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It all started innocently enough, a simple email arrived in a number of people's inboxes.
Not realising what I was getting myself in for I replied simply "sounds good".
In due course a map arrived in the mail. (As an aside hasn't technology moved on in just a few short years!)
There were notes on the back of the map.
Most carloads of people seemed to take the "Or just use the map and get there whenever" option.
but not the "or just follow the map. Easy." bit.
My carload of people decided to leave Sydney as late as possible while avoiding walking in the dark. So Tam, Piers, Sally and I set off from the road around 6pm (the sun was due to set at 8:30pm). The first 2 hours were uneventful, the track was clear and we had no problems following the map.
[Charlie later admitted he put 2.5 hours because he thought people wouldn't come if he said it was longer than that...]
~7pm - Tam, Rachel, Sally and Piers
Another car load of people
Around dusk we bump into the Manly crew: Nikki, Jonno, Dave & Di. They had also lost the track, we soon found it again and were on our way. The next landmarks on the map were a rocky clearing and then a three-pronged tree and double-boulders. Funnily enough there are a lot of rocky clearings, three-pronged trees and boulders out there. So we find what we think are the landmarks and head off into the bush - we are unable to find a path so spend the next hour bush-whacking only to conclude that it was probably the wrong three-pronged tree. So we back tracked and eventually found the correct rocky clearing - by this time it was well and truly dark.
We also find 4 more of Charlie's friends who are lost, so now there are 12 of us. Again we are unable to find the track so we attempt to continue by following compass bearings. Another hour of bush-whacking, leaves us hungry (most of us haven't eaten since lunch time and it's now 11pm?) and a light drizzle has set in. Piers has been wearing a pedometer for the walk, and has been particularly helpful during the bush-bashing by informing us all of how far we've walked so far that day. At that point we backtrack to the rocky clearing (with much cursing of 3-pronged trees and Charlie's map) where we eat and 7 (sensible) members of the party decide they are going to camp.
The foolhardy in the group, myself and 4 others (Jonno, Nikki, Dave & Di) decide we are going to continue on - we had discovered the track as we returned to the clearing so figured we wouldn't have much trouble getting there. After all we had come out to party and we were going to do all we could to get there. We managed to follow the track for the next 45 minutes or so until we get to the now much-cursed 3-pronged tree and double boulders. But there were two three-pronged trees next to each other! And we were supposed to using them to determine our direction...
According to our map it should only be a short distance (a few hundred metres) to the cave. Despite having promised we would not continue if we couldn't find a track, we decide to go on since we were so close.
12:18am - Nikki, Jonno, Di at one of the three pronged trees
We end up scrambling through the dense bush down a steep hill, including Nikki who had only 5 months earlier had her ACL reconstructed, for about 45 minutes. Our mission at that point was to find the creek which we knew ran past the mouth of the cave. Once we got to the creek we found the bush on either side was impenetrable - so walking in the creek was the best option. The other 4 had Petzl head torches, this being before the technological advance which is the LED, so they were running on AA batteries. The batteries in all the head torches start fading around the same time. I had bought a hand held torch at Woolies on the way to the start of the walk and hadn't been using it while the others had head torches. This was fortunate as the batteries were fresh, so soon we were down to 1 torch between the 5 of us (around 1am).
02:06am - Jonno in a creek somewhere, with our one working torch and the wet map
The creek was less treacherous than the bush but there were still many fallen trees, uneven surfaces and varying depths (between knee & thigh high). An hour of walking through the creek and we didn't seem to be any closer to our destination - we suggested camping but had passed nowhere that we could camp due to the dense bush. Jonno had been carrying the only copy of the map we had in his pocket. We had been walking in water which was higher than his pocket, so the map had got soaked. Eventually we hit a bend in the creek which we were expecting, it had a sandy bank and was the only place we'd come across where we could even contemplate camping. The general consensus was to camp on the sandy bank. Jonno just wanted one more go - he was convinced we were close. Taking our last working torch he waded off upstream (leaving the group alone in the dark).
Jonno returned triumphant - he could hear the party. Filled with hope we pushed on and soon heard the strains of music in the distance. At 2:45am we stumble out of the creek into the cave much to the surprise of those still up. Sleep did not ensue quickly, despite 9 hours walking, as Dave had carried in a very old school rucksack which contained about ten litres of spirits, including two bottles of Jack Daniels, and about 3 litres of coke. We had written a song for Charlie while bashing our way through the bush so we sang it for him once we'd warmed up (that is, drunk the bourbon). It was to the tune of "Twelve Days of Christmas". I thought the words had been lost until I found this email in my archives:
I suspect it was supposed to say "10 hours of walking", but to correct it would be rewriting history...
The next morning the 7 we had left camped on the ridge had a short uneventful walk down to join us all for breakfast. (apart from Piers who had to get back to Sydney for work and so never actually made it to the cave). Charlie did a great bacon, eggs and mushrooms fry-up for the 40 of us who were there.
Breakfast the next day
the cliff we could have fallen off in the middle of the night
the river gorge
lunch on the way out