I “discovered” the Russells Needle bushwalk while researching my Guide to Overnight Walks near Sydney: Nattai National Park, while fairly close to Sydney, is not an area I’d ventured to before. But after seeing photos of the improbable “needle” of rock sticking up in the middle of the valley, it was added to my list!
Day 1: Ahearns Lookout and down to the Nattai River
The route to Russells Needle starts at the end of Wattle Ridge Road, next to Wattle Ridge Farm. There’s a small carpark, some informational signage and a walks register. The track starts as a management trail, that follows the boundary of Wattle Ridge Farm. (In case you’re looking for a little country getaway or somewhere convenient for your Nattai bushwalks, Wattle Ridge Farm last sold for $8.25m in May 2017, setting the record for that year.) It’s a little ironic, considering that Nattai National Park is almost entirely untracked, that for the first kilometre I’m seeing cattle and the occasional horse!
My route initially follows the Starlights Trail, the best-known track in the area, until we part ways and I continue straight ahead down the Rocky Waterholes Creek Trail, also a management trail.
I miss the next turn-off, marked by a piece of red tape tied to a scribbly gum, which marks the Slott Way Track. Fortunately I don’t overshoot by much, as I’m regularly checking my topographical map, and the “tape on a tree” is exactly where my map says the trail should be. I’m now on the rough but distinct walking track that will take me down to the Nattai River. I can’t see the river yet, but there are occasional views of the surrounding valleys.
Just before the track start descending to the Nattai River, I take the opportunity of a small (6km return) detour to Ahearn Lookout. Leaving my backpack at the unmarked junction, I take the obvious trail that leads to the end of a long ridge. It’s easy walking and the track is fairly easy to follow along the ridge, with some interesting rock formations along the way.
The first informal lookout is spectacular, looking toward the end of the ridge and down the Nattai River Valley.
About 500m further at the end of the ridge is Ahearn Lookout – although it’s not so much a “lookout” but a number of rocks along the edge of the the cliff, from which there are magnificent 180-degree views.
To the south-west is Russells Needle, in the middle of the Nattai River Valley, and Mt Jellore behind it.
To the north-west you can see the wide section of the Nattai River near Emmetts Flat, where the river forms a large and deep pool.
I don’t stay and admire the view long, as the weather predicted strong winds – and on the unprotected ridge it was blowing a gale! In better conditions there would be some nice and flat camp sites near the first lookout, where you could enjoy great sunset and sunrise views. But today it would be miserable.
Once back on the Slott Way Track (aka Slotts Way) it starts descending quite steeply, past and under some sandstone cliff and overhangs.
To my surprise, although the track is fairly obvious, it is marked with a large number of blue arrows and more irregular pieces of tape.
About half-way down Slott Way there’s a rocky outcrop, from which there is a view over the Nattai Valley. And a reminder there’s a still a fair way down to go. Followed by the even less welcome thought that tomorrow I’ll have to climb back out of the valley…
A little further is my first proper view of Russells Needle – it still seems quite improbable that there is a route to the top of this narrow sliver of sandstone!
Finally, I reach the valley floor and the Nattai River, with the descent being about 400m. I’d originally thought I might reach Russells Needle today, but with the detour to Ahearn Lookout and a short mid-winter day, there’s not enough time. Instead, I find a nice campsite about 200m up the river, set-up the campfire and call it a day! (There are suitable camping sites all the way along the river, so you can walk as far as you feel like toward Russells Needle before setting up camp – but you’ll be walking back the same way so it makes sense to camp near the bottom of Slotts Way.)
Day 2: Russells Needle and back via Starlights Trail
After a cold and windy night with a spot of rain, I leave the tent and backpack behind, as I commence my search of a way up to the top of Russells Needle. The walk starts by following the Nattai River upstream. It’s quite slow and hard due along the river due to the debris – looking at the size of some of the trees and branches strewn along the river, it must be an impressive sight in flood. Every so often a blue arrow appears – although there’s no obvious path and no benefit in trying to follow the arrows.
From the river and behind the trees, Russells Needle stands out like a… needle…? which looks somewhat more daunting as I get closer!
I leave the Nattai River and climb up the spur that leads to the base of Russells Needle. There’s not much undergrowth, so while it’s pretty steep, it’s not difficult walking and it doesn’t take long to reach to the reach the foot of the Needle.
There’s already some nice views from the base of Russells Needle, which have to be my consolation prize if I can’t find a way up!
I explore the eastern side of Russells Needle, and there’s no definitely so viable way up the towering cliff face. (I’m hoping I might be able to walk around the outcrop and climb up the far end, but about half-way along the cliff there’s a sudden precipice that forces me to retreat.)
The western side looks a bit more promising, and after passing a few sandstone caves I spot what seems to be some cairns 🙂 Now, I’m not always a fan of cairns, especially the ones that are more like a mini Taj Mahal and detract from the natural landscape. But these subtle markers, just a couple of rocks balanced on each other, are just what I need to find a safe route up through the cliff.
It doesn’t take long to scramble up and reach a rocky platform just below the peak, from where there are outstanding views over the Nattai national park.
The top is a bit further up – a rock outcrop just behind me – but I can’t figure out a safe way up. Maybe a different route is required to reach the true summit. But the view is pretty bloody good from my not-quite-summit position, which looks over the lower part of Russells Needle toward Ahearn Lookout and down the Nattai Valley.
With the benefit of hindsight, my recommendation would be to head directly up the spur from the Nattai River (leaving the river around MGA 601 983 and ascending the eastern side of the spur). When you reach the bottom of Russells Needle, follow the base along the eastern side. After 200m there’s a small cleft in the rocks (around MGA 599 977) that lets you ascend up in northerly direction.
It’s a much quicker descent to the valley, after admiring the view, and back along the Nattai River to my campsite.
After backing up the tent and filtering some water, I’m on my way again down the Nattai River. (I discover later that the Nattai River, while it looks clear, is exposed to urban pollution from Mittagong much further upstream, including the Mittagong Sewage Treatment Plant. So both filtering and boiling is recommended…).
After battling fallen trees and boulders on the left (western) side of the river, I cross to the opposite side where the going is much easier. I only spot one marker between the campsite and Emmetts Flat – but there’s really no track along the river.
Shortly before reaching Emmetts Flat, the Nattai River significantly widens and it’s tempting to have a quick swim. Except it’s about 8 degrees!
Just below Emmetts Flat is a sandy beach: the perfect swimming spot on a warmer day! I can see why the Starlights Trail and Emmetts Flat campground is such a popular spot.
Starlights Trail starts at the Emmetts Flat campground (there’s also McArthurs Flat on the other side of the Nattai River). It’s a large, open camping area with plenty of space for tents – there’s two tents here but no-one around. I imagine it gets a lot busier on a summer weekend.
Now I’ve just got the walk back up the Starlights Trail… It’s not steep, but it’s a pretty relentless climb through lightly timbered forest. Towering above is Ahearn Lookout.
Behind are some last glimpses of the Nattai Valley.
My last surprise as a I near the top of the climb out of the valley is a sudden rain shower. Not so much a surprise because no rain was forecast, but because the quite heavy rain went straight up the middle of a valley, without a drop landing on the trail which I’m standing on.
The Starlights Track pretty much climbs for the 4.5km back up to the junction where I took the other trail, to Ahearn Lookout, yesterday. The final 2.2km is on the management trail, downhill to the carpark.
Navigation was not as challenging I’d feared, and all the tracks (except along the Nattai River) being both obvious and in some cases well-signed. My only advice would be that a detailed topographical map, ideally on a GPS map, is essential as there are a few junctions and none are signposted. I saw a few blog posts where people took the wrong track, without realising it until too late. But a great walk and fantastic weekend adventure.
DAY ONE 0.0km Start end of Wattle Ridge Road 1.8km Junction: bear left down Starlights Trail 2.2km Junction: continue straight (right is Starlights Trail) 2.4km Slott Way Track to the right (marked by red tape on tree) 3.7km Junction with Ahearn Lookout Track (on the right) 6.2km First lookout over Nattai River Valley 6.7km Ahearn Lookout [595m asl] 9.5km Back at junction with Slott Way Track 11.9km Slott Way Track reaches Nattai River [235m] 12.1km Campsite on opposite side of river, toward Russells Needle DAY TWO 14.2km Leave Nattai River to ascend to base of Russells Needle 15.2km Base of Russells Needle [420m] 16.5km Top of Russells Needle [510m] 19.6km Back at campsite (near base of Slott Way Track) 22.6km Emmetts Flat campground (start/end of Starlights Trail) 27.1km Starlight Trail jct with Slott Way / Ahearn Lookout Trail 29.3km Return to trackhead at end of Wattle Ridge Road
More information on Russells Needle
Most of the walk is on tracks, but there’s minimal or no signage. So a detailed map is essential to make sure you’re on the right track. Getting to Russells Needle from the bottom of the Slott Way Track (and between the Needle and Emmetts Flat) is off-track.
- Fat Canyoners – Russells Needle
- Bushwalking NSW – Russells Needle detailed track notes
- Rachel Grindlay blog – Russells Needle and Rocky Wateholes