After spending a good month in Scotland walking the Cape Wrath Trail, I was feeling up for a bit of a challenge on home ground. It was thus I found myself on a cold winter’s night, drinking a hot toddy at Katoomba’s Station bar with friend Tim Vollmer, and mentally preparing myself for an early start on the K2K track.
The K2K, or the “Katoomba to Kanangra” walk is a ~ 60 km trail (from the Katoomba train station to the Kanangra Walls Car park), which takes the bushwalker on a scenic traverse through the Blue Mountains National Park and the Kanangra-Boyd National park via the Coxs River. It was my original plan to tackle the return walk (~120 km) in under 24 hrs, but I was prepared for the possibility of spreading this distance over two days, and packed a tent, sleeping bag, mat and enough food to sustain myself overnight.
By 10 pm, I had bid farewell to Tim and retreated to my car for a quick shut-eye before heading out. I ambitiously set my alarm for 2.30 am, although the excitement of getting back out into the Australian bush was enough to keep me from any decent form of sleep. Thus, it was not until 3 am that I threw my pack over stiff shoulders, and leaped out into the winter night, beginning the steady plod down Katoomba Street and Cliff Drive to reach the head of Narrow Neck. I was a sleep walker on the Neck, but as I stumbled along in the dark my path was lit by a blue, waning moon and I chased the Pointer stars and Cross south towards Tarros Ladder.
Only a few days before it had been snowing in the mountains, and an icy wind rocketed across the tops, cutting through the down jacket I had retreated into. It was just passed the winter solstice, and as such the days were short and the sun scraped the horizon. This would be a walk framed with darkness, but cloudless, crisp nights made prominent the brilliance of the Milky Way, the thick band of coloured pink and white dust that stretched across the stomach of the sky, and as such it was beautiful walking.
The sun was steady rising as I passed Mobbs soak and even before reaching Yellow Pup ridge, the birds had awoken and heralded the start of the day. I needed to be down at the Coxs by this time, approximately 7am, if I wished to get the most out of the daylight. As such, at this point I was feeling quite dispirited and the knowledge that I had only completed 1/4th of the distance, and the easiest section at that, was slightly exasperating. None-the-less, I continued on and after a cold knee-height crossing of the Cox, I was making my way up Strongleg Ridge.
The ascent up Strongleg wasn’t steep or scrubby, but it was consistent. Here, I allowed my mind to wander over the complexity of animal and plant life that flitted across my vision and sounded in my ears; the call of the black cockatoo, and of the lyre bird, the bounding crunch of dry leaf litter under the long feet of the common wallaroo and the orchestral rustle of a hundred different species of eucalyptus tree leaves moving chaotically in the wind. It was so engrossing, that I passed Mount Moorilla Mallo without notice, and found myself surrounded by the thick scrub of the Gangerang Plateau.
Just after heading down Tarros ladder, I had pulled out my compass to find it unusable. It’s tiny red arm signaling north pointed out towards Kanangra (which was most definitely south) and wobbled precariously, even when I held it still. I figured that a map, the sun, stars and a fairly well trodden path would be sufficient direction, however my progress to Dex’s creek was slowed, as the path thinned and the scrub thickened. I managed to make the creek without much difficulty, however, and was up on Mount Cloudmaker a little before 3 pm. I scrawled my name in the logbook and then set about tackling what was to be the hardest section of my walk.
I have before trodden the distance between Kanangra Walls and Cloudmaker. Although the ground was uneven, it was pleasant, efficient walking. After having swallowed nearly 50 kms today, however, I was fairly spent. I had also developed a painful twinge in my right leg; it was now with great difficulty that I lifted it past a 90 degree angle. For the next while, it was one foot in front of another (with the occasional arm assist to get my injured right leg over low lying logs and rocks). I was bolstered only by a brief conversation with a couple of walkers who had just set out to complete the Kanangra to Katoomba trail in 3 days. I mused lamely that a good conversation would have made this stretch, Rip, Roar and Rumble by.
Finally, just as the sun began to set at 5 pm, I reached the Walls. I limped into the car park with a strong mind to retreat, and was surprised to encounter two people drinking tea under the tin shelter. I tried my luck and asked if they could give me a lift to a train station, or at least to Jenolan caves – where I could catch a tourist bus back to Katoomba. In response to this question, I was greeted by distrustful looks and a polite but firm ‘no’. Perhaps they just thought me mentally unstable, walking from Katoomba in a day. Or, more likely, I smelt and looked scarier than I thought. In any case, it seemed that I would be making the return walk after all.
That night, as I was too tired to move from my resting spot under the Kanangra car park shelter or set up my tent, I rolled out my mat and sleeping bag and prepared my scant dinner of thin bread and salami. I thereafter proceeded to regret my lazy camp, as the wind picked up and began to bite at me through my clothes and through my sleeping bag. Ice drifted through the air and caught my torch light like diamonds. It was to be a cold and relatively sleepless night.
Every good journey needs its share of hardship, just as it needs the turning point and the moment when everything becomes wonderful again. Although this turning point did not greet me first thing in the morning, as I attempted to rise from my den and found my right leg stiff and fairly immovable, it did when I finally got everything stretched and struck back out onto the openness of the Walls. I began walking at 6 am, and the early morning light brought life into the world around me, as it also began its magic on my cold and leaden bones and muscles. The cliffs gleamed a rosy orange and red and the path shone brightly before me, like a yellow brick road. As I perceived the expanding stretch of colour across the rolling green eucalypt-clad hills, I was again reminded why I was out here, and any disappointment of not making the walk in 24 hrs was lost, as was the memory of the cold that had struck me the night past. Proper appreciation of such beauty, I found, sometimes calls for a bit of a struggle beforehand.
By 9 am, I was out again at Cloudmaker. I had decided to retrace my steps rather than complete a circuit walk, based on my poor physical condition and lack of a usable compass. Thus, rather than heading south, towards the Kowmung, I made my way back down to Dex’s creek. Here, I passed the two walkers who were leisurely packing up their camp, and after a brief chat, I was onto Strongleg for the steady decent to the Coxs. I jumped off the ridge early, to meet with Kanangra creek and fill my water bottle. As I drank deeply from the chill waters, I glanced up to meet the beady eyes of a large black feral pig who also made use of the creek for drink. She was on the opposite side of the water and seemed fairly uninterested in my existence, however, pigs have a fairly poor sense of sight and as the wind was running toward me, she may not have detected my presence. As a memento of this strange meeting, when I happened across a pig skull resting in the thick riverside grass, I decided to strap it onto my backpack and carry it out with me.
The ascent up Yellow Pup was the slowest section yet, however the remaining kilometers to Mobbs Swamp, and then onto Medlow Gap, passed with pleasure. I was completely absorbed in my surroundings and only paused to detect the source of a cracking noise, which turned out to be several Glossy Black Cockatoos munching at the seeds of a casuarina tree overhead. I just managed to make Tarros Ladder before dark and only reached for my torch when back on the Neck. By this point, it was a little past 6 pm and I was stiff and tired but incredibly satisfied. I had just been part of another spectacular change of light, as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. Treading carefully up Mount Debert, I was privy to a perfectly split, multi-coloured sky, with brilliant purples highlighting the east and reds and oranges, the west.
I was determined to make Katoomba in time for a feed, and so I shuffled across the flats of the Neck at as close to a steady jog as I could manage. As every walker who has followed this fire trail knows, the Neck seems to goes on and on and on. In the dark, I think, this distance is stretched out further still, although you are guided by the softly glowing lights of Katoomba, which are as beacons on the horizon. I was greeted back onto the tarmac by a family of ring-tailed possums, who gazed at me curiously and quietly from the branches of a gum tree. I watched them as they watched me and they huddled closer to each other, as if in response to the shiver of cold that ran through me. At that moment, we were both creatures of the night and this strange familiarity provoked an odd sense of comfort in me.
I made the main street of Katoomba by 8:40 pm, and retreated happily to the fire in the Yellow Deli for a hot soup and cider. That night I would drive back home, to the comfort of my Wolgan valley bed, where I enjoyed a well-deserved rest. I could barely move my right leg and even the acceleration pressure required by my foot, to spur the car into action, was almost too much. I considered the distances traveled over the past two days, and how my spirits seemed synchronous to the ups and downs of landscape. I also mulled over the moment when I arrived on the Walls, and gazed back at all the land I had covered. I was struck with the thought that even though we don’t look to surprise ourselves, we can be left speechless with all that we have the potential to achieve. Such is the way of the bush.