Always pack your headtorch

I started drawing this “map” while I was bouncing around in the back of Johannes’ ute. The ute was zooming along Paterson Forest Road, towards Mount Allyn Lookout.

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Johannes had heard reports of a spectacular waterfall and gorge on the Paterson River.  He wasn’t sure exactly where the gorge would be – so he hatched a plan to hike in somewhere above the gorge, then follow the river downstream until we found it.  We would abseil down the waterfall if we needed to. We’d take some happy snaps, then pop out of the river and hike back to our car.

Johannes knew it was going to be a big day.  He tried to warn me. But for some reason, I was convinced that we were going on pleasant little wander that would keep us entertained before lunch.  Alarm bells should have started ringing when he asked Jens and I to pack wetsuits and climbing harnesses.  I packed the gear, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about why I would need such things.

On Friday afternoon, I told my colleagues that I would be going on a short hike in Chichester State Forest the following morning.  One of them asked me to spell ‘Chichster’ and scribbled it down on a post-it note. She joked that at least she would know where to send the rescue party if I didn’t turn up to work on Monday morning.  I assured them that there was no need for concern.  It wasn’t going to be that epic.  Just a walk. No big deal.

***

BzzZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZ

I fumbled for my phone to turn the alarm off. It was 5am.

Jeb came rumbling into the room, looking optimistic. Jeb was a mad-but-lovable kelpie that Jens and I were looking after for the school holidays while his humans went adventuring. Jeb had learned that alarms usually signalled early morning walks. Not today.  He curled up in the hallway and watched us pack our bags. He kept looking at his leash meaningfully.

We left him there in the hallway and drove about an hour, to the point where we would meet Anja, Johannes and their ute.

Jens and I threw our packs in the back of the ute.  I left my headtorch in the console of our car.  I didn’t think I’d need it.  I thought ‘It’s only a day  walk after all’.

Word to the wise – always, ALWAYS pack your headtorch.   Deciding to leave it behind is like deciding that you don’t need an umbrella or a rain jacket.

If you don’t have a rain jacket, you will get caught in the rain.  If you don’t have a torch, you will get caught in the dark. These are true facts about the universe.

***

I stopped trying to draw the map into my journal. Staring at the page on the bumpy road was starting to cause motion sickness.  I put the notebook down and stared out the windscreen.

That’s when we saw a huge tree that had fallen across the road.  Johannes stopped the ute. We all piled out to make a closer inspection. It didn’t take long to accept that there was no way of getting a car past that thing without chainsaws… and a tractor.

We were only 3 kilometres from the lookout at that point, so we parked the car in a clearing and started our walk.  We decided that walking that section, effectively saved us from 3km of hiking uphill at the end of the day.

Everything had a positive spin on it that morning.

We walked up the road in a line of four. We told stories.  We stripped off layers as the road became steeper. We looked at our little laminated maps. Before long, we came across a sign for Mount Allyn Lookout.

I snapped photos on my phone.  The others consulted the map.

It was decided that we would go “This way”, then “actually, no, that way” to find the start of the firetrail that would lead us to the river.

There was a gate at the start of our “trail”, but the rain forest soon took over. We scrambled over mossy logs and convinced ourselves that stones piled up in rough (maybe imagined) lines, had obviously been placed to mark the boundary of an old road.

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I said hello to ridiculously big trees. I took photos of crazy coloured ferns and fungi. I donated my compass to Johannes-holder-of-the-map. We crawled along through the wild old forest.

As long as we head mostly north-west, we should be right.

I think we’re too far east now.

Follow the ridge. If you have a choice, go left.

Time for a break?

We stopped for a snack after our third creek crossing.  There were only two creeks marked on the map. As I wolfed down leftover roast dinner, I wondered how big a creek has to get before it gets its own blue line on the map. Do they ever just get up and move away from their designated spots on the map?

We spent another hour stumbling in and out of small streams. Up and down we went until we could hear the rumble of the river. The sound grew louder and louder.  We finally reached the river at midday.   Our ETA had been closer to 10am, but there we were. After all the bush-bashing, it was a relief to know that we could just follow the river.  No more compasses and contour lines.

I ate more roast beef.

I stared at the whitewater in front of me.

It suddenly dawned on me that I would be expected to jump into that water as soon as I finished my lunch.

I chewed slowly and tried to take cover from the light, but persistent rain that had been falling for most of the morning.

Everyone started pulling their wetsuits out of their bags.

Jens and I peeled off our hiking clothes and put dry thermals on.  Short-sleeved wetsuits went on over the top.  I zipped Jens into his suit and he zipped me into mine.

There you go. All zipped up.

The wetsuit felt tight across my chest. I felt claustrophobic. I took a few deep breaths, just to prove that I could still breathe properly.

I kept eyeing the whitewater while I packed my gear into a dry bag. It seemed ridiculous to just jump in there.  Wasn’t there meant to be a giant waterfall somewhere on this river.

I had to reel my overactive imagination in quickly. I consoled myself by assuming that we were probably below the waterfall by now.  I optimistically decided bush-bashing had led us too far downstream.   I was sad to have missed the gorge, but I was glad that our walk down the river would be a little shorter.  Johannes had mentioned that the distance between the gorge and our exit point was around 5km . That didn’t seem too bad.

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***

Our little posse waded into the river.

Johannes hipitty-hopped from rock to rock, with a level of confidence that you must only get from a lifetime of kayaking.

I, on the other hand, splished and splashed and splattered along.  I scuttled along with my hands on the rocks.  I tripped and fell and banged up my shinbones.  I wished that I could trust my feet more.  I pushed away thoughts about being ‘too slow’. I tried to focus on the gorgeous scenery instead.  I tried to keep up.

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After a few hours of this, we found the gorge.

‘WOAH!’ said Johannes, in awe.

Oh shit’ I mumbled under my breath.  I had been so convinced that we had less than a kilometre of river to cover.  Apparently not.

The wide, peaceful river narrowed between dark black rocks.  Water gathered, smashed against stone and thundered down a steep, dark chute. The air was filled with fine spray, turned silver by the sunlight.

And the sound.

Loud. Powerful. Intimidating.

I was scared to stand too close to the drop, but I wanted to see the falls.  I wanted to see the power that was making the noise and carving shapes into the rock. It drew me in. It frightened me. I felt a mix of fear and excitement in my belly.

***

Anja looped some cord around a tree to the right-hand side of the waterfall.  She set up an abseil and we all lined up for our turn.  The cold started creeping in, during those short minutes sitting still.

The falls didn’t seem as ominous from the bottom. We took photos, ate snacks and stumbled on down the river.

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The walls closed in on us again and the water got deeper.  I lost contact with the riverbed, and floated down the gorge. I lay on my back and looked up at the smaller waterfalls, trickling down towards me. The sun was a long way from the middle of the sky above me.

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I started doing the math. We had been average speeds of under 2km/h on the river. We still had a lot more than 2km to go before we reached our first potential exit point.  I was certain that we’d still be in the river when the sun went down.

A few hours later, the sun did disappear.

I confessed to Jens that I’d left my headtorch in the car.  He pulled his own torch out of his pack and handed it to me.

20 minutes later, he gave me some spare batteries, because the light was so faint that I couldn’t tell if the torch was switched on or not.

I tried to open the plastic battery cover, but my hands just wouldn’t work properly. It felt like messages were slow to travel from my brain to my hands… and my legs.

Jens sorted the battery situation out, then powered on with nothing to light his way except the moon. I stomped down river. Jens stopped to squeeze my hand every time we had to criss-cross to the opposite river bank to make progress downstream.

I don’t know how many times I tripped and fell in the water. I started to take it personally. That rock had deliberately tripped me over! I’d take a breath, still sitting in the river, and decide that there was nothing to do except get up and march on.

Anja checked the GPS coordinates on her phone.

Johannes checked the maps.

Jens did his best to stay out of the water.

I trudged on.

Anja asked ‘How’s your temperature?’

Johannes asked ‘How are those shoes going?’

Jens asked ‘How are you doing egg?’

I trudged on.

I don’t think I’ve ever  been so physically exhausted.  Which is crazy, because I’ve done a lot of dumb things. Usually, I’d been able to delay the suffering by sheer force of will. I’ll power on until I reach a tent or a car or my front door. This time, I was struggling to lift my heavy legs. I was struggling to keep my balance against the current. I was struggling against the urge to throw a full-blown toddler tantrum.  But that would not have helped.

Trudge, trudge, splish, splash, slip, sigh, breathe.

Step over that vine. Left of the log is better.

Trudge, trudge.

No way through on this side. We need to get to the opposite bank.

Splash.

I think I’ve found something. 

On the other side of the river, there were stairs.  Real stairs. Stairs built with nice timber and power tools.

I loved those stairs.

The stairs took us up to a BBQ area with lights and a dog and a group of people who were washing up after their dinner. They were all members of the Newcastle Land Rover Club. The club leases a patch of land from state forests. They use it as base camp for their 4WD adventures all around the Barrington Tops.

This particular group had been named on the maintenance roster for the weekend.  They’d been servicing the water  tanks while we’d been stumbling down the river. All members get rostered on a couple of times a year.  Keeps the place in good nick.

Johannes asked if one of them could drive him back to the ute. Without a lift, we were looking at another 10-15km of hiking.  We’d already done almost 30km that day. I didn’t think my cold, tired legs could carry me much further.

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The ex-president of the club hadn’t had a beer that night.  So he became the designated driver.  He agreed to take all four of us back to the ute… but only after an interesting interrogation.

So where have youse come from then?

Mount Allyn! Jeeez, that’s a long way off!

Did ya hear that, they’ve been walking for thirty kays!

Started at 8 they said! And they’ve just got here now!

Ya know, you can just drive to the waterfall right?  There’s an old trail this sidda the river…

Come on then, all four of ya will fit.

And we did fit.  Four of us piled into a shiny white 4WD. It wasn’t a Landcruiser… but apparently you don’t need one to join the club. Any old fourby will do

We soon discovered that one of the unofficial club rules, is that, when you’re driving at night, you’ve got to stay in two-wheel drive…. unless you reeeeeeeeeeeally need four-wheel drive. I got the impression that “needing”

to use fourt-wheel drive at night would be an embarrassment that would bring shame on a driver’s family for years to come.

Our driver did not need four wheel drive.

We flew along muddy roads.  With every minute that passed, I silently thanked our driver for the glorious fact that we were not walking along these roads. I was warm, dry and moving with no effort on my part.

Conversation flowed from the drivers seat. We learnt about business, family, marriages, mud tyres, grand children, club trips, and the reason you should never drive with your thumbs inside the steering wheel of your car.

We soon reached the ute and hugged our new friend. We offered him cases upon cases of beer.  I don’t drink… no seriously, I don’t want anything. We said goodbye. He reversed and drove away.

Two more hours of driving got us to a pizza place in East Maitland, 5 minutes before closing time. Another hour of driving got us back to Jeb the dog.  We took him straight to the backyard to pee.  The poor little bastard had been holding on for 16 hours!

He didn’t even pee on the carpet.

I love that dog.

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Dodgy iphone photos are from Jens and I.

Stunning photos of the river are from Anja and Johannes.

Post-adventure snuggles were provided by Jeb… who has forgiven us… provided that he gets to join the next adventure.

Thanks to everyone for looking after me out there, and showing me a spectacular part of the world that few others have seen. Can’t wait for the next adventure!

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