Canyoning in the Blue Mountains
Mark Jenkins
FEBRUARY 22, 201311:09AM

THE Swiss have mountains, so they climb. Canadians have lakes, so they canoe. Australians have canyons, so we go canyoning, a hybrid form of madness that’s halfway between mountaineering and caving.

Mammoth ferns flourish between the narrow walls of Claustral Canyon. Picture: National GeographicSource:Supplied

THE Swiss have mountains, so they climb. Canadians have lakes, so they canoe. Australians have canyons, so we go canyoning, a hybrid form of madness that’s halfway between mountaineering and caving.

Unlike other places with slot canyons, such as Utah, Jordan or Corsica, Australia has a rich, deep heritage of canyoning. It’s an extreme form of bushwalking, something Aborigines were doing tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived. But without ropes and technical equipment, Aborigines couldn’t explore the deepest slots.

Today, perhaps thousands of Aussies hike canyons, hundreds descend into them by ropes but only a handful explore new ones.

These driven individuals tend to have a rugby player’s legs, knees crosshatched with scar tissue from all the scratches, a penguin’s tolerance for frigid water, a wallaby’s rock-hopping agility and a caver’s mole-like willingness to crawl into dark holes.

Above all they search for the most remote and difficult-to-access canyons they can find.

«The darker, the narrower, the twistier the better,» says Dave Noble, one of the country’s most experienced canyoneers. «People say, What if you get stuck in there? But that’s what you are after. To be forced to improvise to get yourself out.»

During the past 38 years, Noble has made 70 first descents in the Blue Mountains, a few hours’ drive west of Sydney. This rugged region has hundreds of slot canyons.

Although he has drawn heavily annotated topographic maps of canyons that he has explored and named – such as Cannibal, Black Crypt, Crucifixion and Resurrection – and has posted pictures of them on his website, Noble won’t tell anyone where these canyons are. He won’t even let me have a good look at his maps.

«It’s our ethic,» he says. «Wilderness canyons should be left undescribed so they remain pristine and so others can have the challenge of exploring on their own. That’s part of the mystery.»

Noble’s chief rival in the sport is a canyoneer named Rick Jamieson, who earned Noble’s ire some years back by writing a guidebook that revealed a few secrets of the canyon landscape. More than a decade ago, Jamieson, also a physics teacher, took me on the first complete descent of two big canyons in the Blueys – Bennett Gully and Orongo.

A huge, good-natured boulder of a man in his 70s, he’s still canyoning and still laughing.

«Mighty!» says Jamieson when we get together for a beer.

«We’re lucky those GPS’s don’t work down in the canyons. Keeps the adventure.»

Canyoning by white people began in the 1940s, but the biggest slots weren’t explored until the 1960s, when modern climbing ropes and equipment were adopted. Danae Brook Canyon, hidden in the heart of the Blue Mountains, is one of the most difficult. In his guidebook Jamieson describes it as «one very, very long day» in which canyoneers must make nine or more tricky abseils.

Both Jamieson and Noble have done it, yet neither is available. But John Robens is keen to give it a try.

We meet at his home in Sydney. Most weekends for the past 10 years Robens has escaped the city to go canyoning in the bush.

Robens and I drive west from Sydney for four hours, camp in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, and by dawn are tramping down the Mt Thurat fire trail. We have wetsuits, a rope and lunch in our packs. After crossing Kanangra Creek, we strike out into the trailless bush, navigating by map and GPS. Following a compass bearing, we hop over fallen trees and branches and crash through scrub, passing through giant spiderwebs, mouse-size spiders scurrying across our necks.

«It’s only the spiders that live in the ground that can kill you,» Robens says.

After less than an hour, Robens has guided us to the top of Danae Falls, although he’s never been here before.

A creek rushes to the edge of the plateau and leaps off.

«Our first abseil is off that,» Robens says, pointing to a tree jutting precariously over the cliff. We squeeze into sticky wetsuits, clap on helmets, cinch up our harnesses, and sail out into space. It’s like rappelling off the edge of a green Grand Canyon.

Up this high, Danae Brook hasn’t yet cut a slot in the rock face, so we rappel through plumes of spray beside the waterfall, our feet slipping on giant fern fronds. By our next rappel, the Danae has sliced a fissure that’s only a metre wide but cuts 15m back into the stone. We descend at the back of the crack, looking out at a vertical seam of blue sky.

At the top of the third rappel we’re deep in the dark slot, standing on a slick, sloppy ledge in a waterfall.

«To keep the rope from getting stuck,» Robens shouts, «we’ll have to pass to the inside of that dodgy ralstone.»

«Ralstone?» I yell.

«You know, roll stone,» Robens says with a smile, nodding toward a chockstone the size of a refrigerator in the slot below us.

It’s a canyoneer’s hard-knocks joke: «ralstone» for «roll stone», referring to Aron Ralston, the American who was forced to cut off his arm when a boulder rolled on top of it in a Utah canyon.

The walls are covered with moss. Sliding to the inside of the giant stone turns out to be like squeezing into a narrow, 10-storey elevator shaft pouring with water. We’re forced to swing into the pounding waterfall, an awkward manoeuvre that slams us both into the rock. But it’s worth it: Standing in a pool at the bottom, we easily pull our rope down.

Below the big boulder the slot closes up, and the silky water flows horizontally along the cave-like chamber back out to the edge of the cliff. We still have 300m of air below us. We rappel directly into the bludgeoning waterfall.

The next three descents are just as extraordinary and drop us into hanging ponds of frigid water, like swimming pools midway up a skyscraper. We backstroke across these ponds, using the dry bags in our backpacks for flotation.

At 10am we share lunch on a sunny boulder with a water dragon, and drink directly from the cool, delicious Danae. Holding my head under the emerald water, I spot blue-shelled yabbies clawing their way along the bottom of the pool. Then we both strip off our wetsuits.

Robens is perfectly happy to continue in his birthday suit, but I pull on heavy nylon pants. Two weeks earlier in another canyon I managed to step into a stinging tree, a uniquely horrific plant that burns like stinging nettles and leaves a painful rash that doesn’t go away for a month. Mine is in an unreasonable place.

Several short rappels and two huge jumps follow. Robens throws himself off the stone, howling like a free man, arms and legs spread wide in the air, closing them like a butterfly right before he hits the water 6m below. When we reach the bottom, the Danae becomes a steep boulder field, which Robens, naked but for his pack and tennis shoes, practically runs across.

He leaps, lands on a slimy, snot-slick stone, almost loses his balance, finds his balance and leaps again, all in one fluid motion. It’s like witnessing the movements of some earlier, better adapted human.

Where the Danae meets Kanangra Creek, our descent is complete. But like climbers who reach a summit, we can’t celebrate yet. In canyoning what goes down must come back up. We cross the creek, rest for 10 minutes, then begin the agonising ascent.

We could go up a slope such as Murdering Gully but take a rocky rib instead, nicknaming it Manslaughter Ridge.

Wet with sweat, we reach the peninsular plateau of the Gangerang Range, directly opposite Danae Brook Canyon, shake hands, and whoop. From here we can take a trail, the Kilpatrick Causeway, and the going will be easy.

Striding along the track, the sun at my back, dreaming of the jaffle I’ll cook over our campfire tonight, feeling warm and tired, my body and mind cleansed by the descent of Danae, I see Robens swerve off into the bush.

«I want show you something,» he says over his shoulder.

And suddenly before us is Aboriginal art.

A row of stick figures drawn in ochre, obviously naked, all with their arms and legs spread wide, all quite obviously rejoicing.

Originally published as Canyoning in the Blue Mountains

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