In March 1913, the crowds waited anxiously for the Lady Denman to speak. The fate of the pronunciation of the new Capital of the Federation of Australia rested on her utterance, and so the Governor-General’s wife sealed its history with her two syllable word, Can-bra.
Just over a century later, of course, almost nobody cares. Which is not to say that residents of the capital territory do not appreciate the Canberra Day long weekend, and especially the New-South-Welshmen-free public holiday Monday. For precisely this reason, the Australian National University Mountaineering Club hosts its annual Blue Mountains Extravaganza (BME) on this long weekend, a celebration of canyoning, rock climbing and bushwalking in the mountains outside of Sydney (that is, as far from Canberra as most people are willing to drive for a weekend).
In this particular year (being the year of the ginger ANUMC President, aka me) the BME returned to its roots as the weekend for more experienced club members. It soon turned into a canyoning event based at the abandoned oil shale mining town of Newnes in the Wolgan Valley, a five hour drive from Canberra. Sadly this was a slightly longer mission on the Friday night after we hit a kangaroo and attempted to save her joey, in the process stumbling across Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley Resort.
Still, all the other silver Subarus* of the club arrived intact, and the weekend went smoothly. With only canyoners for participants, we were able to rotate the sets of leaders and non-leaders through the three main canyons in the area over the three days, with an extra canyon thrown in for the most experienced group. This turned out to be a very successful venture, allowing everyone to see the main canyons in the area, and giving everyone a full weekend’s worth of canyoning experience. Unlike the unfortunate case of Upper Bowens Creek South Fork, the canyons at Newnes were much more appropriately named. I was co-leading Richard†’s trips, and we started with Starlight.
Actually, Starlight was originally known as Newnes Canyon (not terribly exciting), but was renamed with this lovely title by commercial groups in reference to the enclosed tunnel of glowworms at the top of the canyon. Even better, this section is known as Amazing Wallaby Tunnel, which you can read more about in this slightly fantastical account from the Sydney University Bushwalkers archives (bonus: includes the delightful word Canyoniferous!).
Starlight is the furthest canyon from the Little Capertee campground at Newnes, although all the canyons on this side of the Wolgan River are accessed by the same track, the Pipeline Pass. That is, the same torturous, evil, solidly uphill (over 300 vertical metres) track that is needed to reach the watershed in order to descend down into each of the canyons. We shaved off at least 5 minutes on each ascent, and probably lost a litre less sweat each day too.
We followed the track along the ridge as the other groups peeled off, until we too found a branching track leading neatly to anchors into Starlight Canyon. Unfortunately, this turned out to be too easy, and we abseiled into the canyon below the Amazing Wallaby Tunnel. Still, we donned headtorches and explored the winding glowworm slot cave until we reached the waterfall that we were meant to abseil in on, and returned to our packs.
The rest of Starlight was lovely, and the low water levels meant that donning wetsuits was for once unnecessary. This gave us such a relaxed lunch break that the bushwalker famous for his photographs of people in the wild minus their clothing half-jokingly said that he hadn’t expected to have enough time for his hobby on a canyoning weekend. However, we did move on at this point, and made it back to camp by 5pm.
The evening saw the first gathering of the Lucky Adventurers Club, sharing Hellyer’s Road, Laphroaig, Nikka and a New Zealand whisky, complimented by a mix of tales ranging from misfortune with flights to a very tall story of the Tasmanian Regiment from our professional photographer Jason.
The next day was Devil’s Pinch canyon, with a different group of participants and another canyoning co-leader joining Richard and me. We were worried about this canyon, having had it described as a “London Sewer” the evening before, but we were all pleasantly surprised by the series of pools. These turned out to be much chillier than expected, so the two of the five of us who had donned wetsuits (a seemingly foolish decision in the dry upper section of the canyon) congratulated ourselves on our decision, while the others braved the conditions stoically.
Then we found the abseil of curious orange slime that had caused the London Sewer comment.
Thankfully the lunch spot at the bottom of the last abseil was a gloriously sun-bathed rock, and once we were all dry(ish) we scrambled across the boulder field of a river bed to the Wolgan River.
Crossing this to the firetrail on the far side led us into the old industrial site of Newnes, where we had also paused as tourists the previous day. The scale of the mining, and the shortness of its time in the area, were quite remarkable.
The last day down Pipeline was also the shortest for our group, yet not the easiest. Our two canyoning leaders combined did a fine job of getting us into the dry upper constriction of the canyon, sometimes missed, which would have skipped the impressive coachwoods. This also gave us plenty of time for carefully navigating the starts of abseils, several of which were quite tricky, especially for less experienced canyoners.
At the bottom of an abseil we found this rather spectacular example of mothiness.
We made fine time, and were the first to return to camp, where we lazed around by the river until the others returned. Then, after a very full weekend of canyoning, it was time to return to Canberra. Best of all, there was no guilt for the ANUMC for missing Canberra Day, since we were more than happy to kayak at dawn during the Balloon Spectacular of the following week.
Full resolution photos, and a greater selection, can be found on Flickr.
*The unofficial club car.
†For those who didn’t click through to the description of Upper Bowens Creek South Fork, Richard is famous for his perpetually youthful appearance. His actual age remains a mystery, and he has moved quite seamlessly between the Melbourne Mountaineering Club and our own Australian National University Mountaineering Club without apparently ageing a day. Some say that he cannot age, and that he has been in outdoor clubs since the beginning of time…