, but dropped into a side branch too early, missing a great part of the upper canyon. Despite scrub that was substantially thicker than the day before we pushed on, determined to drop into the right creek.
Eventually, as another light shower washed over us, we detoured onto a side ridge then pushed directly off it into the deep valley below. A couple of zig zags were required — along with a few bum slides down slippery bark-covered rocks — but before long we were in the creek.
It didn’t look much, all ferns and fallen trees, but we knew we were in the right place. We stopped at the first decent overhang, fearful the rain would return, and enjoyed lunch.
Not long after we hit the first abseil. Nothing too spectacular — it could have been scrambled if the rock wasn’t so slippery — but it was a great sign that the creek had started dropping. What was less pleasant was the small pool of inky black water at the bottom, which looks more like the remnants of an oil slick than what you’d expect in a pristine wilderness canyon.
Sure enough, the creek kept improving, and we were soon doing a few slides and small jumps into similarly dark water. So poor was the visibility that you couldn’t see anything more than about 6 inches deep, which meant when I jumped I hit an angled submerged rock and was propelled forward, face-first into the foul tasting water. But it was proper canyon now, so I wasn’t too cranky.
The canyon meandered for a bit, pleasant but not deep. We came to a junction, but the small side branch didn’t look like it contained much. Continuing, the constriction got better.
We were all in a pretty good mood by now. We knew we’d jagged a great canyon. Although we did regret the order of the days given it was still cold and Huey was threatening more rain. The regret only grew the further down we went as we came across quite a few swims and jumps.
There was only one more abseil, also small, but that didn’t mean the canyon wasn’t action packed. There were some decent sized jumps onto sand or into shallow pools. Some amazing down-climbs, including an epic section down a wet slippery slot. Then there were the convenient log jams, one of which required you to hang from the end and drop down the narrow slot. There were even some small cave sections that at first looked unlikely, but ended up being quite simple.
This was a canyon with everything. The constriction was long and sustained, and only got deeper as the day continued. There were dark sections, windy water-eroded bits, straight sections along ancient fault lines, even a cool hidden duck-under between some potholes.
Lower down, the rain started to fall more heavily. There were little waterfalls coming in from the sides, and an attractive sheet of droplets coming directly down the slot, but it didn’t last long.
Finally, after a few hours tracing this amazing constriction, it burst out into an impressive, boulder filled gorge.
I managed to really stuff things up here. On a simple downclimb my right shoe became wedged. I almost fell face-forward into a pool. It was lucky I caught myself, as I was stuck fast. Mary swam back to try and dislodge my foot. It wouldn’t move. I was wiggling every which way, but nothing.
Finally, desperate, I decided to take the shoe off. It wasn’t so easy, given my foot was in a narrow slot, but finally my foot was freed. Bizarrely, even with no foot in it, the shoe was still jammed solid. We pushed, prodded and yanked at it for a few minutes until it finally started to loosen its grip. Thank god, I didn’t want to have to continue in one shoe!
The gorge continued to plunge down, and we sprawled out as various people hit dead ends and were forced to backtrack around house-sized boulders. Lower down, some of us moved to the side of the chute, but the real mountain goats kept on, leaping down the heart of this impressive gorge.
We saw a few more branches of the creek come in — something to examine on a future trip — before a gap opened up in the cliffs and took us down into the Capertee River.
We all made our own way back along the fire trail to camp where we regathered. Back at the tents it was cold, and getting wetter. No chance of another night of skinny dipping!
A few of us set off to the Capertee pub, where we enjoyed a warm dry night on the couches. Back at camp, the others created a bit of a tarp city to shelter from the worst of the weather.
The weather improved slightly later in the night, allowing some communal campfire conversation, but it didn’t last, with the pitter-patter of rain on tents continuing much of the night.
The thought of getting back into wet clothes then spending a cold day canyoning was enough for a few of us to call it quits and head back to Sydney, but the hardier part of the group (ie. not the part I was in) pressed on regardless, enjoying a great day in Midwinter Canyon.
Back in civilisation we discovered that the dry lightning the locals had warned us about had started several fires, but thankfully they’d been miles away on the Newnes Plateau. That explained the smoke and ash. Luckily it had happened far enough away to not interfere with what was a very enjoyable trip.