Saturday, June 6, 2009

Walking in the Blue Mountains: Leura Forest, Dardanelles Pass, Federal Pass

It's been another trying couple of weeks what with moving house and all there's been precious little opportunity for enjoyment. Following on from our Jenolan soujurn today we are up for another challenge and a Blue Mountains walk on one of the more challenging tracks is our agenda. We are again quite late getting away, but we arrive at Echo Point at about 10:45. We have decided to call in at the information centre and acquire some maps of the walks that we can carry with us.

It's many a year since we've gone in the info centre and gosh, what a change. It's not so much an info centre as a massive gift shop with small, two person info counter down one end. How the priorities have shifted. Last time we were here the windows overlooking the views were unobscured and there was a bird feeder outside the window where you could watch the gang gang cockatoos, king parrots and other beautiful birds. Now you're flat out seeing beyond the product displays.

After a bit of back and forthing to the maps and walks stand and some helpful advice about the publications from the girl on the sales desk we are out. We need to move the car. Our $3.50 will only take us along for an hour and we have at least 3-4 hrs walking in mind. Charges go up to $4 per hour after that first hour. As we have to drive anyway we decide we will do the walk: Leura Forest, Dardanelles Pass, Federal Pass which starts from Leura Cascades. Only a short drive away. We stop for a snack in the car which we have saved from brekkie, bircher muesli, with banana and king island yoghurt (yuuuuumm!) . Armed with wensleydale cheese and salad sandwiches, a couple of oranges and a couple of bottles of water, rainproof jackets etc we set off at 11:45.

It is chilly in the mountains today and I am glad I've brought a scarf and gloves. These shady walks don't take advantage of the glorious blue skies either so on go the gloves. It is a steady walk down broadly spaced steps which gradually increase in incline as we travel. The forest in this area is lush and moist. Delightful - but there is even better to come.

We've had a couple of weeks fairly steady rain in the Sydney area, and the path shows it. Fortunately the frame for the path provides an easy walk around, but it's not fast going. Fortunately the track improves as the terrain gets steeper.

We are walking downhill past the long series of cascades that give the locality the name. They are flowing beautifully and provide a contrast to the last time we were here for an Australia Day picnic with my brother and nephews. Daughter caught a yabby in the cascades on that day, and the baby and preschooler played leaf boats in the stream. Far too dangerous to even consider something like that today even if the weather wasn't so cold.

At the base of the cascade there is a cute little viewing area under a rock overhang. As paths go it's quite picturesque and I snap a shot. From the other side of the little bridge there is a scene of a nice little sandy beach beside the stream.

Sensible people head back up at this point, but we are headed down, down down the stairs...

A little way along we come to snatches of views across the valley to the glowing orange escarpment. A flowering banskia spinulosa or hairpin banksia with it's orange brushes and black styles frames the view out, while looking downward we see the plunging bridal veil falls. Leaving the lookout we head up the steps then climb down the staircases to the base of bridal veil falls. The long winding stairs traverse through the dense forest and past a beautiful gully of tree fern. Everything is moist and dripping. Rocks are covered in beautiful ferny moss. This is a truly beautful gully. Next to the path someone has carved a rudimentary face in the rock which has then been covered green with lush growth making a memorable landmark.

In the surrounding forest, a tree trunk has been comprehensively colonised by a fruiting fungus which climbs like a tawny apartment block high up into the tree. Surely the beautiful fungi are the jewels of the rainforest!

Finally we emerge at the base of the falls. We are immediately struck by their appropriate name... we admire for a minute or two and another couple arrive. Their first comment is the same as ours.. gee they really do look like a bridal veil!

From the falls we are heading up again, and pass under the canopy of tall tree ferns. Everywhere we go the sound of cascading water, trickling water, abundant water provides a rich serenade. In this drought ridden land, the sound of water everywhere around is indeed a luxurious sound!!

We pass around the edge of the escarpment on a narrow band of exposed claystone track, kept dry by the overhanging rock. This is the amphitheatre track and the guide books warns it can be slippery after rain. Then we come to our first obstacle. A tree has fallen across the path, breaking the railing of the metal bridge across which it has landed. Hmm. How to get round this. I decide the easiest way seems to be to hold the railing and step down off the path and across the rocks, then climb back through the barrier to retake the path. This does prove quite a simple exercise and we are again on our way.

We pass another beautiful silver torrent of water bounding down through the forest over a beautiful array of rock and out of sight to the valley floor below. This is soon followed by a magical section of path that runs underneath a deep and dripping rock overhang. The rotten wooden planks of the old path are visible against the rock ledge. The new subtly coloured recycled plastic boardwalk is fringed by beautiful ferns.
Another five minutes and we emerge to a fine veil of water falling from far above to strike a narrow rock ledge that seems to be placed just for the purpose of enhancing the effect of this beautiful fringe of water. We pause for several minutes in admiration. As we move off we notice that this was Lila Falls. Yes, it deserves a name. We are already running out of superlatives for this walk. It is magnificent.

The stairs keep on taking us down, steeply down, as we follow the path of the water. We are reminded that we are on Federal Pass by an interpretive board that gives historical information about this track. Heading on we soon come to Linda Falls which proves more amenable to still photography. It falls in a roar into a beautiful clear sandy bottomed pool, before running under the bridge of the path and flowing again down into the abyss below.

Down again the track travels via a couple of sharp hairpin turning stairways. It's still only 12:46. One hour into a four hour walk and we're wondering how we're going to find getting back up when the time comes....
Our thoughts are again distracted by the Marguerite Cascades. Three falls named for three women. I wonder who they were... Marguerite Cascades is lovely, though not quite as easily viewed.
As we continue along the track we continue to pass falling water meandering around beatiful mossy rocks in silver torrents. The forest to this point is dim. But the ground begins to level and the canopy to show shafts of light. We have arrived at the magical Leura Forest. Like a fairy glen with mossy rocks placed with harmonious skill around the flat ground neatly ornamented with a leaf litter over rich moist brown humous. A Japanese garden would struggle to outdo the beautiful placement of these rocks among the tall straight tree trunks. Fantastic!!

We are pleased to see several picnic tables scattered at discrete distances around the forest floor. What a special place for a picnic!! We decide to have our lunch here on our return, but first we'll knock over the Dardanelles Pass. We cross Banksia Streamlet and find another section of the picnic ground, this time with a corrugated iron roofed tea house. A reproduction of an original built over a hundred years ago that was destroyed by a falling tree.
We head on up Federal Pass and are struck along the way by a large rich brown, deeply textured tree trunk beautifully ornamented by some fine fungi fruits of the finest delicate fawn colour. They are exquisite but the light is very poor. Oh for a tripod!
We are now walking through bell bird country. Their outstandingly ethereal tinkling bell calls provide a magical atmosphere and belie the nature of the actual bird. As children we would always wind down our windows in sections of forest we knew had bell birds and listen to their beautiful call. I imagined them to be tiny pretty sweet natured little things. Quite disillusioning to find they are a quite aggressive large honeyeater quite a bully of the bird world. A pretty green, which orange highlights in skin, but with very very sharp claws like needles and an almost evil talent for digging them into the quick of your fingernail as you extract them from a mist net, or try to measure them... but nothing, nothing can lessen the joy of listening to their call.
In a little while we pass a lyrebird calling. We stop to listen and record the call for you and for posterity. The recorder has picked up the bell birds which of course are nearer, but we also manage at least some of the lyrebirds repetoire. The bell bird calls dominate, but all the various other calls you can hear are the lyrebird letting fly one bird call after the other..see what (if any) you can recognise, I can clearly hear eastern whip bird, black cockatoo, currawong, kookaburra, and shrike thrush. What a delight to stand in the peaceful forest with such a chorus around you!

The path all along is steep uphill. Not a lot of steps, but strenuous just the same. As we rise the forest is opening out. As the forest opens the beatifully lumpy and knobbly red trunks of Angophera Costata stand like sentinels, with shed bark arrayed modestly round about in beautiful rich shades of brown. Oh how I love this tree the shedding season up here in the mountains seems quite out of kilter with that lower down by the coast. A little way along shining straight smooth white trunks here and there light up the forest and I wonder what species they are - maybe Eucalyptus oreades? or deanei?

Through the trees we can see the ruined castle and conclude we must be nearing the intersection with Dardanelles pass. Click on the photo and you can see the ruined castle on the top of the ridge that curves gentley across the foreground of the distant escarpment.

Sure enough here it is. It's now ten minutes to two. We've been walking about 2 hrs to get to this point. Heading back along Dardanelles Pass, we meet up with a couple of brits who have just come down the giant stairway and are wondering which way to go. They've come without their purses and have only $10 between them, so getting the railway up is out. They got directions at the info centre and can't remember what they were told. A bit of quizzing of us and they decide to head across to Leura Cascades. They take off
at quite a formidable pace, but we are happy to let them get ahead. It's much nicer walking in the forest on your own isn't it. The terrain is very easy after the rest of our walk and feels like a rest by comparison. It is gently downhill, and quite a smooth path. We navigate through/over/around a couple of fallen trees along the way and come to a lady and small girl seated on a wayside bench listening to another lyrebird this time up the slope a bit. The bird is calling beautifully we have a brief chat about it and share the wonder of these fabulous Australian birds. Many people assume that because they are such great mimics - they can even make the sound of chain saws and tinkling chains when those sounds are around them - that they are named for that ie they are liar birds. This is not the case. They are lyre- birds named for the lyre shaped tails. The lyre is of course a musical instrument. The indigenous people regarded the lyrebird as having been given among the birds permission to speak all languages and was the "totem" symbol of the Dharawal people resident around the Campbelltown/Camden "cowpastures" area who took a role of diplomat and hospitable hosts among the local tribes. Living in such a rich and abundant area, in times of drought the mountain tribes would come down to the Dharawal area there around Mt Annan and the Dharawal considered it their duty to welcome all visitors, hold conferences and so on... they were similarly tolerant of the early european settlers. So a Dharawal oral historian told us in a talk I once attended. He said that the mountain tribes were not so tolerant and the violence that ended up occuring was when those people had come down in dry times and came into conflict with the settlers.
But I digress...
Soon we are back at Leura forest and ready for lunch. We're not the only ones with this idea, but the tables are well spaced and it's perfectly possible to have a quiet private lunch, albeit with an occassional wave and g'day to a passing walker. The forest encourages quiet contemplation, like a cathedral. There is something about this track. Almost everyone you pass is moved to be friendly. Does this wonderful place bring such a sense of common humanity to people who walk with spirits soaring? We all seem to have a common sense of unspoken awe... Well, apart from those locally resident British ladies, who seem to be powering on in chattering conversation oblivious to the forest. Oblivious to the lyrebirds. We catch them up when another guy is talking to them about the birds and saying to listen for them. The ladies stand with blank faces. They've not noticed the birds at all. I can't help feeling they've missed the point completely, but hey, each to his or her own I suppose.

Lunch out of the way. We press on wanting to see whether we can comfortably complete the walk in the 4 hours. It's now about 2:40 pm. Allowing extra for our lunch stop our 4 hrs runs out at 4 pm, but can we do it? It's only a short while until we hit the up-stairs section. We come to features that felt so far from the start of our walk. It's a strenuous climb up. We pace ourselves and pause regularly to take in the scene and catch our breath. It is an extraordinarily beautiful track... or should we say stairway, but our lower body is certainly feeling it. My knee is the first to complain and I start to feel my age. Bloody knee! Fortunately we have mostly to go up stairs and this it can tolerate no worries. Down is not so comfy and the problem leg must go down first which is a bit of a drag that slows us a bit.
We make it back to the carpark at 3:45pm. The guide book says this walk should be treated as a day walk. Probably quite correct, and it would be no problem if you just moseyed up and down the stairs etc, sat on the provided seats when they come up and generally just do a bit of communing. Certainly when doing cave tours at Jenolan, you take a flight or two of stairs, or a ladder and then you have a good 5 or ten minutes of resting listening and admiring before heading on again. Not very tiring that way at all. Certainly even half of this walk done at a steady continuous pace, seems twice as strenuous as the river cave that's for sure. However we're rather tickled that we've done it without too much problem. I must look up Tongariro Crossing and have a think about the comparison in the terrain etc. I think they say that once you get up the first bit.. is it the Devil's Staircase, the rest isn't too bad? I still don't know if we're game to take that on, but we'll have a great time walking before we decide. .. I've got my eye on the walk to ruined castle which is a similar grade but longer. It would need an early start of course....
.. back in the car we have some more water, and head off home in time to get the dinner...
Sunday morning after a better than usual night's sleep we aren't sore, but our lower body is tired. It certainly got a work out!

I must say that this challenging walk is superlative. Absolutely glorious. I am sure it would be delightful at any time, but now in winter after rain, in the season the lyrebirds are calling, it just cannot be bettered. What a privilege it is to live so close to such an amazing place as the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

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