No pack, no rope, no worries: A shambolic canyon exploration

Party: T2, Kosta, Hendrik, Chris

The day began poorly. After a frantic packing effort I jumped in the car, already running late. I rang the others to tell them I’d meet them about 15 minutes after we’d planned. Pulling in, they were almost ready to head off. I walked around to my boot, opened the door, and let out a particularly loud expletive. I’d left half my gear at home.

Working through the contents of the car, I was pleased to see I had shoes and a harness. I was less excited by the lack of pack, helmet, ascenders, and the 60m rope I was meant to bring.

This kind of clusterf*ck would be bad at the best of times, but we were setting off on an exploratory trip. Not only did I have no idea what the canyon involved, or if we would even drop into the correct creek, but I knew from the map that there was a major cliffline that may well require every centimetre of rope at our disposal.

Ominously, the name of the canyon we were seeking means stone coffin.

I’d actually had this trip in mind for a few years, after seeing the solitary reference to it online. I’d spent some time trawling satellite images and topographic maps, as well as zooming in on cliffs I’d photographed on previous walks in the area. Eventually, I narrowed it down to three potential creeks. Thankfully, one looked particularly promising, so it was this creek I’d convinced the others to explore. (I may have told them I was about 90 per cent sure it was the right creek before the trip, but admitted on the walk in that it was probably closer to 40 per cent).

At the cars, the rest of the group generously split my essential gear between their own packs before we organised a quick car shuffle. Having never met me before, Hendrick showed particular courage following this most shambolic of trip leaders into the bush in search of the unknown.

I strapped our one remaining 60m rope to my back, hung my harness over my shoulder, and set off along a well worn footpad. Before long we headed off track, but the walking was pleasant and we made great time.

Despite being winter, we quickly warmed up as the sun poured down from above, through the still blue sky.

Eventually we came to a section of open health that allowed us to look down into the potential canyon. There was a great deal of doubt among the group given how small the catchment was and how abruptly it ended at a substantial cliff.

We dropped packs — well, those of us who had them — and set off a few hundred metres to the end of the ridge which promised spectacular views. We weren’t disappointed, with views of the spectacular gorge in all directions.

We headed back to our gear then set off towards the most promising branch of the creek. We arrived in no time, ended up in a dry creek bed surrounded by swampy vegetation. It didn’t seem promising, but we pressed on regardless.

Our concern soon faded when the creek suddenly cut through a narrow gap between two rocky outcrops. Looking down the short drop we could see a deep pool, so while the rest of us put on harnesses Chris scouted up the side, finding a great scramble into this very short but pretty section of canyon.

Almost immediately after there was another, much more impressive drop, and then another smaller abseil. Further down the creek we spotted a ramp to the left which looked like it could be used to avoid these abseils.

Another deep pool sent us scurrying up the side of the creek, pushing through thick hanging swamp before scrambling back down below this very chilly looking obstacle.

Around a corner, the creek suddenly dropped. It was impossible to see just how far the constriction snaked. What we could see was that it looked amazing. We’d almost certainly found the canyon we were looking for.

Kosta generously set off first, spare rope in his pack. A series of small pools broke up the drop, but with 60m of rope below him he kept pressing on. He eventually stopped where a fault line caused the canyon to take a sharp right-hand turn.

The others soon followed, enjoying the impressive sandstone chasm we had entered.

I was thankful Kosta had brought his brand new fiddlestick setup, as what could have been a very awkward pulldown became an easy retrieval. Best of all, it meant no damage to the anchor tree and no slings left behind.

The next drop did have an existing anchor, with a loop of old rope around pinch point. It ended with another deep pool, but Kosta used his height to bridge across, then pulled the rest of us over without so much as getting our feet wet.

Amazingly, we’d cut most of the way through those towering cliffs that had looked so imposing. Things had gone surprisingly smoothly and the lack of rope hadn’t been a problem, which perhaps caused some complacency. As a result, we didn’t pay enough attention to the likely fall of the rope on the next abseil. On retrieval, it slipped into a crack and wedged fast. The weight of four of us couldn’t get it to so much as budge.

We cut off as much of the rope as we could, hoping the loss of our only 60m rope wouldn’t cause problems. Thankfully, the next drop was the last, and the 40m rope that had been in the back of my car was enough to get us safely down.

Looking back up, it was almost impossible to spot the canyon cutting through the cliffs, making it clear why something so accessible remained such as well kept secret.

It was cooler in the valley, so we walked a short way to a sunny rock slab where we enjoyed lunch.
From here, we knew things would get tougher as we bashed our way through the bush to a pass that would take us back to the car.

Our theory of following the base of the cliffs mostly worked, but as we approached a major side creek things became more challenging. We found ourselves pushing through thick scrub, unable to see our footing through the ferns, and tangled in vines.

Thankfully, things improved once we crossed the creek, and we headed on towards a track we knew would make life easier.

Despite the questionable start, it had been an amazing day, and we all thought the effort involved was well worth it for the stunning little canyon. Which is lucky, as we still need to go back to clean up our stuck rope!

But most of all we were amazed that somewhere so accessible, so close to Sydney, could still hold an amazing, barely-known canyon ready to be discovered.

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