Party: Paul, Marty, Bron and T2
Ask a Blue Mountains canyoner to list their five favourite canyons and it’s a safe bet Claustral will be mentioned. While that reputation is well earned — the first descent of Claustral was really what inspired the pursuit of canyoning to emerge in Australia — the other tributaries in the Carmarthen Labyrinth are all too often overlooked.
I’m no different when it comes to this one-eyed love of Claustral. It had been six or seven years since I descended either branch of Ranon Canyon. So when Paul and Marty made the suggestion I leapt at it.
They were coming up to the mountains on Friday for one of my fiddlestick workshops, so it made sense to stay around for beer and pizza before heading through a canyon the following day.
It was a slow start in the morning, involving dropping my eldest son to a cricket game in Penrith before enjoying a sit-down breakfast in North Richmond. The result was that it was about 10am when we slung our packs over our shoulders and set off for Mistake Ravine.
Within minutes we were walking through wildflowers to a rocky outcrop overlooking the canyon system. From above our destination looked innocent enough: just some insignificant looking valleys flowing away from us.
The walk-in is incredibly short and in no time we were making our way along the mossy creek bed with lush ferns clinging to the walls above. On its own this section makes a stunning bushwalk, but knowing what it leads to makes it all the more special.
Eventually, the creek started to drop, with an abseil taking us into a lovely upper constriction. Dropping further, we were soon at the point where a pair of two-stage abseils take you on a spectacular swirling journey through the layers of sandstone.
At the first of these, a large tree-fall caused a little confusion. This was made worse by a very oddly placed bright yellow sling, which I promptly cut free. A non-conventional access route soon had us at a much better anchor.
We ended up using the fiddlestick on all the abseils, which hadn’t been my original plan, but each drop seemed perfectly suited. We enjoyed the easy pull downs and Paul and Marty were well and truly converted in the process.
After the final spectacular abseil, to the junction with Claustral, we took a moment to wander up through the Black Hole. Other than the abseils, there really is only the tiniest part of Claustral which can’t be visited on a Ranon trip.
From here the deep narrow gorge was as impressive as ever. In fact, no matter how many times I come through, this section always seems more impressive than I recall. It really does make sense why it has such a good reputation.
We paused for a quick lunch at the Thunder junction, enjoying the rays of sunshine. Leaving packs behind, we set off towards Westerway Falls. The unavoidable swims were made a little more frustrating by some fresh branches — complete with green leaves — that had been blown down, producing unseen snags.
Heading over the large rockfall, then down the boulders on the other side, the spectacular slots drew us onwards. Reaching the end, we decided to do a loop that follows a narrow slot under a waterfall and into the impressive glowworm-filled cave. It was only here, as we moved blindly into the darkness, that we realised all four of us had left our head torches behind.
The glowworms were stunning as always, enhanced by the complete darkness. Meanwhile, we shimmied about on backs and bellies — staying low to avoid harming the cave’s occupants — blindly feeling our way across the rocky ground in what we hoped was the direction of the exit. Eventually, after fighting the urge to turn back, a glimpse of light confirmed we were getting close. Suddenly our low cave grew into an impressive cavern.
Back down the canyon, we took the low route this time to get past the rockfall. After grabbing our packs and setting off we enjoyed the sunshine that fell in patches on the more open creek sections.
I darted up the slope at a point to have a look at the old camp cave that was used in the early days — Claustral was generally considered a two day trip — admiring the spectacular overhanging cliffs and the expansive flat sleeping spots.
Downclimbing the remaining drops — one with a fixed handline and the other utilising my patented bum-jam technique — we were soon at the end. We noted that the shifting hydrology of recent years has remained, with the infamous tunnel swim now less than 20 metres long.
We headed up Rainbow Ravine to exit, as usual, but just before reaching the awkward scrambles higher up (the first of which usually has slings tied to tree roots) Paul showed us the non-scrambling alternative. It really is amazing, with a short detour under the cliffs to the right before an obvious track winds back to the point. It is madness that anyone exits any other way!
By the time we reached the rocky outcrop under Camels Hump we were all short on energy. A short rest and a solid snack — including plenty of snakes — and we were rejuvenated and ready to go.
There was a brief discussion about whether we wanted to follow the short-cut route some of the commercial operators have developed to save their clients from the final short swim, but we decided to do the right thing and stick with the route National Parks has asked canyoners to use. Clearly the alternate route is getting some use, as the leaf-litter on this part of the track definitely showed less signs of traffic.
Beyond avoiding putting new tracks in, and obeying the requests of the land manager, I really don’t see the benefit of the supposed short-cut. The traditional route involves beautiful easy walking in the upper creek section of Claustral that is not only really pretty, but probably adds only about 500 metres in distance. Considering the short-cut involves an abseil — requiring tired canyoners to stop put harnesses on — I’d be extremely surprised if it actually saved any time.
From here it was up the exit track, which is less vertical and easier going than the climb up Rainbow Ravine. Perhaps it was the power of the snakes, but we seemed to reach the ridgetop in almost no time at all. An hour earlier the consensus was that our late start, plentiful side-trips, and sluggish walking meant we were likely to get back to the cars in the dark. Instead, we were sitting on the rocky viewpoint at the end of the track in time to watch the sun set.
Amazingly, despite being a clear-skied Saturday in late spring, we hadn’t seen a soul all day. What a privilege to have one of the most impressive canyons in the Blue Mountains all to ourselves. And a great reminder what while Ranon may be Claustral’s forgotten sister, it really is one of the best canyoning trips in the mountains.