Monday, June 9, 2014

Antifragile In Umbrawarra Gorge

With one hand, I balanced my pack on my head, released my grip on the rock walls of the steep red rock gorge and prepared to swim 200 metres to the end of the deep, narrow defile. Only problem is, I immediately sank, gulped in a lungful of water and, choking and spluttering kicked hard with my legs, flung the now soaked pack back up onto the rock ledge and gasped out "well, that didn't go quite as planned."

We were at the western end of Umbrawarra Gorge having walked along the plateau top from the campground to a narrow, shallow side gorge that disgorged a small amount of water out into the main flow of this tributary of Stray Creek. A half hours walk upstream through dense stands of pandanus, flaking paperbark and knee high native grasses had led to this long narrow stretch of gorge filled with clear green water and flanked on either side by steep red sandstone walls worn smooth by annual floods. 

We had arrived at the small campground in Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park on a Thursday afternoon with just enough time before dark to wander up to the first two pools. There are some "established" rock climbs on the walls of the gorge above the first two pools, although in this instance, established may simply mean someone once climbed a few lines here and gave them names. There are no bolts, no anchors, and, on many of the routes, precious few gear placements. After a few weeks however, of staring at climbable rock where climbing is banned, we were keen to climb at least a few pitches, despite feeling desperately out of shape for tackling Australian sandbags. 

 Top-roping an Umbrawarra Route

It was around 11.00 am the next day when we could climb as we needed to wait for the gorge walls to come into the shade. Climbing in the sun is completely out of the question as you literally could fry an egg on the sandstone walls. The tops of the walls roll back and are littered with loose blocks, large and small, so we were limited to climbing routes that were (a) within our rather mediocre current grade level; and (b) had a nearby tree anchor. This left us with three routes. Doug led one nice jagged crack climb, which enabled us to top-rope another steep and fun face climb. We also managed to top-rope a rather unusual route up a series of overhanging horizontal flakes and roofs. This one had a huge high-step onto a steep roof above that was just too high a step for my old weak body and I had to do a pull-up to get my foot onto the crucial hold. The final move was a classic mantle onto a small ledge. It was fun to be climbing again, and we climbed all the routes a couple of times, sucking the joy out of them. A small crowd of early weekenders had gathered at the base and I heard the voice of a small child say "she's stuck," as I paused at the mantel move. "Not stuck," I called down, "just temporarily paused." 

Next day we decided to walk up the gorge to the end, which, according to our road map (how I longed for a real topographic map) was about 4 or 5 km. We got a somewhat delayed start as Doug had started out in a pair of very cheap, and rather nasty, river sandals and had discovered (again) that they were very poor quality and he was slipping and sliding on the boulders in the gorge bed. It was obvious he would sprain an ankle, twist a knee, or fracture a couple of femurs should he continue so he went back for better footwear. I dawdled around, swimming in a deep pool in the gorge floor and eventually, as I abhor being still, walking back to meet him. 

 Rock slabs Umbrawarra Gorge

The gorge is perhaps 100 metres high at its highest point. At the eastern end, it emerges from the surrounding dry savannah plains and rapidly increases in depth. The bottom is lined with large river rocks, some still featuring the ripples of an ancient sea, others washed smooth by wet season floods and inordinately slippery, particularly if your shoes are wet or sandy. Progress is slow as you cross from one side of the river to the other scrambling over boulders, along short sections of sandy beach, and up and down ledges of red river rock. Large burled paperbarks line wider sections of the gorge and spiky pandanus palms overhang the green waters. 

The further you go, the more isolated you feel, as the water gets clearer and deeper, the vegetation greener and more lush with pockets of ferns and sweet green grasses. Fig trees cling improbably to the gorge walls and send down thin snaking roots seeking water. The gorge twists and winds sinuously with side gorges running in at regular intervals. About an hour from the eastern end, the gorge makes a 90 degree bend at a deep sandy pool and the river runs under a tunnel of rock with a deep resonating gurgle. The red rock cliffs contrast strongly with the green water, and the entire gorge is eerily silent in this land where the screech of raucous birds normally runs through day and night. 

Quiet in the gorge

We stopped for lunch on a big shady rock ledge under an overhanging arch beside a deep pool at around 2.00 pm, realising that we would now have to turn around without reaching the end of the gorge. After lunch, I built a big rock cairn in the middle of the creek, and Doug built one on our lunch ledge on the north side of the river. We were already planning to come down from the western end the next day and wanted to see how close to the end of the gorge we were. 

Next morning, we started earlier but I tossed out the dry bag I was carrying for my pack. The three pools we could not circumvent the day before had reached only, at their deepest point, my neck and I had been able to balance my pack on my head, the dry bag seemed superfluous. Luckily, Doug still carried his small dry bag in his pack. 

  An easy pool to keep a pack dry

We hiked straight up hill from the campground to the plateau top and headed west along the rim of the gorge. One section, above the second pool, is for women only, according to the indigenous people who own this land, so Doug went well back from the gorge walls here to stay out of this culturally sensitive area. The flat plateau top is actually cross-hatched by shallow perpendicular gorges so every 10 to 20 minutes, you dip down into a gully and out the other side. There had been a recent grass fire so the ground was open for walking, only stunted eucalpyts remaining on the plateau top. The ground is so stony that I wondered how, or why, this land was used to run cattle, which surely must have trouble eking out sufficient food. There were flocks of birds in the trees, and the sandy ground between rocks was criss-crossed with animal tracks, but we saw no other living things. 

After about an hour and a half, the land began to slope down, and wandering out to the edge of the gorge, we could see the cliffs, while still continuing, decreasing in height. Just shy of two hours, we dropped into the shallow side gorge and eased out into the main gorge, the cliffs abruptly gone, the river spreading out over 100 metres and dense with native grasses, paperbarks and pandanus. We had reached the end. A half hour walking upstream as the gorge walls rose steadily beside us and we were at the long deep pool that marks this western end of the gorge. 

Doug looking small among big blocks

When we had both nearly drowned trying to balance our packs on our heads and swim with one arm, we realised that, if we were going to continue upstream and back to the campground we were just going to have to get everything wet. We stored our crucial gear in Doug's small dry bag, stuffed this into his pack, and, floating our packs with one hand, we swam with the other upstream, through the narrow gorge, past steep, smooth walls, and finally, heaved our now very heavy packs out onto a sandy bench at the eastern end. We were both reading a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (the author of The Black Swan) called Antifragile in which he argues that certain domains, and humans in general require difficulties to prosper. "We are having an "antifragile" experience, we joked to each other as we poured water from our packs and wrung out our dripping clothes and shoes. 

Half an hour upstream, after some easy boulder hopping and ledge walking, I pushed through tangled paperbark out into the river bed and confronted a large cairn right in the middle of the river. On the north bank, another cairn was stacked under a rock overhang. I laughed out loud at the serendipity of it. We stripped off our wet clothes, spread them out in the sun on the southern bank, and lunched at our "usual" ledge naked and in the shade. 

Far from the maddening crowd

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