GRAYnomad Nature Photography :: Essays :: Finally I see

Finally I see
I spend two days on top of a mountain without a camera.

Here I am contemplating the meaning of life, the universe and why belly button lint is always grey.

For five years now [this was written in 1998] I've been a landscape photographer. I love the Australian landscape and love to photograph it but I find that as a photographer I seldom have time to see it. I needed time in the wilderness without a camera (I did take a small 35mm camera for some happy-snaps), time to collect my thoughts and really feel the landscape, time to walk for the simple joy of being in the bush.

The climb
Ahhh, the sound of rain on the roof of my four-wheel-drive. There are few better sounds and I've been known to sleep in the car on rainy nights even when I'm at home. However, when I am about to embark on a bushwalk this sound evokes images of wet clothing and soggy boots. It's ironic, Australia has just had one of its driest spells on record and I have been agonizing all week over how much water to take on this walk, and now it's raining.

I find that motivation can be a real problem when I'm solo. It's the same in business, photography, exercise, bushwalking, whatever. Without encouragement from my peers it can be very difficult to push myself and I am suffering a severe lack of motivation at this time, after all, I'm warm and dry and don't see any reason to change this condition. Then I hear a group of walkers setting off and start to think about being late reaching the cave and finding it full. With no tent I would have to find an alternative, possibly in the dark and the rain, not a pleasant thought and enough to get me out of bed. After a quick breakfast I set off into the mist, cross Yadboro Creek and start the uphill slog.

Before long the forest opens and I get a glimpse of my goal, the Castle, over two thousand feet above me. Its vertical rock face is dark and wet while on its head sits a cloud as black as Thor's brow. I felt I was in a scene from a Norse legend and that any minute the air would boom with the sound of "The Hall of the Mountain King" and trolls would spew from the mountain to pursue me through the trees. OK, let's get a grip here. Maybe it's not that bad but it's not a big confidence booster either.

Pushing on I follow the track up Kalianna ridge until I reach the first bluff where I find a steep climb with a rope of dubious heritage fixed to the rock. The party I heard before has started climbing but I know a better way and I am sitting on top when they arrive. After enjoying the look on their faces I explain. They move off but I am happy to admire the view before continuing.

According to my map the track contours along the side of the Castle, strictly speaking this is true but there's plenty of ups and downs between the two contour lines and it can be a bit taxing on the leg muscles. Before long I reach my favorite grotto; it was dry as a bone on my previous two trips but is now six inches deep in cool fresh water thanks to a cascade from the mountainside. Once again I chuckle at my deliberations over how much water to carry. In the past I have stopped here to take on water and cool off but there is no reason to do so today, climbing through a crack in the boulders that form the grotto I press on into the fog.

Within half an hour I reach a large overhang known as the lunch cave. It's raining again so I decide to shelter for a while. Breaking open a snack I sit and gaze into the rain. This has got to be one of the most beautiful bush experiences, listening to the raindrops on dead leaves and smelling the ozone as it is released from the soil. I feel that I could just sit here forever. Then the rain stops. Oh well, I may as well resume my walk.

For the first few hundred yards after the lunch cave the trail passes through some dense bush, the rain has not only soaked the vegetation but the extra weight of the water causes the branches to hang low over the track. I'm getting saturated and wonder if I should have gone to the trouble of using a garbage bag as a liner to waterproof my pack. Too late now.

For the most part the Castle is a huge mesa formed by massive vertical cliffs. The northern end however breaks up into a series of monoliths that decrease in height as they march north towards a pass known as the "Saddle". This line of reducing monoliths also has a name, and that name is the "Tail". It's the Tail that affords bushwalkers access to the Castle's flat top.

As I reach the saddle it starts raining again so I head to a nearby overhang on the eastern side of the Tail. Sitting under shelter I start to loose sight of my goal. I'm warm and comfortable and start rationalising a decision to stay here. "I can always finish the climb tomorrow"; I tell myself, "and anyway the rocks will be too wet and dangerous". I admit I was a little worried about the climb. I had only done it once before and that was on a sunny day, with friends and without a pack. Today I was alone, with a pack, in the rain, and almost zero visibility.

Nevertheless my goal is to reach the cave at the top of the Castle, not some convenient spot at the base. I'm just making excuses. Donning my pack I resume the climb.

The final part of the walk is mostly non-technical rock climbing. With no luggage, the average fit person with a head for heights and a sense of balance can do the climb in about 45 minutes. If you have a full pack you will need a rope and about an hour. While not overly difficult the climb should not be taken lightly, I've seen many people balk at the final part. One person, when over encouraged by a companion, made it half way then froze. It took over an hour to coax her down to safety. This illustrates what I feel is an important point. With everything in life you should always be pushing yourself to do things above your current limits, but you should only push so far. Trying to do too much in a single leap can leave you burned and unwilling to try further risks. In the outdoors it can even be fatal.

Most of this section is just plain hard work but there are many parts that require me to drop my pack, climb a bit, and then haul it behind me. Most backpacks have a haul loop for this purpose and I find that placing a carabiner through the haul loop saves me having to thread the rope every time.

It's still raining and visibility is about zero, probably a good thing as some of the places around here are quite exposed and it's a long way down. Carefully I pick my way through the boulders, looking for the telltale signs of wear on the rock that indicates I'm on the right track

I reach a narrow crack. Dropping my pack I clip my rope through the 'biner, tie a rock to the two ends and throw it to the top. Inching sideways through the crack my hat scrapes rock on both sides it's so narrow. The crack widens slightly so I chimney up to the top, grab the rope and retrieve my pack. A few more obstacles and I find myself in a lovely perched garden with trees and bushes surrounded by a wall of rock. From here I would normally be able to see my destination, but not today. I notice a cave formed by a massive boulder and note it as being a suitable fallback shelter if I don't reach the top or if the cave is occupied. Rounding a corner I reach a small rock platform. It's at this point that you first see Byangee Walls and Pidgeonhouse Mountain to the east, it's quite a view and the subject of many a photograph. That's on a fine day of course, I see nothing but more fog so I don't linger.

It's the last twenty or so metres of this climb that decides if you will reach the top or not. To a climber it would be nothing but this is the spot I mentioned before where I've seen people lose their nerve. It's no problem if you have a bit of a head for heights and rudimentary climbing skills, just treat it as several consecutive smaller climbs. After several iterations of the "climb, haul pack" sequence I reach another narrow crack, this time however it's only about eight feet high. Grabbing my pack I get under it like a shot putter, and lunge. It sits precariously at the top of the crack. I climb up and finally see my destination. I'm still a few metres from the top of the mountain but just to my right is the camping cave I remembered. And it's empty, thank goodness. This will be my home for the next two days.

Alone on the Castle
Bending almost double I enter the cave (actually an overhang open at both sides) and am pleased to find that, in certain spots, I can stand almost full height. Now let's get comfortable. A groundsheet is first priority as these caves always have dusty floors. Next the Thermorest followed by my bivy bag and sleeping bag. That's looking pretty good and I'm about to sit down when I realise that there's one thing missing, my piece of closed-cell foam. I always carry a small piece of sleeping mat to sit on. In winter it nicely insulates my nether regions from the cold ground but at any time it's more comfortable than sitting directly on rock.

I'm still dressed lightly for the climb and will cool quickly but for now I just want to savor the moment. I'm no mountain climber -- the idea appeals to me but I just don't have what it takes -- however, at this moment, I think I'm experiencing some of the awe that climbers must feel when sitting on top of Chongtar or K2.

I sit for a while then realise that I'm cooling rapidly. I don my thermals and a layer or two of warm clothing then, with my legs inside my sleeping bag and back resting on the mountain, I'm warm and comfortable. I nod off for a while then wake with a rumbling stomach, time for dinner.

I cook without leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag then make a nice cup of hot chocolate and settle in. It's getting dark now, the sun has gone for the day but the night shift has arrived in the shape of an almost-full moon. One thing I like about being up high is that I am actually in the weather. In places like this a cloud is not just an icon on a weatherman's map. It surrounds you and is a tangible thing. As I sit I can see the cloud wafting through the cave just inches in front of me.

Gradually I slide lower and lower into the sleeping bag…

On the stroke of midnight I wake to an amazing scene. The cloud has thinned in places and I can see Mt Owen in the moonlight. I can also just see the first of the Tail's monoliths; the rest still are shrouded in fog. A single star appears through the cloud while in the valley a solitary torch flickers. The star is Sirius; the torch is probably a Petzel headlamp. Sirius is also known as "The Dog Star" because it's the alpha star in the Canis Major constellation. It's the brightest star in the sky and appears roughly as bright as the torch, not bad when you consider that Sirius is roughly 3,910,464,000,003 kilometres away.

There's a rock ledge in front of the cave, two metres of safety followed by about four metres of steep incline that terminates in a 100-metre drop to the valley below. I lay on the incline, put my head back and look up at the Dog Star, oblivion below, infinity above, and my faith placed firmly in friction. Before long the other major stars appear and the constellations become apparent. Canis Major, Orion, the Southern Cross, they all spring into life. To be able to go to these stars would be the ultimate experience and it really pisses me off that it's not possible with our current level of technology. I briefly try astral projection but fail as always, just don't seem to be able to concentrate hard enough I guess.

Before long the cloud returns and I start feeling the cold. I return to my shelter and sleep comes quickly. But I am not alone. The bush rats up here can gnaw right through your pack to get some food and my provisions were carelessly strewn about the cave in plastic shopping bags.

Rustle, rustle…I sit up…scurry, scurry…I lie down.
five minutes later…
Rustle, rustle…I sit up…scurry, scurry…I lie down.
five minutes later…
Rustle, rustle…I sit up…scurry, scurry…I lie down.

Yes I know I could get up and put the food in a safer location but it's cold outside my sleeping bag and I'm just too lazy. Eventually I move the bags of food to my other side. There are fewer places for the rat to hide there and that seems to do the trick.

Waking to a cloud-bound morning I prepare breakfast and decide that I will spend the day leisurely exploring the Castle's rim. I have heard that there is another cave and I'd like to find it but apart from that, the idea of spending the entire day wandering around the mesa with nothing particular to do is very appealing.

For several hours I explore the mesa's rim. I didn't find the other cave but enjoy my day ambling along the cliff edge anyway and return to my simple shelter as the shadows lengthen. It's time to perform some housekeeping chores before it gets dark so I grab my water bladder and return to the plateau where there are many pools of fresh rainwater.

As I stoop to fill the bladder an orange light catches my eye. Curious I push through the bushes to the eastern side of the mountain where I see Byangee Walls lit by a brilliant shaft of sunlight. The normally dull cliff face is almost luminous. What a sight. I stand, transfixed, for what seems like ages, just absorbing the splendor before me. Eventually the light dims, then vanishes but at that very instant a full moon appears over the ocean. Bright pink, oval and larger than life it makes a perfect replacement for the grandeur so recently lost. It doesn't get much better than this and I was free to be a part of it; not distracted by f-stops, lenses or exposures, but able to really experience what was happening and revel in the beauty of it all.

As long as I live I will never forget this moment. I have no photographic record, just a memory, but it's more real and vivid than anything I could create with silver halides.

I stand alone in the fading light, tomorrow I will leave here and return to my work-a-day life, but for now it's just me and this incredible landscape.


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