Beginners’ Navigation Weekend, 5-6 May 2012

PARTY Amanda Walasik
Anne Nguyen
Ashley Burke
Ben Pullicin
Cathy Stansbury
Chee Wong
Christian Wilson
Helena Miranda
Huy Lam
Lilian Donoso
Maria Traversa
Nick Coleman-Hicks
Pam Ong
Parastoo Saharkhiz
Peggy Huang
Sky Ella Reidy
Tony Ruzek
Yu-Chun Huang
Yumi Hong


This is the 7th year running that I have run this navigation weekend and it is proving to be one of the popular events on the SUBW calendar (not to be confused with the leopard skin calendar). This year there was a cast of 19 people, not quite a record but a great turnout nonetheless. Perhaps the beautiful autumn weather and prospect of the largest full moon of 2012 had something to do with it.

Dawn came on Saturday morning and cars from far and wide across Sydney left their homes early and began their journey to Bell. No one was under any illusions about the need to be ON TIME thanks to all my emails during the week prior, and in fact Ben’s first words on seeing me when he arrived were “are you an army officer or something?” Maybe I overdid the on-time thing a bit, but it certainly worked, and all the cars appeared at Bell within a few minutes of each other, not long after 9am. It was just as well, because there is only one place in this part of the Wollangambe wilderness which is big enough for 19 people to camp comfortably without trampling half an acre of virgin bush, and so we all had to make sure we could navigate to there by dark on the first day.

And so the host gathered at Bell for a short lesson about map reading, grid references, the 3 types of north, and how to orientate the map, and when NOT to bother orientating the map, which is almost always.

We then began the walk in cool and crisp clear conditions, following a trail north into the wilderness. We stopped a couple of times to look at maps and to work out our position by remembering the terrain we had walked through and correlating that with the map. We crossed a stream and then climbed up onto a plateau where there was a famous rocky little summit called 994. We all clambered to the summit with our lunch, and there we took in the 360 degree views of the surrounding area. Compasses came out now, and everyone learned how to use the compass to identify surrounding landscape features.

It was a bit cool and windy up here, and after lunch we meandered our way to the Wollangambe River. There were massive rock outcrops on the other side – we would clamber to the top of these, but first we had to cross the steep and densely vegetated river. One by one everyone hopped across the fast flowing river, and then clambered steeply up the other side. We eventually reached open ground with views of the route ahead.

Bearings were set, and people took turns leading the way up a ridge. The aim was to reach the junction of two fire trails, and the challenge was to emerge from the scrub right at the junction – not even 50m to either side. How could we do that so accurately through such featureless bush? Well, it helped that I knew the way, but also those leading learned to follow the lie of the land as well as the compass. It was convenient that there were some trails here and there too, as thrashing all the way through the dense scrub was a bit slow and painful. The scrub has become thicker and denser in the last couple of years due to the wetter weather we have been having.

Sure enough we all emerged right at the junction, proving that compass bearings do really work. We even emerged onto the fire trail with roughly the same number of people that we started out with – good enough.

Now it was well into the afternoon and we still had to find this mystery campsite in the mystery rock labyrinth where everyone gets lost unless you know exactly where to find it. So we set off once more along the fire trail, and then abandoned the trail for yet more scrub, at the point on the road where our maps and compasses told us we should turn off. I led the next bit, because it was getting a little late, but everyone got the hang of following a compass bearing anyway. One of the ideas is, just because the compass tells you to go through the densest patch of scrub doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to walk around it and compensate for the detour a bit later!

Soon we came to an area of unique sandstone formations and the sun was low, bathing the delicate pagodas in a soft orange glow. Everyone was amazed at the swampy green little crater, surrounded by delicate cliffs, and the white trunks of trees catching the evening glow. This was a great place. A massive cavern was found and a bumslide took us all in there, and there was ample space for everyone to camp.

A modest amount of firewood was collected. Ben had obviously not been on many SUBW trips before, because he pronounced that we could not possibly burn through all that wood in one evening, and that if we did, he would buy a case of beer for us all. So there was the challenge. And this is SUBW. All we had to do to earn a case of beer that night was to use all our firewood, or just light a match under the entire woodpile and be done with it. I began to explain the longstanding SUBW tradition of how the size of a piece of firewood is graded according to the positions within the Catholic Church, with little sticks being choir boys, right up to immovable fallen trees being Gods. By the time I’d explained all that we already had a roaring fire going, and the largest piece of firewood was no more than a priest, not even a senior monsignor.

A great evening was had, everyone enjoying the company, and we kept the fire modest, burning cheerfully and adequately for cooking and warmth. The moon rose, massive, so close it looked as if it might crash into the Earth sooner than expected – the surrounding forest was lit in ghostly silver, and the giant moon blazed above the massive overhang of this huge sandstone shelter. The fire burned low, all wood was gone, everyone drifted off to bed, and it was only around 11pm.

Next morning the host came to life gradually and slowly. Fortunately a reserve supply of breakfast firewood had been carefully stashed away from our beer-bet pile. After breakfast we set off towards Bell via a new and different route that began with a cutting grass swamp. Learning to navigate invariably involves learning to scrub-bash, through all its trials.

We navigated up, we navigated down, and we could see 994, where we had had our lunch yesterday. So everyone learned how to work out their location by taking bearings from a known point – a resection. Then it was up and up again to the top of a ridge for panoramic views over the Wollangambe wilderness. We had lunch here, and then it was only a short afternoon’s walk back to the railway line, which we followed back to the waiting vehicles.

A superbly successful trip, so nice to see so many people enjoying themselves in the bush and maybe even learning something. And particularly rewarding to know that the case of beer is on its way.

Ashley Burke