Prefatory note: I had intended to publish this months ago but it’s been a busy old year. Now, with bushfires almost surrounding Sydney and threatening many national parks including parts of the Blue Mountains, it’s timely to pay tribute to the stunning and glorious Grose Valley. Hopefully it will survive. So here finally is the story of a hike done back in April.
It’d been a long time since I’d done a walk in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, at least 25 years, so when my old friend Harry Creamer suggested we tackle something adventurous in one of New South Wales’ best-known National Parks, of course I said yes, why not?
We were getting together in Sydney as our old alma mater, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge was holding a dinner for alumni in the New South Wales Parliament House on Macquarie Street. Neither of us is a frequent attendee of such reunions, the last one we both went to was 20-30 years ago in Canberra. However, the timing and location of this one gave us an opportunity to catch up, find out what was happening with our old college and Cambridge, especially in light of Brexit.
It also offered the opportunity for a hiking adventure. Harry did the research on suggested hikes and organised places to stay. The day after our Catz dinner, we drove up to the Blue Mountains, about two and half hours to Blackheath where Harry had booked us into a charming B & B called Glenella. Run by Margaret and Rohan with humour, kindness and a relaxed but efficient attention to detail, Glenella made an excellent base for our hike.
Harry proposed we do a circuit through the Grose Valley, starting at Govetts Leap at the end of the road where we were staying. We asked Margaret who said that while she hadn’t done it, she’d heard it was ‘challenging’. Apparently, the signposting on the trail is unreliable and there are places where you could potentially take a wrong turn – not a good idea in the unforgiving wilderness of the Blue Mountains.
Slightly daunted but nevertheless feeling that we ought to be able to tackle this, having spent a week hiking in the Himalaya a couple of years ago, we organised food, water, clothing plus the essential accoutrements of sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, walking poles etc.
On the morning, we packed our stuff into the car and drove down to the National Park Heritage visitor centre just before Govetts Leap. A very helpful woman talked us through options for which direction to take, saying she’d heard the trail was easier to follow anti-clockwise and you’re less likely to get lost. That sounded like advice we ought to heed. She also recommended we take a Personal Locator Beacon which they could provide free of charge. Remarkable! We had to fill out an online form and supply contact details of a person who would know what we were doing and who would contact police if we didn’t return on time. That all took a few minutes, plus a demonstration of how to set off the beacon (release the aerial – that’s it!).
We bought a map and brochure for the Grose Valley walks, some last-minute emergency provisions and drove on down to the Govetts Leap carpark.
It was a glorious day, starling egg blue skies, a few fluffy clouds, no haze at this time of year and a vista of unparalleled beauty and magnificent grandeur opened up before us.
We had a last-minute debate whether to take the advice of the woman in the visitor centre about which direction to go on the hike and had a chat with a young couple who were about to set off down the steep access track from the carpark. They said they’d done it a few times before and didn’t have a particular preference – but did confirm it was quite challenging. We decided caution was the better part of valour and opted for the anti-clockwise route, bidding farewell and good luck to the couple, saying we’d probably meet them along the track.
A little after 10am, we headed off along the Cliff Top trail which followed the sandstone escarpment along the western side of the Grose Valley, declared the Grose Wilderness in 2001. The red sandstone cliffs and dark green eucalypt forest below glowed in the morning sun, emanating that ever-present aura of an ancient land, of Gondwana.
After fifteen to twenty minutes, we reached a look-out perched precariously on the cliff edge, like an eagle’s eyrie. From here we could look back at the sheer drop from Govetts Leap. Covered in moss, ferns and small trees clinging to the rock face, it looked like a natural hanging gardens of Babylon.
We struggled to see where on earth the track was, leading down to the valley below – and up which we’d be making our way at the end of our hike. It looked perilous and insurmountable. A shiver of doubt flickered in our minds, but we put it aside and pressed on
The walk along the cliff top was moderately easy and enjoyable, largely along a shaded trail and after an hour or so we reached Evans Lookout.
We bumped into a Parks Ranger who was very friendly, he and Harry chatted about National Parks matters, Harry having spent his career working for NSW National Parks and Wildlife. He showed us where the trail led down from Evans Lookout into Grand Canyon, the next stage of our hike. There were quite a number of tourists heading down, taking advantage of the well-formed steps.
We stopped to take a few shots of the red sandstone cliffs from a vantage point just below the look-out then started our descent into the heavily shaded forest.
The temperature dropped and moisture dripped down moss-covered rockfaces as we entered the rainforest.
The tourists were mostly going as far as a rock-pool at the bottom of the steps and that’s where we parted company with them and the clearly marked and signposted track.
We crossed Greaves Creek via stepping stones and entered the drier, south eastern facing eucalyptus forest. The track wasn’t always obvious and we had to keep a careful look-out for yellow markers with a black arrow. The going was quite steep and at times we wondered if we’d bitten off more than we could chew – would we disappear in the densely forested Grose Valley, never to be seen again?
We were conscious of the fact that a fall or any kind of accident down here would be serious. Using our walking poles and watching carefully where we put our feet, we took our time, holding onto tree branches and rocks to steady ourselves and maintain our balance. Just as well – stepping over a rock we narrowly avoided standing on a young Eastern Brown snake, highly venomous and potentially lethal – even as a juvenile. It was no more than 10-15cms long (we didn’t stop to measure it) but showing signs of aggression. We moved on rapidly.
We heard voices at one point and through the bush we could see people picnicking by Beauchamp Falls but we didn’t feel we had the luxury of time to do a side tour and kept on going.
The yellow markers were distributed somewhat haphazardly and when we reached a clearing by Greaves Creek there was nothing to indicate where we should go. Our simple, diagrammatic map suggested we had to cross the creek at some point and we could see some metal spikes in the flat rocks on either side of the creek. We figured these may have been part of some long disused and destroyed handrails for crossing the creek and headed across. Luckily, we were right and on the other side found the trail snaking down through the forest along the creek.
We hadn’t been going long when we bumped into the young couple we’d met at Govetts Leap. It was roughly half way, so not too much of a surprise although they showed some concern on our behalf about getting back safely. They asked if we had torches, in case we found ourselves still climbing out of the valley at nightfall. We said no, we didn’t have a torch and in a spontaneous gesture of kindness, the young man (in his thirties) asked his partner to give us their head torch. We offered to pay or to return it – they lived in Blackheath – but they wouldn’t hear of it. It was ours to keep. We were greatly touched by their concern and generosity.
We were also slightly unnerved by their concern for our safety, having told us we had a fair distance to go, there were places you could take a wrong turn and the climb out of the valley was arduous. But we were committed to going on, and having thanked our Samaritans, we pressed forward.
The track continued downhill until we re-crossed Greaves Creek and eventually reached the valley floor, known as Rodriguez Pass. About this time, we fell in with a middle-aged man and his two teenage daughters. They were heading for the Blue Gum Forest and were planning on camping the night. They seemed to have a pretty clear idea of where they were and where they were heading – which was re-assuring. We were both aiming for Junction Rock, where we would make a ninety degree turn west and they would continue on. The walking here on the ‘river flats’ was easy and relaxed, mostly low brush with the creek flowing on our right.
From what we’d read and heard, it was important to recognise Junction Rock, apparently it had been missed by some walkers who’d then wound up heading in the wrong direction. When we arrived, however, it seemed quite obvious – in fact there was a sign saying Junction Rock, admittedly somewhat worn and faded but clearly legible.
It was coming up to 2pm, so this was the perfect spot for lunch. We set up on the flat surface of the rock and prepared our sumptuous repast of tuna and salad sandwiches, washed down with tea from Harry’s trusty Stanley thermos.
According to our basic National Parks one-page map of the walk, we were about two thirds of the way, but of course we had the “Hanging Gardens” perpendicular cliff face ahead of us. Complacency wasn’t an option. Resisting the temptations of peace and tranquility, we knew we had to get going.
Refreshed, but mindful of the time – and the cautionary tales of wrong turn-offs and rapid onset of dusk in Australia – we packed up, took some photos and prepared for the next leg.
An older couple came along the route we’d taken and were heading in the same direction, so we asked them for any useful advice. They said they did the walk regularly and we should have no trouble. They did suggest crossing Govetts Leap Brook, the stream we’d now be following, at the junction and crossing back further upstream, as the track along the western side was tricky.
We took their advice, crossed the creek and followed it for a couple of hundred metres or so until we saw a marker indicating to cross back. The trail itself was moderately easy, continuing along Rodriguez Pass, named after Tomas Rodriguez, Chairman of the Blackheath Sites Reserves Trust in 1907. The work to create the track along the valley floor from Evans Lookout to Govetts Leap was begun in 1899 and completed the following year – quite an undertaking.
We’d been told to look out for a large tree by an old camp site where we had to take the higher path. On the way we saw signs of bushfire, some scarred and blackened trees.
The junction we’d been told about wasn’t as clearly identifiable as we’d hoped but we managed to find the right trail, which was moderately easy with a few inclines to negotiate.
The creeks crossings were numerous and somewhat trickier, as the crossing points weren’t always marked, some were easier to find than others.
An hour and half after leaving Junction Rock we came to the base of Govetts Leap Falls, the Bridal Veil waterfall, at the foot of the sheer cliff that seemed to reach up into the sky above.
We had a rest, drink and muesli bar to recharge the batteries and fuel the body for the ascent. Looking up, it seemed an impossible feat, how on earth could anyone find a way up there?
The answer was a series of narrow paths along ledges, and lots of steps. Because of the vertical cliff-faces, the only way to go up in several places was metal frame stairs bolted onto the stone walls. This was tough going, taxing the now weary muscles and bones.
According to the Blue Mountains National Park Walking Track Guide, it was originally considered impossible to build a track down the 180 metre high cliff, but in 1888, two men took seven months to cut and blast the track, following faults and ledges in the rock and finishing it with a fine set of stone steps.
As we climbed out of the valley, we looked back at where we’d come from, the wilderness bathed in the rosy glow of the afternoon sun .
It took us just over an hour to reach the top, dripping with perspiration and moisture from the moss-covered overhangs.
We dragged our bone-tired bodies up the last leg, past a family of tourists who cheered us on. Exhausted but elated we arrived where we’d started seven hours previously. It was a shade after 5pm – and it was still light. It had been a challenging 12 kilometre walk, as people had warned, but not quite as scary as had been made out. As the late afternoon light tinted the ruddy cliffs and softened the harshness of the rugged landscape, we shook hands, imbued with a sense of comradeship and achievement. What a great day.
There was one last surprise in store for us.
From a distance we could see some paper tucked under the windscreen wiper on Harry’s car. Oh no, we thought, not a fine surely.
But no – it was a message written by the couple who’d given us their torch, hoping we’d arrived safely and hadn’t needed the torch. They must have noted which car was ours when we arrived and left the note, no name or contact number. What a delightful end to a glorious adventure.