Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tent-bound below the forty-sixth parallel

Ponderings of a captive kayaker, by Mark Banham

"I guess we shouldn't complain, we've had more than a week of freakishly good conditions… and look on the bright side, a fifty-knot nor' westerly does keep the sand flies away!" Louise quipped, looking over her book for the first time in hours.

This northwesterly air stream has been pummeling our exposed campsite in Preservation Inlet for two days now, and the novelty of being shoehorned into a six-by-five foot nylon cell is well and truly starting to wear off.

As a kids brought up on a diet of Nintendo and MTV, Louise and I don't do the quiet meditation thing particularly well… and the cracks in our sanity are starting to show.

I've run out of books, and Louise is getting close, my camera lenses are the cleanest they've ever been, I've written pages of rambling notes in my diary, carefully plotted our course over the last week, and even logged every flutter of the barometric pressure's steady decline.

As night finally falls and I manage to grab a few hours of disjointed sleep… I worry about our tent, well designed but long in the tooth. As I watch the tent poles bow and the fabric spasm it seems a fair chance that the entire structure may dematerialize around our ears at any moment.

But as the blackness of night becomes the greyness of dawn it's still standing and I'm wishing I'd worried less and slept more.

I would hide my eyes from the light and try to claw my way back into the realm of sleep, but a strong desire to go 'commune with nature' drives me from my sanctuary into the continuing gale.
As I walk along the beach past the other tents I stop briefly to chat with Mick as he moves through the well rehearsed morning brew-up routine.

"Hellova storm eh - How'd you sleep?"

"Oh… Like a baby… I woke up every hour screaming," he replies.

I guess it's the sign of a true outdoorsman, to have a rapier wit on three-hours sleep. I feel I should some sort of comeback, but a cocked eyebrow and an appreciative grunt are all I can muster as I wander into the bush.

With my official engagements for the morning taken care of, I crawl back into my sleeping bag and try to grab some sleep. Alas my circadian rhythm dictates otherwise and the best I can do is a fitful doze while my mind wanders.

It's hard not to dwell on the folklore of this part of Fiordland - of whaleboats dashed to splinters by irate leviathans, of sealers pillaging the shores of as many as ten-thousand sealskins in a single shipment and of gold prospectors finding gold nuggets lying among the seashells on this very beach… how the rumors must have spread.

The men that followed that auriferous scent must have endured hardships and discomforts that would see the modern day adventurer packing their anatomically designed packs and heading for their centrally heated homes within minutes

But it was this sentiment that was the most treacherous of all.
Stories of men attempting the trek back to civilisation after supply vessels failed to reach them tell of souls driven by hunger, at best returning to their brethren as walking skeletons, or at worst being swept away by the wilderness before they even got close.

How the tide has turned since.

In the days of the prospectors, sealers and whalers men had to fortify themselves against the wilderness. A miscalculation of the amount of food or fuel required could bring the very real prospect of scurvy, starvation or hypothermia.

On this trip the one of the dominant topics of conversation has been how exactly to protect the wilderness from the trampling feet of humanity.

The legislative framework that protects this area is deceptively fragile - given the current political climate this region has ironclad defenses, but who knows what a different electoral term, a different decade, or a different century will deliver. We need to make people aware of the treasures this area holds, lest they be demolished someday by the whim of an ignorant voting public.

However, we've all seen wilderness areas that have been loved to death - Tongariro, Millford, Abel Tasman - Areas which are indisputably still beautiful and majestic, but whose character has been intrinsically changed by the pressures of intensive tourism over the years.

To complicate things further access and impact don't seem to have a linear relationship. Robin, a biologist paddling with us shifted my perceptions on the subject earlier in the trip.

"The whole minimal impact thing seems a bit misleading at times - campfire scars and rubbish are unsightly, but they don't actually damage the ecosystem all that much."

"The real ecological disasters often come from things as seemingly innocuous as a seed brought in on the sole of a tramping boot - and not even the most paranoid trailers are likely to avoid that."

So, are we all just a bunch of hypocrites?
Is the only true act of an environmentalist, as proposed by Edward Abbey to, to shoot oneself in the head?

As with many such issues, the correct answer lies hidden somewhere in the shades of grey.

[Reproduced from the July 2005 Issue of Wilderness Magazine]

Winging it

A glance at the vertical world, by Mark Banham

"Never climb up something you can't climb down" - It's a pretty simple concept, and one that most kids learn after they fall out of their first set of monkey bars.

But as a climber it's generally the sort of thing that comes into your mind as a subconscious 'told ya so!' just as you've climbed high above your last ledge, made a few bold moves in the hope there'll be some good holds further up the wall, but found only blank disappointment.

It's about now that you're looking at taking the fast way down, otherwise known as peeling, taking a whipper, a screamer, logging some flight-time - however you describe it you're about to get intimately acquainted with the laws of physics.

In the early days of climbing, at this point your odds of living to tell the tale were slim. The adage then was 'the leader mustn't fall', and made pretty good sense - anchors were few and far between, and unreliable at best, plus your kit was likely to be home made from hemp, leather and mild steel - which, when taking a big fall, would have been about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Thankfully these days your average climber is armed with equipment that weighs next to nothing and is strong enough to hold a couple of tons… or a climber at near terminal velocity.

While the trusty power drill along with a modern adhesives and metals have allowed the development of bolt anchors, removing the need to find cracks in the rock in which to place protection, and allowing routes to be put up on cliffs previously thought to be un-protectable.

The last 15 years or so has seen a new era altogether in climbing - the climbing gym. No longer do you have to seek out real live rock to get a vertical fix. Clean, well-lit adrenalin temples are now where the average climber learns and practices their craft.

This has been a real boost for the sport as a whole, allowing people to have a go without going through the rigmarole of learning outdoors, however experienced climbers are concerned that gym-climbers are heading out onto real rock physically able to climb tough routes without having developed the real-world skills to stay out of trouble. Thankfully however these concerns have not yet played out.

Despite the naysayers in the early days, climbing gyms are now widely regarded as the best place to learn the vertical craft. Removed from the arduous approach hikes and natural hazards that used to put so many off the sport before they'd even tied into a rope, climbing is now starting to gravitate towards the inner circle of mainstream sports.

Of course there are some that will claim that with this move towards the mainstream, the sport will loose its soul… No doubt there were a few similar complaints when we moved on from hemp rope and pitons.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Barrington Tops

World herritage slips under the radar.

Let me assure, you the view from the top of Williams Falls, in the heart of the Barrington Tops' wilderness is spectacular.

From a wide rock platform a liquid curtain plunges seventy meters before impacting with the jumbled rocks of the valley floor. In the distance the river valley snakes away to infinity, carving through rugged hillsides and impenetrable scrub, which from this distance looks like the green cable-knit of a well loved cardigan. On the plateau above, the Middle Earth-like southern beech forests quietly watch the seasons and continents drift by.

One thing you almost certainly won't see from this viewpoint is another human being, as despite being located on the doorstep of Australia's most populus city, the Barrington Tops is virtually unknown even among keen bushwalkers.

The area, whose high altitude plains and dense old growth forests are home to over fifty rare or endangered species was world heritage listed in 1986, yet somehow eludes the attention of Sydney's outdoor community. Instead it remains a bastion of locals and a small group of Newcastle based adventurers.

This is by no means a recent phenomenon. A century or so ago, bush rangers Frederick 'Thunderbolt' Ward, Jimmy Governor and Jackie Underwood used the area's unknown quantity status to their advantage, terrorising nearby towns, then slipping back into the wilderness to escape.

Today, this status can be used just as effectively to evade pursuers, be they police, boss, spouse or household chores. Simply toss your gear in the car, and a few hours later… Slip into the unknown.

Depending on your appetite and abilities, walking in the Barrington Tops can range from a five-minute stroll from the car (with wheelchair access) to multi-day adventures that will test your technical abilities and blow the cobwebs out of even the biggest set of lungs.

For the kids, grandparents or anyone not really equipped for strenuous walking, there are numerous short, relatively flat walks along the Barrington Tops Forest Road. These take in the higher-altitude section of the park (watch for snow and fog in winter) leading through snow gums, alpine grasses and subalpine wetlands. Remember your camera, as some of the best views in the park can be found in this area.

For those keen to stretch their legs a little bit more, the Williams River Picnic Area to Rocky Crossing trail is a great place to start. With a relatively gentle incline, this walk takes in 16km (return) of subtropical rainforest with emergent blue gums in areas disturbed by fire or logging. NPWS have marked side-trails leading to interesting spots along the river as well as some of the area's more peculiar botanical phenomenon, including a strangler fig whose host has long ago decayed, leaving an amazing hollow 'lattice' tree.

If you're interested in something a bit more challenging, trails like The Corker and The Mountaineer (both aptly named) lead from low altitude sections of the park to the high plateau, a vertical kilometre or so above. Once on the plateau, a network of trails and established campsites provide a great way to spend three or four days exploring some of the park's unique high altitude ecosystems.

If you want to really experience the pure wilderness on offer at the Barrington Tops, canyoning is definitely the way to do it. Expect to see crystal clear water cascading through rainforests where virtually everything is covered in a luxurious carpet of shag-pile moss. Black cockatoos glide effortlessly overhead, while frogs and pythons keep you company on the canyon floor.

This is one of the truly great weekend wilderness experiences. However, these are a different ballgame to 'typical' canyons in the Blue Mountains like Claustral and Butterbox, with which many readers are probably familiar. Because of the relatively low number of descents each year, trails can be hard to follow, anchors difficult to locate and the possibility of a following party getting you out of trouble is almost nonexistent.

I would strongly recommend anyone thinking of tackling these canyons to seek advice from knowledgeable locals first (the NPWS can point you in the right direction) and be extremely conservative in your decision making on the day.

Natural History
The escarpments and high plateaus that form the Barrington Tops are basalt and granodorite remnants of volcanic activity 45 million years ago, resistant to the eroding forces to which much of the surrounding landscape has succumbed.

This unique topography with altitudes of over 1500m has created an ecological life raft, providing a habitat for cool climate species that have declined elsewhere since temperatures warmed around 12,000 years ago. The rapid rise in elevation, combined with close proximity to the coast creates orographic rainfall, giving rise to fire-resistant rainforests that further protect the rare species on the plateau.

One of the more famous residents of the area is the southern beech. The international distribution of which was a key piece of evidence in establishing the theory of continental drift and the existence of the prehistoric super-continent Gondwana. Also of note are the numerous sphagnum bogs. These subalpine wetlands are one of the most important parts of the areas ecosystems. These wetlands act like giant sponges, soaking up water in periods of high rainfall, and then gradually releasing it during dry periods - which stabilises and purifies the watersupply.

Most of the Barrington Tops is considered old growth and/or wilderness. This means it's an important habitat for rare tree dwelling species like powerful owls and greater gliders.
In 1993 the Barrington Tops joined a very short list of biological agent release sites in Australia when twig miner moths from Western Europe were released to control a Scotch Broom infestation that affects 10,000 hectares of the park.Although many are concerned about the prospect of another cane toad, the moth has been successfully used in numerous locations overseas, and is seen by most as an improvement on the existing control techniques of burning and spraying.

Other Activities
Most of the trails in the Barrington Tops make for excellent mountain biking. If you're prepared to deal with the gruelling uphill, opportunities for a vertical kilometre of solid downhill await. You'll be sharing the trails with walkers, so remember to exercise the same level of courtesy you'd like to see from motorists towards yourself.

If you like your adrenalin mixed with a little more water, the Barrington River, among many others in the area, offers kayaking opportunities that range from beginners to extreme. There are several kayak guides in the area (see facts to go) that can point out suitable stretches of river for any skill level. These rivers were stocked with trout early last century, so if you bring your fishing gear, there's a good chance you'll have dinner taken care of.

Getting there
The Barrington Tops is approximately 90km north of Newcastle. The main stepping off point for accessing the park is the town of Gloucester. However as there are very limited roads traversing the area, other parts of the park can be accessed via Dungog or Scone.

Best tmes to visit
The wide altitude range in the area creates outdoor opportunities year-round. Of course the same sharp rise in altitude can produce four seasons of weather on any given day, so be prepared for anything.

Accommodation and food
Although the surrounding towns are agriculture rather than tourism driven (that's part of their charm), there's plenty of accommodation available. Contact The Gloucester Visitor Information Centre on (02) 6558 1408 for up to date information and prices.

Barrington Guesthouse is probably the highest profile accommodation in the area. Opened in 1930, the facility is worth a visit if only for their selection of historic paintings and photos…plus they do awesome hot chocolate and scones - a lifesaver in inclement weather.

There are numerous free camping areas with road access in the surrounding State Forests and the NPWS provide many camping areas within the park, some of which attract a small fee. The local office can give you more details on (02) 6538 5300.

CMA (1:25,000): Barrington Tops, Carrabolla, Chichester, Cobark, Gloucester Tops, Moonan Brook and Pigna Barney cover the area. NSW State Forests produce "The Lower North Coast Forest Map", which details free campsites in the surrounding area, among other things. The NPWS's Barrington Tops Guidebook contains many trail maps and notes, and is well worth bringing with you on the trail.

Tours and adventures
There are numerous organisations conducting all manner of activities in the area from horse treks to skydiving. The best way to get information on any of these is via the Gloucester Visitors Information Centre.

Barrington Outdoor Adventure Centre guides a range of activities in the area including mountain biking and white water kayaking. You can get in contact with them on (02) 6558 2093 or visit their website

Canoe Barrington runs a kayak guiding business aimed at kids and beginners they are available on (02) 6558 4316 or visit their website

Further information
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services' "Barrington Tops National Park Guidebook" ($10.95, available through the NPWS and local information centres) is probably the best single source of information on the area. It details the area's ecology, history, geology etc. and has trail maps and notes that are much more up to date than the existing CMA maps.

Barry Collier's book "Walking and Touring in the Barrington Tops" ($18.65, published by Envirobook) gives an excellent selection of day-walks and drives. However finding a copy may require a bit of searching.

On the web there is information available at: - NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service- NSW State Forests - Barrington Tops Tourism

The incredibly dense and rugged wilderness of the Barrington Tops has a rather grim aviation history.

On August 9th 1981, the Cessna VH-MDX crashed in bad weather on its way to Bankstown from Coolangatta. After radioing air traffic control with a series of instrument failures, reports of wing-icing and loss of altitude the pilot transmitted one last truncated message "Five thousand…" before he and his four passengers were swallowed up by the wilderness.

Despite extensive search efforts that continue to this day, no trace of the aircraft or its occupants have ever been found. This is believed to be the only unsolved aviation mystery on the Australian mainland.

VH-MDX was not the first aircraft to go missing in the area. In fact the search for the Cessna apparently stumbled across the wreckage of a Beechcraft plane, missing since 1974.

The RAAF base at nearby Williamstown has also contributed several aircraft, including a Mirage Jet whose pilot safely ejected after an engine flameout and seizure in 1967. Despite impacting in a near-supersonic nosedive, creating a crater two meters deep and eight meters wide, the wreckage still took over a year for investigators to locate.

Aeroplane Hill, near the centre of the main plateau marks the site where in 1942, a Mosquito bomber crashed during a training flight. The reason for which is still a mystery.

Apparently if you look carefully you can still find the wreckage of the plane's engine block etc (the wooden airframe has long since decayed). One of the aircraft's machine guns can be seen at the Barrington Guesthouse.

[Reproduced from the December / January 2005 Issue of Outdoor Australia Magazine]