Thunder Canyon – SUBW in 1960

by Gerry O’Byrne

When our family inherited my uncle’s car, I was in 4th year Chemical Engineering. 5 minutes later classmate Colin Oloman invited me to join SUBW. I was an easy recruit since ‘amateur’ bushwalking and surfing were then my ‘sports’, and, with ski-touring, remain so today. Led by Field Marshal ‘Ol’, the SUBW walkers of 1960 were a magic group of rugged individual all-sorts, good companions and friends, best met now in the many trip stories that could be told. To recall the early 60’s deeds of the SUBW is an indulgence!

One Saturday we stopped to use the toilets at Chatswood’s Hotel Charles, which at the time boasted NSW’s highest beer throughput. Outside was a brilliant warm spring early afternoon, but inside was dark carpet, dim and smoky, and around the tables the figures all looked bent and half-alive. We were conscious of a collective sense of escape as we resumed our way to the hills. Were we pauper innocent idealists or unspoiled young realists?

Highlight trips still vivid for me were inside the sandstone canyon labyrinths of the Blue Mountains, among the tarns and fabulous quartzite rock of the Arthur Ranges and on the open snows or springy alpine grass of the Main Range.

Living mostly in Victoria since 1964, I’ve not visited the canyons since then. Victoria has no real equivalent. The Little River, near where it joins the Snowy, offers grand water pools and slippery abseils if you choose the route through the bottom of the gorge and dodge the blackberries. The wonderful flower-filled Grampians (Mt Stapylton, Mt Rosea etc) has the typical intricate shapes in sandstone that make the Blue Mountains canyons so fascinating , but offers them dry.

With my Austin A55, an introduction to abseiling soon followed, somewhere near Kanangra. The next week Oloman produced an aerial photograph and traced out the long winding dark line of a creek running from the Mt Charles to the Grose. “It’s really only a two day trip, but we’ll allow three! – it’ll be a bludge”. That first Thunder Canyon trip (Spring 1960) was certainly memorable but no bludge.

Manila rope and “classic” abseiling seem primitive now. The practice session persuaded my mother to sew leather patches on the inside left leg of my shorts and around the right shoulder of my shirt. We also used gloves. As well as being rough, wet manila rope is heavy and kinks easily. Before and after each use, and there were many in Thunder Canyon, the rope had to be carefully paid out or rewound – not difficult, but slow. We used A-frame packs with outside pockets. A newcomer, mine was Paddy Pallin’s latest, with waterproof leather reinforcing on the bottom and some way up the sides. Dick Donaghey’s wasn’t bottom waterproof, so to swim he wrapped the pack like a Christmas pudding in a groundsheet and pushed it ahead held upright by one hand. Oloman and I could merely undo the pack’s belly strap and let it float behind from loose shoulder straps.

After hitchhiking from Sydney, and a cave for shelter near Mt Charles, the three of us set out along Lightning Ridge in early spring drizzle…. Two abseils got us into the deep top of the canyon and the water. From below the first, a steep slope, the rope could not be pulled down: anxious moments as Colin ascended the remaining single strand to find the other had locked itself around a tree branch. The second abseil was down 80ft or so of wet rock, mostly overhung. I can still relive that abseil: before the rope could offer support, one had to swing underneath the belay tree right on the edge above the drop. What followed was “easy”, a spider-like descent into a black pool, but cold and wet. From there all was fascination as we followed the steady black stream through its winding narrow passage.

We swam a lot and abseiled a few rock jumbles/small waterfalls rather than risk a jump into who-knows-what. Also, being unsure what the steady rain would do to water levels, we did not want to stop until we could make camp with an escape route available. So, in this frame of mind, and making slow ‘map’ progress, we continued long after lunch-time without stopping or eating……..

Swimming with boots on is good sense – saves time, and protects one’s feet! But it is harder. And it was …. cold. To swim the many pools, Colin went first, then Dick, who seemed to take longer each time. So it was that, near the sandy end of one long swim, I came to a plum-pudding pack floating alone and Dick sinking!! Instinctively I grabbed his shirt and managed to launch him towards Colin, who was by now leaning out from the bank. This propelled me backwards! How I struggled in making those last few metres! Well and truly exhausted now, we stopped very shortly afterwards on a large sand spit, managed to set a fire and probably ate something. What I clearly remember is snuggling to instant sleep in my dry ‘Kiandra’, leaving Colin and Dick still drying their bags at the fire.

It was early next morning that, pausing in the fern-green filtered canyon-bottom light, I remember enjoying the powerful ringing call of a Lyre-bird. Simple beauty and adventure make a heady mixture. We were enthralled for all time.

Prudence soon took over, and that day we used both the side ridges and the gradually opening stream bed to make sure of faster progress! A trip highlight, our second night camp was in a large, friendly, dry, big-meal, long-sleep cave that we often returned to on later trips. What fun was to follow!! Nasty, overgrown and rocky, the route up Mt Hay on day three saw us run out of light before finding the long fire trail track into Leura. Our unconsidered, scrubby, sloping, exposed, no-water, no-fire camp in steady rain, meant a meal of uncooked wet rice (!!), wet raw peanuts and sticky wet dried apricots, leaving some raw rice and one chocolate among us for the next day. The hastily pitched tent shipped water onto all three bags….. A 10 mile morning trudge got us to Leura. Then? A big black-and-tan at the pub followed by a loaf of bread, a large cheese and bottles of jam and milk in the railway station waiting room. No doubt accompanied by that familiar bushy aroma, we hitched a lift with a “good bloke from Melbourne and were home in time for tea” (- one day late!!).

Colin later proclaimed: “This canyon we propose to name “THE THUNDER CANYON” (Thunder canyon, off Lightning Ridge, also rhymes with “chunder” & goes “Boooorum” when large articles are dropping in from cliff top).”

We returned to Thunder Canyon several times, but always in summertime and with somewhat upgraded gear. Canyoning seemed to take off around that time, becoming a kind of competition for adventure. They were good times.