West Nattai Walls

Mittagong to Katoomba

Well, okay, so it was really Hilltop to Katoomba, but it was still a Very Long Way.

Descending into Nattai River
A view from Starlight's track, westwards along the Nattai valley.

We based our route on a trip by David Noble, also Robert Sloss’s track guide. The latter appears to be out of print, although I finally managed to find it in the NSW State Library. Robert Sloss described the upper reaches of the Nattai as being "difficult," so we decided to avoid that section of the route and enter the Nattai two days later by his schedule. It is difficult to show it all on one map. In this map, Katoomba is at the top edge, Mittagong at the extreme bottom, and Hilltop is a little to the North of Mittagong, on the leftmost of the two Northern roads. The closeness to the sprawl of Sydney is obvious, as is the way that the catchment is protected. Tha Nattai runs North by West from Mittagong. Beloon Pass is just before the bottom of the dam. Yerranderie is visible as the East-West airstrip in the middle of nowhere. If you zoom in you can clearly see the Cedar road can heading roughly North for Mt Cookem.

We had not managed to talk to anyone who had done the walk, which led to us being surprised by conditions along the Nattai. In hindsight we should probably have joined a club :-).

We began the trip on Wednesday 11th April 2007, just after Easter. Drought still prevailed, although there had been some rain on the coast. The weather radar had shown quote a few storms over Scott's Main Range, but it was not really enough as it would turn out.

Neil Hodgson and I caught the 6:58am train from Central to Mittagong. Neil had his last cappuccino in the Clock Cafe (not me, I'd already given up coffee, I did not want to go through withdrawal during precious holiday time). We caught a taxi through Hilltop along Wattle Ridge road, past the rifle range where Ivan Milat learnt to shoot (or so the taxi driver informed us - what kind of taxi driver talks about serial killers when driving strangers along dirt roads into the bush?). The taxi driver was not surprised to take us there - he had ferried three walkers to the same spot only a week before.

Natti vegetation
Neil in the acacia thickets along the Nattai.

So we started walking about 10am, with an easy walk along a fire trail and then down Starlight's track to the Nattai River. The track continued along the North side of the river for about a kilometre before eventually petering out in thick bands of acacia saplings. When Robert Sloss marked his trail the vegetation must have been very different. His guide book talks about delightful meadows that are easy to traverse, but the extremely thick, trackless undergrowth reduced us to about a kilometre per hour. The worst were vine entanglements at head height - absolutely impossible to push through. Fortunately they were rare, groves of 3m high acacias dominated the river flats. Interspersed through everything were fallen trees, these being very hard to negotiate or avoid in heavy scrub. I believe that bushfires have cleared the meadows that Robert described, and produced the acacia saplings that we saw. Those acacias presumably will grow to 5m and lose their lower branches, at which point it will be "delightful" once more.

The Nattai was flowing cheerfully, but is quite a small river. The vegetation in the Nattai was much thicker and richer than any of the other river valleys we passed through (Kowmung, Cox) - I suppose being closer to the coast it must receive more rainfall. There are lots and lots of wombat holes, which is a bit of a worry when you can’t see where you are putting your feet.

We made the mistake of stopping a bit early that day, about 3:30, at the junction with Wonganberry Creek. I’d originally planned to go another kilometre or two, but we were pretty tired from all the bushbashing.

That night I saw a large glider leap into the big gum above our heads, climb up a bit, and then glide onto another tree. I had never seen a glider "in action" before. I spotted it while was lying on my back watching the insect-eating bats that come out around dusk.

The second day we started walking at 8am. We were able to follow Robert Sloss's guide around the swamp, but in general his description of the Nattai section has been overtaken by post-fire regrowth. We only saw two or three of his track markers during our two days in the valley. The best guide we had were the foot prints and track markers from the three walkers who passed that way a week before - I became quite familiar with the three different boot prints they had.

Rainforest in the gully to the east of Beloon Pass.

Vines forced us up the valley sides, but after a kilometre we were forced back down by very steep cross-cutting gullies. The fallen trees were also worse higher up the slope. All the small trees had been damaged by the last fire and they all fell down-slope, forming huge interlocking entanglements.

Eventually (about 2:30pm) we reached the fire trail further down the Nattai. We drew on our emergency reserves to walk until 5:30pm, reaching the last ford at Vineyard Flat before the Beloon Pass turn off. These old farm roads are slowly turning into foot tracks. Our fire trail had been recently bulldozed down to the first ford, but after that the vegetation had taken over. The farm roads traverse old paddocks, which are now completely choked by introduced weeds and quite horrible as a result. I saw many introduced weeds along all the river valleys, presumably carried in by wild cattle and pigs. We saw many pig wallows on the Nattai and Kowmung, and spotted two wild pigs in the Nattai.

As darkness fell we collapsed in the middle of the track and moved the fire wood aside so that we could light our fire.

The next morning was very damp down in the river valley. After the trackless Nattai we were very worried that there would be no track up Beloon Pass, although the funnel-nature of the approach valley suggested that all walkers would eventually end up on the same route, thereby creating a track. As it was there was a pair of enormous, shiny signs to mark the turnoff. There was a track for most of the flatter parts, but eventually we could only follow it intermittently. The bush was still thick and our exhaustion from the day before meant that it took us three hours to reach the top. I am sure that fitter walkers could do it in half the time.

For those who haven’t seen it, Beloon Pass is an amazing spot. Only about 10 metres wide at the top, with a near-sheer drop on the western side. Approached from the east it feels like you are walking up to (and then out of) someone's lounge room window. The log book indicated that there had been two parties through during Easter, one at Christmas, and one the previous October - not a busy spot.

So after an early lunch we slid off the edge and down into dry open forest. This was very easy walking after the Nattai. In fact we only rarely saw anything approaching the thickness of the Nattai's undergrowth on the remainder of the walk. Only one or two spots along a ridge into the Kowmung were as thick.

Western side of Beloon Pass
Beloon Pass, looking North, track descends in foreground.

We followed some more old farm roads down to the Sheep Walk road, although we made two wrong turns - the contour map is not that accurate for old farm roads. Fortunately we picked up both mistakes within a few hundred metres. We hit the road in the early afternoon and had a glarey, hot road-bash down to the ford over the Wollondilly - the worst kind of walking in the Blue Mountains.

Beloon Pass
Beloon Pass, looking at the edge. It is only slightly wider than this picture.

The Wollondilly is indeed very wide at that point, perhaps 100 metres. I had forgotten my river sandals which I had planned to use in the Kowmung. We both went bare foot to wade across, which was a big mistake. The river rocks were very pointy and extremely painful. Heavy packs, and tired feet and legs just made it harder, although fortunately the water was only up to our thighs. It was fairly cloudy, probably because of all the cows upstream pooing in the water (so you think you don't drink recycled sewage do you?). There were (black) swans on the river and eagles thermalling above the bluffs.

Ford across the Wollondilly River.

The other side (Joorilands) was like a garden of Eden - knee high grass containing lots of moisture, presumably from the recent rains. There were more kangaroos than I have ever seen in my life. It felt like what the NSW Central West must have looked like before we farmed the life out of it. It probably had much more grass than usual, perhaps it was unusual grass like this that greeted the first white explorers over the mountains and convinced them that the Central West was wonderful sheep country. This area was the highlight of the trip for me, and it is Schedule 1 land (entry prohibited). We were allowed in because we were bushwalkers on the bushwalker’s corridor, but it is a sight that most people will never be able to see.

We had originally planned to take the central ridge track to Yerranderie that night, or perhaps stopping a few kms short at Twin Peaks. However, it was clear we were not going to reach even Twin Peaks, and we did not want to risk any more tracks which might or might not exist. So we stuck to the boring fire trail route to Yerranderie. Eventually we stopped at a creek with a dry dam and had a dry camp. Most dams had some colourful water in them, but this one was empty. We heard lots of light aircraft that night, and joked that they were searching for bushwalkers violating Schedule 1 land (we were just on the edge of it). At that point we did not know that they were looking for a lost bushwalker.

Kangaroos in grassland
Kangaroos in rich grass in the Joorilands, note ear tags on some roos.

Next morning we left early in the fog because we did not want to miss our food drop in Yerranderie. We walked quite quickly up to the junction with the Oberon road, where we saw a car - the first person we had seen in 4 days. We then walked the 3 km into Yerranderie and were quite knocked out by the unexpected last climb - 260m. The walk from Vineyard flat to Yerranderie is a long way, I think to have a good chance of completing it you should plan on a dry camp at Beloon Pass.

3km gate
Leaving Schedule 1 land at the "3km Gate" - Sauron was not home that day. The sign exempting bushwalkers from ritual flagellation can be seen in the right background.

We scattered our gear on the verandah and waited for our support team (Stephen Neal) to show up. Our third team member, Robert Patience, showed up soon thereafter. Rob had originally been planning to start the walk with us, but he had to debug some code and therefore he came in on his own day later from the Wombeyan Caves road. He had originally chosen a track across the Wollondilly, but later-edition contour maps did not show the track. So although his route mostly followed old fire trails, it did include a character-building bushbash up a long ridge after crossing the Wollondilly.

Neil decided to retire hurt in Yerranderie and went back with Stephen, leaving just Rob and myself to go on to Katoomba. It was a big pity for Neil because the Nattai was definitely the roughest part of the trip. Anyway, we divided up his food drop that Stephen brought with him - I got the beer and chocolate and a +2 Longsword. I climbed Yerranderie peak and had a look at the excellent views, although they were dimmed a little by haze.

Byrnes Gap
Looking from Yerranderie Peak through Byrnes Gap

I had a shower in Yerranderie, which was definitely worth the $10 camping fee. I had, of course, declined to wash in any of the streams that feed Sydney’s water supply :-). Nor do the cows or wombats wash in it either. We wandered around the old mine diggings, being especially interested in all the earth works that seemed to be designed to prevent lead leaching out of the tailings into Sydney's water supplies.

Next morning did not break bright and fair for me because Rob was already packed and sitting on his pack when I crawled out of my tent in the pre-dawn light at 6:10am. Feeling rather chastened I packed as fast as I could and we were on our way before 7. Rob then informed that a group of walkers had already left at about 5am. We think they had come in night before from Kanangra, stayed in the lodge (and therefore had no packs), and headed back under torchlight before dawn. A web search makes me think it was a Coast & Mountains club walk along the uni rover trail. Obviously I am not a real walker.

Scotts Main Range
Boring fire trail on Scotts Main Range

Both Rob and I were feeling rather spooked by the distance remaining and the rough terrain that Neil and I had encountered on the Nattai, so we deliberately pushed hard along the old Cedar Road along Scott's Main Range at a steady 4kph. We also decided to head into the Cox later than the guide book suggested so as to reduce our risk of being hung-up in heavy scrub again. As it was our fears were not realised.

The isolation that Neil and I had experienced before Yerranderie was absent along Scott's Main Range - the road was hard and wide and full of 4WDs looking for the missing walker. SES, National Parks, Catholic Bushwalking club, with light planes and helicopters overhead - no stillness at all. They all stopped to ask the inevitable question, although we were unable to help them. The walker was lost many kilometres to the West near Mount Cloudmaker in Kanangra. Just as we were about to leave Scott's Main Range for the Kowmung we heard that he had been found. We assumed that he must be dead after being lost for more than a week, but we were told that "the code we heard indicated he was alive." But sadly he was indeed dead. Dying alone in the wilderness. If you have ever been lost then you can imagine the horror of it. Yuck.

For our descent into the Kowmung we chose a route down an unnamed ridge just north of Mare’s creek, and it worked out quite well. The vegetation was generally very open, apart from one or two thick spots in saddles near the road. The final descent into the river threatened to turn into a cliff but it never did. However I did finally trip right near the end and ripped a big hole in my bush-bashing trackies, my undies, and my left buttock. Oh well, at least one of the three was self-repairing. We did not have a swim in the Kowmung at the bottom.

Kowmung descent
Descending through open forest to the Kowmung
Kowmung river
Pool on the Kowmung

The Kowmung was a paradise compared to the Nattai and the hard-rolling quartzite of Scott's main range. Close-cropped turf under huge Casuarina trees, some tracks to follow (although they were usually pig tracks and ended in wallows, it is funny how pig and human tracks seem to follow the same pattern, wallabies and wombats think completely differently). We did have to cross backwards and forwards over the river, which slowed us down considerably because we only had one pair of boots (oops) and did not want to get them wet. We were worried about developing wetness-induced blisters after the talk we had with one of the campers at Yerranderie who was a retired bushwalker. He had spent two days in wet boots on the Kowmung, and developed massive blisters. Deciding it was "only pain", he had pushed on to Beloon Pass, where they went septic. Eventually he was helicoptered out with suspected blood poisoning. So we took good care to keep our feet dry. Hint - carry a second pair of footwear for river crossings.

We walked most of the way to the weir that day, 27km all up. Rob's blisters were a bit worse, but not that much of a problem. We were a bit worried about them getting wet and therefore increasing the chance of infection. The 27km put us half a day ahead of schedule, a nice change from being behind schedule. We had light rain that night, although not enough to be annoying.

Kowmung fog
Early-morning fog on the Kowmung.

The next morning was foggy - the valley fog that is so common in the mornings. Everything was very wet from the rain and fog. We quickly walked the last 2 or 3km to the weir. From there we followed the fresh damage caused by 4WDs travelling along the river bank, presumably one of the "rescue" teams. Stranger than that was the way that many young eucalypts (and only eucalypts) had been bent over or snapped off about a metre and a half off the ground. This damage was not caused by the same vehicle, it was much older. No cow or wombat or pig would do that, we could only conclude it was some human with a vengence (far too many to be track markers). The snapped eucalypts continued until the base of wide-opening ridge.

The ridge itself was quite easy - the vegetation was again generally quite sparse. I suspect that quartzite soils drain quickly and have few nutrients. Rob flushed a few wallabies but I did not see them. The old fence line that Robert Sloss mentions in his guide book is still there. I was constantly amazed by the signs of old settlements (especially sawn trees) in the "middle of nowhere." About half way up the ridge we spied the civil aviation radar on Mt Boyce way off in the distance, so we decided to try my mobile. It had not worked at all until now, but I got a strong signal so I had a chat with the kids.

Mushroom on the Kowmung.

We reached the Catholic Bushwalker's huts at New Yards for lunch. Originally we had planned to camp near there, but it being too early we headed for Kowmung Lookout. We were passed by yet another 4WD on Scott’s Main range (for a closed road it has an amazing amount of traffic) before we branched off. It was still too early at Kowmung Lookout so we eventually had a dry camp on top of Mt Kookem.

The next morning we left without breakfast so that we could get to the water on the Cox as soon as possible. The descent of Mt Cookem was not too hard, although the quartzite rolled dangerously under our feet. I would not like to walk up it on a hot day. The Cox had plenty of water, more than the Kowmung, which surprised me a little because I had heard that the power stations up stream were using most of the water in their evaporating cooling towers. The water was still crystal clear like the Kowmung, as compared to the tea-coloured Nattai and the opaque Wollondilly.

We found the track up White Pup spur without too much trouble and reached the firetrail. It had been recently graded and rolled, so the surface was very smooth and slightly spongy - very easy on the feet. The gullies were full of rainforest with enormous blue gums. Eventually we passed the relevant steam roller, and further on the grader. Just as we reached it the driver showed up and we had a bit of yarn - he being the first person we had seen in about 2 days. We discussed the missing walker (of course) and he felt the need to to tell us about the latest school massacre in the US. Thanks.

Looking north along Kowmung to Cox, which flows from left to right.

We had discussed a side-trip to Splendour Rock but Rob needed to be sure of getting to his son's birthday dinner so we headed straight for Narrow Neck. We stopped at Lake Birrell near Medlow Gap for water, but the water was the worst we saw on the trip - not only tea-coloured but full of algal chunks. So we only filled up half of our bottles, a major mistake as it turned out. The climb up was Narrow Neck was interesting for several reasons. Being able to look back at all we had done since Yerranderie was great, plus the vegetation on Mt Derbert was unexpectedly lush - perhaps it receives more moisture as coastal air flows through the gap? At the top we met an older couple who had bicycled out from Katoomba and were walking down to Medlow Gap. They seemed to be just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We had a good chat and then continued on our way.

The spring near Glen Raphael Falls that we had been planning to camp at was completely dry, so we continued on to the Narrow Neck fire tower. It had no water, so we walked a bit further, dropped out packs and dived off into a marsh. It was extremely damp, but no water could we find. We could have dug a hole, but we did not really want to damage it. It was very hard going, huge tussocks and man-eating holes in the ground. We floundered about to no purpose for an hour, got lost, found ourselves again, gave up, and eventually escaped out having used up a lot of our precious bodily fluids. So we had another dry camp, the third for the walk. However, this time we were not prepared and we only had a cup of water left by morning (despite being given 400 ml by the lovely bicyclists as they went back to Katoomba). The night was cold, our first cold night of the trip. This was not surprising, the altitude was about 1000m whereas we had been between 120m and 600m. That day we had climbed about 1000m, which is probably the most you can do in NSW outside of the Snowy Mountains.

Next morning we pressed on to Katoomba, and gained quite an appreciation of roadside puddles. We were able to get some quite good water where the fire trail cut through swamps. Good has to be understood in the context of almost two days of either no water, or highly coloured water. I was keen to go down the Golden Stairs and around to the base of the scenic railway so that I could meet my kids there, but Rob just wanted to get out. We therefore split up at the Golden Stairs - I dropped down into the rainforest and he continued on Narrow Neck. My camera battery finally gave out which meant I was unable to take a serious of spectacular Lyre bird photos. I saw one pair and three individuals, including one that perched in a tree only a metre above my head. They are not very shy of humans along the ruined castle track, although I did have the advantage of mid-week and early morning (9am). I reached the bottom of the railway before it had started, only passing one tourist on the landslide. As always happens to me in that location she asked me how far it was to the Ruined Castle, so I pointed it out. To her credit she continued on, most people instantly turn around. I reached the railway before it had started operating, and waited (downwind) for my family. By this time I was really smelly.

And so it ended.

Younger, more active bushwalkers might wonder why we found the grinding distance of the walk so daunting, but I make no apologies. I will not forget sitting at Yerranderie looking at all those map squares along Scott's main range and wondering how we were going to make it.

The overwhelming impression we had was that of the shear size of the wilderness, and how the dam has created it. We walked for a whole bloody week in a straight line and never saw the end of the forest - even on the Katoomba ridge there are places where it sneaks across highway and railway, slides down into the Grose, flows through the Wollemi and clear up to the Hunter. A whole week and yet we were never more than 50km from the outer suburbs of Sydney. I have never walked through three river systems (Nattai, Kowmung, Grose) in one walk before. And it is all caused by the dam - it has locked out all development, strangled it to death 50 years ago. The water board's attitude might be fascist, but as far as the bush is concerned it works better than even a National Park because virtually no one can get in. Sure the Warragamba valley was drowned, and obviously it was bush before the dam was built, but it seems to me that the dam has protected it. I have never seen anything like the Jooriland(s).

I had always wanted to walk further than you can see from the south side of Solitary and now I had done it - I know how far away those distant blue smudges are.

I got back to Sydney, and felt so alone - no one talks to anyone here. Our eyes slide off each other, like ghosts pretending that the other is not there.

Looking back southwards over Mt Cookem and Scott's Main Range. Yerranderie Peak is lost in the haze.

Text and Images Copyright Geoffrey Phipps 2007-2013. Unauthorised copying or reuse prohibited.