The heat was, once again, oppressive. It seems particularly unlucky that this hike, involving 800m of elevation over 6km, and packs weighing upwards of 20 and even 30kg, had coincided with a heat wave not once but twice in 2014. Still, we napped in the shade before the final ascent and then pushed to the summit once the heat had burnt off. There, on the plateau, to our amazement, we were joined by another Mountaineering Club couple – and their 15 month old baby.
But then, the Cocktails on the Castle always was meant to be a bit different.
It had started 21 years ago, back in 1993. The Youth Hostels Association of New South Wales was celebrating its 50th birthday with a competition: groups or individuals must climb one of the 50 most famous peaks in the state, and take a photo on the summit. The Australian National University Mountaineering Club elected to climb The Castle in the Budawang Range and wear formal attire on the summit. This not only won the competition, but birthed a tradition.
The 20th anniversary was actually in 2013, but bush fires and the ensuing park closure postponed the event. These days the hike is considered the presidential trip, and so Clare rescheduled the hike for January, which turned out to be an awesome trek, though at the end of an epic heat wave.
I was elected the President in 2014, so it was my event to organise later in the year. As such, the trip became the Red Promenade, a thematic celebration of the club’s first ginger president since the turn of the millennium.
Unluckily, this trip too was faced with a heat wave, so the group camped at Long Gully on the Friday night set off early on Saturday morning. Our car was the redhead car, including Ned with his glorious sun-bleached crimson dreadlocks, Chris with his tousled fiery pelt, me the ginger President, and Nick, with his swarthy tresses but token red hairs in his beard. We came down from Canberra on Saturday morning, so we had to catch the other group with their two hour head start.
It was hot, but we survived, though we did collapse thankfully into the shade at the saddle. Chris lounged in his hammock, and Ned immersed himself in the shallow creek a short distance away. Recovered, we pushed onto the rock scramble itself, and found the others there. Some were hesitant climbing up the rocks, but all did such a fine job that we made it to the last shaded section for the hottest part of the afternoon, and people napped there while we waited for the sun to sink lower.
Here the rope that we’d carried in was put to good use. The club had once carried fresh ropes in and out of the climb to ensure safety, but these days we take rope in and knot it onto the climbs, removing any worn rope and taking that out with us. This tradition has earned us a lot of thanks from walkers outside the club who also use the rope. However, this rope needs replacing each trip, since otherwise it offers a false and dangerous sense of security. We watched hikers – including a young Scout group – throw their entire weight onto these entirely unknown and untested ropes as they climbed, sometimes even climbing up the rope itself rather than the rock beside it. It was a good reminder to us that if we were ever unable to replace the rope on a section that needed replacing, we would be better off removing the worn rope entirely and thus removing any temptation to weight an unsafe rope.
This time we had more than enough rope to replace all the worn sections, and once this was completed (mostly by Chris, our only experienced climber) we ushered everyone else to the plateau. Much scrub bashing, and then an open campsite on the rock was reached. It was here that we were joined by the couple and their tiny young daughter, putting the rest of us to shame. Their daughter even had a small red dress, made by her grandmother, to wear for the Red Promenade.
Not to be outdone, the rest of us also donned our formal attire. The men in their suits were soon sweltering, so we also pulled out the cocktails, some still with ice! Then, with plastic glasses full of red cocktails, we made our way to the edge of the plateau for photographs.
The ascent by the 15 month old was impressive, but it was not the only thing being celebrated. Another couple from Singapore were soon to be married, and the bride had worn a lovely white dress, with a red flower as a nod to the theme. These two had some of the best photos, and made the trip particularly special. For others, getting to the summit was achievement enough, and the big grins made this abundantly clear.
It had indeed been a great walk as part of a great tradition, but it wasn’t over yet. Next came the delicious finger food, including an entire glass jar of olives, and an entire cheesecake! The night proved warm and dry, giving everyone a good night’s sleep, besides Chris, whose rough hammock anchor system proved inadequate against the winds.
Sunday was predicted to get up to 38 degrees, so it was a dawn departure for one keen group, and not much later for the rest of us. This was also the first time that I’d taken the tunnel rather than the saddle.
The only drama on the descent was a sprained ankle, but thankfully this occurred after the rock scramble, and the Russian girl was able to continue the hike after some quick first aid from Ned. Down the bottom, everyone sank blissfully into Yadboro Creek, before it was time for the drive back.
As far as traditions go, this one may be a bit silly, and often physically challenges participants. Yet the photographs from the summit will inspire others to make the slightly mad ascent with overladen packs, and thus the tradition will continue, perhaps even for another twenty years.
For a brilliant and humorous tale of this hike, check out Chris’ new blog.
And for the recipes of two of the delicious ginger cocktails we had on the summit, see Nick’s blog of foody goodness.
An account of this trip appeared in Wild Magazine, No. 145.