Who would be mad enough to go solo bushwalking and camping during heatwave conditions in a rugged wilderness area with little or no phone signal? Me, of course.
Believe it or not, there was some logic in this decision. I was guaranteed peace and quiet as most walkers would be (sensibly) holed up in air-conditioning, and the chance of spotting wildlife at creeks and waterholes was dramatically increased. I was also more confident after finally buying an emergency personal locator beacon (PLB). Of course, it’s quite possible this new purchase gave me a false sense of security…
I planned to stay at the Broadwater camping ground on the southern end of Sundown National Park. The Queensland National Parks website describes it as a rugged wilderness area of spectacular sharp ridges and steep-sided gorges. Peaks of over 1000 metres rise above the Severn River. Vegetation varies from pockets of dry vine scrub in sheltered gorges, yellow box and stringybark in high eastern areas, and box, ironbark, cypress, river red oaks and river red gums along the river.
The area was once used for sheep grazing and fine wool production, as well as for tin, copper and arsenic mining. Some relics of these activities remain and grazing properties still border parts of the national park.
The Broadwater Camping Ground is accessible to conventional vehicles via a gravel road whereas the other camping grounds are 4WD access only. I have to warn you though that the final kilometres of gravel road to Broadwater had accumulated piles of large rocks so care may be needed if you have a vehicle with low ground clearance.
I did intend arriving at Sundown National Park early, but as usual, things didn’t quite go to plan. Xena, a furry escape-artist belonging to a neighbour, slipped into my car unnoticed while I was packing. Unlike most cats I’ve known, Xena is extremely fond of travelling. It wasn’t until I was well into my trip that she popped out from her hiding spot under the seat to grin and purr at me.
The sudden appearance of a whiskered spotty beast on the passenger seat isn’t really what you expect while travelling at 100 kilometres per hour. After driving home and extracting Xena from the vehicle (not an easy task, I can assure you), I was once again on my way.
Closer to the national park, I needed to keep watch for unfenced cattle, sheep and wildlife. I spied a pale headed rosella when I stopped to avoid squashing this suicidal ewe and her lamb.
The scenery was certainly a contrast to the rainforests of Lamington National Park and Main Range, and reminded me of my previous homes in western Queensland and New South Wales.
During my camping trip, maximum temperatures in my home suburb near Brisbane ranged from 38 – 41C, breaking records for September. At Sundown, the maximums were slightly milder, but hot dry gusty winds stripped my skin and hair of moisture. Although preferable to the oppressive humidity of the east, the dry conditions meant I consumed vast quantities of water. This led to an inconvenient consequence which I’ll mention later.
Apart from a few curious kangaroos, the camping ground was deserted on my arrival, enabling me unrestricted use of the luxurious pit toilets and bucket shower.
Leaving all my gear in the car, I decided to head off immediately for Permanent Waterhole, the home of platypus. This class 3, 1 kilometre path down into the gorge and the class 3, 4.5 kilometre Western Circuit are the only marked trails at the Broadwater end. For this reason Sundown National Park offers an authentic wilderness walking experience.
The Permanent Waterhole trail is narrow, runs along the top of the gorge, and then drops steeply down to the Severn River, which after a dry winter was reduced to a string of waterholes.
I may not have seen platypus but dozens of eastern water skinks made their appearance, with one individual nodding territorially at me, demanding I vacate his/her favourite rock.
An azure kingfisher added colour to the scene
I didn’t linger at the waterhole as I planned to return at sunrise for a greater chance of sighting the elusive platypus.
Next, I explored the dry Ooline Creek bed, which branches off the Severn River. Ooline Creek is named after the vulnerable ooline tree, Cadellia pentastylis. From this sign, I’d gleaned that when the creek isn’t flowing there is still a leech inhabited permanent waterhole about 1.5 kilometre upstream.
Off I ventured, confident I would easily recognise the waterhole and know how far I had gone. However, the boulders and ankle-breaking rocks of the dry creek bed hampered my pace. I should have expected this as it is rated a class 5 walk.
Without a GPS I couldn’t be sure how far I’d covered. Luckily, I had a brilliant strategy, or so I thought. If I just kept walking I would surely find the waterhole.
I did, indeed, come across a waterhole, but it didn’t look very impressive.
Surely this wasn’t the right one? I kept going. There was another, and another. Which one was it meant to be? I blundered on until I made it to the end of the gorge and turned back. I have no idea how far I walked, but I assume one of the puddles must have been THE waterhole in question. Here’s another contender.
I had another brilliant idea. On my return, I would dip my leg into promising waterholes to attract leeches so I would know exactly which waterhole was described on the national parks sign. I don’t usually mind finding leeches on me, but there is something about using one’s leg as bait that just wasn’t very appealing in the end. I do apologise. Obviously, I’m not as devoted to my blog as I should be.
Very little wildlife was obvious along the way, apart from a grasshopper, more eastern water skinks, and a half-dead moth. It seemed, like all sensible hikers in my region, the wild creatures were hiding from the heat.
After the hot, tiring rocky walk of unknown length, I was relieved to be back at the campsite before dark. It had been a long time since I’d pitched a tent, especially in gusty winds, but eventually it seemed to stay up.
I threw in the thin yoga mat and a pillow, and sat down to enjoy a gourmet dinner of banana, pistachios, cheese, olives, chocolate biscuits and thermos coffee. In the blustery conditions a campfire would have been irresponsible and I didn’t have a gas camping stove, so of course I was forced to eat the entire packet of chocolate biscuits.
After a quick bucket shower, I was ready for bed, or was I? Suddenly, I had the clever idea of venturing back down to the first permanent waterhole to spy platypus. After all, I had a headlamp and torch so why not? I think by now you can guess I was slightly obsessed with sighting this monotreme.
Night walks are always an interesting affair and this one was no exception. Crunchy dried leaves underfoot and loose clinking river rocks meant my arrival was far from stealthy, leaving me with only mosquitoes for company. Occasionally, I heard the splash of something mysterious in the distance. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
I tentatively walked back along the narrow path which drops sharply down on one side into the gorge. My over-active imagination turned the numerous branches along the path into venomous snakes and hundreds of moths were attracted to my headlamp. For a while I was re-enacting a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds until I remembered to change the headlamp to a different colour.
Strange rustlings, the branch “snakes” and hundreds of glowing eyes on the ground turned the 1 kilometre path back to camp into something much longer. Every square metre of ground seemed to have one of these “cute” furry critters.
Back at the tent, there wasn’t much else to do but lie back on my yoga mat and take pleasure in the sounds of nature and the sight of millions of stars through the mesh of my tent. I felt gloriously alive and alone. This was the life! No ambulance sirens, arguing neighbours, dogs barking or phones beeping. “Why don’t I do this more often?” I thought. I may have even shed a few tears of joy. I imagined waking more refreshed than I’d felt in years.
Eventually, my hyper-alert state mellowed and I drifted off to sleep. I was woken soon after by my screaming hip. Yes, it was yelling all sorts of profanities at me for dragging it away from a plush mattress to tortuous hard ground.
“But I have a yoga mat,” I countered, “And I used to be able to sleep anywhere – on the floor, sitting up in the car, even standing up at the kitchen sink!”
“You were younger then, MUCH younger, and you were sleep deprived from newborn babies!” screeched my hip.
I tried to appease it by rolling over, only to be abused by my other hip. Then my shoulders and neck joined in the onslaught. I grabbed some clothes and a towel to cushion the complainers. I don’t enjoy conflict which was very unfortunate in this case because my body parts were not interested in my attempts to make peace with them.
By this stage my bladder had woken up and demanded to be relieved. Fearing dehydration in the hot conditions, I’d guzzled over 5 litres of water that afternoon. It seemed I‘d vastly overestimated my body’s requirements.
Remembering the hundreds of glowing eyes from my night walk, I donned my boots and headlamp and ventured outside the tent, managing to terrify a mob of kangaroos grazing a few metres away. Their appearance startled me as well, which is a dangerous situation to be in when sporting a bulging bladder. I’d also forgotten about the moth attackers until one flew into my eye. Nature is so healing.
After my ablutions, I returned to my tent which now contained a mountain made of whatever soft material I could find in my belongings to appease the complaining hips, neck, back and shoulders. I adopted the “controlled crying” approach used by some parents of babies. I hoped that by ignoring the groaning of my body parts, they would finally “self-soothe” off to sleep.
It may have worked if my bladder hadn’t woken up again. Waiting for a bladder to self-soothe is never recommended so up I got to frighten the kangaroos once more.
After ablution number three, I gave up and slept on the back car seat.
“Hang on,” you might be thinking. “Why didn’t she do that in the first place?”
Well, the short answer is because I am stubborn. I wanted the authentic camping experience. Besides, you wouldn’t be able to nod wisely, laugh and make judgements about my sanity if I got in the car straight away.
Unfortunately for me, I’d waited far too long to escape to the soft car seat, as even ten mattresses wouldn’t have stopped the complaints of my body parts by that stage.
According to my watch it was already 2am. My big plan for this trip was to get up before dawn and plant myself next to Permanent Waterhole to finally take my first pictures of the shy platypus. I’d forgotten one small detail. My watch is the old fashioned variety with no alarm. I didn’t want to use my phone alarm as I needed to keep it turned off to conserve the battery. If I eventually fell asleep, how was I going to wake up in time? This problem kept me awake for at least another hour until, completely exhausted, I finally succumbed to the Sandman.
I need not have worried about an alarm. The dawn chorus of birds, the light flickering through the trees and the resurgence of my body parts whining did the job. I threw on my walking clothes and shoes, guzzled the last of my lukewarm thermos coffee and grabbed my camera and backpack. After the anticipated platypus encounter, I planned to explore the Severn River for the rest of the day.
As the early morning mosquitoes buzzed around my face, I nibbled on snacks and scanned the still surface for swirls, bubbles, splashes and moving furry “logs.”
Eventually, I was rewarded with promising activity. The shy creatures seemed aware of my presence though, and stayed on the other side of the waterhole. It was then I realised the limitations of my camera’s zoom in low light.
I don’t think Australian Geographic magazine will be requesting my shots any time soon. However, at least I was finally able to view platypus in the wild. I think. Unless they were big fish?
When the “platypus” activity disappeared, I began further explorations of the Severn River. With no marked trail, I found myself negotiating loose rocky beds, clambering up banks, and making detours through thick scrub when I came to areas of deep water.
Down in the gorge, the temperature was firing up. Reflected heat from the rocky gorge walls and the dry stony river bed fried my flesh. Once again, I was not sure how far I had gone, but relied on the sun and my watch for an indication when to turn back.
Hours spent trudging in the heat sent me into an abnormally philosophical state. In particular, I pondered the nature of time. Down in the gorge there was no time besides nature’s time. There were no schedules. No human indicators. Time was no longer measured on a clock face in minutes and hours, but was indicated by the sun crossing the sky, the shadows, and the changing temperature.
In some ways time stretched, almost standing still. In others it seemed fleeting. The carving of the dense hard traprock by the Severn River had taken thousands of years, but the colours of the rocks, the shadows, and water reflections changed relatively quickly as the sun moved across the sky or behind clouds.
Birds flitted in and out of the foliage, snapping insects in mid-air. Life and death seemed but a flicker. A black snake slithered out from under a rock to pass directly in front of me, once again testing my long suffering bladder.
Life felt simple. I was thirsty. I drank. I was hot. I sought shade. I was hungry. I ate. But at the same time, without the Internet or other human contact, my thoughts became more complex. Long buried memories surfaced. Being alone in a wilderness area like Sundown National Park reminds you of the simplicity of your needs and yet at the same time allows you to contemplate the deeper topics usually hidden by the busyness of modern life.
At one point my watch band broke and the glass face cracked on a river rock. It somehow seemed symbolic of the irrelevance of arbitrary human schedules and time devices in the wilderness – a place remote from consumerism, politics and wars. I recalled the thoughts of Robert MacFarlane in The Wild Places. He describes far more eloquently than me how a landscape such as Sundown National Park has its own time:
“In a valley of such age you feel compelled to relinquish your habitual methods of timekeeping, to abandon the grudging measures and audits that enable normal life. Time finds its forms minerally and aerially, rather than on a clock face or in a diary. Such human devices come to seem brittle and inconsequential.”
Spending even a short time in such a place reminded me of my own footprint on the world. Out there you’re totally responsible for your own waste. There are no flushing toilets or garbage collection. You’re more conscious of water consumption as in the heat, every drop feels precious. You realise how much you depend on electricity in your everyday life to cook food, wash clothes, cool a room, and use a computer and phone.
There is also a sense of physical freedom and earthiness that the privacy of wilderness can provide. Resting under a tree, I removed most of my sweat soaked clothing and enjoyed the feeling of a slight breeze against my damp flesh. Like the breaking watch seemed symbolic of the changing nature of time in the gorge, the shedding of my clothes seemed to symbolise the shedding of modern burdens. With only the kangaroos and birds as an audience, I no longer felt self conscious of my sags and bulges.
In the end, it was only the lack of clean drinking water that had me turning around. I didn’t have a means of filtering/purifying water from the Severn’s puddles. Next time I’ll return with a filter and continue further upstream. I was content to return to the campground, guzzle more water from my car and reflect on my short but satisfying escape from city life.
Anticipating another night of complaints from my body parts, I made the decision to drive home, but not before removing a hitchhiker.
Within a week I’d ordered a luxurious inflatable mat for my next camping trip. I am, indeed, not as young as I used to be.