It’s been a funny year. Normally a long weekend in a bushwalker’s calendar is a holy grail, with plans made months in advance to take advantage of that extra day. But with so many Fridays taken off due to forced Covid leave, I’ve had many long weekend trips since June and so the official long weekend didn’t feel anywhere as critical as usual. So much so that Tom & I had made zero plans by the Wednesday before. Wednesday night we started tossing around ideas, loosely settling on a Ettrema/Jones Creek trip. Thursday morning we get an invite from Kylie to join her & others for some Bungleboori canyoning – which had been one of the discarded ideas – so it didn’t take much further discussion (combined with a hot weather forecast) to revert to that option.
Multi-day canyoning?! How do we do that again? My packing felt rusty, clothes which had been pulled out for bushwalking got tossed aside. The lack of canyoning shorts in my wardrobe was once again an issue. But not long after 6am on Saturday morning we were on our way to Waratah Ridge. Our plan was to do our own thing on the Saturday and meet the Kylie & co at a camp cave on Saturday night.
From the group chat we were aware of wood-fired pizza and neon party activities for those camping on the Friday night. I wondered if they would still be at the car park when we got there at 8:30am. We arrived to a ghost town. Maybe 12 vehicles but not a soul in site.
A last minute decision to walk in using more comfortable shoes meant I was carrying my canyoning shoes in a supermarket green bag hanging off the outside of my pack. Tom took great amusement in the set-up, and I will no doubt regret giving him the chance to photograph it. In the end the shoes came all the way to where we ditched our camping gear and with substantially lighter packs headed off for our first canyon.
Tom had done it once back in 2002, while it was going to be a new one for me. We were interested to see what we’d think – given the number of crap canyons we’ve done in recent years – would it be better than expected?
It was a decent slot with a few abseils, just very short, and it wasn’t that long before we were having lunch on a delightful sandbank in the Bungleboori. The water in the canyon (no more than knee deep) hadn’t been that cold, but 40 minutes of wading up the Bungleboori after lunch turned our feet to ice. Plans for the following day were rapidly being rethought, a canyon with a “few short swims” suddenly seeming like a poor choice.
The exit was interesting. A steep loose slope, followed by a narrow traverse to a groove which we needed to force our way up. I decided to try it with my pack, which I eventually succeeded in, but with a lot of grunting. Since I’d done it with my pack I guess Tom felt the pressure to do the same. Even more grunting. From there it was a relatively straightforward meander through the remaining cliffs to the ridge. Previous trips in this area had some of the scratchiest scrub I’ve encountered but the relatively low-intensity burn last summer had done away with most of the mountain holly and devil’s twine which trapped you.
Back at our gear we repacked and headed off to the camp cave. As we descended a loose gully, Tom stepped on a rock which rolled under him, leaving him with a heavy landing. His knee wasn’t happy but nothing broken so we pushed onto the camp cave. It wasn’t what I’d imagined – a handful of single sleeping spots and very little flat space for tents in the surrounding area. We set up in the only flat spot we could see and got sorted. Initially we waited for the others before getting into pre-dinner snacks but the sun was on its way down. I was starving, and we gave up and dug in to the cheese & crackers.
We didn’t know how many had ended up coming with Kylie or what canyon(s) they’d decided to do. So we figured there wasn’t much we could do about them not having arrived. Had we even been talking about the same camp cave to meet at!? We’d held off getting a fire going since there were multiple options for fire places… but as it was now dark we just used the one next to our tent.
It was quite some time later as we were drinking soup that lights appeared on the cliffs opposite. Hmm, they’re not getting down to where we are from there! Some shouted communications were attempted. The lights retreated. But then reappeared a little later. Some more instructions yelled.
The gully to get down wasn’t an easy walk in daylight so negotiating it in the dark for the first time wasn’t going to be pleasant. I would have suggested camping on the ridge at that stage, but since we couldn’t really communicate, we just waited to see if anyone would make it down. Soon the torches appeared in the gully, I wandered around to help them negotiate the final section. Turned out they’d left the carpark at 7am so it had been a very long day.
Soon enough everyone had a spot to sleep and they had the fire going. We came up and joined them in the cave for the evening. The next days plans up in the air; given how tired they were, and on our side Tom’s knee, so we agreed to just work it out in the morning.
The next day we all headed up to the saddle. One of the group decided a 12 hour day was enough fun for the weekend and headed back to the cars, which left 7 of us for the day’s adventure. A stand-off over who was navigating us to the canyon was resolved with Tom & I leading the way. It wasn’t quite the perfect route – a couple of premature drop-offs down scrubby gullies when we could have stayed on the pagodas – but it wasn’t that long before we dropped into the creek just as the canyon was starting.
We had morning tea and watched the others wriggle into their wetsuits. Tom & I were feeling somewhat under-dressed in our shorts & t-shirts. Soon enough we were abseiling into the cool recesses of the canyon. With two ropes operating we moved pretty smoothly through the 5 abseils. My only regret being not to remove my shirt before dropping into the only (very short) swim of the day.
Another beautiful Bungleboori sandbank was our lunch spot. The exit didn’t have any particular difficulties and so it wasn’t long before we were retracing our entrance route (minus the scrubby gullies) back to the saddle. The others were heading out that afternoon, while we were staying another night. There was some talk of a run through a nearby canyon before they left, but the somnolence of the hot day sapped enthusiasm. Eventually Tom & I decided to head off and do it (seemed a waste not to) given it would deposit us at the camp cave and meant we didn’t have to walk down the gully again!
It took us an hour through the canyon, with a few swims early on – but in the shallow section which had been in the sun. Later potential swims were avoided with some careful bridging, but I was still pretty happy when we got the fire and hot cuppa soon after getting back to camp. It was a pleasant evening and a warmer night (to justify my summer sleeping bag!).
Our final day Tom wanted to go down a “canyon” that we expected to be rubbish.
We’d passed the bottom of it on the first day, and knew there was one surviving tree on the final ledge we would need to abseil off. I was a bit apprehensive – we didn’t know the exact length of the final drop – we thought we had enough rope, but it might involve a bit of creativity to make it down. As expected the canyon was rubbish (maybe 10m of real canyon), and end of the creek was full of fallen trees from the fires. The highlight was the final drop done in two stages.
Eventually on the ledge we’d seen two days earlier Tom & I talked through all of the scenarios – what if the two ropes we had reached, what if only the long rope reached, what whistles were going to mean if we couldn’t communicate verbally etc etc. After all of that, I was probably the most nervous I’d been in years going over the edge! Particularly since Tom was trying to put something to protect the rope under the single strand I was on but it was an overhung start so difficult to get a protector in place.
It was with some relief as I came through the tree canopy I could see that both the long and shorter ropes were on the ground, and that Tom & I were (just) able to communicate by yelling. My relief somewhat dissipated when I got to the ground and found my prusik was locked on the rope, and as I was no longer fully weighting it I couldn’t get it unjammed. After a bit of faffing and some wandering up the slope I eventually managed to release myself. Tom by comparison had a stress free descent knowing the ropes reached – though disappointed as he’d forgotten to take any photos of me abseiling as he was too focussed on trying to get the rope protection in place.
A short walk up the ‘Boori got us to the lovely lunch spot we’d discovered on our exit two days earlier. From there we just had to repeat the exit (this time we pack hauled) and walk out.
A bit of breeze made the hot day more bearable and being the last day of the long weekend there wasn’t much advantage in getting out early – it would just mean longer sitting in traffic. It seemed everyone was on the coast based on the numerous traffic updates as we drove home – nothing impacting us so we had a smooth trip home. A great weekend in the bush – some new canyons, some old favourites, some new friends, and lots of mosquito bites!