Bushwalking / Historical

Exploring Rennies Tunnel

Party: Sierra Classen, Tully Bromwich, Amanda Zhou, Hossein Dinani, Dom Holmes, Atoosa Azizi, Nippy Bhattarai, Lilian Castillo, Joan Chan and Tim Vollmer

– Trip report by Sierra Classen:

I am probably the wrong person to write this trip report, the wrong person to write trip reports in general. I feel like they require capabilities of scientific observation that I do not have. Nevertheless, someone has to do them.

I will begin by stating a fact that should be obvious, but that some reports generate less awareness of. I am approaching the experience of the trip totally subjectively. Read this report knowing that the other members of the group should also be consulted for a more complete understanding of the reality of the trip.

Now I can start telling you about the interesting personal approach I came to the trip with. I am a window shopper with trips; I read a lot of the upcoming trip notices that come to my inbox. I read them and imagine a world where I had time to do them all. The time it takes me to read the reports and imagine doing all the trips probably reduces the time I have for actually doing trips by half.

Usually, the trip I decide to do will spontaneously become my highest priority in a weekend that had previously been full of “unavoidable commitments”. I capriciously annihilate them from my schedule with little regard for the consequences until the day before the trip when I realise that the commitments I summarily postponed indefinitely need to be recondensed from their atemporal form into the laden skeleton of the near future. Not pleasant.

I don’t regret it ever, though. Never ever. Neither should you.

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The hollowed out centre of Orphan Rock

The decision to go on this trip was no less ill-conceived, being born out of my procrastinators desire to avoid obligatory commitments, surfing my phone screen late on Wednesday night.

Tim’s advertisement for this trip was an ideal fixation for a procrastinator. It promised so much excitement to a desperately rebellious midnight brain. There was firstly going to be a tunnel. There’d be lots of orange goo, geological history, bats, contrasting conditions of light and temperature and slope, and varied obstacles. I became fascinated with the prospective sensory experience. That’s my thing. I really like exploring sensory experiences.

I sent Tim an e-mail that was more elaborate and perhaps better written than this homework I finally wrote afterwards. The e-mail was about the potential for synesthesia in the tunnel due to the profound contrast between the habitual stimulation of and reliance on particular sensory categories (stimuli being designated according to the sensory organ that perceives them) inside and outside the tunnel.

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Views from on top of Orphan Rock

In my imagination, this sensory confusion would be enhanced by the bats that we would perceive in certain ways we are unused to perceiving, and who would perceive us groggily as they usually do the world, but with an element of surprise and altered consciousness from sleep disturbance.

The scenario was very detailed. I felt the tactile elements, the temperature, the smells, sudden failure of the visually reliant system perceiving reality, confusing the borders of ourselves and the bats, confusing cause and effect and cross-categorizing sensory inputs. I can be very demanding of life experiences sometimes.

So, Tim decided to make an exception and let me and my partner Tully on the trip that was technically already over the projected maximum number of participants. I felt that constituted successful procrastination.

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A laminated sign on a broken gate…

The day of the trip came and we had to wake up early, but not as early as we could have had to. There was track work, but Tully and I and a guy called Dom, and a girl called Atoosa all got to bypass it because Lilian Donoso graciously gave us passage in her immaculate Prius.

It was a tight squeeze to get all of us in. The physical contact forced by squishing probably facilitated conversation transposing the squish to a deeper level of verbalised contact. By the end of the car trip we knew a lot more about each other’s desires, motivations, and future plans. Other than difficulty finding Atoosa (the Iranian dentistry student) at Strathfield station, the car trip was thoroughly uneventful.

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The intrepid group preparing to enter Rennies Tunnel

We arrived at Katoomba Station and met up with Tim and then Nippy (AKA Nipendra), Amanda, Hossein and Joan. After Tim, the others arrived in succession giving time for purchasing coffee and the odd breakfast doughnut at the station café.

During this time, I also managed to do an etymological analysis on Dom’s name, which I had been associating with the Greek work for dwelling domos (as in domicile) and finding a little bit strange. It turned out his name is from the Latin for noble and lordly and Sunday, which makes saying such a name a lot different than a name descended from the Greek domicile.

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Rumours of a metal barricade had been somewhat exaggerated…

When everyone had arrived that was probably going to arrive — again, it is very rude when people mention on the morning of or after the beginning of the trip that they can’t go. It causes logistical problems. Decide early — we reallocated car space so that the aforementioned immaculate Prius wouldn’t have to transport scruffy bushwalkers covered in orange mud later, and drove off in convoy to Scenic World. That place is like another universe within its surroundings. Highly discombobulating. If you’ve been to the village below Machu Picchu, you might find parallels.

From the functionalist parking garage at Scenic World, we headed off. Of the abundance of helmets people brought with them, I was one of just a couple to bring them on the walk. You can do more exciting things with a helmet on!

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Mining carts once carried thousands of tonnes of oil shale through the tunnel

Somehow the chatty car ride didn’t lead to much banter once we began the walk itself. Tully and I spent a good deal of the walk loudly drowning out nature with a debate about whether Ender´s Game can be called a good book, which turned into a general discussion of literature, which became a discussion of genre and then of… Twilight. The rest of the group were pretty quiet up until Twilight came in. At that point Tim had to put in his two cents worth. From there, the discussion deteriorated to the point that I resolved several times unsuccessfully to abort it.

During this time we crossed quite a varied landscape. The chronology of space has blurred in the time since the trip, but I am trying to dredge it back up out of the silt and reconstruct it.

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Some of the 125-year-old railway sleepers still remain behind

At first, we were in this dry quiet wood, typical of the Blue Mountains cliff tops. The path there is dusty and smooth as cloth in places. I mean it. So many feet have compacted and sanded the path surface that it is of a remarkable texture in some places. The forest floor has eucalypt leaves in shades of rusty brown and pinkish grey and red-orange and pastel green. There are grey twigs and thicker beige branches with few blemishes, lengths and spirals of red or mouse brown bark from eucalypts that might be flooded gums or great gums or… I’m not superb in the botany department. There are some of those trees that make sap that is startlingly scarlet, and all the trees come up tiered from below as you make your way downwards, so that you will at any time have within view every height of the tree, from the muscular top branches of the great gums as the case may be and down to the root systems of strangler figs and the diminutive bushes and intricate mosses. Evidently, this kind of thing inspires me.

The face of the steep hillside was open to our backs in columns of russet rock, tumbles of leaf litter welling around mammoth boulders, and sulphur yellow overhangs dangling complex plant systems and dripping regularly. The sky was exhilaratingly blue and there were few noises but rustling birds and hiking pants, shoes, breathing and Tully and I loudly debating about Ender’s Game.

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In places you can stand higher due to the ceiling collapsing

Eventually we reached a sign that said we shouldn’t go past it because the trail was closed. Tim told us we should enter weighing the risk against the incredible sight that risk-bravers would encounter ahead. We all continued with hesitation only to remove layers as it had become quite hot over the progression of the morning.

Tim explained that the massive rock structure we were passing under had been condemned from bushwalkers for years now, because they predicted it would collapse. The rock itself was a huge pocked and coved tower of orange and yellow stone with copious outcroppings and a startling hole in what seemed to be a crucial structural point. It did look like it might crumble on top of us if we disturbed it or if there was a decent storm to make it lose its precarious footing, but we ascended the dubious staircase (missing some steps. “One at a time” is Tim’s suggestion after nearly dislodging one of the boards).

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Back into the orange sludge

After some tricky-ish manoeuvering, swinging up another once-was staircase, and skating on a slick of pine needles, we came out on top of the condemned rock to a mighty spread of greenery below us: the sky, the rock faces and hazy buttresses ribbing the valley basin.

It looks like a southern fjord, almost, but without the water. It’s nice to contemplate the ancient ocean that was here. Those blue shapes and this towering rock face would be the shore and there would be whales and gulls instead of squawking cockatoos and tiny whirligig insects falling in the sunlight. There were a lot of these insects. They looked like leisurely parachutists. It must be their mating season. Great day for it.

Tim told us a story about how to our right they had manually dragged the first massive chunk of coal that was mined down there in the depths of the trees. They had to take it over to Sydney to convince the people with the money to fork out to build a working mine there. Topical, since we are going to a tunnel.

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A very healthy colony of microbats live in the tunnel

With that, a reminder that with every down climb you’ll likely have to ascend again, we set off in earnest pursuit of the tunnel. Tully and I were then in earnest pursuit of the true nature of genre in literature and whether music without lyrics can have characters. We also discussed the Chinese torture method where you pinion someone to the earth while bamboo grows up through their body and kills them slowly, but not too slowly.

In our descent, we saw more of the same type of forest: stones, trees, leafy plants, the works. At one point we came out into this scrub land boulder field with yellow cliff faces rising above us. That was beautiful.

Other people were concentrating on the path, though. It was tricky, trippy. It required focus. Tully and I were falling behind because the discussion about Romantic fiction and adventure fiction made us less able to dedicate the required attention to the path and the greater landscape.

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A second group, these bats looked slightly larger

Soon we returned to the same dry type of eucalypt forest with some banksia trees thrown in.

At some point we passed the scenic railway where we witnessed throngs of visitors and were glad not to be travelling the same way. We continued the descent through the more shadowy damp forest.

It took a while, but we finally reached the entrance to the tunnel. We all put on our headlamps and I put on my helmet. We took a pre-orange gunk photo and headed inside without further ado.

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This narrow crawl marks the western end of the tunnel

I had thoroughly forgotten my aims for the synesthesia experience. I was not in the right mindset. I hadn’t told anyone else about it. It was unfortunately not really on the cards for us. I had over-thought it. I had raised the bar too high. It would have required a major surprise element to work. I quickly came to the conclusion that it would be better to treat this as a reconnoitering trip and come back for the synesthesia in another mindset.

Tim had been secretly unsure of the accessibility of the cave, but instead of an exciting large barrier that we would have to batter our way through, there as a pitiful folding barrier, the kind you might find around a section of sidewalk that was being repaired. Pathetic. It was pathetic. It was also convenient.

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Hossein emerges into the daylight

We entered noisily with our headlamps breaking into the dimness, complaining about the cold water, the cold air, the sharp rocks, the muddy mud. Someone asked how long the tunnel was. We were crawling and crouching and gorillaing along and it was quite mundane. Too much chatting. Also, the metre of orange goo ended up being a few centimetres of orange goo and a lot of clear water. I suppose it was better with less goo, but more goo would have been more exciting.

The ceiling was uncomfortably low and occasionally dropped bits of rock on us, but I was prepared with my helmet, so that wasn’t exciting either. There was a cavern in the middle where the bats were (Tully and I blundered right through it towards the light at the other end and had to go back to witness the creatures).

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Orange from the knees down

The microbats look like an unlikely yawning, squeaking brown moss on the roof. Once you get a good look at them, they are very cute. They would have a hard time producing the synesthesia effect I was looking for, though. They are puny.

After we got back out of the tunnel on the other side, we all got to admire the artistry of mud splats on our clothing. It was pretty magnificent.

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Cutting across the valley to Devils Hole

We quickly moved on though and bumbled along through the trees towards an undisclosed destination, which turned out to be the Devils Hole. A large stone is wedged high above the ground in the gap between split halves of the hill. We had to access it from below, a climb that was testing for some, but definitely beautiful. Stunningly green.

For a couple of us, the promise of lunch seemed to be the only thing keeping us going upwards. It was quite steep. We had also just been path finding in the undergrowth for a while. It had involved a little bit over and undering, skirting and summiting boulders and a further array of daunting obstacles. We managed to face them gallantly and efficiently, up until the slope up to the Devils Hole, I think.

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Crossing a small creek

Following the single significant upwards ordeal of the whole walk, we got to the exciting part of navigating an elaborate castle of rock where Tim had planned for us to have lunch. This is a rock tower above the Devils Hole with an abseil called the Wall of Africa below it.

There was a cheerful atmosphere in the group as we settled noisily into our lunches with a spectacular view and warm weather to help us relax. It was definitely a lovely spot.

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The chockstone wedged in the Devils Hole

Being generally adverse to sharing and communal activities, Tully, Atoosa and I conquered a tower separate from the others. Our lunch was also so delicious that we were concerned that others near us would be forced to consider pillaging it if they hear the yumming sounds we were making as we ate.

Atoosa came to our rock as a refugee, being apprehensive of the dangerous ascent to the further tower.

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A steep climb up through the natural break in the cliffs

Lazy lunch was followed by a short sun bath for all and then possibly the most daring venture the whole trip: we were to make our way out onto that very rock that we had fixed our attention on as we ascended up the Devils Hole: the rock that was uncannily lodged in the mountain gap.

It seemed that Tim was determined to further test our bravery and willpower and also test the 80% rule (the percentage of the group that must survive in order for a SUBW trip to be termed successful).

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Views from our lunch spot. Rennies Tunnel runs directly underneath these cliffs.

To get out onto this dangerous perch the first option was to jump across from one of the rock cheeks. This is a daunting option for people who don’t like falling to their death. From above, the potential jumper has a spectacular view of their own clamouring, flailing body plummeting unexpectedly towards the vibrant greenery and rock tumble of the slope we that we only recently sweatily ascended. The close up of ecstatic fear on one’s own face is startlingly familiar and contact with the earth is merciless. Not many were keen on the jump into the Devils Hole after that.

Luckily, there are alternate routes for creative cowards. I shimmied down a tree onto a wide ledge scrambled to the top of the rock from there. Despite the graphic re-imagination of one’s own death, the view from up there was unparalleled, in my opinion.

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Scrambling up to the lunch spot

Nippy, who made the jump without much fuss did a liberated gyrating victory dance on the rock while Lilian used her enviable bushwalking gloves to ease herself down using a frayed rope and the rest of us laughed and jittered. In the end, I’m pretty sure everyone made it onto the rock.

There was also a cool discovery of some beautifully intricate pine cones that I used as ammunition to motivate people to keep walking on the last uphill.

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Some of the group on the chockstone

After the adventure onto that scary precarious rock, there wasn’t much to do except make our way back. We had made excellent time. The trip had taken a much shorter time than expected due to Tim’s excellent path-finding skills.

When we emerged after the last uphill, there was a surprise for us that for me peaked my happiness for the day. One of the houses along the road had a sprinkler gushing dazzlingly on their ample lawn. Since there was a gap in the hedge, we decided that the only correct thing to do in the situation was to go and refresh ourselves by wetting our hair and faces in the spray. It was so good.

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Cooling off thanks to a local sprinkler

The rest of the trip was just walking and talking down the asphalt towards Scenic World. We stopped at one point to check out the view from one of the frequent lookouts, but mostly the interest of the last section of the trip was in the conversation which was mostly about gender roles, ethics, and restrictive elements of various religions.

At Katoomba station we regrouped and recapped at the pub with fancy beers and lemon lime and bitters. The atmosphere of satisfaction was an indicator of trip success.

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Classic tourist view: Mt Solitary and the Three Sisters

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Rennies Tunnel

  1. For your information, the “cavern” in the tunnel was where it bent downhill to come out on the talus slope. Up till there it had been following the almost horizontal coal seam but at this point had to tunnel through and underneath it, so the coal in the ceiling was removed to stop collapse.

  2. This is one trip I am eager to do.
    I have heard rumours about a cave-in. Does anyone know if it is still passable?

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