Back to the Breaks

There is a rugged, exceptional country that exists on the interface between the Blue Mountains National park and the Yerranderie State Conservation Area. It is a place where the hills fall and rise like turbulent, rounded seas, veiled in a blue and white haze of fragrant Eucalyptus oils. Every inch of the land here is wrapped in thick scrub, near sentient and vicious at times; it is only the carving of ancient blue-gum lined creeks and formidable sandstone clad cliffs that fracture the green-blue roll, as it stretches on and on and on. This country is known as the Blue Breaks, and every now and then it calls to the lonely bush walker.

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Map section of the Blue Breaks, where the Blue Mountains meet Yerranderie

I first ventured into the bounds of the Breaks nearly three years past, when I had just started testing the waters of solo bush-travel. The walk proved a challenge, to say the least, but now with a deal more experience under my proverbial belt, I was keen for another run.

Day one

It was on a pleasant Tuesday in September that I found myself driving the twisted descent to the Janolan Caves. After making my way carefully through the iconic, crumbling stone arc, I soon hit corrugated dirt. This well-used fire trail would take me to my intended beginning, the Kanangra Walls car park. Leaving my trusty Subaru, I donned a backpack filled with supplies enough for 5 days in the wilderness, and headed east and then south along the well-cut trail, past Maxwell top. I then dropped off the cliffs at Murrang head; I had only traveled this route once before, in 2013, when I attended the annual Kowmung river walk (‘the Presidents Bludge Walk’ aka the PBT) with the Sydney University Bushwalkers. The start of the ridge down to the Kowmung River via Bullhead mountain was open and made for fast walking. My efficient pace was only paused by the loud squeal of a hairy, black feral pig, as it disappeared into the surrounding bush, and the distant crunch of seed between the sharp beak of a Glossy Black Cockatoo.

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Views towards Katoomba, from Kanangra Walls
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Charred Banksia on the Walls
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Wattles flowering

My pace only slowed upon reaching Cambage Spire. Here, it became substantially steeper and required a careful foot and light rock scrambling. As the sun slowly creeped towards the horizon I reached the Kowmung, whose swollen waters depicted a river in flood. Though the heavy rains had fallen several days back, the Kowmung takes in great volumes from cliff-line streams, which can continue a steady drip for many days after the initial rain event.

With the aid of two sticks, I navigated the shivery rush. Bare foot and wet up to my hips, I reached the southern side, thankful to not have dunked my pack, which I had not the forethought to waterproof.

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The Kowmung in flood

Bulga ridge offered a much rougher path than the Bullhead, if any could indeed be found, but the scrub was generally open and inoffensive. I had to pause for some moments to take in the shifting of the light. The sun wove reds and oranges into the trees and mountains about, and the birds sung songs of the end of day. Is there any time more beautiful than when the country turns to honey and birds awaken to its sweetened scents?

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The changing of the lights
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Honeyed hills

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Skyline

 

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The sun disappears

The final two kilometres were made in near dark and the scrub grew inwards and clung and ripped and spiked until it spat me out on the great orange scar of Scotts Main Range fire trail. This I followed, under bright stars, to Byrnes Gap, where I made my camp for the night.

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Scotts Main Range fire trail
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Passing the ‘Riders hut’, located in a small section of private property in Byrmes Gap

Day Two

I woke early to the sounds of currawongs and magpies, kookaburras and wattlebirds. From Byrnes gap and Axehead Mountain I would enter the Blue Breaks. A cut path up to Gander head, which lies on the ridgeline directly south of the Axhead, was signalled by a pile of rocks just a ways along the road from the Rider’s hut at Byrnes Gap. I followed it at a steady pace to the top, where I was rewarded by spectacular views in all directions.

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Views on the top

The ridge had a peculiar roll to it, and the trees that sprouted sparsely from the tops accentuated its unusual curvature. I followed the ridge north, at a leisurely pace, sticking to the skyline, when possible, and then retracing steps to find breaks in the cliff when I came to steep drop-offs, impassable without rope or impressive down-climbing skills.

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Up onto the round ridge line

When I reached Axehead Mountain, I paused for a quick lunch and watched as the growing heat drew a blue haze across Bull Island Peak. In the distance, bellbirds chimed and a lonely wedge-tailed eagle made trails across the slightly overcast sky. My breath caught in my chest. Excitement pummeled through my limbs. The Blue Breaks had woven their magic.

 

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A haze falls over Bull Island Peak

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The scrub between the Tonalli Range and Bull Island Peak was rough and the gradient steep. Descending Tonalli was like falling from the sky, and having that fall broken by a thick arrangement of spiky trees. My hands quickly became dotted with black, as small spines snapped off the scrub and embedded themselves into my skin. It was not, however, an unbearable experience nor was the bush as rough as it was in other parts of this country, furthermore the drop was short-lived. I stuck to the slight saddle just above the 600 m topographical mark on the map, and was soon up at the peak.

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A gathering of sawfly larvae

From here I dropped again, continuing my line of endless undulation. This time, however, I followed an amazing piece of rock dubbed the Razor blade. This natural feature is raised several meters off the humped ridge, and resembles an old dilapidated stone wall. I followed atop the knife with interest, until it ended abruptly, and then I fiddled my way across Bull Island Gap and up and onto Lacy’s Tableland.

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Start of the ‘extreme’ knife edge ridge – aka the Razor Blade
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Onto the knife edge
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Walking the Razorblade

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The particular pass I took can be reached by hitting the nose of triangular cliff line that pokes out of Lacy’s, just to the east of Bull Island Gap. It makes for a truly spectacular climb, with a variety of interesting scrambles up a very narrow ascent. I found it doable with a heavy backpack and rock climbing experience, but a few sources suggest packing a short rope for pack-hauling up the steeper scrambles.

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Views over to Lacy’s and the ridge leading to the pass
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View from atop the pass
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More views from atop

Now onto Lacy’s Tableland, I found myself among blackened trees and and a sea of golden flowers. I sailed through these neck-high plants, overwhelmed by their sweet scent and the slight tickle it procured in my nose.

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A sea of gold and black

I skirted north along the tops of the cliffs for 500 m or so, until I reached an indent in the topography, where a small stream was marked on the map. Below the initial cliff line, just up from where a drip of water flowed (this would definitely not be flowing in drier times), I found a sandy bottomed cave with room to spare. Here I set up camp.

Day three

After scrubbing evidence of my fire, I departed camp and made my way north along the western edge of Lacy’s Tableland. I stuck to the high points, avoiding the scrubbier dip directly along the cliff edge. The terrain was surprisingly open and in no time my boots had seen several kilometers by. I took in the dramatic cascade of orange cliffs to green hillsides whenever my path led me out to exposed, bare rock edges. The bellbird’s song was joined momentarily by a lyre bird’s story.

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Woody Pear (Xylomelum pyriforme; identified by Neil Ross), spotted on Lacy’s Tableland
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Views from Lacy’s Tableland
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Looking back out along the high cliffs of Lacy’s

I made my way off the Tableland via an easy pass at GR481289 (approximate, I didn’t carry a GPS) and soon found myself in the complex terrain surrounding Green Wattle Creek. Although not as clear and open as the Kowmung, walking along its banks did not prove too difficult.  Rather than navigating the difficult contours around Broken Rock Range, I made my way carefully along the stream feeding into Green Wattle Creek, which runs in between the Broken Rock Range and Broken Rock. This path proved much quicker and less scrubby than anticipated and at approximately GR466305, I clawed up a steep ridge, which I followed down to GR459314, Butcher’s creek. By this slow-flowing water source I ate a quick lunch and basked in the afternoon sun. Then, it was back up and along, picking a path north-east of a dramatic cliff line, until I was again plodding along Scotts Main Range fire trail.

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Butcher’s Creek

I followed Scotts until I reached Mt Feld, where I turned north-west down the Denis ridge trail. Half way down, I veered right, intending to follow the marked black dotted trail on the map. Instead, however, I ended up on the ridge to the left. It carried a much more prominent trail, and didn’t end too far from my intended crossing point.

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Onto Denis Ridge

I breached the Kowmung River well before dusk. It was another difficult crossing that required a short swim by the side of a mostly submerged, rotted log. The current was powerful and pushed me against the slippery wood, but soon I was across, thoroughly drenched and ready for camp. I found a clear spot by the base of Roots Ridge and warmed up by a fizzling fire.

Day four

I had a leisurely rise this morning, and began with the climb after coaxing my feet into sodden shoes and socks. Roots Ridge makes for one of the most pleasant, gentle climbs from the Kowmung to Gingra Range and I enjoyed the exertion immensely. Once on top, I was treated to a wonderfully refreshing breeze and continued along west, and back up to the Kanangra Walls. I experienced brief confusion after I lost track of time and my place along the ridge, and was reminded how important diligent navigation is in this area, even when walking along well-worn paths. I mused how many people had lost their way in this country, assuming well marked, well trodden paths couldn’t be lost. It is a land that can swallow whole the naive, unwary bushwalker.

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Looking down on the mighty Kowmung
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The weather must be warming; a goanna climbs a tree

Soon I was steaming along the 1000 meter contour line, making quick time of Kanangra tops. As grey storm clouds gathered and rain started to spit, I emerged from the bush, and was all of a sudden back in the car park. My silver shiny vehicle seemed strange against the dull greens and browns of the surrounding forest. The roar of the engine was too loud, the sudden blast of the heater an unwelcome sensation. Already, I wished to be back out in the wilds of the Blue Breaks, but I was required for work and for now I would have to be content with the memories held of the past four days of exploration.

 

 

** For details on more adventures into this unique country, check out David Warren Nobel’s website.

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