(Walking Katoomba to Mittagong)
for Alan Wearne
Their parents gone, we start
gathering around, the line
of a fortnight’s challenge-by-choice measured
in meals and scroggin, socks, blister-packs, fuel.
We allocate the group gear – bivvy sheets, billy can
and tarp – adjust our packs, compare
their weight. Studying maps one
more time and, measuring the route
(touch wood) set out.
Cliff Drive to Glen Raphael’s and Narrow Neck Plateau
where morning mist is spilling over
swampy heaths and packed pygmy-
eucalypts bottlenecking our postcard scenes.
Like marauding gang gang cockatoos
the kids start frivolous: Let’s napalm
these trees and snatch a view. We walk
into sclerophyll, the odd face
of sandstone and shale too sheer
for growth; the richer green
of watercourses and east-facing walls.
I look at maps, orientating my high spirits, teaching
navigation basics and joking: Into this measured beauty
as we soar … and it’s Chrissy cutting in:
C’mon ‘Corridor’, while rescue choppers circle
we’ll just bush-bash lost all day.
At last the end of Narrow Neck
and we climb the cliff line, down
to Medlow Gap and two hours more
to the Mob’s Swamp cave, our camp.
What bastard promised this would be our ‘easy’ day?
With sugar levels low, the careless
push for camp fractures certain tempers
so amidst some cranky laughter I readdress the rules,
motivating our final effort when freed of packs,
a coffee and a freeze-dried meal will make
the relief of conversation around
the fire at night, before the luxury
of an overhang’s dirt floor,
the Milky Way and the full moon lighting
its veneer outside.
We wake at dawn, or thereabouts,
a cold fog in the casuarinas
outside. Breaking camp a little later
than I might have liked we look
at maps, measuring the angles
of our route and set to climb
Warrigal Gap; contouring round
the western edge of Merrimerrigal
we traverse Mt Dingo to the Bushwalkers’
War Memorial – Splendour Rock.
Lunching with views of the days
ahead – the Cox’s Gorge, the Gangerang Ranges
to Kanangra Walls – a grasstree – Xanthorrhoea australis –
high on conglomerate rock collects
our attention like regimental colours
and provokes Smithy: Come off it Phil, it’s a blackboy,
a spear throwing blackfella, quick, let’s souvenir the shaft.
I sweet-talk the group with the adventure
of bush tucker and craft, a one plant supermarket:
spears, fire sticks, sugar, grubs and glue –
You think this is wilderness. It’s ‘Country’.
Readying for a long afternoon’s
steep descent past fruiting geebungs,
gums and sarsaparilla, turpentine, stringybark
and angophora, I keep the strugglers
near the front, sharing the navigating;
the distraction and group momentum carrying them.
On chocolate breaks the sugar gliders crash
in wonder; I look to trees, withdrawing, while drinking water.
Our way soon brings us to stands of blue gum,
with that aromatic eucalyptus trait and towering
marble columns peeling rough dark bark
at their bases: Ah, the stockinged pillars of Rivendell.
But, Shut-up ‘Corridor’, it’s Boaty chipping in, forget
the view, we’re scratched and tired. Yet as packs hit
the ground their grins shut tight –
one perfect snapshot view.
On dark we make the river flat and two ks
more to camp, in knee-high stinging
nettle and wet boots, to trudge
an hour more – a canvas castle
and our pit-fire star-vaulted hall.
That night we lay below the mountain,
creek side, like trout facing upstream, still,
against the flow and waiting.
At dawn we crossed Kanangra Creek
for two days climbing, then another with burning
aching knees, gingerly down. Our transit over
these Gangerang Ranges – Mt Strongleg,
Mt Cloudmaker, Stormbreaker, High and Mighty,
the Rip, Roar and Rumble Knolls – we debriefed
each night, grim if elated. Our camps were eyries
along the Gandangarra’s ochred line,
and as I spotlighted their middens
the kids mimicked me, hooting open-eyed;
at the campfire Denash (in parody) stoked the embers:
This is journey as metaphor,
the summits lighting with tolerance and testing
with fire. At last we climbed the Bullhead Ridge
and Cambage Spire down to the bushwalkers’ grail –
water running cool and clear over
river sandstones, cream and pink, the breeze singing
down kurrajongs and myrtles, casuarinas and figs –
our prize, the Kowmung Gorge. Setting a base camp, we swam
and explored: the Chiddy Obelisk and Red
Hands Caves. Climbing Mt Armour’s columnar basalt cap:
This perfection was valued
as limestone slurry I preached. The kids broke into
‘Love Is All Around’ whilst Boaty chimed:
C’mon ‘Corridor’, aren’t you finished
with yourself up there?
We stand about the fire tonight
and talk, in drizzle, joyful for
three days rest, the balm
of being wild. It ends
tomorrow, breaking camp, weighing down
our packs as muscles tighten.
Next day climbing, in rain, the Bolga Cone
and Axehead Mountain to Yerranderie, a silver city
ghost town built on lucky claims and bitter
strikes; a sanctuary with arsenic pools.
Late that afternoon, we find the lodge and resupply,
closing the door against the cold outside
as the kids collect each other with food and games,
drying around the hearth and cheering:
Tonight we sleep in beds!
Early next morning we leave Yerranderie
for King Billy’s Tree and a rock grinding site
where basalt was scraped to axeheads
and chert flaked by percussion into edges and points;
a scarring in Country sloughing (yet again) the terra nullius lie
as the kids sit foot-sore in quiet, learning from the land.
After, to savour their redolence,
we crush sassafras leaves by the handful
and walk on.
Fording the Wollondilly we seek sustenance
in scroggin, tuna and flat bread before climbing
the Wanganderries and down to the Nattai on dusk;
a casuarina-and-wattle-bloom gorge, so sandy poor,
yet teeming with scribbly gum, coachwood and silver-top ash.
We camp in a grove of ancient
paperbarks, stinging nettle cramping
us in. For five more days we make-and-break camps,
hiking on. Often we wade in the Nattai’s nourishing
brown flow, secure in water-proofed packs and maps;
as well (we joke) a resiliency born in blister-packs.
Our final campsite: tonight
the kids string their bivvies together
and celebrate tall stories: a thunder-and-blood
Black Panther and Cannibal Kev, the near misses,
their rolls and rolls of strapping tape. They prepare
each other meals, a billy of tea
and amidst rounds of song forecast
the luxury of their next fast-food.