by Roger Lembit
I stepped off the train onto the wet platform which glistened in the platform lights. Along with the commuters – businessmen with their briefcases, housewives with the shopping and a group of youths dressed in tattered jeans and dark sloppy joes – I made my way towards the barrier. The bemused attendant looked twice at me, my garb of t-shirt, stubbies and volleys appeared incongruous on a cold, wet Katoomba night. He did up the top button of his overcoat as he took my ticket and no doubt queried my sanity at the same time. I was to do likewise many times that night.
Bounding down the stairs three at a time, I passed a group of bushwalkers with their high framed packs, their sleeping bags strapped outside, wrapped in garbage bags. One or two had billies dangling off their packs. They thought I was a local going home for the night with my small pack and strange attire.
Huey apparently decided to have a break as the drizzle stopped as I sped down the hill past the shops. Car headlights pierced the thick mist at intervals, their occupants well rugged up as this was a typical winter’s night in the Blue Mountains.
My mind started to ponder the task ahead – a long, lonely march out to my overnight camp. Probably a wet march too, as the weather looked anything but inviting – a moderately strong, icy wind buffeting the mist. The wet ground and the knowledge that it had rained most of the day with more showers forecast added to my sense of the foreboding.
I jogged down the hill towards the tourist picnic areas around Katoomba Creek, recalling my first trips to the area. The image of some tourists drinking water from the creek only yards from a sign warning that the creek water was unfit for human consumption came readily to mind. I strode up beside some caravans and the amenities block and crossed the road. There was no movement at the caravan park, its patrons having retired to relative comfort early – there’s not much attraction staying up on a cold, wet, winters night in Katoomba.
I quickly passed the Scenic Railway and stumbled up the gully marking the short cut to the start of the fire trail which it was my fate to follow that night. No longer having anyone to witness my bravado I pulled my fibrepile jacket from the top of my pack and put it on. A frigid blast of air reminded me of Huey’s presence.
The newly graveled stretch at the start of the fire trail made the going easy. As it was a moonless night I knew that once the gravel ran out I would have difficulty maintaining my footing at times. I passed the empty climbers car park and remembered that trip the previous year when a slightly inebriated Bob had knocked on the side of a panel van much to my mirth and the consternation of the couple in the back attempting to procreate.
Not far from here I crossed an exposed section where the wind rushes from the western to the eastern side of the long sandstone peninsula along which I was walking. A short section of wire fencing marked the first temptation. A track at the end leads to a camp cave of comfortable proportions – the Psyn Cave. I continued on – piking was for another time; I wanted to take the challenge.
The Golden Stairs turnoff came into view, again no cars. I could just make out the start of Armco Hill and I knew things were starting to get serious. Or delirious. My mind started to wander, focussing first on the gorgeous brunette I had delibrately sat opposite in the train. Her smile turned into a toothpaste ad and suddenly I found myself climbing the hill. I saw a lounge chair, or at least I had on a previous trip halfway up the hill, gee, she had nice eyes and suddenly my mind was full of music, the Eurythmics blasting away, then the Beatles, then Bob and Tony with their rendition of “All You Need Is Scrub”.
I rounded the bend, stubbed my toe on a rock and continued upwards cursing as I’d forgotten how far one had to go up to reach the top. A metal gate appeared and I was reminded of the National Parks Service attempts to have the road closed to traffic and the ridiculous decision of the local council to allow four-wheel-drive tour operators to use the road.
Soon I returned to less aggravating matters musing the relationship between Dave’s ego and Brad’s exaggeration factor, the viscosity of peanut butter and the reliability of the presence or absence of waratahs as an indicator of the canyon potential of an area. Bruce Springsteen was singing “Born In The USA” and Ronnie Raygun was impersonating Max Gillies. A purple frog jumped into James Dibbles mouth and suddenly I was caught in the triangle between Rangoon, Brisbane and Grafton. My foot was wet.
I had stepped in a large puddle which had somehow appeared where a rock had been before. The wind blew through my jacket and I clapped on the pace hoping that my speed would warm me up. Up a short hill and I entered Carrington Straight, so named because the Carrington Hotel is visible from it on a clear day. The mist lifted somewhat and Mars and parts of Scorpio appeared overhead.
Suddenly Doctor Who appeared being chased by a trio of Daleks and the Master. Jo Grant screamed for help. Danger Mouse, the Goodies and Inspector Gadget came to the rescue followed by Kimba and Astro Boy. Brian told me and Katrina and John downed a few beers to be followed by Mike Walsh chatting up the blue rinse set. If this doesn’t make sense you try watching Days of Our Neighbours Young Restless Country Practices amongst Matlock. Gilligan and the Professor were talking and Uncle Jed smoked crawdads. But what was the name of the Jetson’s robot?
I passed into the saddle at the head of Corral Swamp and wondered where the commodious camp cave Dave and Bob had described to me was. No chance for piking here – maybe at the half-way rock. Another hill saw me overlooking the spot where the peninsula becomes constricted. I now skipped down the hill gingerly at first but soon my strides lengthened until the road became steep and rocky. Extreme care was needed as some of the cross drains here had broken through and I didn’t feel like getting a sprained ankle. Water dripped off the overhanging cliff onto the road and down my neck – at least my foot was drying out. I started climbing up another hill and then I saw it – “The Beacon of the West” – the Hampton Pub, for the uninitiated.
Immediately I was lost in a world of cigarette smoke, beer and pies with sauce. The rattling of pool balls as they dropped into the pockets and the boring, middle of the road pop songs on the juke box were the only sounds of which I was aware.
The hill was somewhat steep and the schooners of Guinness soon faded from my mind as I concentrated on the climb. The “Beacon” shone beckoning me like some distant Loreli but still I walked on. Soon I reached the top of the climb where a sandstone slab hangs over part of the road – the half-way rock. Following my usual custom I stopped here for a quick break.
The mist had lifted sufficiently to reveal the burning lights of the farmhouses of the Megalong Valley. Further west and higher up was the aforementioned Beacon reminding me of my madness in foregoing the convivial activities for the sake of this night walk. To the south the clouds appeared dark and threatening reminding me that I should not dally too long – I still had about 5 kilometres to walk before my planned campsite for the night.
I struggled to my feet and proceeded slowly at first, trying to overcome the numbness in my legs. I soon drifted off again as I walked down a long relatively featureless section of the road.
In quick succession I skied down off Kosciusko, li-loed through the New River Gorge, abseiled down Claustral Canyon and climbed onto the summit of Federation Peak. I was lost in a maze of past bushwalks, caught in a vortex of days spent in a tent at Lake Curly and 411 other wet campsites, bashing an interminable stand of bauera, horizontal and cutting grass everywhere in South West Tasmania and lying on a grassy bank next to the Cox’s, Kowmung, Shoalhaven, Deua, Brogo River. Where was I? The wet silvertop Ash trees hung over the fire road; the scrubby understorey appeared as a solid mass. The light coloured sandy road sported a number of darker blotches; clayey areas, vegetated patches, rocks and pools of water. The last two presented problems as they were occasionally indiscernable from the former two, I therefore alternated between bashing my toes on rocks and immersing my feet in cold water. Neither was particularly pleasant.
For some reason I couldn’t get a mindless advertising jingle out of my head. Still, having a great, day at the races seemed exceedingly better than having a MacWhatever. Why don’t MacDonalds sell sausages, anyway? Perhaps they realise that their “special” sauce would be no match for Rosella Tomato Sauce on a MacSnag. I soon returned to Cyndi Lauper and girls having fun, although fun was definitely not what I was having, but then, I’m not a girl. Is that what she meant? I was having difficulty deciding how girls could have fun walking solo on a cold, wet night about two hours south of Katoomba when Huey decided to intervene in the discussion.
The rain dropped hesitantly at first, as if unsure of whether to leave me unharassed for the rest of my trip. Soon it began to increase in tempo obviously having come to the conclusion that I didn’t deserve any consideration as I had already walked past a number of potential piking spots.
As the rain became steadily heavier I saw the skeletal form of the fire tower on the next hill. At its base was a small shed in the shape of a tardis. Unfortunately there were no tents nearby so I missed out on the joy of scaring any boy scouts silly enough to be sleeping in them. No, I was the only walker on the road that night, the scouts clearly being much more sane than myself.
The pluviometer appeared on my left and I imagined that the scrub on the right supported many waratah flower buds, this area being one where I had observed that species on previous trips. Soon my mind drifted back to more mundane matters. My leaky parka was doing just that and I shivered as the water dribbled down my back. Gusts of wind dislodged accumulated water from the trees above me. The only solution I could see was to go faster so I commenced jogging.
Shortly afterwards I reached the famed water pipe and as the rain had eased I stopped briefly far a customary drink. In doing so I again immersed my feet in a pool of water, much to my disgust. The thought of the dry camp cave at the end of my journey beckoned me onwards so I took off again with a spring in my step. Right on cue the rain intensified – Huey was not to be outdone.
The continuing rain soon turned the track into a creek and it was with some relief that I reached the end of the road. My mood darkened when I realised that I now had to descend a rough track through scrub saturated with water, followed by a steep descent with water cascading down it. Nevertheless I negotiated these pitfalls suffering only moderate discomfort and sidled into the camp cave.
After eating a few jelly beans as a reward for my suffering I settled into my sleeping bag for a good night’s sleep in readiness for a hard days walk.
“It’s good for the soul, but not for the soles.”
– The Author on walking The Narrow Neck