Walking with Dad
9 – 10/5/15
Blue Mountains – Blue Gum Forest
As part of the younger generation we like to think we are doing new things, pushing new boundaries, making new discoveries. When I started rockclimbing and cross country skiing and whitewater kayaking and hiking in Tasmania I felt bold and adventurous. This hike was a shake down and acclimatisation for 10 days on the Larapinta Trail a few months later.
My brother, William, and I walked out along the ridge crest from The Pinnacles to Lockley Pylon. I could make out the route of Fortress canyon below where I had taken lots of college groups as part of my work as an outdoor education teacher. The views down the Grose River Valley stretched past lines of blue hills towards Sydney in the distant east. The ground fell away in a huge sucking drop close by in the west. Fortress Creek spewed out over orange sandstone verticality. We talked about Dad. His war record. How his boat had blown up in New Guinea and he’d narrowly escaped the tragic fate of some of the crew. PTSD had never been diagnosed or even mentioned. I had wanted to do this walk for a long time. I knew from family legend that it was a favourite place of Dad in his early years.
Charles is a climber, “It looks like Yosemite”, from the edge at Du Faur Head. A steep track led us zig zagging down among cliffs. We then followed a ridge down and down and down to the Grose River where it met Govett’s Creek.
In the late afternoon light we found an enormous log forming a bridge over the stream. I crossed with William and had a photo taken of us in the middle. It was like we were entering some special kingdom. The blue gums towered everywhere. Massive trunks disappearing skywards to small pleading canopies. Scrubby undergrowth. Impossibly difficult to photograph and capture the grandeur. I explored on my own for a while between the trees and could almost feel Dad’s presence in the stillness. At 16 he had left school to be a message boy man with the GPO. 1936. He joined the Sydney Bushwalkers who would meet on Saturday lunchtimes at Central Station for the train trip to the Blue Mountains for the weekend bushwalking. Often Dad would have to work Saturday afternoons so caught the night train and then hiked down to Bluegum and other places to meet up with his mates by torchlight. He was apparently a “tiger” of a walker accomplishing feats like Katoomba to Kanangra and return in an Easter weekend. His father helped him construct his own frame and rucksack. The only tale we got direct from him was told at the Three Sister Lookout from where he pointed out Mount Solitary as the place where he had put his rucksack down on a ledge which gave way. Two weekends were spent then searching for it. I rejoined the others and we walked the short distance to Acacia Flat to camp among the gums in a grassy clearing.
Collecting water from the creek which was noisily cascading I was reminded that Dad had taken up canoeing and became an active member of the River Canoe Club. In rereading his memoir for the first time in the 30 years since his death the night before the walk I’d found that he had built his own canoe, bending the spotted gum timbers with steam and covering the deck and hull with stretched canvas. He’d described a an epic trip down the Kangaroo and Shoalhaven Rivers in 1938 from Hampden Bridge to Burrier. Part of this trip, now on the backwaters of Tallowa Dam I had also taken numerous college groups on.
Bluegum Forest had been rescued in the early 1930s from a commercial leaseholder who was about to clear the land for farming and transport out the timber. A group of bushwalkers, just prior to Dad’s time, got together and raised enough money to purchase the lease to protect the area. They, and a little later our father, and then us 85 years later would camp under these same trees. The night was cold without a fire.
In the tent it was cosy and warm and still but all hell had broken loose in the tops of the trees. Rushing air like a freight train built up speed and momentum down from the cliffs before hurtling across the forest canopy above then rushing off down valley. Gusts built up and crashed past every half minute or so for hours. I thought again of Dad during the windstorm. He had taken up sailing just before and after WW2. In the second Sydney to Hobart race he had encountered “a force South West blow as we rounded Tasman Island and Storm Bay certainly lived up to its name”. Apparently his father too had done some sailing.
By morning the wind had blown itself out. We had a last wander through the blue gums. William and I found a massive old ancient eucalypt. It stood tall like Dad as I remember him. Strong, dependable, gnarled, firmly rooted to the earth. Standing quiet among its kin. Was there a twinkle in the sun’s reflection on the leaves above?
My three brothers and I have all had adventurous lives in different ways. Between us William, David and I have ascents of aspiring, the Matterhorn, Mt Blanc, Big Ben, Balls Pyramid, new routs at Point Perpendicular, descents of many of the canyons of the Blue Mountains, expeditions to Antarctic, trekked in Nepal. Following time with the army John has worked in Aceh, Pakistan, Swaziland, PNG, Gambia and Botswana. Dad never talked about the war that gave him “bad nerves” that made him “physically unfit for Naval service”. PTSD? He didn’t talk about his adventuring much either. He wasn’t comfortable being the centre of attention. He worked hard. Became Chief of Naval Supply. And when we were around only had time for family and work.
The track wound beside the creek. At Junction Rock we rested. Then a little more along the flat until we branched up hill on a wrong path towards Evans Lookout. The un maintained trail was a ripper, rising steadily and then surprisingly through the cliff band. Among the calling bellbirds I considered the things in addition to family that sustain and mean so much to me – the natural world, adventure, making a contribution to the world – that I’ve been lucky enough to forge a career out of. My father’s been gone for nearly thirty years now but in coming to this place and rereading his story and talking to William and my wife Cath its only now becoming clear that he’s been the source of all these things that I cherish. Without even speaking about it. I remember him so diligently involving us in Scouts, building a big white two ended canoe that took the whole family, with Mum taking us on family camping trips, supporting all our interests.
From a high rock shelf at the head of the valley we look across at the huge orange cliffs of Carn wall. There’s a terrifying roofed corner that I’m sure has been climbed. Charles and I have our eye on another easier long route near Mount Hay further down the Grose. It occurs to me that what we are doing isn’t new at all. Maybe now I can accept this easier because I’m not part of the younger generation anymore. Dad’s own adventuring was cut short by the war. We haven’t had a war, we’ve had different opportunities.
We’d come up the unmaintained horse track instead of the intended Rodriguez Pass Track and ended up high on the ridge below Evans Lookout. So we headed down the steps to pick up the Grand Canyon Track. It’s an old trail built in the Depression, hewn out of rock in some sections. Along the creek was sublime. Waterfalls tumbledover green walls past perched tree ferns to the black canyon floor. Cold. Moist. Water bubbling over smooth rocks. In his book Dad wrote about his first trip to the Blue Mountains. His father had taken him on a hike with borrowed pack, sleeping bag and swag. The trekked through Wentworth Falls, camped in a picnic shelter, Laura, Katoomba, Medlow Baths. They stayed a night in Wall’s Cave which left a great impression him. “Firelight and shadows on the roof of the cave many feet above”. From there they went through the Grand Canyon and down Beauchamp Falls which was our intended route up. They finished going up Govetts Leap and back to the train station. Quite a walk. On the track above the canyon I tell Bob and Sue, friends from work at the outdoor school years ago, about the abseil and canyon trip I have guided lots of times for students in the depths below.
The final walk up from Neates Glen to the car is tough. Sore knees, tired muscles, packs that seem heavy. I’ve felt very close to Dad. Like we’ve been walking together almost. I wonder about what I’d say to him if we could connect across the divide somehow. Maybe just “thanks”. And him to me and us? If he could talk, father to son, or his father to him and me to my daughter and son? “Look after Mum? Love each other? Take care of the family? Keep adventuring? Do something good in the world? Look after the special places? Live life to the max! See you in the blue gums?”
For all of us the walk has been a cracker. Classic. Wonderful. Great to share it with a bro and our Dad. A confidence booster for our big walk later.
Day 1. The Pinnacles on Mt Hay Rd, Lockley Pilon, Du Faur Head, Bluegum Forest, Acacia Flat. Approx 6 km with 600m descent.
Day 2. Acacia flat, Junction Rock, Evans Head Lookout Track, Grand Canyon Track, Neates Glen, Evans Lookout Rd. Approx 9 km with approx 800m ascent.