Storming the Castle // An Overnight Raid on the Budawangs (NSW)

Highlights:

  • Climbing The Castle and taking in the Budawangs.
  • Camping at Cooyoyo Creek.
  • Monolith Valley and the Natural Arch.

A Plan Forms

I was browsing the web comparing different kinds of hiking boots when a thought hit me.

“I haven’t been hiking in ages.”

Maybe working in an outdoor store I’ve been living out the dreams of my customers. The Camino, Three Capes and the Milford Track are daily occurrences when you’re selling adventure gear but since my April Long weekend Wondabyne to Patonga hike I’d only cracked out the boots to mow the lawn.

I started looking around for places easily reachable from Sydney, with established hikes that weren’t the Blue Mountains. A name kept coming up. Shrouded in mystery and very fun to say: The Budawangs.

A week later we were hiking.

To The Budawangs!

We bundled into my car at 6am to get a head start on long weekend traffic. Google Maps reckoned the 272km journey would take 4 and a half hours, optimistic as we were, the app has an infuriating habit of being accurate. We stopped briefly to visit Berry’s “Famous Donut Stand”, a permanent caravan that was definitely not there last time I visited. My mate Aidan launched into a tirade about the word “famous” being completely unregulated as we sped out of town.

Just inland from Milton we hit the dirt road. Well formed as it was, the 50 minutes of dirt driving was slow going and shouldn’t be attempted in the wet without four-wheel drive. Once we drove out of reception for my girlfriend’s painstakingly crafted Spotify playlist (spoiler alert: it’s just 90s hits) it was time for a King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard session. I couldn’t think of a better backing album than Nonagon Infinity as The Castle, a massive rocky mesa, became visible through the trees. I’d seen the epic outcrop on countless maps as I did my research but nothing quite prepared me for its vertical prominence. We were going to climb it.

The hike began in fits and starts. Our first challenge was a slow moving goanna who, like all good eco-hikers, kept dead on the path and refused to let us through. Minutes later we forded a river and we were away.

We arrived at the base of the Castle quickly and sheltered from the gusting wind in a cave. While enjoying the belly-of-the-beast vibes we were able to look down over the valley. Unlike many locations I’ve hiked in, there were no signs of human impact as far as the horizon. To the South West the Budawangs National Park is a motley crew of rolling hills and imposing cliffs, to the East, Pigeon House Mountain, more cliffs and the sea.

From here the hiking became more difficult as we traced the base of the cliff. The track narrows considerably as it winds steeply up and down avoiding large rockfalls and steep drops. There are points where you have to climb over roots and logs, scramble up rock faces and hold your breath as you squeeze between the cliff and boulders blocking your way. It’s worth it in the end as you pass some camping caves and round the corner of the ridge the trees open up to a glorious view of the valley, cliffs and trail behind you.

The track kept on giving however and the final ascent, a muddy, step-laden climb up to the ridge, really took its toll while loaded up with hiking packs. At the crest of the ridge the path split three ways. To the left the path continues on into Monolith Valley and to the right is the route up The Castle. We went straight ahead, 500 metres to the Cooyoyo Creek Campsite.

Cooyoyo Creek Campsite

The campsite was chill. A drop toilet, little clearings among the trees and not much else. Water can be found at Cooyoyo Creek which is a short steep descent on the opposite side of the campsite to its entrance. Note that the creek isn’t particularly impressive and not a guaranteed source of water, you’ll also need to boil the water or use purification tablets to be safe. Ciara decided to check out the rest of the campsite once we dropped packs and disappeared further down the path. She was back within a minute, “guys there’s a cliff RIGHT THERE!” she exclaimed, half excited half shocked as there is literally no warning before you’re on the edge of a major exposed cliff face. The panoramic view of cliffs, Pigeon House Mountain and the ocean was something to behold as the sun set. We watched the shadows race across the valley floor as the sun sank behind us. We visited the cliff twice more, once just before bed for an unimpeded view of the stars and again at sunrise.

After a slow morning experimenting with different styles of camp coffee we did a half pack down and left our hiking packs inside our tents. We found later that most hikers were happy to leave their packs at the base of the Castle while they did their ascent so I’ll leave that one up to your level of trust. We had a whole day ahead of us however so we decided to venture a little further into Monolith Valley. The hike meanders along at the base of a cliff before heading up a steep cutting. After a muddy section so steep it has a chain bolted down the centre of the path we came out onto the top of the plateau to panoramic views of the valley. But by now it was almost midday so we decided we’d make it to the natural arch we’d heard other hikers talking about before turning back.

Not far into the valley, but below the tree line in a dense and undisturbed rainforest, a giant slab of rock juts through the canopy. A large hole has eroded completely through its centre and with some pretty difficult scrambling you can climb up inside of it. Though the formation was natural, I was reminded of a forgotten ruin as I traced the vines and roots that ran over its surface.

Storming The Castle

The blustery winds had continued throughout the night and into the next morning, leaving me doubtful that we would be able to climb the Castle at all. Fortunately by the afternoon they relinquished and we eagerly headed around the eastern side of the base of the plateau.

The Castle is the steepest hike I’ve ever attempted and is not for the faint of heart. As soon as we reached the hastily scratched arrow that ushered us up the face we were met with rock scrambles, loose rocks and twigs and a healthy dollop of exposure. The route doesn’t mount the ridge so much as it punches through it with a shimmy through and up a gap in the rocks. From here onwards we encountered the ropes that the hike is famous for. While the climbs aren’t particularly hard, simply steep enough to warrant an extra handhold, there’s one pitch that’s easily 15 metres with hundreds of metres of exposure to the valley floor. Rowdy.

After over an hour of climbing we made it to the top of the plateau. The Castle was always destined to be the crux of the hike but I had not expected the magical finality with which we were rewarded. Every view we had taken in during the course of the hike became one continuous vista, from the cave, to the campsite, from the ocean horizon to the mountains in the west. At this moment I became aware of just how immersive the mountains could be, the woes and worries of my working week briefly surfaced for the first time since Friday afternoon. But they felt far away, there’s poor bullshit reception in the Budawangs.

The plateau is massive and I would have loved to explore every inch of it but we had only planned the one night and by now it was 3pm. If you’ve got the time to make it a two-night trip I’d recommend it; with the extra time we could have made it further through the Monolith Valley to the Seven God’s Pinnacles. As it was we fired down the Castle to the campsite, arriving at the same time as many whom were staying the night. With a few laugh’s and shouts of encouragement we trooped up the ridge for the last time.

The descent was far easier and hiking during the golden hour was a marvelous way to take in the reds and oranges of the cliffs. Time it well though, we did the last half hour of the hike with head torches (a great experience if you know where you’re going) while listening to Maggie teaching Aidan Spanish. “¡Leche es delicioso!” In all honesty this Microadventure can fit more tightly into 2 days with some good time management. There’s also the option of driving down on Friday evening and camping at Long Gully or taking day packs and upping the pace to make it a day trip. As it was we made it back to Sydney well after midnight and I enjoyed my laziest and most well deserved Monday of the year.

Essential Gear

  • Overnight hiking gear
  • Supportive shoes
  • Water purification tablets or a Steripen
  • A Topographic Map (Corang, 1:25,000)

How To Get There

The hike starts from Long Gully Campground and Google Maps was accurate for the whole journey. If you’re a purist however, leave the Princes Highway at Milton and take Croobyar Road to the turnoff to Woodstock Road. After 13km your next turnoff is Clyde Ridge Road. Follow this for 7.7km and turn right onto Yadboro Rd. After 4.3km turn left to stay on Yadboro and after a further 9.2km take a left onto Western Distributor Rd. You’ll pass through Yadboro Flats campground and after 3.4km take a slight right down Long Gully Rd. Stay on this for 1.3km and you will arrive at Long Gully Campground and the start of The Castle Walking Track.

Activities

  • Hiking
  • Rock Scrambling
  • View Seeing
  • Cave Camping
  • Star Gazing

Skill Level

  • Moderate to Experienced Hikers
  • Some trail finding necessary
  • Moderately strenuous climbing
  • Confidence with heights (for The Castle climb)

Distance/Elevation

It’s an 810m climb to the top of The Castle and around 12km of mostly tough track to Cooyoyo Creek and back. How far you go into Monolith Valley is up to you!