Cheekily dubbing it ‘Australia’s most exclusive cocktail party’, hikers hauled up caviar and charcuterie, adorned themselves in formal wear, and sat down atop The Castle to sip champagne overlooking Monolith Valley.


We acknowledge that this adventure is located on the traditional Country of the Ngambri, Ngunnawal and Yuin people who have occupied and cared for the lands, waters, and their inhabitants for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them as the Traditional Custodians and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.


A little bit of history…

Twenty years ago the Australian National University Mountaineering Club (or ANUMC) ‘Cocktails on The Castle’ trip was born. It was created to provide a quirky entry into a NSW photo competition run by YHA in 1993.

Now an annual tradition, ten ANU affiliates make the bizarre trek each year to experience the dichotomy of sophistication and the wilderness.

Read more: The Hiking Clothes of Yesteryear


Casual loaf of sourdough on a heavy chopping board, nothing to see here

Ultraheavy Hiking

Having recently relocated to Canberra, I joined a bunch of outdoorsy Facebook groups with the hope of making new friends, and exploring the local area. As soon as I read the words: ‘hike up to the top of The Castle, dress up in fine evening attire, and eat the most extravagant food we can carry’, I figured this overnight trip was too good to miss!

I began packing late on a Friday after work – sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent…you know the drill – only this time, I was squeezing in a wooden chopping board, three wheels of cheese, and an orange slip dress!

After meeting on campus early on Saturday morning, we reconvened outside The Braidwood Bakery for a coffee and a pastry. With the Long Gully Campground programmed into Google Maps, we drove another hour down a dirt road until said road became a walking track, and our three cars were forced to turn around.

But what’s an adventure without a wrong turn?

Back to the bakery we went, narrowly avoiding the temptation to stop and follow the smell of sausage rolls. It was another hour and a bit before we drove around the southern end of the Budawang National Park and rolled into the campgrounds.

Despite thinking that my chopping board was excessive, I soon discovered that others had brought a fresh loaf of sourdough, a trestle table, and even a guitar! It was shaping up well already.


Bodacious Budawangs waiting to be explored

Not Exactly a Spiral Staircase

The trail starts with the crossing of the Yadboro River, and quickly ascends towards The Castle. I was grateful for the green foliage of the temperate rainforest as we walked in 35°C heat.

Conversations about careers and past adventures became increasingly strained as the trail became steadily steeper.


Finding our pace as a (very) newly formed group


The vegetation thinned as we approached the conglomerate rockface. Instead of ferns, I admired the yellow wildflowers, Banksia, and Xanthorrhoea (grass trees).

We had multiple packs-off breaks in the caves along the base of the cliffs, which had me thinking about their ongoing importance.

First Nations people used these very rock shelters as protection from the elements, places to live, and as gathering sites for ceremonies. 65,000 years on, we’re still ducking in and out of the same cool caves to escape the heat, and huddling together to eat as a group.


Our last opportunity for a break before the ascent


Unfortunately, one of us was still detoxing from the night before and couldn’t continue. We left them behind – with a PLB – to seek refuge in a comfortable looking cave and promised we’d be back the next day.

The Castle is not for the faint of heart, particularly if you’re carrying heavy gear and recovering from a night out.

Read more: Don’t Let a Hangover Get in the Way of a Good Adventure

As we emerged from the bristly bush, we took in the panoramic view of the nipple-like Didthul / Pigeon House Mountain. It felt quite apt being in Mother Nature’s bosom, protected from the outside world.


The name of this mountain is Didthul which translates to ‘a woman’s breast’. Accurate


We split off at the fork. Half of us turned right to hold our breaths as we squeezed through the rock pass. The others turned left to refill our bottles from the trickling creek.

We came together as one group in time for the multiple rope-assisted rock scrambles to the summit.

Note: These guide ropes are at the risk of the user. While they’re maintained by hikers, they’re not certified by NSW National Parks.


Whatever you do, don’t look down until you’re safely at the top!

A Table Fit For Giants

I am constantly in awe of Australia’s biodiversity. The Budawangs, which once formed the ocean floor, now stand tall in a series of mesas. These flattened mountain tops extend towards the deep blue Tasman Sea and fade into the pale blue sky.

Once the tents were up, we hurried to set the dining table (ridiculous!) and put on our fancy garb (I couldn’t believe we’re actually doing this!) before the sun set.

Moments later, we were sipping champagne and eating like kings, illuminated by the red glow on the horizon.


Kings and Queens of The Castle


Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before an unforecast lightning storm caused us to relocate to an eight-person tent where the cocktail party kicked on! Special thanks to the legend who carried it all the way.

Read more: How To Read The Weather Like a Pro

As the guitar made its rounds around the group, we were serenaded by the lyrics of Jimmy Hendrix and Angie McMahon.

I’m not sure whether it was the passion fruit wine, or simply the fact that hikers feel comfortable around other hikers, but I ended up performing my full repertoire, having just learnt the F chord.


The rain made for a rollicking backing track

No Time For Dreamin’

It was tough emerging from the sleeping bag at 6:30am. Even the sun was hiding behind the clouds. It, too, apparently, needed a rest from yesterday’s dry heat. 

We descended with caution. Some of us squeezed back via the caves while others made use of the luxurious drop dunny at Cooyoyo Creek Campsite.


If you don’t like tight spaces, look away now


We regrouped at the fork, and it was all downhill from there. We took it easy to reduce impact on our knees. I admired the wildflowers and native plants in the morning light as we headed towards the cave to collect the final member of our party.

We happily discovered that our now-detoxed cave friend had indeed survived the night, and even enjoyed their solo camping experience!

Post castle-conquering and cocktail-consuming, we were a lot more comfortable having yarns and getting to know each other. The conversation was a great distraction from the aches that were getting progressively harder to ignore.

The final leg to the cars flew by quickly, and with great relief it wasn’t long before we were removing our boots and dropping our packs to the ground.

Beach Break

From mountains to milkshakes, we drove in a convoy straight to the nearest beach.

The salt lost in sweat was regained in the ocean. I’m joking of course! Always remember to replenish your electrolytes and stay hydrated.

I let my body go with the flow of the waves in the water while my fish’n’chips fried away at the Surfside Beach IGA.

Feeling knackered, we exchanged photos and said our goodbyes until the next trip.


Sand was the perfect cushion for our tired tooshies

No longer a princess

A few days later and my legs are still too sore to walk without a limp.

Cocktails on The Castle must be one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. Considering the scary rope scrambles and the ridiculously heavy packs, I am in awe of our achievements that weekend. 

I feel fortunate to have walked away with new friends and I’m excited to continue discovering my local landscape.


Proud. Exhausted. Very unlikely to carry a wooden chopping board hiking again!

This piece was brought to you by a real living human who felt the wind in their hair and described their adventure in their own words. This is because we rate authenticity and the sharing of great experiences in the natural world – it’s all part of our ethos here at We Are Explorers. You can read more about it in our Editorial Standards.