Thornleigh to Berowra (Great North Walk)

One of the more popular and varied sections of the Great North Walk, which traverses the Berowra Valley Regional Park. It can be done in sections from around 7km to 30km, over 1-2 days. 

I start the walk at the Baden Powell Scout Centre in Pennant Hills (which seems a fitting starting point for a bushwalk!) as the kids have an overnight school band camp here. The actual  starting point for the walk is about 2km away in Thornleigh near the end of Morgan St. From here the narrow trail follows the Zig Zig Creek behind some houses, before it enters the Berowra Valley Regional Park and joins the Bellamy Trail. A “Great North Walk” sign confirms I’m going the right way!

About 500m further, and there’s a junction, with the Bellamy Trail continuing to the right and the main trail – the Benowie Walking Track – continuing straight ahead. Crossing the bridge to the right and following the Bellamy Trail would take me to the old Thornleigh quarry, behind the Oakleigh Oval. The Zig Zag Creek that the track has been following is named after  the Thornleigh Zig-Zag Railway, which hauled crushed sandstone from the quarry up a steep gradient to Thornleigh station.

I continue straight ahead on the Benowie Walking Track, which is a wide (and not particularly interesting) 4WD track; after about 1.5km there’s another junction and I take the narrow track to the right (going straight ahead would take me to Cherrybrook Lakes via the Stringybark Ridge management trail. From here the track’s a bit more interesting as it crosses Nyrippin Creek and then follows Berowra Creek along the valley.

From here it’s a pleasant walk for the next four kilometres along the Benowie Track until it reaches the Fishponds; there are a few junctions with side-tracks, but the main track is always well-marked.

The Fishponds is a waterhole on Berowra Creek: the water gushes through very deep, weathered grooves in the sandstone. Just before reaching Fishponds there’s a lookout over the creek and waterhole; the path then descends and crosses Berowra Creek at the Fishponds. There’s a large rock platform and it would be a nice spot for a break or lunch – but today’s there a large group of hikers here, so I continue after taking a few quick photos. (My official Great North Walk track notes describes the pools as being popular for swimming; however, there’s a sign warning that penalties of up $3,300 apply for swimming. Some deaths from jumping in the creek have meant swimming is discouraged.)

 

From Fishponds, the official Great North Walk ascends to Manor Rd where it leaves the Berowra Valley Regional Park and skirts around the park along the road. Another management trail a little further north takes you back to the original Great North Walk route. This diversion is to avoid entering an exclusion zone for the Hornsby District Rifle Range – while the Great North Walk had previously traversed this “danger zone”, it was determined in the late 1990s that the risk was too great. It’s a shame – and in my opinion, disgraceful – that a section of one of the most popular walks in Sydney has been closed.

It’s also one of the nicer sections of the walk, with the now-closed section Benowie Track following Berowra Creek north. The track is still there, with just the route markings removed, so perhaps one day this section can be official re-opened. Unlikely, but I hope so!

At the other end of the closed Benowie Track section is the historic military “Steele” bridge; constructed in 1945-1946 to give fire fighting vehicle access from Hornsby to Dural, the bridge is known as a Steele bridge after Major General Sir Clive Steele. It’s one of only four remaining in service (although I can’t find any references to the other three…).

The track crosses Berowra Creek using the Steele bridge, and continues up to the ridge on a wide management trail. The flora gradually changes as the track ascends. About 14km from the start of the walk is Tunks Ridge Rest Area, one of the recommend Great North Walk camp sites. It’s a large, open camping area but there’s no water, and there was a bit of rubbish strewn around.

It’s another 1.5km along a wide management trail to the top of Galston Gorge, where the trail drops very quickly – with the aid of a few steel spikes in the rock – down to Galston Road. This is about the half-way point of my walk today, and the first time in 15km that the track intersects a road… although I don’t need to actually cross the road, as the trail goes under the vehicular bridge and crosses Berowra Creek via some concrete stepping stones.

The next section of the trail from Galston Gorge to Crosslands is pleasant, but feels much longer than the sign-posted distance (6.8km)… it’s a narrow bush track again, which traverses through a shaded section of ferns and grass trees, before rising gently up to the ridge where it follows a rock platform. The trail is mostly in the shade, with a couple of small streams and waterfalls just off the trail. After a couple of kilometres the track descends to Berowra Creek, which is now much wider, and follows the creek fairly closely to Crosslands. (There’s a couple of camping areas along this section, which are more attractive if doing a multi-day walk then the previous Tunks Ridge campground.)

Crosslands is a bit of anti-climax after the 22km I’ve walked so far: accessible via car, it’s a very popular camp ground and day-trip destination for picnickers and kayakers (there are toilets, picnic tables, barbecues, a playground and a lot of open space for camping). It also offers town water, so I can fill-up my water bottles before I quickly traverse the expansive area and re-join the Great North Walk at the far end.

The first 1.4km of this sectop track is an interpretative walk with a combination of boardwalk and very smooth dirt – so it’s easy walking! The track follows Berowra Creek, which is now wide & deep, and a popular area for kayaking; it’s a very pleasant walk in the afternoon winter sun! There’s a few signs along the track that explain the different aspects of the local areas and Aboriginal history.

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At the end of the “interpretative walk” is the Calna Creek bridge. The current (steel) bridge was opened in 2015, over two years after the original timber bridge (which was built in 1980 by the Army) collapsed. This meant – other than swimming across fairly deep, tidal water – a large diversion to the Great North Walk until the bridge was repaired. The signage suggests the previous bridge was destroyed by hikers jumping up and down on it; the previous, timber bridge was in a fairly poor state so you could equally point to lack of maintenance and no contingency plan as the reason there was no bridge for two year! Regardless, it’s great to see an investment being made in a new bridge that should last for a while.

I’m getting tired now, but it’s the last stretch: a toss of the coin determines that I’ll finish the walk at Berowra. It’s about the same distance to Mt Ku-ring-gai station from here. I continue along the Great North Walk, crossing a wide area of grassland before following Berowra Creek again.

It’s not far – about 1.5km – before the track starts climbing steeply up the ridge, with a number of stone and timber stairs. Just the work-out I need at the end of long day!

At the top of this short, but steep, section there’s a wide management trail. Left continues toward Berowra Water and Newcastle. Right is to Berowra station. I head right. After about 1.5km along the fire trail, a narrow foot-track to the right ascends to the ridge, with a few more steps and steep sections before I reach Crowley Road, Berowra.

From here it’s less than a kilometre to the railway station at Berowra, and the train home. It’s been about 29km and six hours of walking. I’m ready for a beer.

Location Start (or finish) at Thornleigh (Bellamy St trackhead) to Mt-Ku-ring-gai or Berowra station, to the north of Sydney.
Distance 29km one-way (26km from Thornleigh trackhead to Berowra station)
Grade Moderate-hard. 550m total ascent.
Season/s All year round
Maps
  • Hornsby 9130-4S topographical map (1:25k)
  • Great North Walk (Benowie Track) official route map (1:32k)
  • Ku-ring-gai Chase Tourist Map (1:40k)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Wildwalks has track notes for Thornleigh to Mt Ku-ring-gai
Notes
  • This route can be done as a 2-day walk, with a few different camping options or broken into shorter sections
  • Only drinkable water is st Crosslands.
  • Official route bypasses the Hornsby rifle range “danger zone”.

 

 

Freycinet Peninsula

A rewarding hike that combines picturesque bays, turquoise water and majestic views of the Tasmanian coast.

The Freycinet Peninsula Circuit has been on my “to do” list for a long time. It was originally intended as a long one-day hike, but with my 8-year son (Luke) showing increasing enthusiasm for hiking and camping it became a 2-night/3-day adventure. It’s been many years since I’ve walked with a 20kg pack and the first time Luke’s been on an overnight walk. So this could be a great experience… or the chance to see how effective my emergency beacon is!

We arrive in Launceston the evening before our walk and stay with a Taswegian friend overnight, so we can make a relatively early start the following day for the 2.5-hour drive to Coles Bay. There’s time for an egg and bacon roll before we hit the track – the last palatable food for the next 48 hours.

Day 1

At 11am we’re on the track from Wineglass Bay car park to Hazzards Beach. It’s a slow start, with a friendly wallaby posing for photos at the trackhead. Despite signs saying “don’t feed the wildlife”, this wallaby was very tame and was obviously used to receiving food from tourists. At least it had been fed fruit, and not bread which is bad for them. I was happy it was a friendly one; the signs along the road to Freycinet were rather ominous and warned of kangaroos that would flip your vehicle with a single paw. It’s not surprising that international visitors are scared of our wildlife!

The first 5km is relatively flat, following the coast from the car park to Hazards Beach (said to be named after local whaler, African-American Captain Richard Hazard). It’s pleasant walking, despite being a warm day and carrying having a heavy pack, which I’m not used to. There are views out to the west over Promise Bay towards Swansea and the Eastern Tiers.

After about 1.5 hours we’ve almost reached Hazards Beach; just before we get there we spot an idyllic bay. Across the (almost warm) turquoise water is Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham, which we climb tomorrow. Unlike the exposed beach, it has plenty of shade. And another friendly wallaby. We stop here for lunch and a swim.

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Reluctantly, we leave the bay around 2:30pm, continuing our walk along Hazards Beach. This doesn’t disappoint either, and we could easily spend a few hours lingering here. Except that we have a campsite to get to.

There’s a campsite at the end of the beach, which is shaded and fairly empty. From here the track follows the coast through low scrub and casuarina trees, but while there is some shade this section of track feels much longer than the 4km that it is. We’re glad to reach Cooks Beach.

A short walk along Cooks Beach brings us to our camp site, and the end of Day 1. We’ve covered about 17km, but it’s been easy walking. We set up camp a stone’s throw from the ocean, on a small hill just before the entrance to the official campground. There’s water here from a tank at Cooks Hut a stroll away, where we chat to the friendly Park volunteers before enjoying a hot chocolate and tea as the sun sets. Apart from my lamentable attempt at cooking sausages on my camp stove, it’s been a fantastic day.

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Day 2

We awaken early the next day. To be specific, Luke wakes up early and tells me I need to get up. I’d be happy to snooze another couple of hours. We’re underway around 7am, heading back along Cooks Beach to the turn-off up to Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham. Today will be a big day.

From the northern end of Cooks beach, the track ascends steadily up to and then along the East Freycinet saddle, gaining about 375m over 5km. It’s tough going after a very “flat” first day and carrying a heavy pack, but we’re walking through dry sclerophyll forest and in shade. It takes us just over two hours to reach the side-track to Mt Freycinet. I feel slightly bad telling Luke that climbing the highest peak in Freycinet is not optional, and we leave our packs at the bottom.

The climb is steep: only 750m in distance, but climbing from 375m up to the top at 620m. There are cairns and orange markers designating the rough track that goes directly up the side of the mountain, with some boulder-scrambling at the top. The views towards Wineglass Bay as  you reach the summit suggest it’s worth the effort. Luke doesn’t share my opinion. I am currently the Worst Dad in the World.

The view from the top is incredible (although I am not yet forgiven). You can see the main track continuing up over Mt Graham to the north-east. Directly north is a magnificent vista that takes in Hazards Beach and Wineglass Bay, with Hazards Lagoon in the middle and “The Hazards” in the background. If you’re doing the Freycinet Peninsula circuit, it’s worth making the effort.

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The view north over Hazards Beach and Wineglass Bay

The descent is much quicker. We re-shoulder our packs at the bottom, and start our second ascent up Mt Graham (579m). The track is now in full sun as it climbs steadily up through low heath to our second summit of the day.

Mt Graham is not really a peak – there’s a 100m pad up to the “summit” from the main track, with views of Mt Freycinet to the south and Wineglass Bay to the north. The views are not as dramatic as Mt Freycinet, but being a “flat” peak (Mt Freycinet is more a collection of large boulders) you get uninterrupted 360-degree views. Strong winds and some cool mist suggests how quickly the Tasmanian weather can change.

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From here the track descends to Wineglass Bay, but remains exposed and it’s another section that feels much longer than it it really is. Wineglass Bay still looks far away…

I’m unsure whether there is water at Wineglass Bay, so I’m hoping that we can replenish our water supplies on the way down. We find a few unappealing, brackish streams before eventually striking a clear stream that crosses the track (Graham Creek) and we refill our three 1.5L water bottles. I explained to Luke that, worst case, we could suck the nectar out of banksia flowers (although most were pretty dry).

Finally, we reach our camp for the second night, after 16km and over 1000m of climbing. Wineglass Bay is rated one of the best beaches in the world (by Traveller.com, UK Telegraph and Lonely Planet to mention just a few publications) and it is just spectacular. Clear, blue water and white sand with the peaks of The Hazards forming the background.

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The only downside is the number of mosquitoes. The large campground, which is right on the water, is not full despite it being a summer weekend. But as all the premium water-front plots are taken, we find a nice secluded camp site toward the back of the campground. Big mistake. I feel as we are the guests of honour at the Tasmanian National Mosquito Conference. I’ve never seen so many mozzies. We quickly cook our dinner (another culinary miss, with Luke declaring my expensive Back Country Honey Soy Chicken packet a bunch of inedible vegetables), watch the sun set and climb into our tents. Despite this, we sleep well and are ready for the final hike out the next morning.

Day 3

Another early-ish (7:30am) start – we are both ready for an egg and bacon roll and a cold drink at Coles Bay, after our last few meals… It should be pretty easy as as we’re walking around Wineglass Bay along the beach, although the sand is soft and we can feel our muscles! Wineglass Bay looks pretty impressive from this angle too, this time with Mt Freycinet and Mt Graham in the background.

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The track ascends from the the north end of Wineglass Bay. Being a popular day-walk, the track is now of a considerably higher standard, but we’ve got a 200m climb up to the Wineglass Bay lookout. We start seeing a lot more people, for the first time in three days.

It’s not a bad view over Wineglass Bay… but we’ve been spoilt by the last two days and the weather is a bit overcast for the first time (although it soon clears). There’s many people here, with the lookout rated as one of the “most photogenic destinations” in the world, according to Traveller.

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It’s now all down-hill for the last two or so kilometres, on a well-graded track that feels more like a highway than a trail after the rest of our hike. We’re welcomed by another friendly wallaby, as we make our way back to the car-park (and our well-earned egg and bacon roll). It’s been exactly 40km in 48 hours. We’ve both had a great time on our first overnight hike, and thinking about where we might go next…

Lessons and Suggestions

It’s been many years since I’ve done an overnight walk… and we’ve done pretty well with our preparation and gear. Next time, I’ll definitely be packing insect repellent. Some light-weight thongs or “slippers” would have been helpful around camp. And you can never bring too much wine…

If you’re not up for overnight-camping, there are are a few companies that offer Freycinet trips, often using boats to avoid sections of hiking and including accommodation in a lodge near Coles Bay:

Hike details and map

Location Starts at the Wineglass Bay carpark, near Coles Bay. About 2.5-hours from Hobart or Launceston airports.
Distance 40km circuit. 1180m total ascent. 1-3 days.
Grade Moderate
Season/s All year round
Map TasMap Frecyinet National Park 1:50,000
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources  Parks and Wildlife “Freycinet Peninsula Circuit” overview
Photos Google photos albums – Day 1 / Day 2 / Day 3
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Map showing Freycinet Peninsula Circuit route and elevation gain.

Three Capes in A Day

A one day “express” version of the new Three Capes Track in Tasmania, on the Tasman Peninsula

There’s been a bit of controversy over the new Three Capes Track, which is on the Tasman Peninsula about 90min south of Hobart. It has been designed as a 4 day/3 night walk covering 46km , staying in newly constructed huts. There’s a maximum of 48 people that can start each day. You can’t vary the itinerary. And there’s a cost of (around) $500 per person. Why the controversy: because multiple bush-camping sites have been removed, with just one remaining camping site that has space for six tents for those wanting to do an “unassisted” walk.

I think it’s a great idea: the cost is reasonable, it will hopefully generate a new income stream for Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service and it enables people to undertake this walk who aren’t willing or able to carry a tent, stove and other supplies… All the huts were full, so the concept seems to be working. The downside is you’re often walking on a highly-engineered “track” that’s more akin to a metropolitan boardwalk than a bushwalk. There were a few sections where I expected to see a travelator… Or for a butler to pop out from behind a casuarina and offer to carry my bag.

I will clarify at this juncture: my one-day hiking of the track was not a protest at the track fees: I just didn’t have four days to spare and I was too lazy to carry all my camping gear!

After a late-evening arrival into Hobart International Airport (which doesn’t actually have a single, scheduled international flight) and an early morning start the following day, I reached Fortescue Bay at 8:30am. While the “official” walk starts at Port Arthur with a boat trip to the trailhead at Denman’s Cove and finishes at Fortescue Bay, this first section of track can only be done as part of the paid Three Capes walk. I start (and finish) at Fortescue Bay. Armed with my two Snickers bars, two litres of water and sunscreen, I head off at a fairly fast pace, as I need to get back to the airport by 8pm.

The Old Cape Pillar Track starts a few hundred metres up the road from the car park at Fortescue Bay, climbing gently up to 275m altitude where it meets the new / upgraded Cape Pillar Track (map below). It’s mostly in light forest, and in the hour and a bit it takes me to cover the first 7km I meet a couple of hikers, two wallabies and a large black snake.  I continue on the (new) Cape Pillar Track for another two kilometres – I am now following the official Three Capes Experience route – before I reach the Munro hut. It’s an impressive construction, and sitting on a deck chair watching the sun set would not be an unpleasant way to spend an evening (although it’s not really possible since the deck is facing east, but you get the idea.)

I push 0n toward Cape Pillar. I’m making good time on the well-graded track, which becomes a boardwalk super-highway for a number of kilometres along the Cape. I’m now encountering most of the 48 people who are on Day 3 of their 4-day Cape trip. They’re friendly and seem to be enjoying the walk, with a number of families on the trail.

After a few more kilometres, the track starts hugging the southern edge of Cape Pillar. The track undulates between about 250m to 350m above the Tasman Sea, which crashes into the cliffs below us. The views are impressive in all directions and frequent photo stops are required.

I reach the tip of Cape Pillar and ascend The Blade at 11:30am; I’ve walked just under 17km and have reached the furthest point from the start (and end) of my hike. The view is incredible: Tasman Island lies directly head, and the cliffs of Cape Pillar can be seen on both sides of the rocky promontory.

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I continue after a short break and my first chocolate bar, re-tracing my steps back along Cape Pillar and past Munro Hut. Not long after Munro Hut I reach Retakunna hut, where most of the hikers I met will spend their last night on the trail. It too looks as luxurious as bush huts get, and I take the opportunity to fill my water bottle and consume my second nutritional Snickers bar. There’s no-one here yet, as I start the steepest section of the walk, climbing through rain forest from 235m up to the highest point of the Three Capes track at 489m.

It’s not a particularly tough climb, but I’m happy to have completed this section and descended 300m back down to the cliff line again, with the views getting more impressive as I get closer to Cape Huay.

The Cape Huay track snakes up and down along the second cape of the walk, with views back up the coast to Fortescue Bay where I’ll finish the walk. The track is exposed and I’m glad I’ve brought sunscreen!

Not quite as spectacular as Cape Pillar, but worth the 2km detour, the second cape** of the trip towers vertically above the ocean. I can hear climbers somewhere on the Totem Pole that’s directly in front of us and a series of jet boats circle underneath us getting a view of the sheer cliffs from below.

(** While it’s called the Three Capes walk, it is currently a Two Capes walk… the third cape is Cape Raoul, which is stage 3 of this project and will add another 32km of track and two more huts.)

Another 5km or so and I’m back at Fortescue Bay, for a refreshing swim before the drive back to Hobart. It’s taken 8.5 hours to walk the 41km: faster than I had anticipated, but a $28m investment in building and upgrading the track means very easy walking.

Would I recommend it? For families with small children or people that really can’t manage more than 10-15km per day of fairly easy walking, yes. The scenery is great and the huts world-class. But there are long sections of monotonous track, so it’s hard to recommend this walk over Cradle Mountain or many other tracks that are serviced by tourism operators that offer hut accommodation.

Location From Fortescue Bay on the Tasman Peninsula (90min from Hobart)
Distance 41km “lollipop” walk. 1120m total ascent.
Grade Hard due to length. Moderate for Cape Huay / Cape Pillar only.
Season/s All year round
Map TasMap “Peninsula Walks” or Tasman Peninsula 1:50,000
Resources Three Capes Track web site for details of 4 day/3 night walk
Photos Google Photos gallery
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Map of Three Capes track, showing route and Three Capes Experience walk.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

A hidden gem: a two-day walk through a dramatic landscape red canyons and turquoise waterfalls.

I stumbled across this hike somewhere in the depths of the Web… it looked amazing, and yet I hadn’t seen it in any of my US hiking  books. After a bit more research, it was added to my mental “wish list” of hikes! “The Havasupai Waterfalls are the most dramatic waterfalls in the Grand Canyon and possibly even the entire Southwestern United States” and “Havasupai (Havasu Falls) might just be one the the most beautiful places on Earth” are a few of the descriptions of this hike.

Getting there was the first challenge. I needed to be in San Diego on Monday for a conference, so the best approach was to fly to Las Vegas from LAX and pick up a car, overnight in Peach Springs and drive the last 100km to the start of the hike at Hualapai Hilltop early the following morning. Getting there at sunrise, the hike started with impressive views down the Hualapai Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. A few mules are tethered near the start of the trail – this is the only place in the US where mail is delivered by mule (UK Daily Mail).

The trail drops quickly  from 1575m down into the canyon via a series of switchbacks and follows the dry floor canyon. After about 10km the Havasu Canyon is reached, and some trees and greenery start to appear… another 2km and I reach the village of Supai at 975m).

Supai is an interesting place. Home to the Havasupai Tribe, which has a population of about 600 people, it’s the smallest Indian nation in America. Reached by foot, mule and helicopter, Havasupai tribe has been living in the area for centuries. The land on which the Supai village is now situated was claimed from the National Park in 1975, after many court battles, granting the tribe a trust title to approximately 185,000 acres (source: Wikipedia). The village now has a shop, cafe, church, post office, health clinic and a lodge, which is where I stayed overnight (day-hikes are not permitted, and it would be a very long day hiking back up to the top of the canyon). The village looks pretty run-down and while many locals are reliant on tourism, no-one appears particularly friendly…

I check-in to Supai Lodge around midday and continue hiking down Havasu Canyon. The best is yet to come: Havasupai is roughly translated as “the people of the blue-green waters”, in reference to the amazing turquoise colour of Havasu Creek, formed by leaching from minerals. Navajo Falls is reached first, a short detour off the main track about 3km beyond the village. It is spectacular. One of those spots where I know the photos won’t do justice to what I am seeing.

I take many photos, and continue… Another 3km and I reach (arguably) the star attraction: Havasu Falls. Being outside peak season there are a few other people on the track and swimming, but there is also a sense of isolation and serenity. It’s somewhere I could happily camp and stay for a few days.

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A little further again (another 2km) after walking through the fairly-empty Havasu camping ground, and I reach the 70m-high Mooney Falls (these are the highest). The base of the falls is accessed through a rough track carved through the cliff and then down some less than confidence-inspiring wooden ladders. But worth the effort. Each waterfall seems to outdo the last in beauty and amazing-ness!

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I climb back up the narrow trail to the top, with one last waterfall to reach. There’s now a 4km stretch to Beaver Falls. The track is well-defined it gets rough in sections, with a number of ladders and steep sections to scramble down as it alternates between the two banks of Havasu Creek.

At last, Beaver Falls. I’ve walked 24km from the start of the hike at the top of the canyon many hours ago. I still have another 11km back up to the lodge at Supai where I’ll sleep tonight. It’s another 7km further before  Havasu Creek meets the Colorado River, and I fear that I won’t be back at Supai village in time to get some dinner.

I take a few (more) photos, and reluctantly head back up the trail. I’ve got enough time for a swim at Havasu Falls – the water is warm and relaxing – and make it back to the Sinyella cafe in Supai on the far side of the village about half an hour before it closes. A cold drink and fry-bread never tasted so good!

Supai Lodge is fairly basic, but I sleep very soundly (after a mix-up with rooms is eventually solved, and I am allocated a room that doesn’t already have an occupant)!

It’s an early start again the next day. Back through the village, up Havasu Canyon and then the final ascent up Hualapai Canyon to the car.

I get back mid-morning. It’s been a spectacular day and and half. I wish I could stay longer and I will be back one day. But today, I have a conference to get to.

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Location From Highway 66 near Peach Springs, turn onto Indian Route 18 and follow this for 100km to Hualapai Hilltop
Distance 47km (35km Day 1 to Beaver Falls; 12km Day 2).
Grade Moderate.
Season/s March through June considered the best time. Avoid monsoon season (mid-July to August) where flash flooding can occur
Map Havasu Falls, AZ  36112C6
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Permit required: refer NPS web site
Good track notes on BigBoyTravel web site
Photos Google Photos gallery

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Mulu Caves and The Pinnacles

A three day adventure exploring one of the biggest cave systems in the world, and climbing up to The Pinnacles, a unique karst formation in Mulu National Park.

Getting to Mulu is the first challenge… I’d organised the 4D3N itinerary a month ago through Tropical Adventure Tours & Travel (who were very efficient and easy to deal with), then booked two MASwings flights from KL connecting via Kuching. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, having stumbled across The Pinnacles Trail on a “top hikes in Malaysia” Web site while researching potential walking destinations for my next work trip. The second MASwing flight flying over what seems to be never-ending jungle before landing in the very small town of Mulu… it starts to give a sense of the adventure ahead.

Mulu is the “gateway” to Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses caves and karst formations in a mountainous rainforest setting. (The national park is named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak.) It feels very remote – before the opening of the airport in 1991, access took 12 hours by riverboat covering the 100km to the nearest town of Miri.

I’m hoping someone will be at the airport meet us, having arranged the trip via a few emails, and my fears are quickly allayed as we are met by our friendly guide at the small airport. We (I’m travelling with Hanna, a work colleague) are taken in a rather battered vehicle to our lodging a few kilometres away at Benarat Inn. It’s very basic accommodation (a couple of mattresses on the floor and a ceiling fan!). With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been preferable to stay within the Mulu National Park, which has bungalows as well as a shared dormitory option.

Lang Cave

We head off reasonably early on the following day for a tour of Deer Cave and Lang Cave, which is a short car ride away followed by a slightly longer walk . After crossing the Melinau river just after the national park headquarters, the boardwalk enters into fairly thick jungle for it’s 3km length.

The area has been recognised for it’s high bio-diversity, and our guide is soon pointing out some of the smaller animals that inhabit the park.

The national park also has seventeen vegetation zones and over 3,500 species of vascular plants (according to Google a vascular plant is one that has “the vascular tissues xylem and phloem”, which doesn’t really help much!). But it means we see a number of interesting plants along the track.

It takes less than hour to reach Lang (or Langs) Cave, which looks pretty impressive despite being one of the smallest caves in the park. The cave was named after a guide who led a research expedition in the 1970s.

Entrance to Green Cave (Mulu NP)

While comparatively small in size, the stalactites and stalagmites are representative of the very best limestone formations in the Mulu cave system. There’s all sorts of shapes and sizes among the thousands of stalactites / stalagmites; our guide explains some of the more interesting ones. Including an interesting formation that I discover later frequently features in examples of phallic rock art!

For a “small cave”, it’s still fairly large and takes about 45min to walk through… allowing a fair few photo stops. (Tripods are not allowed without prior permission – so bring a “gorilla pod” or something small you can use to rest a camera on.)

Green Cave (Mulu NP)

Eventually we emerge back into daylight, with the boardwalk continuing under towering cliffs to the next cave…

Deer Cave

The Deer Cave is over 2km long and 174m high (at no point is the roof of the cave lower than 90m in height) and was the world’s largest cave passage open to the public, until the discovery of Sơn Đoòng cave in Vietnam . (A survey of the caves in 2009 increased the known passage length to 4.1km and established that Deer Cave was connected to Lang Cave.)

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Also known as Gua Payau or Gua Rusa, the cave was named by the local Penan and Berawan people due to the fact that deer used to shelter within the cave and lick the salt-bearing rocks

The main chamber is 174 meters wide and 122 meters high; natural light still reaches this first cavern, and there are glimpses of the rainforest outside.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

You start to appreciate the magnitude of the cave, as the boardwalk follows the side of the vast cavern. It’s hard to convey the size in a photo… I’ve never really been a “cave person”, but walking through here was an amazing experience!

We frequently stop as our guide points out different cave features (or patiently waits for me as I set-up the camera for another long-exposure photo!). The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the sight of waterfalls cascading from the ceiling over 120m above us.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

The cave leads to the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley and waterfall. A karst valley or sinkhole with a volume of 150 million cubic meters, the one kilometre wide, circular depression is encircled by 150–300m tall limestone walls. The bottom is covered with rainforest.

Garden of Eden, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

On the way back from the Garden of Eden (the furthest point we go), our guide points out the guano or bat poo from the two million to three million bats belonging to 12 species which inhabit the cave – more than in any other single cave in the world. The guano can be metres deep and is part of the cave ecosystem (the poo supports the growth of fungus, which feeds insects, which in turn supports the larger animals living in the cave). It’s probably worth mentioning that this also does contribute to a strong and not particularly pleasant smell – although it didn’t really bother us.

On the way out, a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln oversees our exit from the cave.

Face in the rock, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

Bat Observatory

We finish our tour of Deer Cave around 4:30pm, and make our (short) way to the Bat Observatory for the final attraction of the day… A small clearing in the jungle, with a couple of rows of seats, provides the viewing area for the (literally) millions of bats that stream out of Deer Cave in the early evening. Except when it’s raining! Fortunately the skies are clear today. There are a few people here although it’s not crowded; during our two cave tours we saw less than five people.

It’s an impressive spectacle, appearing like a never-ending plume of smoke that rises and spirals above the cliffs that surround the clearing! (Apparently it lasts about two hours: we stay about 45min and there’s no sign of the “bat-cloud” abating.)

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

The twisting and constantly changing trajectory of the bats is designed to avoid the bat hawks that are perched on the surrounding cliffs. It’s thought the bats travel up to 100km from the cave to feed before returning in the early morning, collectively eating 30 tonnes of mosquitoes and other flying insects every night.

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

As the light fades (we have our head torches with us), we head back along the boardwalk to the Mulu National Park entrance after a fantastic first day in Mulu.

Clearwater Cave

Today (Day 2) is when the real adventure begins, as we head up the Melinau River towards the start of the walk to The Pinnacles. We load up and “board” our water transport not far from our accommodation, near some village longhouses.

The water is deep and calm, as we make our way at a good speed up the river (that will change a little later in the day!)

First stop is Wind Cave (only about 15min away – you can also walk here along 1.4km boardwalk from the park headquarters), named for the cool breezes blowing through it which we can feel as we climb up the first set of steel steps. It’s part of the massive Clearwater Cave system. Again, we have the caves to ourselves today.

The section of the cave we are walking through is not at large at yesterday’s Lang Cave, but is equally impressive as the boardwalks climbs and winds through the many rock formations. Part of the way in, a skylight high above us lets in some natural light.

One of the larger chambers within Wind Cave is dubbed King’s Room, with huge columns of stone including stalactites, stalagmites, flowrocks, helitites and rock corals on both the ceiling and the floor.

King's Chamber, Wind Cave

Exiting the cave, we follow a boardwalk perched above the Melinau River that connects the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave (they do also interconnect underground, and it is possible to book a “Clearwater Connection” circuit of about 8km that enters by Wind Cave and exits by the Clearwater River Cave, offering six hours of walking, scrambling, crawling and squeezing.)

Clearwater Cave held the title of the longest cave system in Southeast Asia until the late 1980s, with a length of approximately 51km explored between 1978 and 1988. Since then, further expeditions have expanded the total (known) length to 222.09km, making Clearwater the largest interconnected cave system in the world by volume and the 8th longest cave in the world. The cave welcomes us with a massive group of stalactites covered in monophytes (single-leafed plants that are endemic to the park and found only in Mulu).

Clearwater Cave

The entrance to this cave is massive, with sunlight penetrating the first chamber we walk through, feeling rather small compared to the cavern we’re in!

Not far into Wind Cave, we cross a crystal-clear subterranean river which has travelled through the cave for over 170km. The smooth, curved walls above the river show the power of the river in flood, which has carved a massive groove into the cave walls.

Clearwater Cave

Further into the cave, our guide points out some phytokarst, a phenomenon where speleothems or speleogens (mineral deposits) orient towards the sunlight coming from a a skylight above.

While our Clearwater Cave tour only covers about 0.5% of the total length of the system, it’s given us an appreciation of the beauty and size of the caves.

It’s now about midday, so a steep set of 200 steps takes us down to a picnic area and our lunch spot, where’s there a crystal clear pool that is filled by water that flows out of the cave. A great spot for lunch – and a swim in the pool.

Getting to Camp 5

We continue up the Melinau River after our lunch… it gets a bit more adventurous as we continue upstream. As the water level drops, I jump out and help our guides push the boat through the shallower sections of the rivers. Every so often the engine stalls. I’m not convinced we’ll make it. The guides seem pretty nonplussed by it all, as the engine splutters along and the bottom of the longboat scrapes along the rocks at the bottom of the river…

…eventually, we do reach the start of the track to The Pinnacles at Kuala Litut. From here we walk about 8km through the jungle along the along the Litut river to Melinau Camp (Camp 5).

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It’s a pleasant jungle walk, taking a bit under three hours to reach Camp 5. Our destination for today, the camp will be our starting point for the last part of the hike up to The Pinnacles the following morning.

We stay in a very basic dormitory, right by the Litut River. Meals are included as part of our itinerary, so there’s not much to do but relax, and have an early night in preparation for the next day’s climb.

Melinau River, beside Camp 5 (Mulu NP)

The Pinnacles

It’s an early start the next day. The climb to the Pinnacles is short but hard, climbing about 1200m over 2.4km. The first few hundred metres is fairly flat, and then the climbing starts. There are many sections of rope to help ascend the sometimes very slippery track. We need to reach the first “checkpoint” at 400m within an hour, which we comfortably do.

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It gets progressively steeper for the next two sections, as the track ascends from 400m to 1000m. More sections of rope and metal rungs in the rocks provide some assistance. My work colleague, Hanna, is now questioning the sanity of climbing a jungle-covered mountain peak. I’m not sure she’ll ever be joining me on another walk…

There isn’t a lot of interesting vegetation along the way; I haven’t seen any pitcher plants as others have observed, but this little mushroom among the green moss looks quite photogenic!

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As we get to the final, steepest section, we start on the first of the 16 ladders that go up the most vertical rock faces.

When we get to about 1,135m, there’s a brief opening in the jungle with views over the surrounding area. Or, there would be views on a less cloudy day…

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There’s now just 100m left to go (and 65m vertical climb) to the viewing platform…

Finally, after about three hours of solid climbing, we reach the platform at 1200m elevation, overlooking the Pinnacles.

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

Located on the side of Mount Api (Gunung Api), one of the three mountains in Mulu Park, they are a series of 45 meters high, limestone spikes that are clearly visible above the surrounding vegetation. It’s quite a surreal sight,

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

Going down is much quicker than going up… but just as tough, and I’m glad to reach the bottom at around 1pm. Although I’d read reports saying many people don’t make it to the top, everyone who left this morning successfully completed the ascent.

Arriving a bit before the rest of the group, I has time to explore the area around Camp 5, walking up the river about 500m toward the the Melinau Gorge. Not too far from the camp is a beautiful swimming hole and cascades.

Back to Mulu

The next day, we head back along the 8km track to Kuala Litut, where we hope a boat will be coming to pick us up, and take us back downstream to Mulu.

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It’s a much quicker trip downstream, with the river current pushing us through the shallow sections that presented a challenge two days ago.

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We leave on an afternoon flight, back to KL and then onto Sydney. I’ve really enjoyed my three days in Mulu. I think Hanna has too, although she’s still not talking to me (no, not really, despite sore legs she enjoyed the trip. I think!)

Location Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. Access by MASwings flights from Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu (2-3 hours from KL)
Distance Caves tours are about 7km in distance
Pinnacles trek is 21km over two days
Grade Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with ropes & ladders)
Season/s All year. Best time is considered to be July, but there is high rainfall all year around. We went in March (one of the highest rainfall months) and experienced almost no rain.
Map N/A
Resources
Notes & Tips
  • Dress appropriately including good footwear – within the caves the ground can be slippery/uneven, and the hike up to the Pinnacles is rough and slippery
  • A head torch is essential for caves
  • Be prepared for the occasional leech!
  • Some short walks in the past can be done without a guide; the caves, Pinnacles and Mt Mulu require a guide and should be booked in advance.
  • Stay in Mulu National Park if you can

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Mt Jagungal

A two-day circuit in the Jagungal Wilderness (Kosciuszko National Park) including an ascent of Mt Jagungal (2,061m)

We (my father and I) start the walk early on Thursday morning, signing the log book at the Round Mountain trailhead at 7:15am and heading down the well-marked Round Mountain Trail.

After 1.5km we veer left onto the the Farm Ridge Trail and drop down to the Tumut River. Taking our shoes off to cross the icy water, we climb steeply up the ridge on the other side.

Once we’re on the ridge it’s fairly easy walking, with Mt Jagungal on the horizon, almost directly in front of us.

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After about five hours walking we turn right onto the Grey Mare Trail, which is part of the Australian Alps Walking Route (AAWT). Shortly after we reach O’Keefes Hut, where we have our lunch. Built in 1934 by AS O’Keefe to support local grazing, the hut was burnt down in 2003 and rebuilt in 2007-8 (about 20m from the original site). While only intended as an emergency shelter, it’s a cosy refuge with basic furniture and old newspapers lining the walls. O’Keefes Hut is considered one of the most important huts in Kosciuszko National Park for survival and shelter.

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From here we walk another half an hour or so further south, leaving our packs at the meteorological station (1660m) at about 3pm before tackling the (untracked) Mt Jagungal from the north.

It’s an impressive view from the Jagungal summit, with bare, grassy hills in every direction and some higher peaks with snow remaining further to the south (Mount Jagungal is the seventh-highest mountain in Australia and Mt Jagungal is the dominant peak in the ‘Jagungal Wilderness Area’.).

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We take a slightly different route down Mt Jagungal, past a small patch of remnant snow and back to the Grey Mare Trail, where we re-shoulder our packs.

The snow gums around the foot of Mt Jagungal, like many others in the area, have been burnt in recent fires. Growing between 1,300 and 1,800 metres above sea level, snow gums (eucalyptus pauciflora) can live up to 500 years. While they are “fire adapted” (they can survive or regenerate after fire), a severe fire in 2003 and many years of drought are putting pressure on these trees.

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Continuing along the Grey Mare Trail, we re-cross the Tumut River (a few hundred meters from its source) and shortly after this we reach the Round Mountain Trail. This is our furthest point south: from here we are heading north and returning to our car via the Round Mountain Trail.

We have another hour of walking, before we set-up camp around 6:30pm, a couple of kilometres after Derschko’s Hut, near a small creek. As we eat dinner, Mount Jagungal “glows” in the distance from the setting sun.

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We set off at 7:15am on the the following day along the Round Mountain Trail, with only about 12km ahead of us.

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It’s easy walking on a wide trail; I’ve got a painful blister so I decide to walk in my socks, which works fine on the soft dirt track.

The trail continues along the open, alpine landscape… there’s a last ford across a small creek about 1.5km before the end of the walk. Near the creek we see a snake curled up in the long grass – one of the few animals we see other than a wild brumby.

By 9:30am we’re back at the car for the drive home to Sydney… we’ve had great weather, and have encountered no other walkers in our 1.5 day hike which makes it feel like a wilderness experience, despite being mostly on well-marked trails.

Location Round Mountain trailhead on Tooma Road (KNP5)
Khancoban to Cabramurra Road – closed in winter
Distance 38km circuit (including Mt Jagungal ascent)
Grade Easy/Moderate
Season/s November-April
Map/s Jagungal and Toolong Range 1:25,000 maps
Kosciuszko Alpine Area 1:50,000 covers entire walk
Resources Take a Walk” (John & Lyn Daly) – Jagungal Wilderness (p.92) covers a longer version of this walk
Notes
  • Tooma Road is closed in winter (and may also be intermittently closed due to flooding)
  • Huts are intended for emergency use – carry a tent for overnight walks