Newnes (Starlight) Canyon – Monday 18 May

Party: Tim Vollmer and Joshua Hill

With a Monday free from work, we decided it was the perfect chance to squeeze in a trip to Newnes Canyon on a day where we could pretty much be guaranteed the place to ourselves, giving plenty of time to investigate the wonderful tunnel section. We read that it was a decent length day, which is a concern when the sun is setting so early, but we figured it was perfect weather for a nice dry canyon.

Meeting at Lithgow Maccas early, we were on the road to Newnes by 8.15am. The drive out is great, with the magnificent craggy walls of the Wolgan Valley slowing coming closer together as we approached our destination.

It was nice and cool as we started up the Pipeline Track, enjoying the wonderful views as we slowly climbed. Despite it being a rather easy pass, poor fitness showed through and the sweat was flowing by the time we got up to the lookout. The trip is just about worth it for the views here of the magnificient river below without even going on to the canyon. Sadly, with time against us we moved on, heading further up the hill before turning off towards the canyon.

Most of the ridge top walk is in really open bush, the kind of easy walking low scrub that you pray for when walking off track. We decided against the left track, not wanting to have to do the whole length of the creek, but half way along the ridge we decided to head off to make sure we got to see the first small canyon section, so we bashed our way north and scrambled down to the creek below. The creek here is rather pleasant, a mix of easy rock hopping and sandy reaches with beautiful trees towering on each side.

We made it down to the first small “canyon” section, walked as far as the water but decided we would rather stay dry. A short back track, a scurry up the southern side and a zig-zagging pass back down got us into the creek just after the water obstacle. The next kilometer wasn’t so easy. The creak was increasingly chocked with fallen coachwoods and all manner of saplings that forced you to duck, climb, crawl, shimmy etc to get through. At this point it is hardly the best canyon start, and we began to give the creek some rather nasty nicknames. I can only imagine the first party who did this canyon would have been questioning their sanity at this point. So on and on we went, through the scunge, making poor time and getting very little of natures beauty for our troubles. And then, out of nowhere, you’re there. A really nice 25m abseil into the slot. It is very much a drop into another world.

In stark contrast to my usual “she’ll be right” approach to safety I decided to use a prusik self-belay on the way down, mainly to test out its ease of use for future trips where the abseils are longer / more dangerous. We left the rope in place (as per the advice, making sure the tunnel is clear of water / debris before removing your only exit), dropped our packs and started down the slot.

On the first pass we used one head torch intermittently, but didn’t want to obstruct our views of the glow worms. They started off fairly sparse, but the further we went the more there were. The slot is nice and tight, forcing you to squeeze through in places and winding a good 20m above you. A great collection of glow worms right at the top of the tunnel make it look like you are walking at night with a mass of stars peaking through the narrow crevice. There are a few obstacles to avoid, but it is generally easy walking on nice soft sand (complete with a smattering of guano from the friendly bats). Getting to the end, and the stunning green glow of the moss covered walls, we decided to do the return tunnel trip without light. You swear you can see the end several times as large clumps of glow worms illuminate the area ahead. There were a few bangs of heads, shins etc, but nothing serious and well worth the experience. Back at the start we pulled down the rope, grabbed our packs and decided to do the third and final tunnel journey with lights on so we could better examine the amazing canyon formations. The rock truly is stunning.

Soon after, while walking through the now wider but still pleasant canyon, we spotted a juvenile black snake in our path (shouldn’t they all be hibernating by now?). Some slow, careful walking around the outside and we were clear.

We grabbed lunch under a spectacular overhand where wind-weathered rock towered above us, warming ourselves by a rather petit fire. From here there is some nice creek walking. Tall walls on each side shelter the valley and amazing tree ferns add to the prehistoric feel. Eventually we started the bolder-hopping journey back to the Wolgan. We did a second abseil, about 15m directly down a small waterfall (rather than one of the dry and non-slippery abseils from either side which looked pretty dull by comparison). Then more and more boulders as we tested out clambering and bum-sliding. Once down it is a short walk across the river and onto an old road. After about half an hour of excited walking through the ruins of the old oil shale mine / oil refinery we made it back to the car with about 15 minutes of light left. Perfect timing.

It turned out to be quite a nice canyon, but next time I am going to ridge walk directly to the start of the tunnel, abseil in and avoid the fallen timber. It would probably knock an hour off the trip and you really don’t miss anything. Despite this, it was still a lovely day in the bush, perfect weather and a wonderful canyon section / tunnel that is as good as any you will see.

Tim Vollmer