Party: Tim Vollmer, Jeremie Rossy, Joshua Hill, Tom Begić and Pete Harvey
I’m not one for “ticking off canyons” — that sort of conquest mentality really rubs me the wrong way — but I am someone who notices lingering gaps on my maps; those places that I’ve wanted to go for a long time, but for whatever reason never quite made it to.
Arethusa is a perfect example. I’ve explored pretty much all the other canyons nearby, and it is incredibly accessible and close to civilisation, but somehow summer after summer it had alluded me. Perhaps it’s was the fact that Arethusa comes with warnings of a long day and a challenging exit, not to mention tales of regular benightings.
It could also be that the lesser visitation means it doesn’t get talked up by canyoners as much as it deserves, which is strange given it is arguably the birthplace of canyoning in Australia (the first roped descent of Arethusa, in 1940, is the earliest “canyoning” trip I know of).
Either way, when Jeremie said he was keen to do it (and more importantly offered to lead the rock climbs on the exit) it was the final push I needed.
We were joined by a small, experienced group, and we threw in some extra climbing gear — just in case — which had us amply prepared and pretty relaxed about being able to do the trip in an easy day.
As we drove up the mountains, through patches of fog and low cloud, it wasn’t quite looking like the cracking weather my amateur meteorology had forecast. But then a phone call from a mate at Wentworth Falls revealed the upper mountains was already basking in sunshine and clear skies, which was a lift to the spirits.
At Leura, we stopped for a coffee, waiting for our final companion before setting out Mt Hay Road. We parked in the large clearing where the exit track emerges, then set off back along the road a short way.
Traditionally, people don’t drop into Katoomba Creek much upstream of Arethusa Canyon, but we decided not to follow suit. Not only were we hoping to find a way in without abseiling the impressive cliffs, but we also thought it seemed a waste to not explore more of the creek.
In the end we decided to drop in to Govetts Creek (referred to as North Leura Creek by Myles Dunphy, which seems a far less confusing name) just downstream of Henson Glen.
After skirting a hanging swamp we made our way down a steep ridge, finding the cliffs to already be substantial, however a detour down a small side gully provided an easy pass to the creek itself.
We soon realised why others don’t do this. The creek was slow going, with a few open rock slabs but mostly ferns and thicker shrubs. While it was slow going, it was still reasonably pleasant.
As we got close to the junction of Katoomba Creek our little side creek became almost canyon-like for a short way, offering a nice little waterjump and a short swim to get out into the sunshine. (It was also here that we found a giant plastic pear… a first for me!)
From this point the walking was easier. We still had to work our way through a combination of pools, rocky sections, sandy beaches and thickets of watergums, but recent flooding (the debris was about 4m above our heads) made our progress easy.
There were a couple canyonish sections along here, with some swims between open rock walls (like a miniature version of the Wollangambe) and some increasingly impressive cliffs. At a few points there were towering overhangs that would allow incredible free-hanging drops right into the middle of the creek.
There were a few themes which started to develop in this section. The first was quicksand — like I’ve never seen in a canyon — which in places had us crawling to avoid plunging thigh-deep into it. The second was car tires.
All up we counted 10 car tires during the day, apparently dumped far upstream and washed along over the years, many jammed in strange spots that demonstrated the power of past floodwaters.
Then the creek really started to improve, dropping down through a dark glen, before opening up on a rocky slab where a healthy flow of water tumbled down some small cascades. Soon after we were at the canyon, which opened up directly below us.
We rigged our rope up on a sling around a large coachwood, with a nice clean drop down a deep pothole and out the side into the canyon.
The old abseil that I’d seen in photos — from a log on the other side and through a small hole — no longer exists, with the anchor now washed away. Even the pool at the base of the falls, which in recent years has been more sand than water, was now at least 2m deep.
Everyone else’s descents had gone to plan when I decided to film my own drop with one of Tom’s GoPros. As I set off I fumbled it, helplessly watching as it bounced down below me, out the hole in the rock, and into the seething waters of the deep pool.
Once down I raced off rope and swam about 20m downstream where I could see the bright orange foam on the back of the camera. I picked it up, amazed it had survived, only to discover that the case had burst open, and the actual camera had sunk to the bottom.
Thankfully Tom was far less cranky than would be expected, but it was still an annoyingly preventable loss (reminder: always attach cameras to yourself with a lanyard / strong cord!)
Then we had the next challenge. In my rush to get to the camera I hadn’t cleared the rope from around a log in the pothole, so it of course stuck on the pulldown. Thankfully Joshua was able to climb hand-over-hand back up the rope, unjam the rope, and make sure it pulled down cleanly.
With the only abseil of the canyon done, we could now enjoy ourselves. The canyon itself was spectacular, opening out into an almighty cathedral of rock, with thin beams of light piercing through the narrow opening above.
Tom pulled out the camera gear he’d been lugging, capturing the beauty, while the rest of us dealt with the challenges posed by the incredibly slippery rock.
We all enjoyed a couple short water jumps, and tested our scrambling skills on the slippery ledges, before emerging into the sunshine near Arethusa Falls.
As we approached we heard voices, then saw another group just starting up the first climb. We paused briefly to say hello, and check out the challenge ahead, before finding ourselves some sunny spots to dry off and enjoy lunch.
Arethusa Falls were actually less impressive than I had expected, with the waterfall plunging from Alpheus (Vida Falls?) actually looking far more impressive. Beyond both of them opened up the expansive Grose Gorge.
Eventually it was time to move on and we packed up and headed over to the first climb. Pete shot up the first pitch without a belay, but on the second part of it (some people do these as two separate pitches) it was slightly more exposed, so he waited for Jeremie to join him with a few quickdraws and got on rope for the crux.
This climb, while not particularly exposed, was actually a little more challenging than it looked. Most of us ended up cheating at some point or other by using some of the extensively placed bolts as aid.
We arrived at the bottom of the next pitch as the last few members of the other group prepared to climb. Pete — partly out of impatience and partly because he could — decided to free-climb straight up a fairly challenging slab of rock. The positive was he had a top belay set up by the time the last group finished, so we could start climbing straight away.
We were just using our static canyoning rope, and we didn’t bother using any other protection, so for the first half of this climb the belay was purely psychological. (The long traverse on a ledge takes you so far sideways that a fall on much of it would have had us swing straight into the ground.)
One by one we climbed up to the ledge, dealt with the slightly tricky overhang, edged our way to the end of the ledge, then up the nose.
None of it was too technical, but doing it in canyoning shoes, and having to deal with the dirt and grass on the ledges, made the whole thing seem far more challenging than its grade would suggest. It also felt more exposed than the lower climb, with the gorge now well below us.
Finally we made our way up an easy dirt ramp and into Alpheus canyon. Here we paused, removing harnesses and packing away ropes, before starting on our exit.
Alpheus was quite pretty, although not much of a canyon if you’re thinking of specifically visiting it. We made our way upstream to the first swim, crossing the pool then climbing up the conveniently located log. Not far on we came to a couple fixed ropes on the left, taking us up to the next level.
Soon enough we came to another swim, where we again bumped into the other group. Across the water we could see a fixed rope running down beside a waterfall, which was flowing quite strongly. The bottom looked relatively easy — using the rope to get out of the pool and up to a slippery ledge — but the actual drop above looked quite overhung.
In the end it wasn’t as hard as it appeared, with everyone (except me) getting up quite easily. I, on the other hand, ended up standing on Pete’s shoulders to get up, as my arms just wouldn’t hold me.
From here we left the creek, heading up the slope via a fallen tree. The ground was very muddy and slippery, so we set up a handline to make things easier. By this point it is fair to say I was totally over hand-over-hand climbs. Unfortunately, we still had another three or so to get up onto the ridge!
We pretty much zigzagged our way to the top from here. Each time we’d go up, hit a small cliff, then find a rope or tape dangling down to drag us up to the next level. At one point the setup even included a precarious rock-pile which has been built as a foothold.
In no time we were through the last cliffs and made our way out to the point. We were rewarded with stunning views. Either side the gorges carves by Alpheus and Arethusa, in front of us their impressive confluence, then beyond the towering escarpments of the Grose opening out.
After a pause to enjoy the stunning vista we grabbed our packs and set off for the cars. A reasonable footpad followed the ridge, eventually hitting an old fire trail that quickly had us home.
All up, despite taking a long route in, exploring more of the creek, and having a long lunch, the whole trip had only taken about seven and a half hours. Not bad considering that the stories of Arethusa trips turning into epics had been one of the things that put me off doing a trip there for so long!
As we drove back down Mt Hay Road I paused to recover the hub cap that had bounced free on the drive out, before we all headed to the Alex for a well deserved dinner.
Even sitting in the beer garden the late afternoon sun was scorching. It had been an absolutely perfect day for a wet canyon, and the combination of higher water flows and plenty of sunshine had probably helped Arethusa Canyon to greatly exceed all our expectations.