Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Secret Canyon - Part 1.

The Adventure 

It all started out many years ago, as I was sitting at the table pouring over my maps. I have hundreds of topographic maps covering thousands of square miles. Once you learn how to read a topographic map it comes alive and you can see the valleys, mountains and rivers as if you were in a helicopter flying over them. This day I was searching the headwaters of a river near where I used to live. I saw the contour lines narrow, converge, and get tangled up in each other. It piqued my interest. That meant steep terrain, cliffs, waterfalls, in other words - fun! Let's have a closer look!

Sometime later, after much planning and preparation, a small group of mates and I headed off deep into the National Park, excited about our trip ahead. We planned to walk into the headwaters of the river where the river drops off the escarpment over the Great Dividing Range and plunges hundreds of meters down a 30km or so section of river. We really didn't know what we were in for, or how this story would evolve over the years to come.

There are three main waterfalls shown on the maps of the area. Named simply - Upper, Middle and Lower Falls. The maps did not do justice to the area. This was wild country. Steep terrain, unfamiliar to human visitation. This was its main drawcard for me. I love to explore and just the thought of going where "no man has gone before" gives me a sense of excitement I cannot begin to explain to you. There are so few places left on earth that are truly unexplored.

After driving many hrs down rough, seldom used 4WD tracks we finally reached our starting point where the track crosses the river. We then abandoned the car and hiked downstream through thick forest towards Upper Falls.

Before we got to the main fall however, we came across a mini canyon and a small waterfall which plummeted into a hole. It was difficult to see where the river went after that. It looked like it just emptied into a massive hole. But, after reaching the bottom we saw that it snaked around the corner on its relentless urge to reach the ocean.

Andy, descending into the abyss.

After the last man was down and we pulled our ropes down, we headed downstream in search of Upper Falls. This is a shot of Andy, pulling the ropes down. 

Pulling ropes down 

Upper Falls

We swam through a slot canyon carved out of basalt, wondering at the force that had gorged out this canyon and what it would be like in here during flood times. It wasn't too long before we began to hear the roar. It starts off almost imperceptible, then slowly grows louder, increasing to a crescendo that drowns out all other sound. You feel it in the air, a sense of excitement settles over you. Can we get out of the current of water before being swept over the edge? How big is it? Is there anything we can tie a rope to in order to abseil (rappel) down the waterfall?  So many questions run through my head as I swim quickly to the edge. I pull myself out of the water on a small ledge and quickly tie a rope around a protruding rock and tie myself in. I then help the rest of the party out of the water as they arrive. We huddle together on this small ledge as we assess our options for an anchor. I finally settle on a small tree about the size of my wrist, growing out of the side of the cliff. It has a tenuous hold on the rock. I would have liked something more substantial, but it's our best option. I test it out, tugging it this way and that. Finally, satisfied that it will indeed hold us, I tie on and begin to descend Upper Falls. The waterfall is roaring beside me, it is close to 100m (330ft) to the pool at the bottom. I feel the spray in my face, the ice cold water stinging like needles. The rock wall is slippery, constantly wet, it is covered in slimy moss. I let out a 'woohoo' as I gingerly make my way down the fall, the thought of the anchor I am tied to constantly in my mind. I look up and see a row of small heads peeking over the edge watching my progress. Finally I reach the bottom and take off my heavy pack, and then float across the huge pool to the rocky shore where I sit in the sun to warm up as I watch my friends make their descent. 

Halfway down Upper Falls. 

It has been an exhilarating day. We had been up since about 3am, driving through the early hours of the morning in order to arrive at the river at daybreak. Then hiked in for some miles to where the canyon started. It was getting late so we decided this was a perfect place to camp. We camped in sight of the falls for the night stretched out on the rocks beside the river. I remember feeling remote, isolated, cut off from civilisation in this pristine place. It was a magical feeling, one I will not soon forget.

After getting into dry warm clothes and eating a welcome hot meal we were lulled to sleep by the roar of the waterfall that we had climbed down a few hours earlier. 

A great campsite

7 years later...

I could not have imagined what obstacles this river would hold. I had many years of experience in abseiling, rock - climbing, canyoning and caving. But this river would test me to my limits. It would take us about 7 years to finally make it all the way through the canyon to the other end. We conquered the top section that first trip and then backtracked out to the car again. Summertime was the best time to go up there. It was warmest then, and we had the maximum amount of daylight available to us. The last thing you want is to be caught in a canyon after dark. So we usually organised a trip around each Christmas holiday season. Christmas is Summer in Australia. Each year we would go a little further than before only to be stopped by an insurmountable obstacle. I would go home, awed at the majestic beauty of this area and wonder how I could overcome this next obstacle. We made stainless steel bolts, and carried petrol operated hammer drills deep into the canyons in order to place anchors. One trip I carried 200m of 9mm rope as well as 100m of 11mm rope and we had two 50m lengths as well in the party in order to rig the pitches to advance further into the canyon.

Andy at falls.

We were fit and wiry back then in my mid 20's. I am about 6 foot 1 inch, and at the time weighed about 70kg (155 pounds). To get all the gear we needed in there I was carrying over 50kg on my back. We would put all our gear inside dry bags inside our packs in an attempt to keep it dry. But the pack itself would fill up with water as well as soak into the hundreds of meters of rope draped over the top. So, when staggering out of a pool after a swim section, there was probably another 10-20 litres of water that collected in my pack. I added large drain holes to the bottom to get it out as fast as possible.

Crossing the river with a full backpack can be tricky

A rare photo of me - saying hello to the local wildlife - a carpet python

Middle falls.

There are numerous small waterfalls and side creeks that come into the main river that we also explored. Some were small enough to jump or slide down, others required ropes to do it safely. 

On the brink.

This was taken at the top of the next photo. We would lie across the top and dam the water up and then release it all in one go so that it would pour down faster on the person going down! 

Mark - almost at the bottom

Middle Falls was the point of no return. From here to the Lower Falls the river dropped into a steep canyon with no way out but forwards. Once we pulled the ropes down behind us below Middle Falls we were committed. It was a cascading type of waterfall with very little in the way of anchors. Even though the fall itself was only about 25m we needed almost 200m of rope in order to reach a good anchor. We put bolts in here to make it easier for future trips. Once we had abseiled down Middle Falls swam to the other end of the massive pool it fell into and stowed our ropes, we headed off again downstream. 

Top half of Middle Falls.

Now we were deep into the canyon, about 3 days hike back upstream to the nearest road, and about 2 days hike downstream to the nearest road. Provided we could get through at all. The cliffs towered about 50m (150ft) above us, and the river got steeper, quickening its pace. We negotiated a few more waterfalls, tricky enough to stop us in past trips. Finally, the river plunged deeper, into a narrow canyon within a canyon. Here the walls were just a few feet apart and the river slid between them. We called this section the "Inner Sanctum."

Continue the adventure with part two- click here.

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