Here’s a cautionary tale about a three day backpacking trip through the Budawang Ranges in Morton National Park that turned into a four day backpacking trip with a little unplanned fasting and hypothermia thrown in.
Our plan was to follow the trail from Long Gully Campground up Kalianna Ridge to Monolith Valley, through Monolith Valley and past Mount Cole, then continue on to Burumbeet Brook, Corang Peak and finally follow another trail down a ridge-line to reach the Yadboro River where a trail would lead us back to Long Gully Campground. Initially, we thought we might do the trip in two days, but, as Doug is not partial to long days spent marching through the backwoods with an overnight pack we planned on three days. The entire trip should have been on trails – marked on the standard government 1:20,000 topographic map – and through an area rated as one of the best bushwalking areas in NSW. We had previously tossed out any idea of off-trail travel having learnt on our previous bushwalks that bushbashing in Australia is every bit as bad, and possibly worse, than bushbashing in Canada.
Doug on the trail under Castle Cliffs
Our old – circa 1980’s – guidebook described the first day of the bushwalk, from Long Gully to Corang Creek campsite as a “tiring 9 to 11 hour day” so we were prepared for a tough first day of walking despite the moderate distance and elevation gain required. We got away at the very reasonable hour of 8.20 am with cool and cloudy weather conditions. Initially, the track was in good shape, but, as we began to contour under cliffs lining The Castle we encountered what would become the theme of the trip, dense spiky dripping wet bush that overhung the narrow trail to such a degree that the foot-bed was barely visible. Within half an hour, we were both soaked through to – and including – our underwear.
We had about three very brief – 5 to 10 minute – stops during the course of the day as we were too wet and cold to stop for any longer, and it was about 3.30 pm when we found the campsite by the Corang River . Not even close to a “tiring 9 to 11 hour day”, rather a modest 7 hour day that left us both with plenty of energy. Doug was doing pull-ups on a handy gum tree when I left him and walked up towards Mount Tarn in the early evening.
Camp by the Corang River
Next day we packed up hopefully and continued on contouring past Mount Bibbenluke and descending to Burumbeet Brook under mixed skies on a very overgrown trail. Continuing on we crossed a ridge to Canowie Brook and filled our containers with water as we were unsure of finding a water source for our next campsite. I hiked over Corang Peak on a reasonable trail while Doug took the bushy trail around it on the east side and we met on the south side of the peak and continued – on an increasingly good trail (we discovered later that most parties enter the area from the west and go no further than Burumbreet Brook, hence the better trail in this section)- to where the section of trail that would close our circuit hike descends Snedden Pass to the Yadboro River, and found no trail.
Well, that’s actually not technically true, buried deep under almost impenetrable heath we found the scanty remnants of a foot-bed. We followed this for perhaps 60 metres – a painful and slow 60 metres – but quickly came to the realization that our planned exit was going to prove too long, too difficult , too painful (pushing through Australian heath land bush is like pushing through a razor wire fence) and too slow if, in fact, it was possible at all. Our only option was to turn back and return the way we had come.
While not ideal, retracing our route was not actually a big cause for concern. We knew we could get back to the campsite at Burumbeet Brook easily that day, and, from there, we would have, at most a nine hour walk out, not as long nor as hard as many days we’ve had mountaineering in Canada. We reached Burumbeet Brook and the scenic campsite around 4.30 pm, and, in a fit of optimism, not accurately foreseeing what might go wrong the next day, burned up the last of our fuel cooking our last dinner. No worries, we could eat a cold breakfast next day and be down in the valley in time for dinner.
Early in the evening dark clouds raced across and covered the sky with a uniform blanket of deepest gray, but, no rain fell, and, during the night the sky cleared off to display a panoply of stars. Morning, however, was cold and grey again, but it did not begin raining until 7 am when we shouldered packs and started the walk back. We were both wearing rain jackets, beanies and long pants – our entire arsenal of clothing with the exception of our puff jackets which we were desperately hoping would stay dry in our packs - yet, within 20 minutes we were both soaked to the skin, more from the constant sluicing of water coming off the thick bush than from the rain. Despite the trail climbing gently uphill and ourselves walking as fast as possible – which is actually not that fast on such a bushy trail – neither of us could generate any body heat and we became progressively colder and colder. My hands and feet went numb and I stumbled along the torturous trail trying not to trip as a twisted ankle could quickly become serious.
I was getting so cold it was actually painful and we gave up hope of reaching one of the dry camping caves near Mount Cole and planned instead to make it back to our first camp by the Corang River to set up the tent. An added complication of the terrain is that the bush is so thick that it is impossible to set up a tent unless you are at an established site – otherwise there is simply no clear ground. We stumbled into camp by the Corang River and, with numb hands fumbled to get the tent up – every Canadian mountaineer has experienced the frustration of not being able to use their hands because they are too stiff and cold, but it is not something you expect as summer approaches in Australia. Shivering in our damp sleeping bags, we spent the rest of the day and night trying to dry our gear out with what little body heat we had, stay warm, and not eat or drink. Now, rationing our remaining food seemed like a good idea, and, while we had plenty of water, going out into the storm was not a good option.
Twenty four hours after the rain started it abated, our tent and all our gear was filthy, one tent pole was bent from the battering winds, and, when we tentatively stuck our heads out of the tent at 7 am the next morning all we saw was grey mist. We discussed our predicament, but, without some assurance that the rain was not about to start again, we were not keen to move as we could see the previous day replaying itself all over again and we had no spare gear to risk getting wet. With little food in our bellies, we also thought that generating body heat and keeping hypothermia at bay would be harder than before.
Luckily, the weather showed some signs of clearing , and, at 9 am, we were back on the trail, this time, rashly dressed in all our clothing for a single push to get out. Owing to the strong winds, the bush was actually slightly less wet than the day before, and, although we were soon wet from the hips down, our torsos were dry, and the gradually clearing skies encouraged us. We were eventually warm enough to take our puff jackets off but left our rainwear on, and, apart from missing the trail as it ascends between Mount Cole and Donjon Mountain, we were well on the way to escape by lunchtime. We mentally ticked off each leg of the journey successfully completed, traversing Mount Cole, crossing Monolith Valley, descending to Oakley Creek, traversing the cliffs under The Castle, and finally, the last leg, the easy walk out down Kalianna Ridge. Doug stopped at the beginning of this section to eat his last food as exit was now assured, but I continued plodding down, now in shorts and a tee-shirt and marvelling at the difference between this day and the one previous.
On the plateau leading to Corang Peak
One of my friends who is an ACMG certified Mountain Guide always stresses the importance of a debrief so we can learn from our mistakes. Ours were myriad including, but not limited to, underestimating the toughness of the Australian bush and climate. It’s easy to be cocky coming from a mountaineering background in Canada to think that nothing serious can go wrong in a warm dry climate like Australia’s but, in fact, things can go wrong just as quickly and just as seriously as they do in the wilds of Canada’s backcountry.
Here’s a catalogue of our mistakes:
- We underestimated the potential seriousness of Australian weather. There were no major storms in the forecast when we left on this hike, but, clearly, serious storms can blow out of nowhere and a bushwalker needs to be prepared for the worst.
- Our gear was inadequate for the weather we had – I needed an extra pair of pants, and we both needed water proof rain pants and plastic bags to line our backpacks to keep the rest of our gear dry.
- Trails, no matter how clearly shown on standard topographic maps, may no longer exist. We figure that, unless we get independent verification that any trail is still passable, it should be considered impassable. Doing some research after this trip, I could not find a single reference to the trail down Snedden Pass and along the Yadboro River, probably a clear indication that it has not been used for half a century.
- Bushbashing is not a viable option unless you want your clothes ripped to shreds, followed by your skin, and are happy traveling at about 0.25 km per hour.
- Despite its reputation as a sun-kissed paradise, Australian weather, even near summer, can be bad enough to result in hypothermia in unprepared walkers.