Canyon Calamity - Wayfinding in Wollemi National Park
“We’re not in Namadgi anymore Toto”
...and we are back in the wonderful Wollemi National Park with our sights set on a canyon adventure, it’s the regular “Crazy Danger Crew” - Ava (14) Mary (8) Rory and Daisy (both 11), Crazy Chris and myself (mid forties, but who’s counting).
After going off track in Namadgi National Park last Spring we’re packing the compass and topographic maps and heading to the Newnes Plateau and a remote camping area amongst the sandstone escarpments. The geography couldn’t be any more different to last spring - with a labyrinth of deep canyons, gullies, rocky pagodas and forest - a stark contrast to Namadgi’s open country and easy navigation. Navigating this country is not for the inexperienced or underprepared.
Day 1 - Base Camp
Just like our last Wollem trip we are opting for a “base camp” adventure. Our base camp is Deep Pass campground - accessed by a steep but short 500 metre hike from the carpark, we will have a few extra luxuries like a small esky with some fresh food (and a few cold cans of beer).
Deep Pass Campground
We take the unsealed “Glowworm Tunnel Road” which begins at the Zig Zag Railway and then follow a series of 4WD tracks to the carpark (See link) it was fairly intuitive and somehow we got there without too many wrong turns (or maybe because I was following Chris - oblivious to any navigational conniptions). The walk down to the campground is along a steep, overgrown and uneven service trail - though short, it’s not a walk we want to do multiple times - so we carry everything down in one go, deciding to leave the climbing gear in the car.
Deep pass campground is a sunny clearing surrounded by trees, rocky pagodas and canyons, with green grass and a crystal clear creek running through the area. There are multiple options for tents and as we arrive a group are just leaving a nice shady spot with a campfire and sitting logs close to the creek, so we claim it as our home for the next two nights.
We spend the afternoon exploring the gullies and nearby T slot canyon, scrambling over the various rock formations. The T slot canyon is particularly fun and worth seeking out if you visit Deep Pass. (Don't let the squeeze at the start put you off!)
Later, two other walkers return from their day exploring River Caves Canyon - an off track route to a dry canyon about 5km north of the campground - this was our plan for tomorrow, but I forgot to download the maps to my device, so we gather some intel - photographing their maps and marking the route onto our own maps. Info that will put it back on the agenda for tomorrow's adventure.
After some more exploration and fun, we settle in for a relaxing evening, dining on Chris's fresh spaghetti bolognese under the stars, ready for our big adventure in the morning.
Day 2 - A Canyon Adventure
The night was cool but not too cold and there hasn’t been a drop of dew. We light the fire and enjoy breakfast and a show from the local lyrebirds. The kids dress in their hiking clothes as Chris and I load a backpack each. We fill up water bottles, pack a nice lunch, snacks and cooking gear and embark on our journey north to find the hidden canyon.
We cross the creek and head upstream to the north following the bottom of the cliffline. After a few hundred metres there is a break in the cliffs and we scramble up to a ridge, heading slightly north-east.
Eventually this ridge opens up to a wooded area and we continue to climb, finding a footpad heading north-west following the contour.
After about 1.5 km we hit a very well graded dirt track, it’s the road to Natural Bridge and we follow it East, passing an impressive valley of pagodas and amazing rock features - and River Caves Canyon hidden somewhere among it all. After following this track for a few hundred metres we realise it is going the wrong direction and backtrack to where we originally met the road. Then we head North to find an entry point to the canyon.
LOST! (the first time)
We don’t have much information and no digital maps in the GPS app (an oversight on my part) we just have a printed topographic map with the track scrawled on it (copied from the other campers maps) and are heading in a north-westerly direction searching for the canyon.
By midday, the kids have been scrub-bashing through regrowth, getting scratched and scraped by ashen stumps - having expected a lovely cooked lunch in a beautiful dry canyon by now. There is an impressive canyon ahead but we can't find a way in, just deadly drops. And the kids eat dry wraps with dodgy cheddar cheese on the dusty banks of a dry creek while Chris and I continue to traverse the clifftops with walkie talkies, looking for an entry point.
Eventually I find a way down - somewhat convinced that it will lead to River Caves Canyon - it’s a precarious scramble with a sheer 15 metre drop on one side and after some coaxing, we guide the kids safely down to the shady canyon.
The rock features are impressive and the creek is crystal clear, so we begin exploring downstream and are almost immediately stopped by a 2 metre drop into a deep pool. Not exactly the "dry canyon" we were expecting.
We have no ropes or climbing gear (beer was deemed more valuable to carry into camp) so we decide against continuing downstream. Instead we head upstream.
The canyon meanders beneath ledges and rock fissures, turning at right angles and opening up as we approach a series of cascades that look like natural waterslides.
We are able to climb the sides of the cascades and follow a pool until we are stopped again by another waterfall of 2-3 metres. At this point we are convinced that we aren’t anywhere near River Caves Canyon.
Chris finds an easy scramble out of the canyon and we rest in the sun, ring out our socks and consume some sweets before heading back South to the comfort of our campsite.
LOST! (the second time)
By now it's about 2.15pm and all we need to do is walk back - for an hour or so - the way we came... Easy!
And it is easy for the first few k's. We make it back to the road - quicker than expected - and follow the same foot-pad back towards the south. Moving quickly along the ridge-line, knowing we will be back soon for a relaxing afternoon in camp.
But we aren't... we haven't focused on the point where we need to leave the ridge to scramble back to our valley and have walked way too far and are now on the escarpment, far above where we want to be, with nothing but vertical drops ahead of us. What's more the kids find it all really exciting and scatter off frantically to climb all the pagodas and peaks - evoking mild panic in Chris and me.
Spot the daring kids! There is a child on each of the two highest points in this picture
Rare flannel flowers on the escarpment
After another hour of trying to escape to the lower ground we traverse west and find a scramble down - it's unfamiliar but eventually we recognise features and make it back to the campsite by about 5pm. Relieved that we won't need to huddle together for a night sheltered beneath an overhang somewhere on the escarpment.
Back to Base Camp
We return to camp exhausted but relieved and instantly consume the soup with noodles intended for our canyon "picnic".
Later we clean up and eat a hearty shepherds pie, with lamb mince I'd prepared earlier and trusty old Deb powdered mash. The kids fall asleep easily and Chris and I enjoy a drink by the campfire - reflecting on the misadventures of the day. It may not have been the canyon we were looking for, but it didn't really matter in the end. Plus it's always satisfying to take the road less traveled (Chris and I have history of accidental canyons - but that's another story).
Day 3 - The Journey Ends
We wake to another cool but dry morning and enjoy a slow start to the day. Happy in the knowledge that the hardest thing today is walking 500metres uphill to the car and deciding what to eat at the pub for lunch.
After packing up camp we visit the nearby T-slot canyon again. On the way there we see a rare spiny crayfish in the creek where we get our water. It's a large pre-historic looking creature with bright orange spiky claws that look like they could cut your finger off. We look but don't touch.
The End of the Adventure
The walk back to the cars is an uphill slog, but after yesterday the kids barely notice it. We load up and hit the road to the Gardeners Inn at Blackheath for a good pub feed. Burgers, nuggets, chicken parmas and cold drinks cap off an amazing adventure.
Chris and I are experienced bushwalkers and our kids are used to the challenges of exploring the Australian bush (even with us). But our canyon adventure could have been a lot easier if we hadn't made some basic mistakes. If I had managed to download the maps before the trip everything would have been a lot smoother - next time I won't forget.
But there was another lesson here - about the value of knowing how to navigate with maps and compass. Navigating with GPS and digital maps can make you complacent, it can cause you to take less notice of the features you travel through. Which can be a fun challenge, but when the kids are there, the stakes are raised. And if we weren't experienced in navigating and didn't have the maps we would have been really stuffed.
I tracked some of our return route and downloaded the maps later to see where we had been - I'm pretty sure the canyon we were in was Budgary Creek canyon - formerly known as "buggary creek" (true story) just west of River Caves. The maps below show the detail and the scrambling around trying to get back to camp - compared to the map we photographed from the other walkers:
Our canyon caper was fun, but if you're traveling to Deep Pass with small kids you may want to keep it local. The campground is stunning and there is a loop trail that goes to Nayook Creek and a fun canyon a lot closer to home. If you go in warmer weather there is a swimming hole to cool off.
Water was abundant, but be sure to treat it if you intend to drink it. The campground has toilets, but they were out of action while we were there - so be prepared with plenty of toilet paper and something to dig a hole with. The ground in the Newnes Plateau is hard (But not as hard as our kids!).
To get to Deep Pass Campground there are two carparks, the National parks website has all the info here
For an easier car camping option in the area check out our Newnes Campground blog from 2019
For info on River Caves Canyon check out Bushwalking NSW
And for info about the Aboriginal cultural significance check out https://lithgow.storylines.com.au/2020/08/21/maiyingu-marragu/