Canyon Curiosity: A Canyoning Adventure
I eagerly tore the packaging containing the new book. As I pull it out, I read the title: Canyons near Sydney, 5th edition. I love guidebooks. To me, it's a promise of the adventures to come. In this particular guide book, there was coverage for the many canyons in the Blue mountains area near Sydney. Far away from where I lived, the Blue mountains held hundreds of sandstone canyons, a playground for the adventurer.
Canyoning is the sport used to tackle these dark gouges in the earth that have been carved by water over the millennia. It involves descending them with various technical rope skills covering a multitude of sports. In essence, the aim is to start at the top and go until you can get out again. Many canyons are one way trips, where no escape is possible after pulling the rope down behind you. The focus is also on the aesthetics. Canyons are beautiful places.
Flicking through the pages, I could already feel the excitement building of the trips to come. My fingers stop a page at the back of the book. Right at the bottom of page 90, I see the heading ‘Canyons near Brisbane’, which is where I live. Scanning down the list of four mentioned canyons, I mentally tick the three I had done and then stop on the last one.
I read word for word; “There is a canyon in Long creek below Long creek falls, in the Border Ranges National Park, west of Lions road.
That’s it. No more than those exact words.
Well, that’s interesting. I had already explored a significant area around Brisbane and had descended everything I could find. And I had never heard of Long creek canyon.
My google searches turn up nothing. Asking around reveals blank stares. No one has heard of it.
As the mystery deepens, so too does my curiosity. That’s the thing with canyoning. You just don’t know what’s down there. You can encounter all sorts of interesting or dangerous situations. My love of canyoning has taken me overseas to pursue bigger, deeper and more challenging chasms of carved rock.
So it was on a sunny, rather hot, July day in 2014 that myself and two close friends decided we would take a look. It would be a reconnaissance mission, and we didn’t plan to descend the canyon. We march along the border track, west of Lion’s road, and settle into a strenuous yoyo of elevations.
The terrain is relentless. Our legs soon burn with effort. Exposed to the sun the entire way, we feel ourselves baking. We had forgotten hats. Water is nonexistent along the track, and the only source is from the creek in the valley floor which lay three or four hundred meters below through thick Lantana vines.
This is the nicer side of the valley, not much Lantana, nice and open. The canyon side is much nastier.
A long, hot hike, sees us reaching close to the falls after midday, and peering into the gorge, we glimpse a waterfall or two, with the rest obscured by a dark canopy of rainforest. You can't get to the falls from the border fence, there is still some off track navigation to reach the top of the waterfall. So the small canopy opening we had was our best view to potentially see what was contained within. We had hoped to see more, but with water rations dwindling and heat exhaustion setting in, we decide to bail and leave the place.
It was the return journey that broke us a little.
With the water gone, our legs protested in pain as we slog the same hills back. It was demoralising to constantly gain the top, only to have to go down and repeat it again on the next one.
As we reach our car, we vow that whatever is there, if there even is anything there, is not worth the effort. With packs full of ropes, wetsuits and other gear, that same journey would be tremendously harder if we did it again. It is agreed then.
We won’t be back.
29th September, 2017. Lion’s Road.
We arrive at dusk and brimming with excitement. A few years have passed, and it always gnawed at me. What is down there? It makes a specific mention of Long creek canyon in the book, so there must be something. There must be a canyon!
My team: Luke, Joseph and Andrew. And our trusty alloy steeds, our mountain bikes.
The memory of the hard work of last time had faded, and curiosity had won over again. To make it easier, we would ride in on mountain bikes the night before, gain as much distance as we could, then start early the next day to finish the last bit to the start and then descend the canyon. We predict a late walk out, and battling against the Lantana uphill would be a war most likely fought in the dark.
So with 20kg packs we ride, or totter more accurately, along the same border track from three years ago, and the memory hits us again immediately on the first hill, only one hundred meters or so from our car. This WAS the trip we vowed not to do again. This was the same trip that hurt our legs for days afterwards. And now we had loaded up with four times as much weight, and sat pumping pedals up hundred meter hills, over and over and over again. We abandon riding up hills and instead push the bikes upwards in short spurts then use the brakes to pull ourselves up a little. Calves burn and conversation dies. Water is drunk in gulps as sweat pours off us. Brisbane had just suffered through a mid week heatwave, perhaps the timing for the trip was off?
The downhills feel like they pass too quickly on the bikes, and with small head torches and top heavy loads, we have to cautiously negotiate the steep drops. I almost fly over the handlebars a few times. No less than three snakes lay on the path, almost like extra traps for us to dodge to add even more excitement to riding a bike with a heavy pack, at night.
Two hours pass, and with jelly legs, we find a flat spot near where we would potentially exit from the valley below the next day. This is as far as we go today. Morale had remained surprisingly high despite the hills. A canyon awaits us after all!
We had packed minimal bivvy gear. All of us had sleeping bags, I opted for bringing my sleeping mat as well, Luke brought his inflatable pillow and a thin mat, and Andrew and Joseph decided to use wetsuits as sleeping pads. Varying degrees of quality sleep were had, but we could all enjoy the amazing sunrise that the next morning offered us, no matter how tired we were.
We were ready to go canyoning!
Long creek canyon would remain a mystery no longer. We leave the bikes and continue on foot as the terrain involves scrambling in sections which we had noted on our reconnaissance trip. Chatting of potential features we might find in the canyon, we delighted in the adventure that would be coming up. We were hoping for a nice narrow canyon with lots of drops, twists and turns. How long would it be? Would we need to drill bolts as anchors? Would two ropes suffice? This is what we lived for. The adventure. The exploration. The fun.
Reaching the point we would turn off the border and drop into the valley, I ready my machete, my old faithful Lantana slayer. With swift cuts I make a path and lead us to the creek above the falls. A hundred meters down we see the first drop. We stop and wriggle into our wetsuits, don our harnesses and unpack our ropes.
The canyon begins.
The first drop falls away abruptly at 25 meters. We find a tree clinging to the rock and set up our rope. I abseil first, followed by Luke. We leave Andrew and Joseph to handle the rope pull down and take our second rope ahead to what appeared to be the next waterfall. The walls surrounding us reached up 70 meters or more. Escape would be very difficult, if not impossible. As the day was getting hotter and the canyon was still quite open, we had pealed our wetsuits off the top half of our bodies to manage the heat better. Once we get in the canyon proper, we would zip them up again.
Our next waterfall is 15 meters high and we bound down, eagerly awaiting the real start to the canyon, after all, it was still more of a open gorge than a canyon at this stage, and Long creek canyon was mentioned in the book among other worthy canyons, so it must be worth doing!
We rock hop a short distance and inspect the next drop. Andrew and Joseph have caught up to the second abseil and throw down the first rope for us to use. Teamwork is always important in canyoning, as you never know how long you'll be, so you need to be efficient.
Another abseil set up, Luke and myself descend into what appears to be more of a creek as it opens up again. Never mind, some canyons open up briefly and then close again, although it’s rare judging from the other notable canyons around Brisbane.
We decide to continue on and let Andrew and Joseph catch up once we reach the main part of the canyon. Hopping from rock to rock, we breeze downstream for half an hour or so. I pull out out my GPS and check the topographic map. It’s open enough again to catch a signal. My heart sinks. We were now well and truly away from any of the steep rocky terrain that is typically found in canyon containing territory. The chances of finding anything resembling a true canyon is now very slim.
Waiting for the other two to catch up, Luke and I discuss what we both fear.
We had actually already finished the ‘canyon’.
All that hype that had built up surrounding such a big trip to get there had manifested itself in our emotions. Little had we considered that there was no indication from anywhere or anyone, save the book, that there was anything resembling a canyon in Long creek. There was a reason no one knew anything about Long creek canyon, it’s not really a canyon.
To be fair, the three abseils we did do constitute a ‘abseil trip’ in a gorge type setting, something someone could desperately call ‘a canyon’ to gather interest. But we had literally hung on those words ‘there is a canyon below long creek falls’ like the adventure seekers we are.
When Andrew and Joseph caught up, it had turned out we had all been thinking the same thing. The trip was done, it was over. There was not going to be anymore canyon for us, the 3 abseils were it, we had done ‘Long creek canyon’. After an early lunch, we would continue a little further downstream, and make for the first bit of sensible uphill that would take us back up to the border.
We begin the exit.
The canyon may have been done, but the adventure was not over. We still had to get our bikes and ride out the same hills and ridges along the border we had rode in. Morale had now dropped slightly.
Handing over my machete to Joseph, he started upward with purpose making it quite enjoyable for the rest of us with a clear track. A first time Lantana battler, he made quick work of anything in his way. We break into the harsh sun before long, and trudge our way back to the bikes.
Reaching our rides, we hastily pack our gear. It is now midday and the full wrath of the sun is beating down on us. We start off up the first big hill. Our wetsuits and ropes are now wet, and the added weight is keenly felt by us all. Hundreds of meters of steep uphill is complemented with the same loss on the other side. I could not think of a worse track to do on a 36+ degree day.
At long last we reach the final downhill section as we near the cars. A flash of a reflecting windscreen is seen in the distance. Civilization. We are on the home stretch. We push the speed as we blast down the hills. Only one flat tire occurs, a miracle considering all the roots and rocks poking out of the track, and after a short pit crew patch repair, we are off again.
Our brakes screech as we pull up to our cars. We are tired, hungry and desperately thirsty.
It's the moments after an adventure ends that we stop to consider its meaning. What do we do it for? All the suffering, the excitement, the highs and lows. What are they all for?
George Mallory may have answered “because it's there” when asked why he climbed Everest, but there's always a reason. “Because it's there” does not answer the question, it merely deflects it.
So what is it?
We gain something in ourselves when we have an adventure. Climbing a mountain, descending a canyon, or just trying something really hard. These things open a window into ourselves, they reveal who we really are, what we are capable of, and what purpose we have.
And while that might be our philosophical answer for why we do these things, there's also something much simpler. Something that has driven humankind since the beginning.
We want to know what's in that canyon!