The Golden Years?

by David Noble


Above – Tom Williams (left) and Dave Noble climbing out of Wollangambe Canyon, circa 1974. Photo – D Noble collection.

My earliest recollections of SUBW were actually on a Springwood Bushwalking Club trip – my first visit down Claustral Canyon in January 1974 and on the way meeting two SUBW members abseiling down Ranon Falls. They turned out to be Chris Cosgrove and Col Mathers. We met back up with them on Mt Tomah and Benge (Grant Bennett), our leader, gave them a lift back to their car in his large van. On an earlier trip Benge had been pulled up by the police and before booking him the officer commented “Do you always drive this van like a sports car?” I can still remember Chris’s comments this time about Benge’s driving: “Does he always drive like this or only when he’s drunk?” We all survived to canyon another day.

I had gotten in with a bad bunch of Springwood walkers – some were old mates from school and one of the others had boasted that he got a letter posted to him care of the local watering hole addressed to “B…..K …., Resident Drunk, Royal Hotel, Springwood”. This group called themselves the RDLC (Rubber Ducky Liloing Club) – a barely tolerated offshoot of the Springwood Bushies that scorned formality and officialdom, consumed massive amounts of strong liquor on bushwalking trips and somehow ensured that we all had the most amazing fun. Benge, as well as his speedy driving to get to the start of trips, (he drove off the road to Medlow gap twice in the one evening!) was a font of wisdom on gear – “make sure you buy a Paddy Pallin pack, The Explorer (H frame) is a good model; it’s just wide enough enough to get a case of tinnies inside and still have room to strap a sleeping bag on top”. Coming back from Claustral I got talking to Chris Cosgrove and he made out that SUBW was where the real walkers were. As I was just about to go into second year of Uni at the time I thought that perhaps it was time to give the club a go.

So I became a SUBW member at the orientation week stall, went to the Botany Lawn and met the real walkers. Some like Peter Hatherly and Dick Hain regaled the meeting with tales of walking in the mountains of Tassie, then very much an unknown place to me. Chris Cosgrove was there of course. Being a Phd student he had links back to the club’s halcyon canyoning days of the 60’s. Chris had a keen appetite for canyoning which was infectious. But I was not yet ready to walk with these hallowed walkers. My first SUBW trip was a walk I led to Splendour Rock and the Coxs River. I didn’t realize that I was following two SUBW traditions – a Friday night Narrow Neck road bash and secondly – losing the other members of the party on the walk back through the streets of Kattomba on the return leg.

Not long after this, I can remember being at a Wednesday meeting and seeing Ian Hickson with maps spead out in front of him of the Blue Breaks and talking about going there for a trip in the May holidays. I had been in the Blue Breaks on a few trips with the Springwood crowd and liked the area. Ian pointed out a trip that sounded very ambitious and I was hooked. Ian was a knockabout sort of bloke to whom nothing was impossible. Together with two other walkers, __ and Tom Michelson, we had an excellent trip. We started out from Batsh Camp and then to Yerranderie. The next day we scaled Alchemy Mountain, were blown out of our minds by its incredible knife-edge ridge (we christened it “the Razorblade”), pioneered a new steep and scrambly pass onto Lacy’s Tableland and walked to the northern Bimlow Tablelands. It was there that we found a way through the Bimlow Walls that we called “Hickson’s Pass” – Ian was leading the way down a steep bit and _ further behind us knocked down a large boulder. Ian was wedged in a chimney and could not easily move. The rock sailed down and narrowly missed his head. Without saying a word, Ian carefully climbed to the bottom of the chimney and then turned around to utter the usual profanities directed at _. On that trip we returned via the high tops of the Broken Rock Range and on the last two days walked out in a big storm – all the creeks were flooded. A most memorable walk! It was a real eye-opener to Ian and myself, and subsequently both of us returned to the Blue Breaks many times.

I can remember Chris Cosgrove was full of enthusiasm for the Northern Blue Mountains as a walking area. He used to offhandedly mention that he only did two Southern Blue Mountains trips – Danae Brook and the Three Peaks. Having done Danae as my first canyoning trip with Benge in my Springwood days (he needed an extra person to carry the second rope), I thought that it was time to have a crack at the Three Peaks. Tom Williams from Springwood joined me. After our successful trip (we only just made it in 48 hours!), I seemed to rise in Chris’s estimation somewhat and he even started talking about inviting me on a trip with him one day. However this was to wait until the next year so it was back to the Blue Breaks.

In the August holidays, Peter Young started out with me from Katoomba and we visited Lacy’s North Canyon, Maxwell’s Broken Rock and the Tonalli Tablelands. A few days after this I led a bigger party to one of my favourite parts of the Blue Breaks – the Axeheads Mountain section. Since it rained every day, I seem to recall spending a lot of time sitting out the weather in the dilapidated buildings of the then ghost town of Yerranderie. Over the next few years we seemed to cover most of the Blue Breaks in a series of extended walks. Often, Tom Williams from Springwood joined us, and we found many new routes such as passes up both Shoobridge and Catt Heads onto Broken Rock Range.


Above – SUBW party at Little Blue Gum, circa 1974. L – R Steve Williamson, Hugo Rubessa, Ian Hickson, Roger Lyle, Peter Young, ?, ?, Peter Woof, ?, Lloyd Flack,, ?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?.

That summer, Ross Bradstock was organising a trip to SW Tassie. Would I like to go? I had heard about the Western Arthur Range being described as the “highlight of a bushwalking career” and I asked was the trip going there? Ross casually replied that this was just one small leg of the trip he had planned. So it was off to get a summer job and save up money for a decent sleeping bag and tent (none of us then used tents when bushwalking in the Blue Mountains – nylon flys were all we had, and in fact all we still use on trips there). The adventure started on the overnight train to Melbourne, the “Spirit of Progress”, and continued for the next month. Of course Ian Hickson was on this trip. I can remember the forth member of the party, __ having his watch wrenched off by the scrub on the ridges to Precipitous Bluff and then later having his sleeping back fall out an enourmous hole in his pack up in the Western Arthurs. The food took some getting used to – the Rosella brand dehydrated “farmyard stews” severely taxed our digestive systems and it was not long before a change in diet was called for. It was then that we discovered Mac! Macaroni. It was cheap, light, easy to cook and even tasted good. We had at last found the key to long trips. It’s immediate influence was that we didn’t need to keep the tents so well ventillated and also surprisingly, we all started talking in pseudo Italian accents with adopted Italian names. “Hey Mario, where do you think you are leading us?” “Shutup Luigi! I know where I’m going, I’m the world’s greatest routefinder!” We kept this up for a few days until we met another party of walkers and then all of a sudden reverted back to normality. However, the influence of that Macaroni is still reflected in the name of the club magazine – “Volleys, Scunge and Mac” – three of the staples of bushwalking with SUBW in the 70’s and 80’s.

Later on that Tassie trip, after our successful ascent of Federation Peak we decided when we got out to civilisation to celebrate. (We of course had some liquor in our air drops – but we were so thirsty we hardly noticed it go down) We hitched out to Geeveston and found to our horror that the town had no pub. So more frantic hitching took us up the road and to a pub. The publican later ended up letting us doss out on his lawn and I can remember waking the next morning to find school kids waiting for the school bus casting worried glances in our direction. It was then a hitch to Hobart for a real celebration. Ian, an engineering student, had decided that the trip had been so successful that nothing short of a ten to ten session was called for. Unfortunately, I had to miss out on the celebrations after dinner due to eating some tainted sausages.

After conquering Tassie and the Three Peaks, now perhaps I could go on a walk with the famous Chris Cosgrove? Sure enough, not long after, Chris invited me on a trip to Dumbano Canyon. Chris had explored both the upper and lower reaches of this creek before and had heard about a fabled middle section. Tim Herborn, another SUBW walker, had been on a National Parks Association trip, and they had been repulsed by a part of the canyon where there was, reputedly, an abseil in a tunnel. I read up on the creek. Chris had written an article for the Kameruka magazine where he described Dumbano as having “the dropoff of Danae and the constriction of Claustral”. It sounded like the place to go. Together with Peter Blackwood and Nick Bendelli (UNSWBWC) we did the creek – it was a good canyon but only featured two short abseils and a few jumps in the lower constriction.

This was a great time for exploratory canyoning. In November 1974, Tom Williams and myself had been on a National Parks Association walk led by Ted Daniels into a new area for us – the southern Wolgan. On a vantage point from a spectacular ridge system near Rocky Creek, Ted pointed out to us an interesting feature. Ted had started bushwalking in middle age and up to that point of time hadn’t done any canyoning. We peered down off the upper cliffs and looked towards where a tributary creek should be. Instead of a creek we saw a deep dark looking slot. We told Ted that it was indeed a canyon. Later on that same walk we had walked up a creek that we later called “Inverse Canyon”. It was truly a deep dark and spectacular canyon. This walk was a real eye-opener for us. We realized that with the Wolgan, a large valley very much like the Grose, was an area that could be teeming with unknown canyons. It was not till early 1976 that we came back to this area. I had planned a walk down the tributary of Rocky Creek that Ted had pointed out. A few days prior to this trip, on a daywalk to Mt Cloudmaker and back from Katoomba, I got a knee injury and could not lead the trip. So Chris Cosgrove, Tom Williams, Ross Bradstock (SUBW) and Bryden Allen and John Lucas (KBC) went down the creek and so pioneered Heart Attack Canyon. The next weekend we set out to do another creek in the area. Tom Williams was so confident of it too turning out to be a canyon that he had named it “Surefire Canyon” in anticipation. However we didn’t get down that creek till later in the year due to heavy rain and the mechanical failure of Ian Hickson’s old Holden. Instead, we retired for a decadent weekend in a climbers campcave near Blackheath. It was about this time that we started a tradition of buying fish and chips in Katoomba and scrambling out onto the second of the Three Sisters to eat them. Also a “fake fight” was choreographed to amuse the tourists at Echo Point.


Above – Keith Maxwell on the abseil into Heart Attack Canyon (second descent party – Feb 1976). Photo – David Noble

During the next few years, we returned many times to the Wolgan area and found a lot of new canyons. Surfire Canyon was finally done in October 76 and proved to be a ripper – deep, dark, narrow and twisting with 4 abseils. A little later, I went on a trip accompanied by Bob Sault (KBC – Bob was still at high school, he joined SUBW the next year) and Nick Bendelli and Dave Firman (UNSWBWC) and at the end of a long daywalk stumbled across a truly spectacular section of canyon in Rocky Creek. It was comparable to Claustral Canyon in the sustained nature of its constriction. Bob and myself raced through it hoping to find it climax with some abseils – unfortunately there were none but it was indeed a major canyoning find. Sometime later, Chris Cosgrove and Ted Daniels found the nearby Galah Canyon. In 1977 on joint SUBW Ramblers walk, Bob Sault, Steve McDowell and myself were trapped for a while in a narrow canyon we found by an aroused and very angry tiger snake. Naturally we named the canyon after the snake. Later that year, on the opposite side of Rocky Creek we found Thunderstorm and Contradiction Canyons. Indeed a splendid time for exploring!

After a drunken slidenight (there were some very wild slide night in those days!) where even the most outrageous trips becomes possible, a few of us thought about doing Claustral at night. Some of us specially went out and bought waterproof “dolphin” torches. Some did not. Five of us, with three working torches, two ropes and a bottle of OP rum did indeed do Claustral the next Friday night after fortifying ourselves at the Kurrajong Hotel. It was an incredible experience – the glow worm display was like being in the centre of a dense galaxy of stars. Other night canyons followed, the most noticeable being Chris Cosgrove’s solo night descent of Mt Hay Canyon and Chris and Tom Williams’ night descent of Danae Brook. On that trip, Tom’s torch gave out at a critical spot and with Chris’s help they re-wired it with the wire inside garbage bag ties!


Above – Left to Right – Ian Hickson, Dave Noble, Chris Cosgrove, Rob Shearer (front) on the first night Claustral Canyon trip, December 1975. Photo – Ross Bradstock, D Noble collection.

Even though we did a lot of canyoning, we didn’t neglect our bushwalking. In 1977, Chris Cosgrove and I set out to have a crack at a trip combining the Three Peaks and Danae Brook but were detered (perhaps fortunately) by heavy rain in Breakfast Creek on the Friday night. As well, there were major trips to Tassie. One of the most notworthy, I trip that I wasn’t on, was a major scrub trip led by Ross Bradstock in February 76, accompanied by Ian Hickson and Chris Cosgrove. They went to Vanishing Falls from Port Davey via the Old River route to Federation Peak and the over Mt Bobs. They returned via the rarely visited Mt Bisdee and Mt Victoria Cross on the Southern Ranges. In August of that year, I went on a winter Western Arthur traverse with Tom Williams and Steve Moon from Springwood.

In February 77, I went with Ian Hickson and Peter Woof on a long trip from the Lyell Highway to Strathgordon via the King William, Spires and Prince of Wales Ranges. The Prince of Wales Range had been fully traversed by a party led by Chris Cosgrove in the early 70’s and the last 5 mile section had taken them 5 days. On our trip, we blasted through the earlier country, climbing every peak or bump that had a name on the map and then on the last section experienced terrible conditions. Despite being prepared for the scrub and the lack of water – nothing could prepare us for what we encountered. Chris had advised us to carry a handkerchief to filter water squeezed from moss. Most of the moss we found turned to powder when we squeezed it. Some moss we found that was damp yielded a black evil smelling liquid. It was too much like jelly to be able to be squeezed through the hankie. Even trying to use toiltet paper as a filter was no good – the moss juice would just sit on top of it. We had to drink it unfiltered – yuk!!! We were so dry, the scrub bashing so physically demanding that we all suffered heat stroke to greater or lesser extent. This was even with a system of rigourous swapping of leads every 15 minutes. I can remember that Peter was desperate enough for moisture that he tried squeezing the abdomen of a large march fly – a large drop of “honey” type liquid emerged which he then swallowed. Ian and myself tried this too – there were plenty of march flies – and indeed they tasted a bit like honey (they must live on nectar) but we didn’t make a habit of it. One wretched night, we managed to bash out a campsite in a place where the baura – teatree jungle had merged into a small patch of horizontal scrub. I left Ian and Peter to put up the tents whilst I went off looking for water. Miraculously, after an hour or so I found a small pool a long way off the side of the ridge. That night we spent hours sewing up our tattered clothes by candlelight. Cutting off pockets etc to use as patches. The next morning, after some discussion, we decided to head off the range down to the Denison River. We were only a mile and a half from Mt Yop Yop, the end of the range. Both Ian and myself returned with Tom Williams and Bob Sault a few years later in just as hot and dry conditions and knocked off that last little bit of the range.

Closer to home, we began a major program of exploratory walks in the Northern Blue Mountains. Often these were joint SUBW-Springwood trips. Some of the walkers were Tom Williams, Steve Moon and Gordon Thompson (Springwood), Keith Maxwell (SUBW and YMCA Ramblers), Chris Cosgrove, myself and later Bob Sault and Adrian Teague (SUBW). Chris Cosgrove already had explored a fair bit of the Wollangambe – Colo country – often solo. But that still left a lot of country that we didn’t know about.

Ted Daniels had led a set of walks for the NPA to the Widden Brook area. Most of these had focussed on the country near Mt Coricudgy and Mt Kerry. We turned our attention to country to the west. On a trip to Mt Pomany and Minaret Peak in Easter 76 with Chris, Keith Maxwell and Rose Adams (now Maxwell) we first set eyes on the Yodeller range. This rugged set of ramparts that juts out into the Widden Valley shocked us. We had noticed the range on the map but when we actually saw it we realized that to traverse it would involve a different sort of bushwalking. In May 76, we began a series of weekend walks in the area. We eventually traversed the entire Yodeller range over a series of four weekend stages spread out over a year or so. All involved careful routefinding and some horrendous scrambling on exposed rotten rock. Tom Williams had a natural talent for rockclimbing and an extraordinary sense of picking out a good line to try. He also designed and built packs for us that were well suited for scrambling and pack hauling. Tom still makes packs and we still use them. As well as the Yodellers, we also climbed a lot of the other peaks in the area – the Stockade, the Geryon and Holbrook Castle. One scrubby ridge however never yielded to our attempts. This was the ridge from Mt Baker to Holbrook Castle. It had been described earlier by Ted Daniels as a “ridge system of labyrinthine complexity, its delicate nauances tantillising the eye”. We used up several Easters right up till the mid eighties trying to traverse this “Labyrinthine Range” before we gave up on it.

Other Northern Blue Mountains walking of note were several Bell to Putty Road trips and a Mt Irvine to Newnes via Mt Mistake trip in 1975 with Chris Cosgrove, Ross Bradstock, Ian Hickson, and xxxxxx. We also did a lot of walks in the Colo area. Most of these involved train travel to Windsor, then across to “Joe the Victim’s Piranha Bar” at the station pub for a few schooners and then out to the Putty Road to hitch to the start of the walk. These trips involved visits to the peaks and gorges on the far side of the Colo River. After a few trips, we became more confident of our knowledge of this area and one weekend in 1977, Bob Sault, Steve McDowell and myself hitched up the road to have a go at the “Northern Three Peaks” – a trip to Mt Savage, Mt Mistake and the Island in 48 hours. Chris Cosgrove laughed at us – thinking the trip impossible – but we were determined to give it a go. We got out to just above the Colo on the Friday night and then it rained so we piked. Two weeks later, I was back there with Tom Williams and this time we made it. I still regard that trip as one of the best I have done. In the late 70’s we began a series of extended Xmas walks down the large gorges of the middle section of this wilderness. Ovens, Koondah and Coorongooba Creek gorges were all traversed. We found a few small canyons on these trips but at the time didn’t think too much of them. We also did a few trips into the rarely visited Bylong Labyrinth, the extreme north westerly part of this wilderness.


Above – L – R Ian Hickson, Chris Cosgrove, Ross Bradstock, Keith Maxwell and xxxxxx at Newnes Pub after the Mt Irvine to Newnes trip. Photo by David Noble

As the 70’s drew to a close some of the walkers left Sydney. Chris Cosgrove had finally finished his PhD and headed off to America and Ian Hickson had gone up the north coast to build roads. Tom Williams was getting more involved with rock climbing. Ross Bradstock was doing a PhD and was too busy. Bob Sault was still a keen walker but was often to busy with his studies. Some of the active walkers of this period included Michael Donovan, Dave Ludowici, Steve McDowell, Adrian Teague, Cathy Clifford, Kate Harvey, Adele Post, Graeme Milton, Bill McGregor, Ross McPhedran and Sue Ashmore.

I had begun teaching at high school. The only perk of the job was the holidays – they allowed for a lot of bushwalking. Other keen walkers were joining the club. Roger Lembit was not a canyoneer but had an appetite for Narrow Neck bashes and long hard Tassie trips. In the early 80’s we had an influx of new members, many of whom stayed on for a long time. These included Ian (Nipper) Wilson, Michael (Damien) Dougherty, Chris Catt, Airdrie Long, Brad (Brigadier) Phillips, Doug Wheen and Tony (Norm) Norman.

In the eighties, the Northern Blue Mountains remained a favoured club destination. A lot of canyon exploration took place early in the decade in the Wollangambe Wilderness. Bob Sault and Tony Norman, often together with Ian Wilson or Doug Wheen and others “squeezed out” the last ounce of canyons to be found in this area. They systematically explored most of the smaller tributaries of Bungleboori and Wollangambe Creeks. Many new canyons were discovered or rediscovered. The best of which included Crikey, Banks, Four Dope, Hole In the Wall and Whungee Wheengee Canyons. The prime movers of this exploration, Bob Sault and Tony Norman then moved their focus to the Southern Blue Mountains as can be seen in their huge number of entries in the Guouogang logbook of that period.

Trips to the Widden became less frequent. However, a couple of return trips were made to the Bylong Labyrinth. Trips to the middle “Gospers” section of the Northern Blue Mountains always presented transport difficulties and were sporadic. A few attempts had been made to look for canyons and results were mixed. Many of the creeks we tried were scrub choked horrors. Little did we know that later this area would reveal many superb canyons and included some of the most canyoniferous sandstone to be found in the Blue Mountains. Ian Wilson, Roger Lembit and Michael Donovan discovered “Midwinter Canyon” on a winter trip into the Numietta Creek area on the hinterland to this wilderness. It was the first canyon of real quality found in this region. It was very dark, very narrow and very sustained. After hearing about it I went out on an extended trip with Bruce Hamilton (Springwood) and searched the area in vain for it. We didn’t find it but did find some other canyons thus alerting us to the full potential of this area. Trips followed onto the plateau between Numietta and Coorongooba Creeks. We didn’t actively search for canyons but the Coorongooba tributaries looked very good. On one trip, Bob Sault and Roger Lembit found an incredibly narrow canyon going into Coorongooba which they named Fergies Canyon . In the Easter of 87 Tony Norman, Michael Glass (KBC) and myself walked out along the Gospers Road to Davis Hole on a trip to explore several other of these tributaries. Bob Sault had departed not long before for the States for a postdoc. This trip turned out to be very successful. The first creek we went up led us into the lower corridoors of Squiggle and Caveman Canyons. The next day we did a long daywalk and found Resurection, Crucifixion and Golgotha Canyons and a smaller canyon which was later named Boa-Constriction Canyon. Over the next few years we checked out more of this area and found many more canyons. It was a slow process because the distance from Sydney was large and at least a long weekend or Easter break was needed to penetrate far into the country. This exploration by SUBW has continued right into the 90’s. Also, in the past few years, many fine new canyons were found on the eastern side of this area by another group based in the upper Blue Mountains. By a coincidence, one of its members also happens to be called “Dave Noble”.

Well enough of Blue Mountains canyons. What about other areas? other activities? Yes, SUBW did walk in other places such as the Brogo, Woila and the Washpool but to many of us the Blue Mountains remained our favourite area.

Tasmania was popular for many club trips, not only in summer but also in autumn and winter. Lots of out of the way areas of South West Tasmania were visited by the club on trips to the Jubilee Range, the Norolds, the Spires, several trips to Vanishing Falls, Greystone Bluff and the Eldons to name a few. Also lilo trips were made down many rivers such as the Weld, the Denison, the Jane and the New Rivers. New Zealand was also popular. Fiordland became a favoured destination for long ridgetop traverses. Two parties from the club skyline traversed the Princess Mountains and another traversed the remote Cameron Mountains in 1986. John Atkinson, who had been in the Kamerukas (KBC) for many years, but worked on campus, persuaded some of us to join him on his transalpine jaunts closer to Mt Cook. I can vividly remember one trip where we spent a week in a snow cave cut into the side of an ice plateau called the “Garden Of Eden” in damp sleeping bags sitting out bad weather. As the rain came down, the entrance tunnel got shorter and shorter and a rock wall behind us limited our capabilities to extend our cave. Bob Sault’s choice of reading material, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” didn’t do very much to lift party morale.

During the eighties, many of us took up ski-touring and this remains a very popular activity within the club. Various types of trip are done ranging from fast weekend trips to Mt Jagungal, weeklong tours of the Greymare – Jagungal area, beginners trips and trips to just spend time going down the big runs off the western side of the main range. When we go skiing – we always camp on the snow well away from the cars, even on beginners trips. Another club institution that has developed on ski-touring trips is the carrying of a few stubbies of beer to be consumed when a summit is reached.

With the coming of the nineties have the classic trips stopped? No. New members still strive to complete the three peaks trip. Friday night Narrow Neck walking is still done. Indeed, a relatively popular type of trip in recent years has been weekend walks to the Gangerang range and back via routes such as the scenic Moko Ck.

In my years with the club, there has been a strong conservation ethic. After our early Tassie trips many of us joined the local branch of the South West Tasmania Action Committee (now called The Wilderness Society) and became active campaigners. We also joined in the battle to save the Colo wilderness from dams, power stations and coal mines through a campaign by the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs. Indeed from the late seventies to the mid nineties, SUBW members have played a large role within Federation. During the past few years, many club members joined a fight to stop the lower Kowmung River being flooded by the proposed raising of Warragamba Dam. Hopefully this battle has been won. Unless we are prepared to join in the battles to stop our precious bushwalking areas from being developed there will be no more “classic” trips. Lets hope that future walkers will still be able to “Press On Regardless”.