Finally I See
by Rob Gray
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, time to
collect my thoughts and really feel the landscape, time to walk
for the simple joy of being in the bush.
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,
possible 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
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
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 heavy pack, in the rain and almost zero
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 scraps 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
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
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.
I sit up
I lie down.
five minutes later
I sit up
I lie down.
five minutes later
I sit up
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.
The view from just above the cave, looking down the Tail.
* I did take a small 35mm camera for some happy-snaps.
You can see more of Rob's
work at the following websites:
- Rob Gray