Author Archives: rachel

Colo Pass 5 & 1 (20-21 Apr 2024)

James wanted to go canyoning for the weekend. Woohoo! But his suggestions were far more energetic than either Tom or I were capable of, and the weather forecast was not overly enticing for wet canyoning. But why work out plans more than 48 hours in advance? Eventually we settled on a trip into the Upper Colo since James had never been there, and I was hoping it would mean we wouldn’t be away the *entire* weekend.

About 20 minutes after leaving home on Saturday morning Tom started swearing. His phone and wallet are still on the table at home. “Am I taking the next exit?”… “Running out of time for a decision?”… I assured him it would be like going bush in the old days before Lidar maps existed and we had to just use our experience. I’m not sure he was convinced.

We continued on; but without Tom’s drivers licence I ended up doing most of the driving. Well, until we got to the boggy sections on the Culoul Range Fire Trail. I got us through a few puddles but as we started swinging about I decided I’d had enough. And Tom, licence or not, could be responsible for getting us through the remainder. We made it to the end of the road intact and were soon fairly saturated as we started walking along the overgrown trail. The forecast rain seemed to have come through before we arrived that morning and everything was sodden.

Eventually we dropped off the track, where apparently it hadn’t rained given how dry it was, and headed down to our creek. It was slow going, with plenty of young lawyer vine ready to leave its mark.

Between a petrol stop, a coffee/banh mi/pastry stop, the wet road in and then the overgrown approach, it was almost midday by the time we got to the first abseil. The banh mi had been smelling alluring the whole drive up, but were slowly getting soggy and squashed in our packs. The others weren’t keen for an early lunch so we kept going to the further detriment of the banh mi.

Tom on the first abseil

After the reasonable gap between the first and second abseils I got James to read out Tom’s notes from previous visits. I think both him & I were a little surprised (horrified) to find the base of second abseil was going to have a waist deep pool and the base of the third a chest deep pool! Slightly concerned at my lack of water proofing I was happy to let the others go first.

James on the second abseil, Tom at the base

I convinced them we should have lunch before getting into a chest deep pool and we were lucky to have a calm period on the ledge so we didn’t get cold while we ate our soggy banh mi.

As per our usual practice I took my shirt off for the third abseil, which prompted the others also to do so. I was not unhappy to find it was unnecessary as the pool was only waist deep (maybe even shallower than the previous one).

All smiles that a chest-deep pool didn’t exist (just a waist deep one)

Somewhere around this part of the day Tom objected to my efforts to increase our (his) efficiency getting down the drops. I was labelled the ‘fun police’ and then he started imitating Blackboard from the children’s program Mr Squiggle. “Hurry up” then became his catch-phrase for the rest of the weekend – even though he was really the only one that directive needed to be applied to! 🙂

James with an awkward sit-start for the 4th abseil

Tom on the 5th abseil

James on the 5th abseil

James on the 6th abseil

James on the 7th abseil, Tom on the ledge

Tom in the Colo (as well as two of our ropes!)

James on our 8th and final abseil

We had afternoon tea on the Colo before heading upstream. The river, unsurprisingly given the recent rainfall, had a lot more flow in it than on previous visits. There was no way we were going to be able to just wade up the middle of it.

Looking back up where we came

Tom above the Colo

We had a very pleasant night in our cave, particularly with it drizzling very lightly on and off most of the night. We woke the next morning to sections of blue sky which became full sun and blue sky later in the day. Such a contrast to the very grey day we’d had on Saturday.

It was pretty easy going to the base of Crawfords Lookout – truly spectacular country.

James and Tom enjoy a log walk

James crossing Wollemi Creek, but where is Tom going?

Colo horseshoe bend from Crawfords Lookout

We made it to Hollow Rock!

I won the 3 (or more?) time guessing games against Tom over the course of the weekend. Each time only by a couple of minutes which was highly satisfying.

Back at the car at 2:14pm (beat him again), we had a late afternoon tea stop in Windsor on the way home. A very enjoyable weekend in remote country, even if I’m still not fit enough to carry an overnight canyoning pack and enjoy it.

Wanganderry Wanderings (13-14 Apr 2024)

Morning tea views

Wanganderry Walls

Jo taking in Bonnum pic

A welcome respite from the sun

After last weekend’s deluge (200mm+) there was plenty of water about

5 star happy hour views

Sunrise unfortunately was basically non-existent

Walking in low cloud on day 2

Bonnum Pic suddenly appears out of the cloud

Tom on the edge

Beautiful Bonnum Pic Creek

Some how we got out of the creek through that

Views from Bonnum Pic (a very full Warragamba Dam)

Waterhole on the way back

Easter Canyoning (29 Mar – 1 Apr 2024)

I’m not sure I can remember a time in the past where Tom & I were both so unfit. Tom recovering from a bad ankle sprain in late January hadn’t been out much. And my excuse was much poorer – working (way) too much. Besides a quick jaunt down to Bob Turners in early January we hadn’t carried overnight packs since September last year. So we knew there was going to be a fair bit of suffering given we were not just carrying overnight packs… but 4 days of food, plus canyoning gear. Tom started off with 21kg and maybe for once he was carrying more than his share at the start?!

The Easter forecast was excellent for a weekend of canyoning, so there was no flimsy excuses for a last minute bail. We had a good run out of Sydney early on Friday morning. Lithgow McDonalds was the busiest I’d ever seen it – with every camper trailer, 4WD and general car in the vicinity there. The staff were exceedingly efficient and I was in and out with my caffeine before I could blink. We were walking shortly after 9:30am. Eventually taking a break when my shoulders just couldn’t take any more. We set up our base camp for the 3 nights, then had lunch and headed off to do our first canyon. It felt good to not have a full pack – but with a rope, harness etc the pack was still heavier than anything I’d been carrying of late.

Tom happy to be canyoning

Trying to remember how to bridge

Convenient log

We had thought we might get two canyons in, but we didn’t finish the first one until 4pm. So given our aforementioned lack of fitness we decided it was better just to head back to camp (still a far way away).

Unsurprisingly I slept like the dead and had to kick Tom into action at 7:30am. We were supposed to get up with the sunrise (which was only 7am) – Tom claimed he didn’t think it was light enough for the sun to have risen. A likely excuse.

So with a slightly later start than planned we were off on day 2. We weren’t doing anything new on this trip – everything had been done before, but for me at least, it was all more than a decade ago – so it may as well have been new!

Abseiling on day 2

Hopefully Tom remembers how to scramble!

We dropped into our second canyon of the day just as the sun was directly overhead. Very bad timing from a photography point of view – but given how quickly the sun was moving we decided to have lunch and hope that the glare had moved on by the time we finished. The theory almost worked… though maybe some sections we would have been better off keeping on going.

Narrow abseil

Colours are a bit Utah-esque

Tom abseiling

Base of the abseil

This put us in a good position to start out third canyon of they day in the early afternoon. With our relatively heavy packs (at least compared to previous trips) the various climbs were hard work. Particularly for Tom when he had to pass the packs up to me! We were glad we hadn’t decided to do this canyon the previous afternoon as I’m pretty sure we would have finished in the dark.

Can he get up?

Scrambling again

Awkward climb up

Eventually we topped out and were back at camp by mid-afternoon. I was glad I’d brought some reading material – it was very pleasant to settle down with a hot drink and a book. Later on we spotted gliders jumping around above us as dusk hit (we saw them all 3 nights).

Day 3 we had a somewhat ambitious plan. It was likely in trouble when we hit our first abseil of the day with no obvious anchors. Tom managed to toss the rope over a fallen log several metres above us which saved us trying to backtrack and scramble out. We didn’t remember doing this abseil previously – maybe we dropped into the creek further down?

Abseiling from a very high anchor on day 3!

Finding a way through the hole


At the end of the canyon for an early lunch we then had to decide on what the rest of the day held. Feeling our fitness limitations we decided a shorter day was a better idea and so headed up another canyon towards camp. The discussion then became about whether we should walk out that night or not – since we were both pretty clear that neither of us had energy for canyoning on day 4. The main argument for walking out that night was to miss the traffic on Monday – which was likely to be horrendous given Easter didn’t coincide with the school holidays this year.

Happy to be back in canyons!

Classic Coachwood chamber

As we got near the top of the canyon an awful smell of dead creature wafted down to us. We’d had something dead in the canyon the previous day – but it wasn’t very big, and so didn’t smell *that* bad. This was pretty awful – and the anticipation of finding it was equally bad. There’s nothing like a bit of bloated wallaby guts floating in the water to put you off your canyon. Fortunately (?) in this case the wallaby was not in the water but in a slightly wider section. But it was lying where we would have walked had it not been there. Tom was in front at this point, and while trying to avoid the carcass, managed to lose his balance and take a full tumble. Fortunately not onto the carcass! But still, we were right next to it for longer than we should have been while he extricated himself from his pack and managed to get back on his feet. Then the wind changed to bring the smell upwind with us. Gross.

Finally we turned a corner and we were free of the smell. Though we weren’t feeling that keen to drink the water we’d picked up – admittedly a fair way downstream from the carcass.

I led us up a steep slabby section of pagodas to a nice shady spot. Once we’d agreed (no arguments from either side) that we would not be walking out that night, then we were able to relax in the shade and enjoy the views.

Afternoon tea views

The next morning we tried to get away relatively early – but with a few hours walk out, and a few more hours drive back to Sydney, it was hard to avoid the peak of the traffic. That’s what you get when you’re too unfit to canyon on the final day! It was good to be back canyoning. And with 6 canyons over the weekend it doubled my canyon count for the season.

Mt Carrialoo (16 Mar 2024)

Despite visiting Kangaroo Valley several times over the years I’d never been up Mt Carrialoo. Time to rectify things this year. I decided to combine it with a visit to the Promised Land Lookout for a fuller day. There’s definitely no mucking around the ascent starts immediately and is relentless as you ascend 400m with only a few flat-ish sections to catch your breath.

If only there were more signs like this!

I was chatting a lot which is never good for my navigation and we over shot the turn off for the lookout (not that it was marked) by a couple of hundred metres – no particular harm done. The track marked on the map was largely imaginary but it was pretty easy going through the bush and we just followed the high voltage cable signs out to the lookout. The cloud which had covered the valley was still lifting as we enjoyed the lovely views over morning tea.

We followed the signs to the Promised Land Lookout (and didn’t dig up the high voltage cable)

Not a bad morning tea spot

Views over Kangaroo Valley

After morning tea we headed back down the fire trail. McPhails fire trail is quite lovely – if I had to walk on fire trails (which I generally avoid) then give me one like McPhails any day of the week. Having missed the turn off earlier I was then hyper sensitive for our turn off onto Mt Carrialoo with a couple of false stops before plunging off into the bush.

This was another climb with nowhere to hide – just straight up the ridge.

Getting off track

Tom had picked out some attractive looking cliffs on the aerials as a good lunch spot. But going on the top wasn’t particularly quick and so I decided rather than have a very late lunch we’d make do with the cliff views we had.

Permanent orienteering course marker

Post lunch things we seemed to move quicker – maybe because we’d had some food. A few hundred metres out from the trig we picked up a solid foot pad that had been visible on the aerials. The same pad took us out to the ‘lunch’ cliffs for some pretty good views. We had a bit of time here taking photos and exploring the pass off.

Carrialoo Trig

Speccy views

Views from the other side of Mt Carrialoo

Once we’d had our fill of views we headed back across Mt Carrialoo picking a different route off, which had some interesting scrambling, before rejoining the fire trail back to the cars.

Scrambly descent back to the track

This was my first full day walk in weeks, with an excellent group, one of the most enjoyable days I’d had out for a long time.

Cycle Touring Part 3: Thailand (1-4 Jan 2024)

Following from Part 1 and Part 2

The border crossing at Poipet/Aranyaprathet was slow and hot. First we had to exit Cambodia, that didn’t take too long. Then walk across to the Thai border. Our Group Leader, who was Thai, was through in 10 minutes. But the rest of us, with our foreign passports, queued in a hot room for over an hour. Eventually we were all through. But then we needed get money, and as it was International New Years Day (as opposed to Thai New Year which is in April) the banks were closed. We found an ATM, but at 4 minutes per withdrawal, and 10 people needing to get money, we were there for a while… Eventually around 2pm we had our first meal in Thailand – pad thai at a road side stall for 40 Baht (~A$1). And it was pretty delicious, at least according to most of the Australians.

The itinerary had us doing 40km for the day and we only got on the bikes mid-afternoon. Needless to say most of us were dubious we would do the distance before it got dark, especially when we had a swim break with no urgency at Karbark Dam.

One of the interesting ‘features’ of the Thailand leg of the tour was that we gained a photographer, Mr Black. And not just Mr Black, also two of his teenage/adult children. So three photographers. Our group leader had already warned us before arriving that we would be photographed a lot, and there was “nothing he could do about it”. I think we were all a bit bemused at this comment, until after day 1, when we were forwarded the album link, and 15 minute Youtube video. And then we saw just how detailed the photographers were, including documenting those of us who went for a swim at the dam in multiple images. This blog post contains many photos by Mr Black and family – however, they are a small selection of the hundreds (literally) that Tom & I featured in over the course of the 3 days in Thailand.

First cycle stop in Thailand, Karbark Dam

Having a swim, along with the locals enjoying “International” New Years Day

Apparently most of the time no one is at the Dam, but there were plenty of people there enjoying the water. It seems only 5 in our group were interested in swimming, whether because it was too much of a pain to get wet/dry, or they were worried about getting something nasty from the water, I’m not sure.

It was a really refreshing break, and the next 34km were some of the most enjoyable riding of the trip. As it was so late in the afternoon we got quite a lot of shade over the road, and the temperatures were more bearable. We were also delighted to find Thailand had curves and undulations in its roads – something we had very little of in Vietnam & Cambodia. Unfortunately for me I ended up towards the back by myself – and had a couple of dogs have a go at me (and some of the others), which left me a bit shaken. I was very glad to finally get to the next snack break.

Me looking serious on the bike

Arriving at a snacks break late on our first day in Thailand

We re-grouped late in the afternoon as it was becoming seriously dusky. A few of us were thinking we would ride as a pack into our hotel, since we didn’t have lights on the bikes. But no, the final 6km of the day, we just rode in the low light and hoped the quiet roads were enough to keep us safe (they were). It was a very long day – 7:30am departure from the hotel in Cambodia – with the bus/border crossing/lunch taking us through till 3pm, and then 2-3 great hours of riding in the late afternoon. Despite some of the challenges, it was an enjoyable cycling day. The place we were staying put on a great banquet style meal for us that evening, and I think we all went to bed quite content.

The next morning we had a short ride to the local market, where our group leader gave us a tour. Some us would have rather have started riding to take advantage of the cooler part of the day…

The photographers photographing another photographer during our market visit in Kabinburi

Market delights

At the markets we purchased some turtles and live fish. We rode a few km along the road, for another break, to release the turtles and fish into a dam, to get good karma or something.

Turtles from the market, which we then released in a lake

Part of the reason for my frustration at the slow start was this was to be our longest day of the whole tour. Advertised at 70km on the itinerary, but if we wanted to ride hotel to hotel then it was 100km. We hadn’t had any other opportunities to avoid the bus so most people were pretty keen to have a crack at the 100km. Anyway, after the market and turtle release, we got down to business.

Group riding, Team #6 very visible!

The roads in Thailand were good quality, but with enough bends and undulations to make them interesting. Late the day before Tom had managed to fix himself on the back of the strongest riders and draft his way to the end, unlike me who had battled into headwinds for much of the afternoon. We managed to both get up with the strongest riders this day – what a joy it was to have finally found my cycling legs after the previous few days. While there was no way I could lead out the group I could hold on in the draft. Less time on bike was an obvious consequence of being up the front – in some sections we were averaging 29km/h. By myself I was probably capable of 24km/h.

Tom, fashion icon

me & Tom on the road

Are we riding in Australia? (Eucalypts a common plantation crop) Tom & I holding on to the back of the strongest riders.

Thailand snack breaks were a smorgasbord of delights

We knocked off about 60km before lunch. The heat was upon us, so the afternoon was broken into 10km segments. This meant a drinks break every half an hour or so, and by chunking it out like this, it meant everyone in the group managed the 100km.

One of many dogs we encountered. Mostly they were no problem….

Arriving at a drinks/rest stop

That’s not to say there weren’t some Strava fails. The strongest rider in our group had forgotten to start his tracking until 10km in, so he spent part of the afternoon riding out ahead, and then coming back to us, to try and make up the “missing” 10km. Another lady got to the end with her Strava only tracking 98km (though others had 100km), so she proceeded to ride around the car park for a further 2km. Only to have her Strava die just as she finished (don’t worry, it recovered later!).

Hotel car park… venue for 2km of laps

The crew packing up the bikes after our penultimate day

Our final day of cycling was 50km, which seemed like a breeze as Tom & I once again hitched our wagons to the front riders. That morning may have been the most enjoyable – lots of curves and small hills and an excellent rest stop at a cafe with coffee frappes.

Tom the cyclist

Rachel the cyclist

Playing it up for the cameras

Start of the final leg of the trip

Enjoying the final section

Most of the group

We finished up in the middle of the day at Khun Dan Dam, where the same 5 of us who had swam two days earlier, had a swim. Then it was onto the bus for a few hours into Bangkok.

Having a swim below Khun Dan Dam, at the end of the cycling

All up the Thailand cycling was the most enjoyable for me. This was for several reasons;

  1. We spent more time riding point to point, instead of taking the bus, making it seem more like a tour/journey
  2. I had found my cycle legs and worked out how to draft
  3. The roads had curves and undulations instead of being dead-straight and flat.

That said, the overall tour was good for seeing 3 countries while getting a decent amount of exercise. Riding around Angkor Wat was also a highlight.

Overall Summary


Cycle Touring Part 2: Cambodia (26 Dec 23 – 1 Jan 24)

Following Part 1

Lunch was the first priority after the border crossing. We got our first taste of Cambodian food – delicious curry! We did a somewhat meaningless section of cycling along the main road on our new bikes after lunch. At a fairly arbitrary spot we stopped riding and got the bus into Phnom Penh. I was excited that our new bikes were the same Trek hybrid model that I have at home. The only disappointment – mine was blue instead of red.

We had warning about how bad the Phnom Penh traffic was. The bus driver was a superstar – handling the tight corners, in narrow streets, amidst the large amounts of traffic. We were pretty happy to be based out of the same hotel for 3 nights. In retrospect I think the tour could have spent one less day there without suffering for it.

Our first full day we took the ferry to Silk Island and rode around. It was a pretty short day – 20km was the consensus from most people’s devices. That did mean there was time to explore in the afternoon if you wanted to. Tom & I got as far as a money changer to get a dreadful rate on our remaining Vietnamese Dong, otherwise stuck to the air conditioned hotel room. Fortunately some of the others in the group were a bit more motivated and managed to corral most of the group into tuk-tuks to a rooftop bar, which overlooked the river and had great views of the city in general.

Our second full day was sight-seeing via bus. No bikes in sight. The morning was pretty depressing – first up, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school which served as a Khmer Rouge torture centre. Over 20,000 people were once incarcerated and tortured there. Then we went to the Choeung Ek Memorial, where a stupa made up of some 8,000 human skulls marks the site of the infamous Killing Fields. This was where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were executed and nearly 9,000 corpses have been exhumed from the area. Heavy stuff, and unsurprisingly no photos.

The afternoon was stifling hot and most of the group were pretty over the sight-seeing. Going around the Royal Palace a tactic of running from shady patch to shady patch, while listening to our guide, was employed.

Tom at the Cambodian Royal Palace

Grounds of Royal Palace

We hit up another rooftop bar that night, and then Tom & I felt very daring by going to a restaurant on the way back to the hotel with no English menus.

The next day we were off the bikes again as we spent 7 hours on the bus to Siem Reap.

Drinks at our rooftop bar at the hotel in Siem Reap

We were all excited to be back on the bikes on our first full day in Siem Reap (where we also had 3 nights). The riding to and around Ankgor Wat was very scenic, quite shady and enjoyable. Up to that point in the trip it was my favourite cycling day.

Angkor Wat fashions

Central tower symbolising Mount Meru

It had got so busy at the top that they closed the right-hand staircase to upward traffic so the congestion could be cleared from the top

Angkor Wat



Very scenic riding!

Bayon Template, Angkor Thom

Some of the group at Ta Prohm

The queue for the Tomb Raider shot at Ta Prohm… I didn’t wait.

Plenty of other (non movie famous) tree roots

Our next day in Siem Reap we rode out to Banteay Srei via Pre Rup, about 35kms.

Tom in front of Pre Rup

Tom started a trend…

Climbing Pre Rup

Banteay Srei

Doors for making the non-royals feel small

Most of the group at Banteay Srei

In the afternoon there was the option to cycle back, or else go on an excursion to see some of the floating villages on Tonlé Sap. 6 of us elected to go on the excursion. It was probably the most authentic view we got of Cambodia through the trip – seeing the fishing ‘industry’ of the town, and then heading to Tonlé Sap via boat past the floating village.

Visiting the floating village at Kompong Khleang

Our excursion ended up being quite a lot of bus time. As it was New Years Eve, and Siem Reap seemed to be the place to be, the traffic returning to town was pretty busy. We’d been kept awake by practice runs for NYE for the previous 2 nights, but I was so tired that I fell asleep at 10pm and didn’t hear much at all!

The next morning was, unfortunately for those who had stayed up, an early start to get to the border. We left behind our Cambodian bikes and crew after a 3 hour bus ride to Poipet.

Continue to Part 3

Cycle Touring Part 1: Vietnam (23-26 Dec 23)

From Đồng Hới we returned to Saigon – with more time that expected due to our flight rearrangements. We visited the War Remnants Museum which was sobering, and also interesting to read from a Vietnam bias.

Hipster cafes along with the best of them in Saigon

More upbeat was a Street Food Tour on the back of scooters with local university students. We got some delicious food and it was also great (if slightly terrifying) to be part of the traffic chaos rather than just dodging it.

Street food tour

We survived the Saigon traffic

View from our room. This was a quiet traffic moment!

The next phase of the trip was a 13 day cycle tour (though day 1 & 13 were just arriving/leaving). The trip was marketed as Saigon to Bangkok which sounds pretty impressive. However, there was a lot of sitting on the bus as well as cycling, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds.

We met up with the group in Saigon. There were 16 paying clients on the cycle tour – many countries represented – Scotland, England (3 resident, 1 via Greece), Canada, New Zealand, Poland (via Switzerland), the remaining 8 living in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Brisbane). Probably a few too many Australians for some people! We had a consistent Group Leader across the 3 countries the tour went to, but local crews (& bikes) in each country. At minimum we had a bus driver, truck driver, mechanic in each country, and other cycle/tour leaders/photographers (!) depending on where we were.

Unsurprisingly, given the traffic in Saigon, we didn’t start riding straight out of Saigon but got a bus south to the Mekong Delta.

The Vietnam bus

Our first day was only 30km of cycling, followed by a boat trip to our homestay for the night. This happened to be Christmas Eve. Saigon had been in full Christmas mode – Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas decorations everywhere. But once we got into the more rural areas there was little to remind you of it.

I think the group had been a bit apprehensive of how basic the homestay was going to be – it was better than I was expecting. Segregated rooms (well walls) in a large building with en suite (outdoor) bathrooms.

Mekong Delta boating

Group on the boat

Christmas Eve dinner

In Vietnam we were on Trek mountain bikes as the surfaces weren’t consistent, particularly while we were riding through the delta on paths that were largely used by pedestrians or scooters. Christmas day was one of the longest cycling days of the trip. We had some lovely sections, including through a flower market, and some lovely shady paths through rice paddies.

Christmas day touches

Rachel cycling

Tom cycling

Delta cycling

Goose farm in the delta

Christmas day lunch

Ferry across somewhere in the delta

However the itinerary had set an expectation of 75km, and the day had been full of misinformation. “It’s 1km to lunch” 4kms later… etc. So when we were told at 70km we had another 15km to go, with another (optional) 29km to the hotel, I wasn’t too happy. In the end 4 of us pulled up stumps at 75km, 7 going on to 85km, and then 5 strong riders doing the optional 29km to finish with a 114km day. My ego was a bit deflated stopping at 75km but when I saw the state of my saddle sores later that evening I knew I’d made the right choice.

Going to the homestay on the first night we had to pack a small bag with our overnight gear, rather than take all our luggage. This essentially locked us into whatever we’d decided we needed for day 2 of riding as well. It wasn’t ideal as we had to make those decisions before we’d even seen the bikes. I’d made a poor choice of bike pants for day 1, and continued to suffer for that choice on day 2 as well.

Our third day of riding took us on a very straight road all the way to the Vietnam/Cambodia border.

Rice paddies en route to the border

Bye, bye Vietnam. At the border with the Thai crew

Riding in Vietnam was over just like that. Whether it was because it was Boxing Day, or just lucky, the border was very quiet and so we got through as fast as a group of 16+ foreigners could expect to… We were obviously an unusual sight as the border guards were taking photos of us queuing – of course we didn’t dare take any photos ourselves.

Continue to Part 2

Caving & Jungle Trekking in Central Vietnam (19-21 Dec 2023)

The start of a month-long SE Asia trip had us in Central Vietnam. As I now know the Province of Quảng Bình lays claim to the largest cave in the world, along with many other caves. I didn’t realise quite how famous the area was for caving when we booked the trip – I was just looking for things to do that aligned with our interests. We didn’t visit the largest cave – there’s a several year waiting list and it costs a lot – but the Hang Tien caves we visited were pretty big! When most people think of caving they think of squeezing through narrow passageways – there was none of that on this trip – it was more akin to underground canyoning.

To get to the start of the tour we flew to Saigon, then took a domestic flight to Đồng Hới. It was a bit of shock to arrive, after a steamy November/early-December in Sydney, we were rugged up for sub-20°C temperatures and rain. We were collected at Đồng Hới and had a night at the Phong Nha Lake House Resort. Despite a SMH article claiming Vietnam was the #1 place to avoid Christmas the Lake House had multiple Christmas trees and a single Christmas Album running on repeat for all hours. We managed to blow a bit of the jet lag away with a paddle around the lake the resort fronts on to.

Kayaking at Phong Nha Lake House Resort

Early the next morning, in the rain, we were the first in a lengthy collection process by bus of the 11 members of our caving tour and our head guide. Once everyone had been collected we had a long, windy bus trip through the hills to the Oxalis base at Tu Lan Lodge. During this time everyone introduced themselves and I of course was judging everyone based on what they said, and their appearance.

We’d had to go through an extensive vetting process to be accepted on this trip, supplying a full resume of activities for the last 12 months, providing photos, height and weight, as well as individual phone interviews. It was a diverse group; 3 Maltese, an Irish/English couple (en route to moving to Melbourne), 4 Vietnamese (though 2 based in Melbourne and 1 in Austria) plus me & Tom. Our head guide, Anetta, was the only Oxalis female guide, with 10 years experience and a slightly sardonic sense of humour. Assisting her was Quyen, along with 3 safety assistants, porters and a cook. I think we had almost a 1:1 staff to client ratio!

Pre-trip briefing/packing

We only had to carry our gear for the day, the rest was transported by porters who we never really saw. The rain hadn’t abated and I think we were all a bit morose with the conditions when we eventually started walking just after 11am (after a 7:30am pickup).

The initial paved road, led onto a muddy fire trail, where the guides laughed as we all sought to keep our feet from becoming too muddy. The Oxalis staff were all wearing plastic sandals and socks – so they weren’t too worried about shoes getting muddy. The plastic sandals are cheap and help prevent footroot apparently.

Easy walking to start (note lodges up to the right where we will stay on our final night)

It wasn’t long before we reached our first river crossing. We were shuttled across in a boat that had a fixed rope to assist with guiding across the river. Not long after that we wound our way up through muddy tracks to have lunch in a wonderful dry cave. As we well know, outdoor activities in wet conditions are made far more bearable if you can get out of the rain for breaks!

First river crossing – this one in a boat

Dry lunch spot

We entered the pretty, but short, Secret Cave after lunch. This was our first experience with queuing for photos – the best spots were well-known to the guides and bright lights were set up provide back-light while we all waited for our chance to pose in the same spot. Secret Cave, in retrospect, was probably the prettiest of the caves but I didn’t take many photos.

Tom in Secret Cave

Then it was back into the rain and mud to get to the entrance of Hung Ton Cave. This was our first technical section. We had to harness up before descending a 15m ladder. I ended up at the back of the group and by the time we were all down everyone had been shepherded along to the river. In warmer times (and maybe lower water) the group would swim the river, but given it was low-teens and flowing very swiftly we were taken across in a boat.

Descending into Hung Ton Cave

In warmer weather this river gets swum, but we got the boat

Anetta had been warning we were likely to get to camp late, and it seemed we were now on a deadline, so there wasn’t any time to linger in the cave or at the swimming area at the mouth of it.

Jungle trekking in the rain

I think many of us were probably dreading camp, the rain had continued all day, the tracks were muddy, and it really felt like the weather had settled in. It was such a good surprise to arrive to a very well set-up camp. The tents were all under cover, communal dining area under cover, the ground compacted so it was just wet rather than muddy. Amazing.

Well set-up camp!

We had an excellent time and were exceedingly well-fed that night. The camp mattresses were pretty hard and I had to sleep with the minuscule pillow under my hips. It wasn’t to be the last time on the trip I wished for my thermarest.

It had sounded like it had poured overnight, I was having visions of having to walk out the way we came because the rivers were too high. Turned out the roof over the tents made the rain sound much worse than it had been, so we continued on our way. The morning started on much flatter ground which was less muddy and we made much better time than the previous afternoon.

Not very jungle-like!

Even though it didn’t pour, there was still enough rain to bring the water levels up. We had lunch on the bank of this river and then needed to cross it. It looked pretty dodgy to me and I started a trend by stripping off my clothes and putting them in my drum rather than getting completely saturated. The crossing wasn’t too bad in the end only being waist deep.

Another river crossing – looked sketchy but ended up being about waist-deep

Later in the day crossing many small streams

We made it into camp mid-afternoon. The rain had eased to very light drizzle and it had warmed up enough that we were keen to swim. We had been promised a beautiful natural infinity pool – but with the water levels up it had a bit of a dangerous undertow near the outflow. Anetta would only let us swim with life jackets on, while she stood guard with a life ring near the outflow. It was still good to get the mud & sweat off.

Camp night 2 – it’s almost stopped raining

Swimming hole – flow was high out of the pool on the left so we had to wear life jackets and keep right

Our diverse group included some members who were keen for photos for the ‘Gram (which of course they did full make-up for). Quyen was a keen photographer and assisted with photo shoots and directing the best shots. Tom & I found this quite amusing and couldn’t resist some parody shots.

Tom the model. Water came up a fair bit overnight – the next morning the seat of the chair would have been underwater.

The highlight of the trip came on day 3 when we explored Hang Tien 1. An enormous opening was awe-inspiring, but even better was going through it.

Approaching Hang Tien 1

Looking back out of Hang Tien 1. Approx 100m vertical entrance.

Entering Hang Tien 1

Anetta knew Tom & I were keen to take photos, and I assume she’d decided we were competent enough to negotiate our way through the rocky banks of the underground river. We took up the rear and I proudly kept my feet dry the whole way through.

Underground canyoning 🙂

Team along side a raging underground river

In lower flows I think groups just walk across the river but it was raging when we came through so we got hauled across on a Tyrolean Traverse.

Using a Tyrolean Traverse to get across the river

Tom on the Tyrolean Traverse

Climbing out of Hang Tien 1

The top entrance

Hang Tien 2 was a very different cave. Unfortunately Tom didn’t get the best advice about whether to take his camera gear in (we left our bags as it was an out-and-back exploration). As it turned out there was one easy scramble and then it was flat walking, with lots of opportunities for tripod shots. The size of the cave and the formations were impressive. The shot below without a person in it doesn’t give a true sense of scale – I guess the height of the cave at that point is approx 20-25m?

Impressive formations in Hang Tien 2

Lunch in the cave

After our morning of caving we had to walk out to the road for a pick-up. This was quite enjoyable walking from my perspective – a much steeper ascent on mainly rock and then a similarly steep descent on rock before a flattish trail. Our group was pretty competent, everyone handling the conditions far better than I would have expected from my judging on the bus on day 1. So on that evidence the Oxalis screening process was effective.

Muddy trekking

Trekking over limestone

We got picked up on the road mid-afternoon and driven back to the lodge. We had a night in luxury at Tu Lan Lodges. That evening we were taken into the local village, by truck (no one was keen to cycle given it was still raining!). Dinner was at one of the Oxalis staff members houses. It was really interesting to see the houses, including the floating house which gets used when the valley floods a few times each year.

View from our lodge

Dinner in the local village

The group, with our host for dinner at the head of the table

Unfortunately for us our flight had been cancelled the following afternoon and we had to get a morning flight. This meant a pre-dawn departure so we didn’t get to fully enjoy the lodge.

Despite the unseasonable rain (it’s meant to stop raining late November) we had a great time. The Oxalis camp set-up meant the conditions were almost enjoyable. The highlight was Hang Tien 1 – not sure I really needed the day 2 of jungle trekking – we do enough rough walking of that nature in our own time without needing to pay for the experience of ‘jungle-trekking’. It was hard to tell how contrived the route was or whether a more cave-intensive itinerary was possible. It’s somewhat a moot point as Oxalis is the only company with permission to run trips in the area!

Katoomba abseiling (14-15 Oct 23)

The cold which I’d had at the Aus Rogaine Champs had lingered, to the point that I cancelled the club trip I was meant to be leading this weekend. I was starting to feel a bit better by Thursday and a house stay in Katoomba seemed a good option. If need be I could just curl up on the couch and read my book.

Saturday was sunny and very windy. “Where is the rope bag?” I asked Tom as we prepared – wind and loose 60m ropes sounded like a recipe for entanglement. Rope bag was at home in the garage, so we’d just have to deal with it.

Jon getting us started

I was a bit apprehensive about the high traverse – it was one of the few details I remembered from this trip. Not having done a lot of scrambling of late I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Having got there I declared we didn’t need to set a safety and then promptly ushered Jon through to set the ropes. The strong wind definitely added an extra level of mental challenge.

High bridging!

Glimpses of the view

Jon abseiling

For the final and longest abseil we turned my pack into a rope bag. While setting it all up took a bit of time it was definitely worth it – no rope issues and a very smooth abseil for me.

Jon on the final abseil

By the time we were down I was feeling a bit tired so didn’t have any enthusiasm for another abseil trip. We had a long lunch on the tops before heading back to the car. Later that afternoon Jon & Tom went off and did another trip and I curled up on the couch with my book.

Relaxed lunch spot

Having been pretty wiped out by Saturday’s easy trip I wasn’t sure that I had enough in me for Castle Head. But the last (only) time I’d done it was in 2008, which was a long time ago. It looked pretty spectacular so I figured I could at least walk out along Narrow Neck and see how I was feeling. Sunday was notable for its almost complete lack of wind – particularly contrasted with the day before.

On the way to Castle Head

Castle Cliff Trig looking to Mt Solitary

Getting to the top of the first abseil was a bit exposed in places and it was good to actually get on rope and start heading down. Jon and I had a long wait at the top of the first abseil as we didn’t hear Tom’s whistle.

Tom on the first abseil

Slowly picking our way down

Cunningham’s Skink??

Looking back at our route – we started at the top of that pinnacle

Beatific Tom

Once through the abseils we had lunch in an overhang out of the sun. With no wind it was a warm day. Then Tom insisted we visit Ruined Castle on “the way” back to the Golden Stairs.

Jon & Tom on the Ruined Castle

Having overtaken a group of tourists not long before the base of the Golden Stairs Jon was adamant they weren’t going to overtake us on the way up. Not relevant that we were carrying far more gear than them, so it was a quick march up back to Narrow Neck.

Racing tourists to the top of the Golden Stairs

A great weekend out in nature.

Aus Rogaining Champs – Goobang (30 Sep-1 Oct 23)

The 2023 Australian Rogaining Championships – the pinnacle of the sport in Australia. This year the Champs were held in Goobang National Park and surrounding private properties. Goobang National Park is near Parkes in Western NSW. It was set in the southern part of the National Park which is not normally accessible due to being surrounded by private property. It was only my third long (>12hr) Rogaine.

Lauren & I had done NavShield and the Lake Macquarie Rogaines together in the last few months and our low key approach to the Aus Champs started from this initial conversation:
“Just thought I’d check whether you had any interest in doing the National Champs in Goobang on the Oct long weekend? I have been umming and aahing over whether I want to spend my Oct long weekend doing that or not. Still not sure!”
“I do have some interest … yet to have made any other plans for the long weekend partly as I had been thinking about the opportunity to see Goobang NP.”
(2 days later..) “So does that mean we have agreed we’re doing it…. ?”
“I think it might mean that!”

Our relaxed approach meant we hadn’t discussed whether we were sleeping or any other strategy for the event. On the drive up we confirmed that we both expected to sleep at some point – but would need to see the map to decide if it was going to be on the course or back at the Hash House. It took all of 2 minutes looking at the very large A1 map to decide sleeping at the Hash House was the go.

All the trophies

A1 Map!

I think the heat may have already been affecting our thinking as we did our planning. With so many unknowns: vegetation, terrain, how the heat was going to affect us; the course plan seemed like a nebulous concept. We didn’t even bother planning how we would finish our initial loop back to the Hash House. And why we would we need to work out how many km we had planned!? This was going to come back to bite us many hours later, but blissfully unaware of this, we made our plans while hiding in the shade of the bus.

It was so unfortunate the weather had turned out as it did. Had the event been a couple of days earlier we would have had far more reasonable temperatures, but Saturday’s forecast high was 30°C, overnight low in the mid-teens and then Sunday’s high was to be 34°C. I said to Lauren just before we started “What are we doing here? If this was the forecast for a bushwalking weekend I would be in a canyon or creek, not ridge walking all day!”.

Looking clean and excited before we start

Nevertheless, we were here, and at 11am we were off. Just to add to complications the daylight savings change was mid-event, so we were starting at 11am AEST and finishing 24 hours later at 12pm AEDT*. Not that anyone needed to worry about auto-updating devices since the rules of rogaining ban those – just ‘dumb’ watches and compasses allowed.

Walking farm roads at the start [on way #45]

Our initial controls all went well. We were excited to get into the rocky gorge country, I was less excited with the climb up on to the ridge. The views were spectacular but I needed a rest. I had a cold. Between that and the heat, I wasn’t feeling the best on anything involving a climb. With some food and water into me I was feeling more human so we were off again.

Gorge country [approaching #60]

Views to Lake Endeavour (and Hash House) [near #100]

Vegetation change ahead!

If we’d been excited to get into the gorge near 60 it was nothing compared to the excitement of the walking up Gulf Creek. The organisers had warned us all water courses were going to be dry – but in reality we saw quite a bit of water on the course. This was great for keeping hats and shirts wet. This was a spot I’d happily come bushwalking again – perhaps evidenced by the number of photos in this section!

Lovely creek walking

More great creek walking

Spectacular #91

We enjoyed scrambling down the creek from 91 – ignoring the course setter notes that seemed to imply you had to climb around. No climbing around for us, thank you!

Downstream from #91

Climbing out of the creek

#87 and three teams resting!

At the base of the next dryfall at #87 I was a bit surprised to see 3 teams resting. In retrospect, we should have added to their number, as it was shady and relatively cool. But it was only once we’d finished the big climb out (with spectacular views of a couple of low-flying wedge-tailed eagles) and were looking at the map at the top that we realised there were better options to what we’d just done. (For anyone playing along with the map we should have gone to #101 from #87).

One of many wildflowers (only one I photographed though)

We had a bit of trouble with #99, but found it eventually. Lauren was out of water by this point (and had been conserving for some time). We elected to continue with our plan rather than go directly to the water drop. This paid off fairly well as the walking to #101 was straight-forward, and #62 was visible from a fair way off so easy to locate.

Late afternoon light. I mainly took this photo to remind me this was spinifex country

Expansive views from #101

Heading to #62

“The most visible from far away” control. You can’t see it at this resolution but blown up #62 is in the middle of the shot.

Last control before a blessed, blessed water drop

I was also out of water by the time we hit the water drop. I’d been thankful for the fruit I’d brought along – apple and mandarin both went down very well in the conditions. I heard later that (fortunately) the water refilling team had been at this control when 15 teams had arrived concurrently. Something like 120 litres had been doled out in short time.

WATER!!! (#14)

We did a bit of a replan here, but that only involved dropping off a couple of controls, not working out how long it would likely take us to get back to the Hash House. Our stated intention had been to bed around midnight so we could get 5-6 hours sleep before heading out for a decent loop the next morning.

I think the A1 map contributed to our difficulty in realising how far we still had to go in our loop. It was cumbersome to have the whole thing visible at any one point, so when you just focussed on any given folded section you couldn’t see the big picture. And as there were no horizontal gridlines, coupled with the (angled) magnetic north lines, I had more difficulty doing estimates of distance than usual.

Last of the light

So off we went. Our first 3 night controls were out and backs from the road and went very well. These 3 were all quite subtle control placements so I think we did well in locating them as efficiently as we did.

Full moon rise (yes, it’s blurry… but to remind me that we had a spectacular full moon)

I think it was around now that we started to realise how far we were from the Hash House and how the chances of being back by midnight were non-existent. However, we persisted, and the next 2 controls were also no issue.

Unfortunately our only real navigational blunder of the course came after this. We were meant to follow a creek north to a saddle and then drop over the other side and hit an indistinct trail. However we couldn’t locate the trail and the landscape didn’t match the map. Eventually we decided just to head west as we didn’t know what was going on (our team name “Strategically Bearing West” seemed somewhat apt at that point). Of course, shortly after that decision, we hit the trail. Looking at the trace afterwards we came up a side creek instead of the main creek (obviously not watching the compass), and hence were in completely the wrong place to find the trail.

From there we had no problems with the next 2 controls. A very long descent west brought us close to #102. By this stage Lauren declared she didn’t care – she just wanted to get to her tent (which was still a good 8km away). I convinced her we had to be pretty close, and 5 minutes later we had another hundred points – at exactly midnight (13 hours in).

It was evidence of our exhaustion that we didn’t get any points from there back to the Hash House. It wasn’t until 3:45am I was in my tent. 3h 45m seems a long time to do 8.5km – given we were predominantly on track. But that did include half an hour “sleeping” on the side of the track at from 1:45-2:15am. The next day looking at the map we walked past 44, 84, 54 that would have have been relatively straight-forward to get. But we weren’t thinking about points at that point, we just wanted sleep.

Given we were so late back we agreed on being ready to go again at 8am. I was awake before 7am, hearing other teams head out. I was a little jealous as the early morning light (and temperatures) are a wonderful time to be walking. I was thrilled to find a bacon and egg roll and a coffee; heard some war stories from other teams; before checking in on Lauren. Her feet were in similar shape to mine so it was a fairly gingerly-treading team which set out at 8am. With only 3 hours we didn’t have a lot of time, particularly given the state of our feet.

Walking the shores of Lake Endeavour

We had hoped to pick up some of the higher point controls in the south west but it became clear after taking 45 minutes on easy tracks to #41 that we weren’t moving quick enough.

Below the dam wall

One of many fence crossings

Last control of the event for us

We settled for being 45 minutes early as we both just happy to get our of our shoes.

We’ve finished!

With this being the Australian Championships, and also an reasonable effort to get to, the people who were at the event really wanted to be there. It wasn’t like a lot of rogaines were there are people just ‘giving it a go’. It was a highly competitive field, and made us realise just how much we could improve when we came in 39th out of 80-odd teams. Our score total (1560) was under half of what the overall winners got (3580)! Other than the one navigational blunder which I mentioned above our nav was pretty good – it was the planning that let us down.

Final course statistics
11am – 3:45am – 44.53km
8am – 11:15am – 8.09km
Overall ascent/descent 2,466m

Our course

*all times mentioned in this report are AEST

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