Arethusa Canyon

by Quentin Burke

(from The Bushwalker, 1947, no. 10)

Accomplishing what others have failed to do is one of the most satisfying of all experiences. That is why many bush walkers strive to go to places where none have been before. So it was that we read a challenging article in “The Bushwalker”, in which we were invited to try to ascend the canyon between Arethusa and Minnehaha Falls.

Then in 1945 we read that the canyon had been successfully negotiated. Although we lost the self-satisfying glory of being the first to descend we could still be among the first few.

But it wasn’t till December, 1946, that Peter Mac, Ron Warner, Eric Howie, my brother Kerras and myself stepped from the Fish at Blackheath into the teeth of a summer thunderstorm, with the avowed intention of CONQUERING THE CANYON.

Some Blackheath friends sheltered us for the night, and at four a.m. next morning we ate a cold breakfast in the grey light of dawn, and hitchhiked in a passing truck to Katoomba. We travelled light, carrying nothing but such foods as chocolate and sultanas, 75 feet of rope, a camera, wrapped up in a waterproof bag and in a sealed tin, and several groundsheets.

At 7.30 we arrived at the Minnehaha Falls and descended the pathway to Katoomba Creek. Here tracks end, and we plunged through blackberry bushes and lawyer vines down the left hand side of the creek. Although vegetation grew more sparse a few hundred yards down the creek, the banks became steeper and burnt timber impeded our progress. At times we had to wade downstream across enclosed pools. The creek was swollen a little above normall, and aroused fears about “the canyon” further down.

At one rather Steep Spot, some energetic Samaritan has erected a length of fencing wire which, if firmly grasped, enables one to traverse the spot with impunity. As I yelled instructions about this wire I turned to see Eric make a grab at the wire and ….. miss! A loud splash below indicated he had landed in the water. While happily laughing at his plight, I saw my brothej come round the bend, likewise make a heroic grab, miss and likewise disappear from sight. Undaunted, these two continued downstream via the Water. A few minutes later Peter Mac was heard to shout exasperately, “we came down here to get wet, didn’t we?” and with that he plunged noisily into the water and continued downstream with the others in mermaid fashion. More conservative, I remained dry shod till we stopped about three miles from Minnehaha Falls. Here the Creek dropped suddenly through a crevasse into a pool about forty feet below.

We reconnoitred the top of the canyon on both sides, but found that it got deeper and deeper and more and more difficult to descend because the sides became more and more concave. Indeed, at one spot you could have stood with one foot on either side of the canyon, though none of us were so completely free from acrophobia as to attempt it. So we returned to the waterfall and decided that it would be easiest to descend to the canyon floor from this point. With a little searching we discovered a pot hole about 20 feet deep, which would take us about half way down. This pot hole, which was about six feet across, had a window in one side from which it appeared possible to descend to the canyon floor.

When the ropes were rigged it was decided unanimously that I was the lightest member of the party and should, therefore, be the first to descend. With some trepidation I went down the rope and stood in two feet of icy cold water at the bottom. The next part of the descent appeared easy, so I signalled above and the others came down one by one. When we were all gathered in this dingy hole, we pulled the rope from around the tree and it snaked down in coils on the water. There was now no turning back.

We clambered out of the window and down the rope onto a very convenient island. Here we completed waterproofing arrangements, which consisted of putting our skirts and wind jackets inside a groundsheet and placing this bundle inside small haversacks. Peter Mac’s bundle was attached to his neck by a rope and subsequently bore a remackable resemblance to a plum pudding as it bobbed around and about in the water.

We were now in a large pool with very steep and slimy sides, perhaps 50 feet deep. We “dove” off our island and swam through pool after pool of cold rushing water. In places the walls reached 100 feet high, and through a tiny cleft in the roof we could occasionally see the sky, but never a glimpse of sunlight.

I don’t know exactly how long we spent in the canyon, for time is elusive in such timeless places. For about an hour we clambered over giant boulders, massive driftwood logs that had been jammed there for decades; and scrambled through waterfalls, down slippery chutes into frothy pools below.

By this time our teeth were chattering and we were shivering all over, so when we burst into an open space of flat dry rock we decided to have a pause for refreshment and to thaw out a little. With some driftwood we lit a fire and five naked forms huddled over it in an attempt to get warm.

It was just after lunch that a major catastrophe befell me. While rinsing some sand out of my boot it was whisked out of my hand and disappeared over a waterfall. Repeated divings in the bubbling whirlpool at the bottom of the fall failed to locate the boot. So we pushed on downstream, with the writer walking with one shoe on and the other shoe off, like the character in the nursery rhyme.

There was another half-hour of canyon-scrambling-swimming before we emerged into beautiful summer sunshine at the top of Arethusa Falls. After a welcome sunbake at the top of the falls, we climbed down the very, very convenient tree roots beside the falls (which I fear will not last very much longer) to the shale beds beneath.

The famous bushwalker, Dot English, whose feats are almost legendary, walked across the Gangerangs in bare feet. Well, I walked down to Syncarpia with one boot and one paperbark sandal.

At Syncarpia we spread our clothes out to dry and lazed and swam in the sun. Then we commenced the climb up Rodriguez Pass to Evan’s Lookout. At five we were climbing those tortuous concrete stairs to the lookout proper, and a few minutes later paused to admire the view. Strengthened by consuming the remains of our chocolate, I could not resist a concluding theatrical gesture – I took my remaining boot and flung it over the lookout. The last we knew of my boot was a dull thud a few seconds after it had spiralled out of sight.

It was eight-thirty when a motley crew of five stumbled into a Blackheath cafe. One had no boots, another had no seat in his pants. But refreshed by steak and eggs, we returned to our packs and a good night’s sleep.

Came Sunday and we sun-baked and swam in the Blackheath swimming pool ….. but the pool was not as invigorating nor the slippery dip as thrilling as that we had experienced the day before.