Bushwalking / Pass finding

Some secret passes on Mt Solitary

Party: Tim ‘T2’ Vollmer, Bjorn Sturmberg and Tom Murtagh

It was just after 7am when I pulled into Leura to pick up Tom and Bjorn. We were running ahead of time — an unusual situation — but a welcome one considering the day ahead.

I’ve been up and over Mt Solitary on a number of occasions — like pretty much every bushwalker ever — but the prospect of some secret passes had drawn us back.

Last year, Bjorn, Tom Morris and I had headed out for the south-north traverse through what we thought were the only two rarely visited passes of Mt Solitary. Little did we know what else lay hidden.

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Slogging my way up onto Mt Solitary (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

For most people, Mt Solitary has two access points — on the east and west — with a nice well-worn track meandering between them. But some recent email exchanges with Rod Nelson from The Bush Club, who has done something like a dozen solo exploration trips around that towering mass of sandstone, had let us know there was plenty more for the pass-finding enthusiast.

He didn’t give away all the secrets, apparently he has found something like half-a-dozen passes that are either new or long-forgotten, but he did provide some helpful notes.

Firstly, the obvious gully west of the headwaters of Rayfrandell, which we’d glanced at on our previous trip, definitely went. And more interestingly, the western cliffs of Solitary were also home to a hidden little pass.

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Tom sitting back and enjoying the view (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

By the time we set off on this fine Saturday morning it was the third or fourth time in just over a month that I’d tried to organise this trip, with life, family and work forcing a series of reshuffles and new plans. Thanks to my shambolicness, we’d only ended up with three people on the walk, despite more than half a dozen others expressing interest for other dates. Unfortunately, the two survivors were also the two fastest walkers!

We raced off down the Golden Stairs, hitting the old tramway before we knew it. I was trying to set a cracking pace out in front to convince the others I wouldn’t be dragging the chain. It helped that the track had been recently cleared, with not a fallen tree or branch to slow us down.

Before long we passed the Ruined Castle, then hit Cedar Gap, before making the push up the Koorowall Knife-edge. The change from flat to uphill did me in, and I quickly ran out of steam, while the other two continued to press on at a frantic pace.

As the knife-edge narrowed, and the rocky protuberances offered up some stunning views, they kindly decided to pause to enjoy the morning light, allowing me to catch up, smirking at my puffing, sweating and cursing.

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Examining Bitter Cave Pass from above (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

Again they pulled ahead, and when I arrived at the pleasant casuarina forest up on top Tom and Bjorn were lazing back enjoying the stunning blue skies.

From here we headed off the beaten track, pushing south through a mix of scrub. A couple small cliffs marked a faint gully which apparently ran to near our pass. We followed it down to the cliff-edge to where it became a steep, slippery slot plunging downwards.

A short glance around showed another spot, just 10 or 15 metres away, where a small erosion gully led down an obvious ramp. It came to an abrupt end, but a quick scout around showed there was a way down a steep gully, past a big boulder, and down safely to a lower ledge. It seemed to go, and fitted the rough description that Rod had given me of what he called Bitter Cave Pass.

One final awkward move on the ledge and a scoot down a slot and we were at the base of the cliffs. Just to the south of us, a towering orange escarpment loomed overhead, but the pass itself had been far easier than I’d expected. It was just after 10am and we’d already found and completed our first new pass. Perfect.

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The landslide (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

From here we sidled along the steep slope, enjoying much more open bush than we’d expected. As we hooked around the south western point of the mountain, we crossed over the upper section of the large landslide. We obviously chose the right level, because not only did we not have too much trouble with loose or uneven rock, we also had some stunning views south across Berrima Inga Creek towards Lake Burragorang.

From here we thought the scrub would get much worse, but for a while longer things were quite nice. Even the lawyer vine, which is ubiquitous in this area, pretty well left us alone.

We stayed up high, following ledges where we could, examining possible leads for additional passes. Every so often we’d come across a possibility, but mostly they either involved crappy loose rock, or slippery slimy gullies, so we didn’t go too far. There were one or two that did look worthy of further examination in future, especially as the cliffs seemed smaller and more broken at this end of the big southern bite of Mt Solitary.

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Tom trapped above a small overhang (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

Further along, a promising ramp led us upwards, before Tom volunteered for a scrubby climb — clinging to tree roots the whole time — to an upper ledge. Bjorn and I sat back and enjoyed a breather while he tested a number of possible routes, but was eventually rebuffed.

When he said he was coming back down, Bjorn and I set off towards where his voice was coming from. Unfortunately, Tom hadn’t been able to spot the point of his scrubby ascent, and the gully he’d chosen to follow down ended in a three or four metre waterfall.

Rather than push back and try again, we tossed him up my 6mm handline. It took a few goes, which was amusing in itself, but before long he’d found the best possible anchor, although it would still see him plunge through a clump of ferns before hitting a small overhang.

I scrambled up, looking for a good vantage point for a photo, but before I could pull the camera out I heard a crash followed by some coughing. The handline — thin as it is — provided very little friction on the overhang, meaning Tom raced down, closely followed by a barrage of debris, much of which he inhaled on the way.

Tom looked rather sheepish as he descended the gully

The selection of fern fronds that he coughed up for the next hour or so gave Bjorn and I plenty to chuckle about, as well as some speculation as to what freaky ferns might sprout from the millions of spores he’d clearly inhaled!

From here the going became a little slower, with the scrub thickening up. The nice shale ledges seemed to become fewer and farther between, and we started zig zagging up and down the slope looking for the nicest walking. Eventually, at a spot with some reasonable views, we decided to pause for a late lunch.

The break was more than welcome, and my legs were thankful to have a rest from the steep, uneven and loose ground.

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Traversing an exposed shale ledge (photo Tom Murtagh)

When we set off again, the scrub continued to thicken, and the unseasonably hot afternoon sun also began beating down on us. We watched as more and more of our route from early in the day opened up behind us, and as Point Repulse became closer.

I started to worry we’d gone too far, somehow missing our pass, and that we’d be stuck going the whole way to Point Repulse. Tom pulled out the compass and took a bearing to the fire tower on Narrowneck, which showed we were only about 200m from our target gully.

We’d chosen to stay high on another ledge, avoiding the scrub below, but as this short remaining distance went on the drop below us quickly grew.

Finally, with a cliff of 20 – 30m now looming next to us, we hit the crux. An incredibly dodgy section of loose shale, where every hand and foot hold crumbled as you touched it. I didn’t like it, but with Tom and Bjorn pushing ahead, there was no choice.

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Stunning cliffs towering above the pass (photo Tom Murtagh)

Thankfully, just metres past this, the ledge turned a corner into the stunning gully that would offer our pass up. This is an amazing spot, with a lush, green slot — about 20 or 30 metres wide — with towering cliffs on each side. It is steep, and rocky, but incredibly simple. I’d argue it is actually the least technical pass on Mt Solitary — if only it led somewhere!

This was the gully we’d looked down on from above on a previous trip, and thought promising. Rod calls it Toorok Gully, but given how simple it is, and how obvious it looks (not to mention that it even shows up as a break in the cliffs on the topo map!) it seems beyond belief that it wasn’t used many years ago. I’ve been unable to find any notes about it, but I’d be keen to hear from anyone who knows more about past visits.

It was in this gully that my body finally decided to give up trying to keep up with the other two, with both legs beginning to cramp almost simultaneously. I tried stretching, but the problem was some odd muscles on the inside of my knees, so the others just had to wait for my sluggish climb up. Thankfully the pain was less on the flat, so I could move reasonably along the ridges up on top.

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Looking up “Toorok Gully” (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

We paused at the egg cup rock (possibly the most distinctive rock formation on Mt Solitary that most people have never seen) before making the final push to the track.

From here my legs continued to go downhill. Actually, they were fine going downhill, but the slightest uphill had them cramping terribly. Worst of all, I’d finished my water coming up the pass, so I knew I had no choice but to risk the cesspit that is Chinamans Gully if I wanted any chance of stopping them from getting worse.

The other two enjoyed yet another break while I headed off for water. The regular clumps of toilet paper — including one lot no more than a metre from the creek — had me even more repulsed by the thought of drinking the water (not to mention wanting to mete out vengeance on the disgusting freaks who have no idea how to go to the toilet in the bush).

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Stunning views to the south of Solitary (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

With some ‘fresh’ water, and snacks in my belly, I was ready to set off, although by this point I could only stop my legs from cramping if I made sure they didn’t straighten the whole way. I ended up pulling off some sort of strange, two-legged crab walk, which while looking like I’d soiled my pants did make it possible to move the nine or so kilometres we still had left.

By the time we were descending Solitary the late afternoon sun was filling the valley with a golden glow. While it looked stunning, it also meant time was against us.

Thankfully, the legs improved on the scrambly downhill, and by the flat track were sore but not cramping. We increased the pace, and started making good time. Then Tom and Bjorn continued to increase the pace, beyond what I could manage, and pulled ahead.

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Late afternoon sun through the trees (photo Bjorn Sturmberg)

Finally, with the darkness descending, I made final contact with them, and told them to wait for me at the car.

The Golden Stairs proved embarrassingly painful, and by the time I made it to the top Tom and Bjorn were looking pretty chilly thanks to the long wait and the strong wind which had come up. It was about 6.30pm, just over 11 hours after we’d set off, and I was feeling spent.

A short drive to the Station Bar, and some tasty woodfired pizza washed down with a couple beers, and I felt much better. I did vow off the Maltesers — which I blamed for my appalling fitness — which a few weeks on appears to have already led to some vast improvements.

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Late afternoon glow (photo Tom Murtagh)

As for the trip, it was wonderful. A reasonably straightforward day trip for fit walkers, some interesting passes, some great views, and a chance to follow the rarely-visited south side of Mt Solitary.

Oh, and the thought of all those extra passes that Rod assures me are out there mean it’s surely a trip that will be repeated. Who knows, there may end up being more than a dozen passes on Mt Solitary, which should make it worth a return visit even for the most jaded bushwalker…

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Still quite a way to go (photo Tom Murtagh)

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5 thoughts on “Some secret passes on Mt Solitary

  1. Great report! made me feel like I was there with you, when we went looking for water in Chinamans Gully about 24+ years ago we found none as it was very dry around that time.

    We did find some stagnant water further down around the old mining tracks etc but not willing to take the risk…

    We camped overnight in Chinamans cave & the view across to the backwaters of Lake Burragorang in the morning was very memorable.

    My legs cramp up going down hill sometimes, the opposite of yours LOL

    • I marked in a couple of potentials after perusing SIX (better than Google Earth for this area). I suspect you’ve now done them! Pleased to see the report though, as I doubt I’ll ever re-attain the necessary “fit walker” category to get there myself.

      Been asking around, but the only new lead went back to Rodney. I’d be a bit wary of some of his other ‘passes’ though. He climbs things I wouldn’t even stop to look at.

      I wouldn’t necessarily go along with the “seems beyond belief that it wasn’t used many years ago” theory. From my experience most of the known passes around Narrow Neck and Kings Tableland are those that are readily accessible (not to be confused with easily negotiable) ie. major creeks, tops of spurs etc. These were usually found by the settlers and prospecters. Passes that are in the middle of nowhere don’t get found so easily. Also worth remembering that the early tiger walkers didn’t have toppo maps based on air photos and that, with a few exceptions, the gun walkers from the 60s, 70s and 80s were more interested in Kanangra, Budawangs and Ettrema. The ‘tourist’ areas around Katoomba suffered from a long period of neglect.

      • Graeme, if you do an overnight walk out to Solitary you’d be able to explore a few of these passes with very little need for super fitness. I’d actually recommend doing it that way. I was unfortunately a bit short on time.
        And I do most of my pass finding trips with a guy who is a very good climber, so I know what it’s like having to put your foot down on what constitutes a pass, and what is clearly a climb!

  2. With my current, albeit slowly improving, shoulder / neck problem, I’m not sure now is the time to return to an overnight pack after a 25 year break!

    • Come now Graeme, I would say that Landslide Gully would have been pretty shocking to look at the first time, but was done anyway! Beats most things I’ve done.
      I agree with Tim that you don’t need to be super fit to do it.
      You know the people I walk with and any of them could do it fairly easily.
      Good report Tim, shame about the cramps and even more shame that you chose to go to Chinamans Gully for water.
      100m from Toorok Gully there is a delightful set of large rock pools with absolutely clear water.

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