Bushwhacked in the Budawangs (NSW)

Highlights

  • Climbing the Castle, the jewel of this region’s fortressed peaks
  • Exploring the labyrinthine Monolith Valley
  • Enjoying the extreme beauty and tranquility of this unique region
Cerebral implants of epic proportions 

The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You – it’s the name of a strangely captivating motivational piece by Johnny Truant and somehow it had found its way onto my Kindle reader while en route to the Budawangs. Its message is abundantly clear: seize the day and make your mark…

Anthony Kiedis’s voice emanates from the car’s speakers and fills the cabin as we drive from Sydney to Morton National Park. It’s music to the ears (obviously), but to five school friends of thirty years, it is so much more because at its core lies a nostalgic potency. Its acoustic tentacles reach deep into the recesses of our minds and deliver old memories and stories to the present. Remember when we were young! Shall we throw caution to the wind once again, for old times’ sake!?

And then, the music fades as we transition into a full reading of Johnny’s 4000-word book. Idi’s stentorian voice is so powerful it puts Anthony Kiedis’s to shame. Idi is overcome with rapturous lunacy, yet somehow the delivery works and complements the words, the passages and its call to action. He reads aloud, eyes aflame:

You are here now … You have but a nanosecond on the universal clock to do whatever it is you’re going to do. When that time is gone, it’s gone. Forever … There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it. Be awesome. Do epic shit. Do it now. The clock is ticking.

Something stirs deep inside Tal’s subconscious. He does not even know it yet but the epic seed has been planted. At a critical juncture in our Budawangs journey, it will germinate, compelling Tal to uncharacteristically throw caution to the wind by advocating an impossible extension to our already long trek. But more on that later.

Loading up on carbs and gear

First, we pit stop at a fancy Milton restaurant and eat like kings for tomorrow we ascend the Castle, the Budawangs’ terraced tabletop mountain and the jewel in this region’s crown of fortressed peaks. Wined and dined! We fight off the food coma, pile back into the 4×4 and drive directly to a basic lodge on the Clyde River, conveniently close to the trek’s start at Long Gully. Under a canopy of stars, we enter our cabin and prepare packs; always a painstaking process with every item pored over for its utility while striving to minimise weight. Beasts of burden we are not, yet at this stage it is easy to convince oneself that an extra ounce here or there won’t add up to a pounding of one’s stamina. Over eighty- or ninety-thousand steps in tough terrain, investment in intelligent weight minimisation pays dividends step after step after step. By the time we’ve accomplished this packing feat, we have enough time for about five hours’ shut-eye before our pre-dawn departure.

Alarm clocks ring. Caffeine hit. Make that a double-double for Richie. Hot chocolate for Ezra (what’s the point!?). Set off.

King of the Castle but our reign doesn’t make the history books 

After a short and sinuous drive, we are at Long Gully. In the dark, we walk past a scattering of faintly visible tents to the trail head and step through the threshold into an organic oasis that calms the mind. Guided by headlamps, we cross the Yadboro River and commence the steady uphill along Kalianna Ridge. We rise up with the sun, and now in full daylight appreciate the spectacular views of the valley behind us. Up, up, up. Time passes. We reach the Castle’s lower ramparts – for bushwalkers, the only way to ascend is to exploit the one and only chink in its armour, by piercing through its torso (‘Meakins Pass’) and scaling its tail (‘the Tadpole’) to the summit. After lots of scrambling we stand atop the Castle and look down 800 metres to where we started, and far beyond in every direction. Pristine panoramas present a sea of greenery, interspersed with black granite cliffs and sandstone walls sunburnt with ochre streaks and, finally, beyond Pigeon House and Ulladulla lies the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an immersive, wholly mesmerising moment that even the talented brush strokes of a master artist could not convey. For the full picture, one must stand in this very place and soak up the entire elemental experience. We are humbled by its timeless beauty.

We travel along the Castle’s scrubby and rocky summit plateau towards its southern cliff line in search of the logbook. Despite the flat terrain, our pace is slowed by barriers of bristly bush, which thrives up here. Taking the path of least resistance, we zigzag our way southwards, until finally reaching an excellent vantage point of Byangee Walls, albeit with no sign of the logbook. We enjoy a meditative moment in this tranquil setting before cold winds breathe down our necks, ushering us into action to reach our next objective, the Monolith Valley.

Making monolithic memories

Three hours after departing the Castle’s peak and 7.5 hours since starting out, with the sun now directly overhead, we stand at the periphery of the grand Monolith Valley. It feels like an enormous natural colosseum – its central plateau is a maze of dense bushland surrounded by glaring cliff faces and, here and there, imposing stone pillars (‘monoliths’) stand guard over this fragile ecosystem. We sit atop a million-tonne rock with a flat peak; heat radiates from its surface. It is quiet save for nature’s soothing sounds and each of us drifts into a long and peaceful state of rest. Snap, snap, snap – the alien artificial sound of my camera brings Idi, Tal, Ezra and Richie back to life. It is time to move on.

Birth of a brainwave

At the entrance to the Monolith Valley’s labyrinth, Tal studies the topographical map for a route to Seven Gods Pinnacles, our intended next milestone. Then I suggest, only half-seriously, that instead we climb Mount Owen, descend the narrow gully on its western side, circumnavigate its northerly cousin Mount Cole and approach Seven Gods Pinnacles from the opposite side, before returning to our current spot and only then beginning our return to Long Gully. It is an epic route in itself, let alone as an extension to our already long journey! I fully and reasonably expect point-blank rejections and secretly welcome such, but my friends actually consider the proposal; though in reality it is Tal as traditional lead navigator who needs to be persuaded – his endorsement has the most gravity. Surprisingly, no convincing is required – all that sweat, sun and serenity have gone to his head and nourished the epic seed, sown less than twenty-four hours earlier, into a resilient, highly contagious idea. Be epic! Do it now! The clock is ticking! Carried by the wind, Johnny Truant’s words beckon:

Realise that time will never stop. Never. It’s like being on a train with no stops that’s always leading you farther and farther from home … You can never get off that train. You can never board a train going in the opposite direction. If you missed a stop, tough shit. If there was this great thing even just two miles back that you decided not to do, you can’t change your mind and go do it. That place is gone forever.

Just do it. Claim it. Stop waiting for permission to be epic … Want to be epic? Just do epic shit. There’s nothing else to it. Nobody’s going to make you good, or great, or amazing, or epic. Nobody’s going to level you up. If you want that next level, take it. Take it for yourself. Grab it. Become it. Claim it. Do it. Do it. And, if you fail, big deal.

Epic extensions

Optimistically we forge ahead knowing, deep down, that we’re biting off more than we can chew, but still willing, indeed eager, to put our best foot forward and give it a shot. Good navigation (and cairns) sees us move swiftly through the convoluted alleyways of the valley, until the tenuous track dips down and spits us out into a creek bed. It is cooler and darker here as the surrounding mountains cast shadows and thousands of trees form a canopy overhead as they seek ever greater heights in a competitive struggle for sunlight.

Like the trickling stream underfoot we move slowly, consulting the map and searching for a way to the roof of Mount Owen. Something catches Tal’s eye on the slope to our right – a potentially passable sliver running diagonally upwards offering a less precipitous approach. It’s our best bet. We slip and slide our way up, using exposed tree roots and rocky protrusions as handholds and anchors before abruptly descending into yet another creek bed. Oaky Creek is blanketed by rainforest vegetation and fallen trees. We travel upstream using a combination of moss-covered boulders and vines as bridges and ladders. Ten hours since we left the cabin. Fatigue starts to set in. Again and again we climb and clamber and stumble. The final section of the climb is blurry and then suddenly a steep incline elevates us beyond the reach of the jungle and the summit is attained. Free of the dense forest we can relax amid space and solitude and hard-earned views of the majestic valley below. It is an unforgettable moment.

The sun sits low in the west; still above the horizon, but daylight is now in short supply. It’s a race against time to find a route off this mountain’s north-west edge into the Owen/Cole divide and then to Trawalla Falls and beyond. In the dark, even with headlamps, locating a safe descent would be a miracle. This mountain has been made from the same mould as the Castle – its peak is rocky but quite flat and large swaths are densely packed with spindly trees and thick tall grass. Navigation is confusing and, for a while, exacerbated by countless cairns that lead us down the garden path, until we ignore them. Still, we continue to encounter false leads and dead ends and eventually pause to face the facts. Some heated exchanges ensue before common sense prevails and we unanimously decide to turn back. There are no regrets. We’ve blown our initial goals out of the water and made it to Mount Owen, a peak that eluded me on a previous trek from the Wog Wog side. I feel great. We’ve guaranteed ourselves the ‘tiger walk’ I was looking for given the remaining mega-journey back to Long Gully – it’s the cherry on top to really test our endurance.

By the time we return to Oaky Creek it is pitch black and we fully rely on our head torches. Even with bright, broad-beamed lights it is hard to get a global perspective of our position and with tunnel vision we miss the turnoff to the valley proper. We travel downhill along the creek towards the cliffs of the main plateau for some time. The area feels different – we find ourselves wading through a compost heap of decaying leaves and fallen trees that occasionally give way to engulf legs and hiking sticks. Clearly we are off course and the possibility of an uncomfortable night’s sleep right here becomes very real. There is no phone reception but there is just enough GPS connectivity to give us our position on my iPhone’s Google Maps app (but only if the maps are pre-loaded, which they were!). A blue marker on the screen confirms what we already know. U-turn and backtrack until we find that critical cairn and we’re back on track and into the Monolith Valley. The detour costs us more than an hour but the experience is priceless (after it’s done, of course).

Home sweet home

Through Nibelung Pass and onto the Castle Walking Track we go, which clobbers quads as it twists and turns its way downhill. We step in, on and around the exposed tree roots and rocky outcrops that infiltrate this path until eventually it flattens and widens and we’re on the home stretch to Long Gully, a full seventeen hours after leaving the cabin.

Just two hours later we’ve gone from the mountains to McDonald’s, from Budawang beauty to burger buns, from pure living to processed largesse and it tastes so good! A further three hours later and we’re back in Sydney. Sleep comes easily.


Essential Gear

  • topographic map
  • compass
  • head torch
  • a head for heights
  • 20 metres of rope
  • first aid kit (goes without saying)

How To Get There

Click here.

Activities

  • Bushwalking
  • Photography
  • Mountain climbing (but more scrambling than proper climbing)

Skill Level

Expert if trying to do it in one day without camping, otherwise intermediate if doing it over more than one day. Navigation to and on Mt Owen is completely off trail and unmarked

Distance Covered

30km

Elevation gain/loss

+/- 1,600 metres


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