At dawn the light
is dull, sluggish. I’m the same, but make myself go out with my camera to check
out the show. The valley is filled with slowly swirling cloud, but the tops are
clear. It will be a fine, warm day once the sky shrugs off the valley’s
[Morning cloud burns off beneath Mt Lot & Lots Wife]
Tim and I wander
across the shelf, looking for angles. I’m also testing my ankle, which feels
walkable, ‘though the thought of carrying a full pack is daunting. We try not
to linger over breakfast – there’s a long day ahead – but we rarely seem
capable of breaking camp quickly. Apart from our desire to dry our tents before
packing them, this place has a gravitational pull that makes it hard to escape.
It’s 9-30am before
we wander up the slight incline towards the point where North-East Ridge meets
Pandani Shelf. On the way we stop and chat with the only other people we’ve
seen up here: two men with high-end photographic gear. We glean a couple of
valuable tips, firstly how long they’ve taken to walk up from the road (6
hours) and secondly that they’ve taped their route with blue tape (which they
intend to remove on their way back).
[Tim starts the descent. The road is just visible in the background. (Click to enlarge the image.)]
We do a quick
calculation of our return time, estimating 8 hours. That’s based on their
fitness relative to ours, and how much injury and inexperience may slow us
down. Just before plunging steeply through the forest we take a short detour to
see if we can find Anne-A-Kananda, once the deepest known cave in Australia.
(It has since been surpassed – only slightly – by Tachycardia and Niggly Caves,
in the Junee Florentine system, a little further north of here.)
[The Anne-A-Kananda sinkhole, with Lake Timk and Lots Wife]
The viewpoint gives
only a hint of the huge hole beneath, and we don’t have the time to explore
further. But we are still awestruck by the scale of the work done by mere H2O on this limestone ridge. We try – mostly
in vain - to capture some of it photographically.
The “track” we’re
aiming for – sometimes called the Bombardier Track – indirectly owes its
existence to limestone. In the late 1960s a solo bushwalker went missing in
this area. A caterpillar-tracked vehicle known as a bombardier, used by both
the Hydro and mining companies for exploration, was co-opted to aid with the
search. Unfortunately the walker was never found, and was presumed to have
fallen into one of the numerous sinkholes in the area. However the track
remains visible in some places, and the route is occasionally used by walkers
[A 1960s bombardier, with HEC staff. (Ashton/National Library of Australia)]
The descent is long
and steep, very steep. Trekking poles – just one for most of us - are extended.
I’m using mine as an emergency brake, keeping some of the weight off my ankle.
The rainforest is dense and deep green, with light filtering through myrtle
beech and sassafras overtowered by old and gnarled King Billy pine. The pines
have deposited a soft brown layer on the forest floor, and the undergrowth is
mostly sparse, at least at first. We are making reasonable progress, although
the downhill plunge is hot, hard and thirsty work. We welcome the shade, and take
frequent drink stops. Outside this green haven the day is becoming warm and
[Tim finds shade on the descent through the forest]
We stop for lunch
somewhere towards the bottom half of the slope, ‘though not as far down as I’d
hoped. After lunch the interminable downhill plunge continues, and the scrub thickens.
The walk starts to become a tactical battle, a mental game for each of us as
individuas, and as a group. Finding the route, now sparsely marked with blue –
and pink and yellow – plastic tape, has become more of a task. Some of the
tapes lead in contradictory directions. Lina is in the lead for a time, her
first go at route finding. We’re pleased to be able to congratulate her on not
But this victory is
overshadowed by sounds of disgruntlement from elsewhere. Mick is having a hard
time. Stumbling and grumbling, at one point he falls over outright, cursing
loudly. We pause to help – once we’ve taken some photographs – and make “we’ll
soon be at the bottom” type promises.
[Mick takes a tumble ... and we take photos!]
Eventually we do
reach the toe of the slope, but it’s clear Mick is not well. He goes off to dig
an emergency hole, returning a while later still not looking great. He’s clearly
exhausted, as we all are, but we guess he’ll be okay. With that we plunge out
of the forest and onto the buttongrass plain.
Five minutes into
our 4km slog along the plain, Mick stops, drops his pack, and starts vomiting.
There’s not much we can do but put a hand on his shoulder and mutter sympathies.
After a few violent episodes, he manages to swig some water, take a few deep
breaths, and gradually get to his feet. It’s the start of a long and almost
impossibly hard return walk for him.
He is sick several more
times. We pause often on a slow and seemingly endless march across the plain. Actually
it’s anything but “plain”. At a few points there are creeks and scrub bands
that interrupt the buttongrass. At these points the twin bombardier tracks,
which were at times plainly visible, are suddenly unfindable; either overgrown
or otherwise obfuscated.
[Paola on the Bombardier Track, with Anne Range behind]
Given that the
tracks are at least 45 years old, we probably should be surprised that we can
see any of them. The wider scene is quite stunning, even if we’re not in a position
to really appreciate it. The whole north-western flank of the Anne Range rears
up out of the surrounding plains and forest. She is imperious, majestic, this Queen
Tim and I talk
about going ahead, finding the car, dropping our gear and returning to carry
Mick’s gear. But each time he manages to rally enough to shrug the suggestion
off, and to walk on for another few hundred metres. I’m wearing my GPS and can
measure both our progress and the distance to the road. Our advance is
agonizingly slow. Not for the first time I wonder whether it’s best not to
The afternoon heats
up, and we beat on into the face of the sun. We keep trying to persuade Mick to
just stop and let us come back for him and his pack in a short while. But he’s
made of stern stuff – not to say somewhat stubborn – and he keeps finding a way
to walk on.
When we finally
agree that Paola and I will go ahead and come back once we’ve reached the road,
we don’t manage to shake off Mick’s pursuit. As we enter the last little bit of
scrub (of course there has to be something nasty before we finish!) we turn to
see the rest of the group only 200m or so behind us. Mick’s going to do it all
under his own steam.
Barely ten minutes
after we reach the road, the rest stagger out of the bush and onto the road
verge. If Mick is the crookest, no-one else is in great shape. Lina walks out,
and lurches off to find a quiet spot. She is utterly spent, and not yet up to
celebrating an incredible effort: her first excursion into some of the toughest
country in a truly wild part of the world.
[Tim, Mick, Lina and Paola at the road]
It’s 7-30pm. We’ve
been on our feet for 10 hours. We’re a long way from feeling elation. We’re
just relieved that we’ve managed to hobble, stagger and persist our way out of
the bush under our own steam. Next time we might try something straightforward.