I didn’t die. That’s what I remember most.
My first walk at Gariwerd (Grampians) National Park in 2018 rates as one of my most adrenaline-pumping experiences, and also gave me flashbacks to my father’s unconventional behaviour training methods.
After my relaxing Ballarat farm-sit, it was time to crank up the adventure dial. Kevin, author of Goin’ Feral One Day at a Time, kindly sacrificed his Saturday to give me my first introduction to Gariwerd.
I first met Kevin and his lovely partner, Sam, at Binna Burra in Lamington National Park, where we walked the lush green, waterfall-filled Coomera Circuit in winter. At 19 kilometres, it was a long hike, but with well-shaded rainforest and switchbacks, it was far from strenuous.
The Mount Wudjub-Guyun (Hollow Mountain) walk at Gariwerd (also known as the Grampians) was much shorter, but is rocky, exposed and steep. We also deviated from the usual tourist route to “add an extra twist.” It was to be this twist that made it particularly memorable.
To make our day even more interesting, we walked it in Kooyang. What’s Kooyang? Well, after living in this land for thousands of years, Aboriginal people developed a set of seasons much more meaningful and essential to their survival than the European four season calendar.
As Aaron Clarke, Interpretation Ranger at Gariwerd says on a video shared on the Brambuk website:
“Aboriginal people don’t live in this environment for 40 000 years and not know how to judge what’s going to happen. When you live in this environment you become a part of it.”
The Brambuk Cultural Centre website states that the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung people of Gariwerd have six seasons which “relate to climatic features as well as referencing environmental events such as plant flowering, fruiting and animal behavioural patterns” and that “by understanding the six seasons, you can begin to understand Gariwerd and its people.”
The season of Kooyang runs from around late January to late March but will vary depending on the observed behaviours of plants and animals and the landscape. It’s a period when Gariwerd is at its most parched – when it is hottest and the streams dry up. It is when the risk of bushfire, “Piikorda,” is high.
Kooyang is probably the worst time of year to visit Northern Gariwerd if you are heat intolerant, sun sensitive and like me, want to spot wildlife. The exposed rock slabs make it baking hot. I was only in Victoria for a couple more days though, and keen to get a glimpse of this iconic piece of wilderness. Some glimpses would be much more daunting than others.
Being a sun-worshipping, hiking machine, Kevin wasn’t discouraged by these minor details. I think the most difficult aspect of the day for him was driving for 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours back after the walk, and I must thank him for going to so much effort to share Gariwerd with me.
In the few days leading up to the Hollow Mountain walk, I began experiencing dizzy spells. I wondered at the time if it was an asthmatic response to the rye grass in Victoria, but on deeper reflection it was probably exacerbated by anxiety about what was to come. I’d already seen pictures of Kevin’s “Hollow Mountain with a twist” walk with his work mate, James.
Rock scrambling can mean very different things to different people. I shudder when I read in hiking guides that some rock scrambling is involved. My brain, knees, hips, wrists, ankles, in fact, my whole body, rebels against the idea. Some rock scrambling on this walk looked suspiciously like pure rock wall climbing, at least for someone like me who has very short legs, child-size hands, and a poor sense of balance. However, Kevin assured me the pictures made the angles look more extreme than it really was and he could help me out if I hit trouble.
I also found myself in the unusual position of someone having very high expectations of me. After our previous walks, Kevin seemed confident of my ability to do this walk – certainly more confident than I was. Being of a certain age, I grew up in a time when expectations were lower for women than men. I’d often been told I was soft or fragile looking and found myself constantly having to prove myself. Perhaps partly because of this, I also grew up to be an independent (or should that be proud or stubborn) person who liked to be able to do things by herself without constantly needing to ask for help. It’s often said that pride comes before a fall. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case at Hollow Mountain where a literal fall could be quite messy.
Blue skies greeted us as we finally headed off to Gariwerd National Park. My photos certainly don’t do the real colours of the distant peaks justice.
The addition of a dusty dirt road always adds to the feeling of adventure.
I have vague memories of babbling away about all sorts of mundane topics as I do when I am nervous. Occasionally, Kevin managed to squeeze in a few words to point out aspects of the scenery.
Eventually, we pulled into the carpark where the presence of toilets was a relief to my anxiety-fueled bladder. At first glance the terrain didn’t look particularly daunting.
The hike began with a well-maintained path and gentle steps. I started to relax. Maybe I could actually do this.
Then the scenery started to change a little too dramatically. Don’t get me wrong. I love rocks. I just don’t like falling off them or onto them.
The sandstone rock formations of Gariwerd were formed by layers of sedimentation, massive compression, folding and upheaval, and some areas also include intrusions of molten lava.
For a geological story of Gariwerd you can check out this link.
It wasn’t long before my blood was pumping and I began to feel dizzy again. I wouldn’t say I am afraid of heights in general. I will happily walk along a cliff path and stand at the edge of steep mountain lookouts, but in this case I kept thinking of “the twist” that was to come. Sometimes it is better not to have already seen pictures.
We stopped for a quick snack and a drink to try to quell my dizziness and then continued on to a spot where we had to choose to continue on with the standard tourist walk, or take a detour inside and up out on top of the mountain. By now you’ll know we chose the latter.
Instead of following the painted arrows to the right of the cliff line, which would take us to the top of what National Parks call Hollow Mountain, we headed into a cave that leads to the top of the rock slab.
It is this rock slab that hiking writer, Tyrone Thomas, calls Hollow Mountain. As Kevin wrote in his recount of our walk, Mount Wudjub-Guyan or Hollow Mountain isn’t really an actual mountain, it’s an incredibly rocky and rugged spur that runs off nearby Mt Stapleton. This alternative route is the beginning of what is known as the Hollow Mountain – Mt Stapleton traverse, regarded by many as one of the best walks in Victoria.
Now this is where I had a chance to celebrate my small size. While my 6 foot 3 guide had to squeeze his frame through a narrow crevice in what feels like very claustrophic conditions, I used what Kevin dubbed my “patented rolling technique.”
I must admit I showed off this little skill. It’s not often my small size is of benefit in a hiking situation. You’ve got to flaunt it while you can, I say. Relish those rare short person appreciation moments. They don’t come often in a world built for giant, or just average height people.
My fancy feelings of superiority were short-lived though as a few minutes later I needed Kevin to give me a hand up a rock.
We spent time appreciating the colours and patterns of the sandstone inside the cave, as well as enjoying a respite from the heat.
Distant views framed by the cave demanded attention also.
Next we stepped along a rock bridge…
And crawled up and out onto a narrow slanted rock ledge overlooking a chasm.
To go further we were faced with a climb up a rock wall.
At this point I’m adding a few pictures of Kevin and his mate, James, from their previous walk to show you the angles.
I was too nervous to know what I was doing with my camera. It’s a long, long way down.
Now this is where I started to unravel.
“I can’t do this, Kevin.”
“Yes you can, Jane.”
I’d like to say that the conversation was as brief and as simple as that, but it’s quite possible the language used was way more colourful than this and lasted much longer. I need to retain my PG rating though, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. This was definitely not a convenient time to remember my strong tendency to fall or wobble towards empty space.
During our discussion, I asked Kevin how many people he’d brought up there – many, apparently. So if I couldn’t do it, I would feel a real failure.
While Kevin was reassuring me that no-one had died on a walk with him yet, somewhere in my dim memory I recalled Kevin’s story about his partner Sam falling head first down a glacier in New Zealand, but I decided to let that pass. Sam is still very much alive and it’s not in my nature to be that cheeky, especially when someone has just driven four hours to get me to a walk.
I’d like to say I scaled that wall like Spiderman. I really wish I could regale you with tales of my awesome ballerina grace, of my dexterity, of my amazing athleticism.
That could only ever be a fantasy though. I was able to scale the rock wall, but only with great difficulty. Fortunately, Kevin had gone up first and grabbed my hand to help me up the last bit.
Here I am after what was really just a tiny rock wall climb, but may as well have been Federation Peak to me. Look at that smile. As usual, appearances are deceptive. I was still trembling, especially when I remembered I would have to climb back down again. My face would have been deathly white were it not for my skin being fried in the heat.
While researching this walk I came to a description on Don and Alissa’s hiking blog The Long Way’s Better that made me feel less alone in my fear about this section. On the very same rock wall, Alissa’s feet slipped off leaving her in the very precarious position of holding on with just her hands, while her legs dangled down the slope.
While I was appreciating the view (translation: trying to get my heart rate below 200) Kevin did a bit of exploring.
We had been considering going further on this detour but the day was heating up and after my initial rock wall experience, I wasn’t keen. For some strange reason, Kevin did not disagree. We decided to head back down and continue on with the standard tourist walk. Here are a few pictures of what you can do if you continue on to the Mt Stapleton Ampitheatre.
Before we could rejoin the tourist walk, there was the small matter of climbing back down that rock wall. I admit I’d been seriously considering just sleeping up there rather than face that descent. I had water, chocolate, and a backpack to put my head on. What more did I need to survive up there? I could possibly get other hikers to bring me more supplies. Maybe it could be my new home? It was certainly “a room with a view.”
Apparently there was a small problem with this clever plan. Kevin had to go home and he was not going to leave without me.
The hiking aficionado descended first. This was so he could direct me where to place my hands and feet. Now this would have been an excellent idea if I was any good at listening to verbal instructions. I’m not. I’m spacially challenged. My brain just starts humming. Left becomes right and right becomes left. Up is down and down is up. With Kevin down below on the ledge though, at least he would be able to stop me tumbling all the way down the mountain – unless I just dragged him down as well to be splattered over the ancient sandstone.
There was no choice but to give it a go. I started well and finished badly. Losing my footing and hand placing, I began to slide down the rock wall. Now this is where it gets slightly embarrassing as well as a little painful. I have very sensitive skin and allergies to elastine, latex, and certain synthetics. It’s made worse when I am hot and sweaty. For this reason on walks I replace the usual torturous undergarments that women use to stop their wobbly bits from jiggling, with a firm fitting cotton singlet. Sliding down the hard rock on my chest pushed my hiking shirt and singlet up towards my neck.
To stop me from sliding further down into the chasm below, Kevin had to support the biggest part of me (my ample derriere) with one hand (luckily he has ENORMOUS hands.) As I slid down closer to him, he tried to pull the back of my shirt down to stop my torso being naked to the group of onlookers who were doing the standard tourist walk across the chasm.
I didn’t realise we had an audience until I was safely on my feet on the narrow ledge again. I waved nonchalantly to the crowd to pretend my screaming was due to ecstacy rather than terror. Now if you read Kevin’s account, he has very kindly omitted the details of this section. Given I lost my reputation amongst the serious hiking fraternity years ago with my many and varied faux pas, I figured I might as well give my readers a chuckle.
I hadn’t died. Terror turned to elation. The adrenaline rush gave me such a high I considered doing it again one day. No, not really. But I have come to a greater understanding of one of the reasons people like to rock climb – the thrill of escaping death. It gave me a buzz that lasted for hours. I really don’t remember much of the walk after that.
Poor Kevin was doing a very professional job telling me about the geography and history of the area, pointing out various landmarks in the distance, but I wasn’t taking much in. I was just completely focused on the fact that I was still alive.
I managed to still take a few shots though of the many interesting rock patterns and distant views. Don’t ask me what they are of.
There’s even a shot Kevin took of me seemingly engrossed in some small plants. I have no recollection of it.
Now just to prove how much of a blur the rest of the walk was, after we got back to the carpark, Kevin took me on another very short walk to view some Aboriginal rock art, but I had completely forgotten this until I looked at my album. Ordinarily, this would have been a highlight, something extremely memorable for me.
Gulgurn Manja, meaning ‘hands of young people’, is a rockshelter containing paintings of emu tracks, bars, and handprints, many of which were done by children. The Jardwadjali used the local finegrained sandstone to make stone tools and you can see the marks where stone has been broken from the walls in this shelter.
Rock paintings at Gulgurn Manja are of a unique local art style and were used to tell stories and pass on the law of the people. For more information about rock art shelters at Gariwerd, you can read this pdf from the Brambuk site.
Even though there were moments of sheer terror that day, I really wasn’t in as much danger as I felt. Kevin was always there to assist me. I’m predominantly a solo walker and certainly not used to doing walks that require physical help. I’m not used to trusting or relying on others to save my life on a hike. I just saw that wall and thought how impossible it looked to do on my own. That was my mindset.
It was only while writing about this walk and looking at the photographs again that I realised another reason why the view from the ledge across the deep chasm felt so frightening. The incident triggered a flashback from a similar scene in my early childhood.
My father was a maverick, even when it came to parenting. I don’t think you’ll find his methods in any standard parenting manual. Both my parents were extraordinary people. It made my childhood rather thrilling and set the bar incredibly high for any movies I watch. It is a rare film indeed that leaves me on the edge of my seat as much as my childhood did.
Father had an unconventional way of stopping arguments and obtaining silence on car trips. It was unorthodox but effective. So effective in fact, that he only needed to employ it once.
When I was around 8 years old, I was on a car journey with my parents and my twin brothers who were 3 years old. We were travelling along a highway. My parents were arguing. At some point, my father suddenly swung off the road onto an old section of highway and headed for a bridge. Unfortunately, it was a bridge that no longer existed. He could see it was missing. We could all see it was missing. The old white valiant station wagon had no seat belts. We kids were able to get up on the seat and view what was ahead through the windscreen.
I remember hearing screaming but I don’t know if it was my own, my brothers’, my mother’s, or just silent screaming inside my own head. As we hurtled downhill towards the looming gap, only my father had the power to stop the car. At the last moment, he braked and pulled up right on the edge. He laughed. We remained silent for the rest of the trip. As I said, he was a maverick, but his techniques worked.
I don’t have a general fear of heights and I didn’t think this childhood incident had affected me much, but my experience at Gariwerd proved otherwise. Standing on that rock ledge looking across a wide, deep chasm at Hollow Mountain triggered physical responses that were difficult to conquer. It was not something my walking guide could possibly be aware of. I had told Kevin that I was hoping for some adventure, for a challenge, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
At Hollow Mountain I learnt, among other things, just how difficult it is for me to place my life in someone else’s hands. However, some situations necessitate trusting others enough to help you through. You can’t and shouldn’t have to do everything alone.
I didn’t die and that is what I remember most.