A note for readers: This was written for me to remember the trip as much as anything else, so it’s a long read but if you’re up for a dose of procrastination, or want some inspiration for a trip of your own, feel free to continue!

Katoomba to Mittagong Hike

I’d had more than I could take of city life or maybe just everything, so the solution was to get the hell out out for a while and explore the wilderness area between Katoomba and Mittagong. The goal was to avoid firetrail as much as possible without turning it into a monster walk as 6 days was my time frame. Thanks to some internet advice (Dave Noble’s incredible blog), I decided on the route: Narrowneck, Yellow Pup to Cox’s River, Mt Strongleg, Mt Cloudmaker, Kanagra and Kalang Falls then across Bullhead Mt to the Kowmung, Church Ck to Mt Armour, Yerranderie then the bushwalkers corridor to Wattle Ridge. Just over 120kms on Strava which should be around 130kms on the ground, especially with the odd out and back exploring the area (or maybe a “navigational embarrassment” or two).

I’m not hiking fit atm so I packed the lightest I ever have. Food was rationed by day and the tent and sleeping bag were left at home. I figured a down jacket and SOL Light bivvy would stave off hypothermia at least and I‘d settle for some uncomfortably cold nights if it meant I was able to actually get there. …Fingers crossed for no rain.

Food was: (cold – no fire or cooker)
– Breaky: museli with water
– Morning tea: nuts, dried fruit and a few pieces of choc
– Lunch: backcountry meal with extra instant mash
– Afternoon tea: museli bar and biscuits with ⅕ small jar peanut butter
– Dinner: ziplock of instant mash and cous cous, dehydrated peas and olive oil
– Extra: 2 emergency museli bars.
Turned out perfect with only some olive oil and a museli bar left over.

Day 1: Katoomba to Cox’s River
Early train to Katoomba and a cab to the gate on Narrowneck. Beautiful views along the firetrail but nonetheless a firetrail and already my back is killing me! Picnic lunch at the lookout postponed due to it being occupied by one million flies. Started down the descent and found a spot on the windy side which reduced the fly population to half a million so we enjoyed lunch and the view over the Megalong Valley together.

Continued down Taro’s Ladder – showing my age with a couple of butterflies as I descended the metal stakes jutting from the rock above a 10m drop with a pack. Once down it’s pretty easy single track for me and the flies past Mobbs Swamp (with it’s single puddle of black, mosquito infested sludge that masquerades as water). There’d be no water refill here.

I contemplated the climb to Splendour Rock which is one of my favourite spots but I was fearful of what the legs would have to say about the whole trip so decided against extras this early on. Instead I continued down Yellow Pup Ridge to the Coxs River.

It’s pleasant by the river. I explored upstream to Konangaroo Clearing to see if the building marked on the map might be a hut I could shelter in from the approaching thunderstorms. I scrambled up the slope of a side creek, popped my head over and scared the shit out of myself and the enormous cow who had been peacefully enjoying it’s evening meal. It raced off and I was left wondering if it was in fact the enormous bull it seemed like or the more innocuous variety. There was no hut, just private property, a shitload of weeds and cow poo.

Having seen the storm clouds roll in, I channeled my Bear Grylls (actually it was more inspired by my big sister) and fashioned a makeshift tent from a long branch, vines and my space blanket with trenches for the water to flow around if it got too bad. Feeling rather proud of myself I settled by the river for the first night of my gourmet ziplock dinner delight – not as unpalatable as I expected, or maybe I was just hungry from the day’s hike.

Turns out rain on space blankets when you’ve got 10cm clearance over your head are noisier than a corrugated iron roof. At least I stayed surprisingly dry and given my current fitness I was feeling wasted so still got some sleep.

Day 2: Cox’s River to Gangerang Range – Beastly views, beastly climbs
Couldn’t find the track up but the buttress was hard to miss – ‘Strongleg Ridge’. Pity my legs weren’t. I was also carrying the most water I’d have to all trip as there wouldn’t be any until at least Kanangra if I made the detour, otherwise the Kowmung. Pity there’s not a water source at the top of climbs! Anyway, it didn’t take as long as I expected to hit Mount Strongleg (a 650m vertical climb).

I found a rough track along the ridgeline (and the ensuing undulations) and onwards to Mt Cloudmaker (1164m) for lunch and a drying of all the wet stuff. I’d always wanted to visit Mt Cloudmaker, mainly for the name I guess and I’ll definitely be back.

There was phone signal up here so I sent an update to Ian though unfortunately also got bombarded with messages from the real world which couldn’t have been more uninvited. The next 24hrs were the most spectacular of the walk. The ridgeline to Kanagra is steep on both sides so the views are epic. It takes a while to walk as you get gaze-y stopping to look at all the scenery.

Crafts Wall is a huge, well, wall and the track passes by the base so it’s super impressive to look up at as you pass by. There are also cool caves at the bottom which would have been great for sleeping but I was keen to push on a bit. I ended near Brennan Top, with views on one side to Kanangra Walls and on the other side towards Lake Burragorang and the eastern ranges, it was amazing.

I thought I’d snuggle into the heath to sleep and after dutifully clearing a small area and using rocks and branches to dig out the root sticking up where I planned to put my back, I shifted aside the final rock and found a fire ant’s nest underneath. So much for that spot. After faffing about I eventually found a small cave under Brennan Top and made a super quick lean-to of sorts hoping it would be a little less freezing.

I enjoyed round 2 of gourmet dinner delight on the clifftop facing Kanangra Walls. Doesn’t get much better than that. Which was a good thing because it was a freaking miserable and cold night. I did make a few discoveries though – the pack is excellent insulation if you shove your icy feet inside. The few branches and leaves you threw over the space blanket with the idea some insulation might be better than none weren’t. Shivering all night long leaves you with some shocking bags under your eyes. Wait, I knew that already…

Day 3: Brennan Top to Blue Fish Point
Breakfast with a similarly incredible view to last night meant the sleepless night was immediately forgotton. I diverted to Kanangra for a water refill at Kalang Falls. Dance Floor Cave is on the way – it’s pretty cool and it turns out way back they actually made a timber dance floor there as it was a meeting point for people travelling. The knee was grumbling this morning so I took it slow but luckily it came good after some flat walking later on – I guess it’s allowed to complain now and again. I was a little sad to leave the Kanangra area and the spectacular views but it was onwards to Murrarang Top and over the Bullhead Ridge to Cambage Spire.

I was a little sad to leave the Kanangra area and the spectacular views but it was onwards to Murrarang Top and over the Bullhead Ridge to Cambage Spire. It was bound to happen at some point but I had my unintended detour here. I was so busy finding branches that would make the perfect walking poles to take the load off my knee that I stopped looking at the map (which I’d also made the mistake of folding in exactly the wrong spot so I couldn’t see there was actually a turn off), and I went sailing past the spur I was supposed to take, feeling rather pleased at the good time I was making. Good time in the wrong direction as it turned out, but luckily not too far. I headed back to the spur and there was no track to be seen anyway so I figured it was time to ditch the walking sticks and start paying attention.

Had lunch at Cambage Spire. Great views but it was like one of those ski runs when you get to the top and it’s so steep you can’t see over the edge which was a little unnerving – I wondered how there could possibly be a way down the seemingly vertical cliff. It certainly wasn’t a track. There was plenty of scrambling and a few slides but there was a way down and it continued over Sullen Tor to the Kowmung.

I’d reached for something overhead a few times and nearly knocked myself out with the aroma of my arm pit so I took the chance for a wash of me and the putrid materials that passed for my clothes after 3 days of sweat, rain, dust and mud. The river turned briefly to brown as I rinsed my socks and 20mins later I could pass as fresh.

Thinking I had a chilled afternoon with hours of daylight to cruise the 3-4kms by the river, I took my time. As I started however, it became apparent there was no track (that I could find) and I quickly became acquainted with the prickly bush infestation that had taken hold on both sides of the river. Half an hour, a thousand small cuts and very little progress later, I opted for the wade through the river approach which was much more successful though a little nerve-wracking as my gear wasn’t in a dry bag – if I ended arse over tits in the river, all the wet gear would mean an even colder and less pleasant night than the last.

Eventually, I gingerly reached the end point for the day near the turn off to Church Ck. I made my bed just up from the creek then ate dinner watching the last of the afternoon sun reflect off a small pool onto a rock wall by the river which was quite magical until the midges started biting. I made a hasty exit to move my bed further from the river and deposited myself there out of midge range. Another chilly night but I had to admit that even though the idea of sleeping in makeshift tent or lean-to is appealing, it was warmer to just drape the space blanket straight over me and forget about these homemade shelters. It was a bit wet with condensation but not as bad as I expected and even being damp, it was better than the night before.

Day 4: Church Ck to Beloon Pass: Forbidden forest of prickly bush and ‘wait-a-while’ then long, boring firetrail.
If my appetite was whet from the prickly bush of the Kowmung, I was in for a real treat this morning. Church Ck had all the rigour of the prickly bush infestation but no water to wade down so it had overtaken the whole area. As I got further upstream, added to this joy were thickets of ‘wait-a-while’. If you’re not familiar, this vine is covered in ~2cm thorns which hook onto you and instead of just breaking off as you push through, you actually need to reverse to unhook yourself, hence ‘wait-a-while’. I felt like I was in some forbidden forest in Mordor and progress was correspondingly slow.

It might have been ok if I could fin the track up Mt Armour but it is aptly named and from the base, just looks like cliff from all sides (well, from what I could see through the thickets of thorns and prickles anyway). Supposedly the track heads up from the clearing near the Church Ck Caves. I’m still not convinced I found any caves but after clambering back and forth searching for a seemingly non-existent track, I decided to take a punt and scramble up a weakness in the rock to see if I could get up. There were a couple of hairy moments and it was in the back of my head that I might get cliffed out and have to go all the way back down and try again. I was grabbing rough rock, ducking under vines and slipping on piles of built up dirt – at least I was ‘off the beaten track’ – I knew nobody had gone up that route before.

Turns out I did finally make it up with only scratches (plenty) and some stinging nettle burns. It’d been a big morning and despite a few swear words, it had also been the most fun part of the trip. I chose the trip route knowing it wasn’t well travelled. My logical brain was reasoning 20-25kms/day on track would be very do-able, but my adventure brain was secretly hoping I’d be forced into a proper adventure – that the tracks didn’t exist, that I’d have to bush bash and properly navigate my way through tough sections, so I was actually quite excited I got my wish.

From the top of the aptly named Mount Armour there was a fire trail so the scenery was pretty but it was boring walking all the way to Yerranderie. It’s an old silver mining ghost town which is really neat. They even had proper toilets which was a surprise! I had lunch but continued on to try to knock off as much fire trail as I could today. There’s a bushwalkers corridor where they allow walkers but nobody else to pass through, not even cyclists because it’s the catchment for Sydney’s water. Lucky there was no one there cause I exercised my off-tune warble singing voice to pass the time on the firetrails.

It was bloody hot this arvo and everywhere I wanted to sit and rest seemed to be an ant’s nest. But the golden afternoon light was softening as I headed down to the Wollondilly River and I had an awesome chill out there soaking up the coolness and relaxing. Thought I saw a wombat but it turned out to be a family of small pigs. I continued a few kms on the firetrail and found a spot just before the track headed up Beloon Pass. I later discovered I wasn’t supposed to camp there – whoops.

It was ant central – fire ants, bull ants and the regulars. I guess the soil type was their favourite. If you stay still they’ll just walk over you and continue on their merry way. I hoped they’d do the same overnight. I was a little nervous I’d roll over in my sleep, inadvertently squash some of their fellow kin and unleash a war of retaliation with the bull ants but there was nothing to be done but hope for the best. It was a warm night which was some relief but with warmth come mosquitos so I drifted to sleep with every inch of me covered barring my nostrils and top lip (which they still discovered and attacked). Also a symphony of buzzing, but happily no bull ants so that was fine by me.

Day 5: Belloon Pass to Nattai River. “What track?”
I got warm quickly scrambling up the spur to Beloon Pass. All night the wind had been howling over the trees and as I climbed I felt the full force which was refreshing. I demolished another ziplock of museli and water enjoying the final view of the ranges I’d travelled over. Kind of a satisfying feeling picking out some of the familiar peaks in the distance – far but not that far away!

 I had some fun rock-hopping down Travis Creek until it got steep and rocks turned to boulders – there’d be no hopping down if I wanted my ankles in tact. I found snippets of a track at times but it would just as quickly disappear so I cut my losses, climbed to the adjacent spur and just bush-bashed down. It was steep and quite vegetated so it was a good scramble. It’s one of the times dreadlocks are not welcome – seemed like every branch I squeezed under tried to grab one as a souvenir. Sometimes they got a handful of hair and sometimes I got a headful of branch. The other outcome of scrambling through vegetation and sliding down loose slopes was I got regular deposits of vegetation down the back of my shirt. Which was no big deal until one deposit included a fire ant. That was unwelcome but did get the adrenalin going for a few mins.

The 2.5kms until I joined the Nattai River took ages and I was naively thinking there might be a track once I joined the river. I envisaged spending the final couple of days leisurely pottering upstream along a gentle, flat track after the first three days which turned out 10-11hrs. This was not the case. I’d covered extra distance in the first 3 days as I had a sneaky suspicion it may not be quite so easy and I was lucky I did as today turned out the hardest so far. It was only 20kms by the river but it was through a combination of soft sand, clambering over endless fallen trees, the ever-present prickly bushes (a variety of prickly species today), constantly getting cliffed out and having to backtrack or cross to the other side, and my personal favourite – the river bank was often ~20m high but every couple of hundred metres a joining side creek had cut right back down to river level and was riddled with thick vegetation. To get through I’d be either tracking inland 50-100m to go around the worst of it or scrambling down and up through the dense thickets. The whole thing was such slow going it took me a while to figure out where I was on the map at one point because I couldn’t believe I had come such a short distance!

Ian was picking me up the next afternoon and I didn’t want to spend the final day stressing about making the pickup point in time. I could imagine the repercussions of a panicked Ian thinking I was forever lost in the wilderness if I wasn’t there. So I decided to get almost all of the river walking done which was a long day. If I had to clamber over one more fallen tree by the end of it I might just have laid ontop and slept. As it was I found a beautiful pool, had a well earned and refreshing dip (very refreshing, it was bloody cold again) and ate dinner covered in the space blanket as my midge defence.

I was almost used to sleeping with the mosquito symphony after last night – or maybe just tired enough that I had a great sleep.

Day 6: Nattai River to Wattle Ridge. Wrap up
I’d been over-zealous yesterday and put myself too close to the pickup point so even though it was slow going like yesterday I still had buckets of time to spare. A full hour disappeared as I sat by the river watching the reflection of the ripples on the rock wall opposite, feeling the wind caressing my arms, the morning light warming my back and trying to catch a glimpse of the fish jumping from the water.

An hour or two later and I was at a beautiful, big pool by Emmett’s Flat. It was idyllic. It wasn’t hard to soak up another couple of hours processing and musing on the week that was. There’s nothing else that can slow my thoughts, calm my nerves and rejuvenate the soul like a solo week in the bush, especially with the tough, long days of walking. Physically tired and mentally calm, it’s a unique feeling. The water was calling me and having not seen anyone in a few days I didn’t think clothes were necessary for the swim. Luckily the 3 teenage boys I passed later hadn’t started early that morning!

There was one final climb to Wattle Ridge. At the top I got another view of where I’d come from and felt thankful to the bush for caring for me this week and the positive feelings it generated. Then it was the final hit of firetrail to the meet point. It wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t book-ended with more flies, so I shared the final hours with my million fly friends again.

Ian pulled round the corner in the car and I was done (well almost – I wasn’t allowed in the car until I’d stood 20m away, waved my arms and patted myself off to get rid of as many flies as I could then jumped full speed inside before they could catch up.

It was bizarre how a week so full could be relayed to Ian in the 5mins it took to drive to town. I guess you had to be there…