Party: Tim Vollmer, Mary Merlo, Lilian Castillo, Tom Begić, Chee Wong, Andres Albornoz and Emma Spencer
Good canyoning weather has been in short supply recently. So when the forecast started offering a window of warmer sunny days I decided to grab hold of one, even if it was a work day.
Mary had also been really keen to squeeze one last canyon in before her departure back to Italy, so she jumped at the idea of a night canyon. And despite giving only a couple days notice we were swamped with a good sized crew.
We made our way up to Wentworth Falls after work, uni and other commitments on Thursday afternoon, with a couple arriving by train while the rest of the group converged on the Conservation Hut from various parts of Sydney and even the Illawarra.
It was about 7.30pm — right on sunset — when we finished sorting out our gear and began the walk in. The group were keen to do the longer version of Empress — which includes a small upper canyon section missed by many of the parties that visit this canyon.
Given we were a little tight on time — as I wasn’t sure I’d recognise the turn off near Edinburgh Castle Rock in the dark — I set a somewhat cracking pace along the track that circles around the upper catchment of the creek. Given it was a warm, muggy evening, and a few of us were already wearing thermals and wetsuits to avoid taking a bag with us, it wasn’t the most pleasant move.
Thankfully it paid off completely when we arrived on top of the rock just in time to watch the last of the twilight glowing on the distant escarpments and illuminating the western sky.
We darted down the track, under the rocky bulwark, spotting the turnoff down a steep slope in the last of the light. By the time we’d travelled a couple hundred metres to the creek proper it was completely dark.
Here there was some obvious signs of the recent massive water flows, but thankfully the levels had dropped back down to only slightly above normal. We walked a short way, spotting several yabbies in the wider creek section, before suiting up on a sandbank and preparing to drop into the canyon proper.
The mix of head torches we’d all brought along weren’t much chop. In fact, Tom’s powerful caving light was the only decent one there, making him a popular person to stay close to, but we could see just enough to move along safely.
Eventually we entered the small, upper constriction, dropping down the handline and doing a few little scrambles before making the final leap of faith into what is normally a sandy-bottomed pool. I say leap of faith because in the torchlight we couldn’t make out anything below the surface, so had to hope no logs had been washed down by the recent deluge.
Soon after and we were at the traditional entry, where Emma paused to sign the log book. We moved on down, enjoying the start of the more impressive canyon section and its several scrambles, small jumps, and little cave climb-down.
It was in this section that I’d been sure we’d spot some glowworms. In fact, after my experiences on several other night canyoning trips I was expecting quite a few. Strangely, it wasn’t that there were only a few, or they weren’t bright, there simply were absolutely none.
We had quite a few more searches further down, including in complete darkness, but none of natures little night-lights could be found. (I’d be very curious if anyone knows why they don’t exist in this particular canyon!)
Once we were through most of the challenging scrambles and swims we entered the relatively flat, easy-walking section of the canyon. Here we decided to continue without torches, feeling our way tentatively through the pitch blackness.
Given there was no moon in the sky, and the only light came from the strip of stars directly above, even with our eyes acclimatised there was nothing that could be seen. Instead we edged forward, hands clinging to canyon walls, feet feeling each rock, log and small drop, and bums enduring regular tumbles. So dark was it that we regularly ploughed straight into the back of the person in front, completely oblivious to the fact that they were there.
After a while it became a bit more challenging, with some fairly extensive recent tree falls and log jams providing too much work to feel your way through — especially as they were a little unstable. So with torches back on we continued on at a faster pace.
All too soon the canyon began to drop again, narrowing down through the several small pools above the final, impressive waterfall.
At the anchors I chose the easier drop on the left. The water flow wasn’t dangerous, but it was just high enough that I though the route directly down the falls might be too risky for first-time night canyoners.
One by one we made our way down. It was a slow process, not just because of my thick rope, but because each step was made blind. Lower down, as each of us was taken through the pumping falls by the rope, it became impossible to see anything with the spray surrounding you.
Then, all of a sudden, we each reached the pool at the bottom, slightly disappointed that the very unique experience was over.
While we waited for the full contingent to descend, those at the bottom made the most of the fun waterjumps into the big pool. We did have to be slightly more careful, thanks to a big new log that has washed down, but thankfully it didn’t interfere too much. (Although it did highlight the added risk of jumping blind into the earlier pool).
Finally, with everyone down and waterjumped-out, we began the walk out. There were some pauses at the lookouts to soak in the stunning stars — which always seem brighter when there’s no moon about.
Back at the cars we changed back out of our wet clothes, said a lingering farewell to Mary, then set off back to civilisation with the smug smiles of people who’d managed to sneak in an amazing experience while most of the world was obliviously vegging out on their couches.
I was a little disappointed by the lack of glowworms in Empress, but it was still a wonderful experience. It never ceases to amaze me how much night canyoning reinvents the entire journey. Even a canyon that you’ve done numerous times before becomes an entirely new beast, stimulating the senses and filling you with the same pleasure as any other impressive first-time descent.