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Solitary, long ago

Story & photos: Russ Grayson

IT’S PERVERSE, REALLY. To walk  these mountains you start by descending rather than climbing.

The reason is that the Blue Mountains do not rise from a plain to culminate in high ridges and peaks. They are a plateau formed when the earth here uplifted millions of years ago. The Blue Mountains are a dissected plateau and the most interesting country lies deep within the folds of their heavily forested valleys.

Looing across the valley to the ridge of Mt Solitary.
Looking across the valley to the ridge of Mt Solitary.

Memories come while sitting quietly in the fading light of a winter’s day. Once again, I see the girl in the blue shirt, blue jeans, long blonde hair spilling from a cotton cap. She stands there on that high track, looking out at the massif that is our destination. Mt Solitary is our first walk into the wilderness. It was also our first venture into another life, had we known it.

The pack on her back is a basic affair of dark green canvas. I heft something similar loaded with the things we imagine we need for a weekend in the Blue Mountains — sleeping bag, warm parka, tent and a little food. Sure, those packs didn’t carry our load all that well, but we were young and things like that didn’t matter all that much. What does matter is that we are far, far from the dingy streets of the city.

We had talked of doing this for some weeks, months perhaps. Whenever the idea came up it gained strength until we decided — hey, enough talk… let’s just go next weekend.

The Golden Staircase was our route from the top to the track that runs along the base of vertical cliffs of yellow sandstone. On the other side of the track the land continued to fall, though less precipitously, through a dense eucalypt forest. We knew that somewhere out there, some kilometres to the south, flowed the Cox’s River. We don’t know if was a big river of one of those narrow, fast flowing streams that are sometimes graced with the name of ‘river’ when ‘creek’ would be more apt. We felt its allure while pouring over a map of our route and felt that sensation that comes when you gaze at maps and wonder… what it is like out there?

Not all that far…

Mt Solitary is not all that far from Katoomba’s Echo Point lookout, the place where tourists gawk at this marvelous landcape and, if they are sensitive enough, hear its quietness. This is the silence of wild places and it’s an audible silence. Stand apart from the crowd and, when conditions are right, you notice it as an almost subaural tone, an aggregation of all the sounds out there.

We stand looking over a deep valley towards our mountain. The map indicates a trail ascending the northern end of the ridge and this we trace by eye and wonder how long it will take to reach it. Our route follows the popular track in a broad arc that clings to the base of the cliffs, past what appears to be a recent landslide —- big, fresh-coloured rocks that have not yet weathered to the ochre yellow of those longer exposed. Further around now, near the side track that ascends a sandstone spire, we stop to look at a number of old coal mines. These date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The entrances are barricaded but we find we can get into one where we notice just how low these tunnels are. Who mined them and how did they get the coal up to the plateau? Via a vertical trolley like that back in Katoomba that now hauls tourists?

Malaita a long way, but Solitary close by

Further on and high above us the plateau juts into the valley to end at Malaita Point. Malaita is a long, mountainous island in the Solomons archipelago and a long way from here. The point was named for a man from that far, tropical island who lived out here in a shack in the early years of the twentieth century, a time when doing that was possible. But why? Why so far from home? His story remains just a series of questions and I wonder whether he sat out on that point high above the broad valley and, in his solitude, felt that deep tug inside that is the yearning for home.

It’s not far to the start of the climbing ridge and this, for novice mountain walkers, we find an exhilarating experience. The track to the climbing ridge was easy walking, progress along it simply a matter of one foot in front of the other, over and over. The ridge, as we start to ascend it, is rough and narrow and as we climb the vast valley of the Cox opens to view. Looking back, we see the grand curve of the cliff face below which the track runs. And, below that track, the land falling to the forest-congested depths of the valley and on to the unseen river.

The day has moved into early afternoon. Some of those yellow cliffs are now in shadow. We stop frequently to catch our breath and to look at the unfolding views until we eventually run out of ridge and stand on the narrow plateau that is the Mt Solitary summit ridge. It is late afternoon but, being summer, there is still plenty of light left in the day. Near a low cliff we drop our packs and pitch our cheap nylon tent on the sand. We find water, just a trickle in a small, nearly dry creek. Tomorrow we retrace out steps to make the arduous, vertical climb out of the valley and onto the plateau.

This, our first ‘serious’ venture into the mountains, would lead to further treks and, sooner rather than later, to a place with an abundance of mountains. Tasmania was far from the Blue Mountains, but there, at least, you started off by climbing, not by descending into a valley.

And the Cox’s River that appeared so far away and so intriguing on that map? One day, I would stand on its banks and ford its shallow waters. But that was years in the future and it was to be without that girl in the blue shirt with her long blonde hair that spilled over her shoulders as we stood and looked to the blue bulk of Mt Solitary that summer day long ago.

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