I woke up early that morning. Golden rays of sunlight flickered through the curtains from 6 am, turning the van into a sauna almost immediately. I clambered from the bed and sat outside the van poring over the map as coffee brewed on the stove. From Perry’s Lookdown- where we were camped- the views over the valley were never-ending and a blue haze rose from the valley floor as the eucalyptus heated up in the warmth of daybreak.
During my last trip to the Blue Mountains, I had read about a campground named Acacia Flat on the forest floor, some 500m below where we were camped. The route from Perry’s Lookdown down to Acacia Flat was just over 3km which would have left us with a lot of time to kill at camp. I scanned the trails on the map which joined together like arterial veins, looking for a way to extend the route. Further north lay “The Grand Canyon’ trail- a circular day hike in its own right- which dropped down into the depths of the canyon. I noticed that a small trail veered off from this main track, linking up to the Acacia campground further down the valley. With little further research or planning, it was decided. This would be our route.
A typically leisurely morning ensued: I brewed more coffee and cooked porridge before breaking down camp and heading to the small town of Katoomba to pick up supplies. By the time we had bought a new gas canister for the stove and food, it was nearly 11 am. Discussing our plans for the day with the shop assistant in the camping store, he glanced at his watch with a look of concern and advised that the route takes longer than you’d think. Rough terrain and obscured trails would make it difficult to find our way through the bush, apparently.
When we had finally finished preparing our packs and checking everything over, it was midday. The GPX file I had loaded onto my Suunto calculated that the route to the campground was just shy of 16km. No problem, I thought. We joined the trail and began our descent into the canyon via well-marked trails and metal stairs. The enormity of the canyon was bewildering as it rose up to the sky all around us. Gushing torrents of water in the deeper chambers below echoed all around, and the moist, almost tropical air clung to my skin.
Thanks to the natural beauty that surrounded us, progress was slow. We stopped regularly to take photos and admire the grandeur which had been carved by mother nature over thousands of years. Despite the steady stream of traffic and man-made infrastructure, this section of the walk was incredible. But as soon as we met the fork in the trail the terrain quickly changed. Signs warning of uneven footing, rock fall and obscured trails were prominent. We continued on our course, taking note of the warnings but not deterred. The trail, as warned, became less obvious and the footing became unstable in parts. However, using the stream as a handrail and following a bearing, we continued through the valley, stopping to fill my LifeStraw and swim in the river on occasion.
It was at this point that we bumped into a couple we had met at Perry’s Lookdown the previous evening. They enquired where we were heading, taking note of the heavy packs on our backs. When we explained where we were planning to camp, the same look of concern we had seen earlier that day crossed their faces. “It’s much further than you think”, they proclaimed. “Don’t camp too close to the stream as there are red-bellied blacks down there”- one of the most venomous snakes in Australia. This time, as the day was drawing to a close, I started to question the route. Were we going to make it to camp before dark?
After we bid farewell, I checked the map once more. With 7km remaining and 2 hours before sunset, I knew we would be fine. But I couldn’t be sure. The forest floor was thick with tangled bracken and dense scrub which would make setting up camp off the trail difficult. We followed the stream for almost 5km, losing the trail but always re-joining somehow until we reached Junction Rock. I couldn’t help thinking about all the different snakes that lived in the undergrowth. It wasn’t until after we returned to the van that I learned that 21 out of 25 of the most venomous snakes live in this part of the forest- something I’m glad I didn’t know at the time. Putting the snakes to the back of my mind, we bushwhacked our way through the forest for what seemed like hours, stomping our feet and singing songs to scare off any critters the may be lurking ahead.
Eventually, the path widened and the thick bush gave way to a clearing in the forest. Gargantuan blue gum trees reached up to the sky which had turned a soft shade of red. With darkness fast approaching I hurriedly pitched the tent and collected firewood from around the campground. As the sky darkened and the temperature dropped we sat by the campfire and played our thousandth game of ‘shit head’. The sound of a million flying cockroaches rang around the forest making it almost impossible to concentrate on the game in hand. That’s my excuse for losing 3 games in a row, anyway. When silence finally resumed, the forest was still as can be. I’m not entirely sure why the cockroaches ceased their thunderous racket but I was so thankful that they did.
The fire we had built earlier in the evening crackled away, emanating a comforting warmth and glow around the camp. Even though we were in the depths of the bush, we felt safe.
At 6 am the following morning, beams of sunlight began to shine through the canopy high above thawing out the chill that had descended during the night. I unzipped the tent, built the fire again and put the stove on to boil- how any good morning should begin. We were in no rush to return to the van so spent the morning lazing around camp, drinking coffee and planning the following few days. From Sydney, we hadn’t made up much ground and we’d been in the Blue Mountains for five days already, far longer than we’d planned.
Finally, after a long morning lazing around, we broke camp and packed up. The thought of hiking 16km back through the valley to where we had parked was pretty daunting, so we checked the map and found a more direct route which went straight up the hill. The new route may have been considerably shorter, but the vertical ascent was still the same, however, in a quarter of the distance.
The uphill slog was a gruelling thigh burner and the midday sun didn’t help matters. Unlike the valley floor which was abundant in water to fill my Lifestraw, the mountainside was bone dry and by the time we had reached what looked like halfway, our water supply was running thin. The next 2km was a battle against heat exhaustion and dehydration, to the point that Em nearly collapsed. When we finally reached the top, we still had another kilometre to walk along the road to the van where our water tank was waiting. Never before had I been so grateful for a cup of lukewarm water and some shade.
We stayed the first night at Perry’s Lookdown campground just outside Blackheath. From there we walked to Acacia Flat campground in the Blue Gum Forest via the Grand Canyon.