Thursday, March 20, 2014

Staying Out Past Sundown

Can you guess it is still raining in Cairns? About 120 mm yesterday and the forecast looking wet as far as it stretches. Time for another wander down memory lane, not too far this time, only back to May of 2013 when Doug and I did a two day walk through Sundown National Park in southeast Queensland. You might have thought after yesterday's cliff hangar ending that I would describe some kind of epic, wild and crazy paddling trip around Mallacoota Inlet. But, that's not how it was. We had one day paddling what is creatively called “Top Lake” and one day on “Bottom Lake.” Both were actually quite wonderful, and, as I have started and it's raining, I may as well briefly describe them here. 

 Paddling down the inlet

We launched at Gypsy Point on Top Lake which is quite far up where the waterway is fairly narrow. The water was calm and still and seething – yes, it really was seething – with fish and birds. Once into the main part of Top Lake we paddled into the deep eastern bay to Dead Finish where we had a swim, then crossed due west and paddled back north past Sou'west Arm and back to Gypsy Point. The next day we launched from Karbeethong Jetty and paddled south and around the islands near the mouth of the inlet where, in rough water, I almost got run over by a yobbo in a speed boat as we were both dodging the swell in the narrow channel. We also paddled up into Cemetery Bight, went for a walk, a swim and wished Victoria Parks wasn't so draconian about camping as it would be really nice to spend a night or two kayak camping around the inlet. 

Let's leave Mallacoota Inlet now and get back to Sundown National Park. Traprock, apparently not the correct name for this type of rock, is some kind of hard sedimentary rock that makes up a large part of Sundown National Park in Queensland's southeast corner. I read the real name of the rock on an interpretive sign at the start of the short trail that leads up the Severn River to the Permanent Waterhole (very innovative) name, but, the name was mixed in with lots of geologic jargon and never settled into my brain. Of more interest, or at least of more interest to me, was the semi-buried disclaimer that warned bushwalkers against drinking from Little Sundown Creek below the old arsenic mines, areas so polluted that they are off limits to the public. Regrettably, Little Sundown Creek drains into the Severn River and we had made dinner and guzzled litres of tea made from water out of the Severn River. Unfortunately, the interpretive sign didn't list the symptoms of arsenic poisoning but if they include sore feet and overall generalized fatigue, I think both Doug and I have been poisoned. 

 Doug in lower Ooline Gorge

Our trip started innocuously enough. At 8.30 am we were hiking up the well maintained but regrettably short (one kilometre) trail that leads to Permanent Waterhole and the start of Ooline Creek (named after a rare species of tree found up Ooline Creek). A sign, the last you will see for two days and 30 plus kilometres marks the start of Ooline Creek, but I suspect even Doug and I could have located it. 

Ooline Creek runs roughly north for about 9 km and ends near the park boundary. Travel up the creek/gorge is actually really pleasant. There are big stretches of traprock that make for easy walking. In places, short cliffs rise on either side of the gorge, small pools arise here and there. Some sections have little (now dry) waterfalls, but it is easy to scramble either straight up the falls on solid rock or to traverse past on either side. Travel, while not overly arduous is relatively slow, as there is no trail and the gorge/creek twists from side to side. 

After a couple of hours (or maybe more I can't remember) the gorge becomes a creek bed and the creek bed becomes a bit bushy. Up near the northwestern boundary of the park, a distinct side creek enters. We decided to jump out of Ooline Creek and take this smaller tributary creek northeast to the park boundary, thus guaranteeing we had at least one successful short-cut on the trip. Travel up this tributary creek is initially easy on traprock, but, in not very long it gets quite bushy and it is easier to exit the drainage and simply follow a compass bearing. We had sporadic game trails, and, apart from the last bit where the bush got thick and scraggly, the bushwacking was very easy. 

 Waterholes in the traprock

After about 4 hours travel, we emerged onto the bull-dozed boundary of the park right by a dog fence. We must have been a bit further north than we thought as we came very quickly to the spot where the park boundary turns to the northeast from north and we should have (eventually did) followed the management track along the park boundary. 

I saw this track which had a marsupial fence (I couldn't tell the difference between fences but the Park Ranger told us one was a dog fence and one a marsupial fence) running beside it, but, did not realize it was where we should turn as our map showed no fence at this location. Instead I kept going north along the fence line. After a half kilometre or so, which involved an annoying descent into a drainage and out the other side, the fence line turned northwest. I stopped, pulled out map and compass, but really couldn't work out where I could possibly be on the park boundary where the fence was running northwest. I did what I usually do in these circumstances – rightly or wrongly – which is walk a bit further and see what happens. Well, a bit further on, the track beside the dog fence ended and I could no longer ignore the pervasive feeling that I was walking in the wrong direction.

Doug caught up with me and we took a GPS reading with his mobile telephone which cleared up all the mystery about the direction the dog fence was going as we had left the park and were heading pretty much due north into ranching country. A rather tedious walk, back up and down two gullies we had crossed before led us to a minor track that was running northeast. We checked the GPS again which showed we were almost in the right place for the park boundary. The 100 metre difference between where the trail was marked and what our GPS read we put down to sloppy map-making and strode off down this minor trail, which soon ended. At this point we remembered the much larger dozed in track by the marsupial fence. We had both discounted this track not only because we seemed to arrive at it too soon, but also because it was heading east, not northeast. By now I was clutching the map in my hand unwilling to put it away as I thought I would need it again momentarily. Once back at the track with the marsupial fence, I noticed that there is a small 50 metre section where the track runs east before turning to the northeast. Another mystery solved.

We were now beginning to feel a bit pressured for time as dusk falls around 5.30 pm and we thought we might have to descend all of Blue Gorge before finding a campsite and, a rough calculation put us at the top of the canyon, still four kilometres distant, at about 3.00 pm. Doug needed some lunch, however, so we had a really quick stop and then marched on. 

 Traprock scrambling terrain

South of Black Jack Creek, a major creek draining west, the map shows two tracks, one a direct line northeast along the park boundary, the other jogs out to the east and loops back and is at least a kilometre longer. When we got to this section, which is easily identifiable as there is no trail to the northeast - the marsupial fence simply disappears into bush - and the big management track veers off downhill to the east. On the map, a straight line northeast along the marsupial fence is about 200 metres, so despite the comparative (or because of) lateness of the day, we we decided on a short-cut, along the marsupial fence for 200 metres. After all, it's only 200 metres, only it's not. We thrashed down to a creek bed, crossed this and, with increasing difficulty in the tangled bush, thrashed up the other side to find the terrain dropping again to a deeper rockier creek. Increasingly nasty thrashing got us into this creek, but to continue on looked desperate. 

Our short-cut was no longer looking like a quick option. We rapidly decided to bail on the short-cut and hike down the creek as, within 200 metres, according to the map, (only it's not) we should meet the management track. After a lot of thrashing down this creek we finally took another GPS reading although it seemed impossible that we could have missed the management track as it should have crossed our path at right angles. The GPS showed that we were now 200 metres past where the management track should be. We decided we would carry on for 10 more minutes heading east as logic – and map reading – dictated that we should at some point intersect the management track. Five more minutes was sufficient and, with no more thoughts of short-cuts in mind, we continued along the track. The full detour is far more than indicated on the map, but is also far quicker than attempting any short-cuts. 

At 4.00 pm, two hours later than we should have been, the management track descends to cross Blue Gorge Creek which is merely a small drainage at this elevation. A game track starts off heading in the right direction and we followed this for 10 minutes until it ran out and then simply got into the creek and continued on. The creek gradually becomes rockier and rockier and eventually turns into a deep, steep sided gorge. Overall, in about 1 kilometre, Blue Gorge descends almost 400 metres. 

There are lots of little drops in the gorge which are easily scrambled, but there are also three high drops which you have to scramble down and around. You can tell that you are approaching these as the ground appears to fall away ahead. We were in a bit of a race against the encroaching darkness so didn't have much time – any time – for taking photos. There are three big drops you have to scramble around as well as a whole series of smaller ones. The first we passed to skiers right on loose ledges above a huge drop, the second we passed by scrambling up grassy ledges and down steep ground into a side canyon. A narrow grassy traverse along the edge of a final drop got us back into the main canyon. The third we also passed on the skiers left by an easy if steep traverse again into a side canyon and then back to the main canyon.

Reflections and cliffs along the Severn River

A series of small drops that are easily scrambled follows, and, it's a good thing this section was easy as the sun had long since set and we were hiking by headlamp. A final rather nasty downclimb down steep blocks covered with slippery grass was only possible by lowering our packs on a short piece of cord I had brought with us. There may be an easier way around this final drop, but we couldn't see it in the dark. Thereafter the canyon just seems to go on and on, with little drops, pools of water, traprock ledges and loose stony ground. I kept thinking I could see the dark line of the Severn River ahead of us, but, in fact, it wasn't visible until we were virtually in the river. The first clue that we had finally made it through the canyon was the sound of water running over stones. 

We couldn't find any sort of campsite nearby. In fact, we hadn't seen a single campsite in the previous 10 hours of travel, so while I made dinner from the arsenic tainted river, Doug levelled a site on the gravel flats. After swilling a litre of arsenic water we both crawled into bed and shortly fell to sleep.
The sun rose directly over the Severn River and we had glorious (and warming) morning sun early. Breakfast involved more imbibing of arsenic water and, leaving at the same time we had the day before, we began the days stagger down the stony river bed. 

Walking down the Severn River

This part of the trip is really a bit tedious and tiring, although I was trying to think positive all the way about how good it is to walk sometimes on rough ground and how not everything should be easy, and similar deluded thoughts. But, after about four hours of walking on constantly rolling hard river boulders, crossing and recrossing the river a dozen times with my feet beginning to throb, even I had to admit that seven hours of this type of walking was not really pleasant. 

Eventually, we got to the north end of Permanent Waterhole. Here we found a bit of a game trail that rounded the one kilometre long pool on the northern bank. About 200 metres before you reach the trail there is a small rock bluff beside the river. Doug took his shoes and pants off and tried to wade around to save climbing up and over, but, the pool was too deep to wade without getting our packs wet so he came back and we scrambled up above the bluff, clambered over another marsupial fence, and finally staggered down to meet the trail. 

Reading back over this trip report, it all sounds kind of desperate, but, actually this was a great hike and I would be happy to do more walks in the park. Despite being relatively small in size, the park feels delightfully remote, the traprock gorges are beautiful and walking along the Severn River, despite being hard on the feet, is gorgeous.

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