Wollangambe – Mt Wilson Big Bend to Upper Colo
Ken H, Steve R, Dug F.
I have known how beautiful the top reaches of the Wollangambe River are for years, last Easter we visited the junction with the Colo River and this is just as beautiful. This set the seed of the idea to do the whole length of the river. I knew it would be a tough trip, heavy packs, with airbed, wet suit and all the food. We expected long pools to lie back and lilo down but we also expected rapids, and boulder jambs to rock-hop over, we expected some of the rock block-ups to be quite long. In the end we weren’t disappointed the river is as tough as we expected and took 2 days longer but the beauty and wildness of the experience is something that will last. The only man made sign we saw for 6 days was a small plastic bottle wedged in a hole deep amongst the rocks, the water is incredibly clear despite the top canyon sections being used daily in summer. The water is so good that we noticed a deterioration where Bowens Creek joins just a slight milkiness probably from the development round Mt Tamar. A big change at the Colo though where the water is carrying a load of silt probably created by the agriculture in the headwaters (we didn’t notice this last Easter because we weren’t used to the clean water)
We dropped my car beside the road at a convenient place at Upper Colo and then drove on to Mt Wilson and we’re walking by 3pm and into the Wollangambe by 4pm. It’s damn hot and we’re loaded down by very heavy unbalanced packs. I have lilo and wet suit in a plastic carry bag, because they wouldn’t fit in my pack. I have a spare airbed just in case we burst one on the way.
Our start point in the creek is the Wollangambe Number Two Exit on the big bend below Mt Wilson. A quick blow into the airbed and we’re off down the river. Sitting propped up by our backpacks paddling by hand. I made up hand paddles by gluing flat rubber onto gloves. These prove to be worse than useless adding no more speed to the paddle and have to be taken off to scramble over the boulder jambs.
These upper reaches of the Wollangambe are canyon so we have long narrow pools between tall water sculptured cliffs, separated by piles of rocks in boulder jambs. Some of the rocks are the size of apartment blocks, some the size of houses, many the size of caravans, more the size of cars or smaller. The technique is to rock-hop scramble, wriggle under, over or through, any which way but always on. Around about 7pm we find a place just big enough to camp the three of us. Steve in a dry tent, Ken in a bivvy bag, me on just my lilo covered with a space-blanket, in a silk inner sheet. Non of us have sleeping bags – to save weight. I at least brought a couple of sets of thermals, the others rely on the warmth of their tent. It drizzles during the night so I rig up a second space-blanket as a tarp to keep dry, Steve’s tent is ok, but Kens bivvy bag leaks. Not the most comfortable night we are all coldish but get through. The beauty of the bush river setting makes up for the slight discomfort though.
The morning is still drizzly as we set off, re-arrangement of the load in our packs makes them much better to carry. Down near Mt Irvine Steve who has hurt his back due to the very heavy pack talks of pulling out but decides to tough it out when we say that we will have to exit with him as we’re not letting him go on his own. We come to the jump that I remember from a lot of years ago, just before the Mt Irvine exit but the water level is too low for me to attempt it and we slide-down/fall-off a slippery log.
By mid afternoon there are many more bolder jambs to stumble over than pools to lilo, we would have been better off if we had let the lilos down (but our packs would have been awful heavy. The slight drizzle makes the rocks very slippery so we have to take extreme care not to damage ourselves. Progress is very slow, due to the slipperiness of the rocks the weight of the packs and having to carry and protect an inflated airbed. The canyon nature has changed, still very tall cliffs but now a scree slope at the base covered in gully rainforest. For tonight’s camp we find an overhang to cook under and another one for Ken and I to camp under. Kens stuff isn’t as wet since he has borrowed a big plastic garbage bag from Steve to put inside his canyon bag.
Slow start for the morning Steve found a slow leak in his bed overnight to fix and Ken took the opportunity to sew the shoulder strap safely back on his backpack. Weather and river conditions much the same as yesterday so progress is still painfully slow. The compensation is that the river is also very beautiful. After a while we encounter more vegetation on the block-ups, still not enough pools. By noon the sun is out and it is quite warm. Steve’s’ air bed split the seam and he had to use the spare (glad I brought it now). Steve is feeling off colour in the afternoon so we camp earlier than we would have liked. In camp Steve and Ken repair their airbeds.
We continue on in this manner and eventually passed the junction with the Bungleboorie. I expected this top part of the river to be slow but we are much slower than expected in part due to the rain making the rocks slippery. Now we are able to keep to the water for much longer again, often being whisked along by a good current dodging in and out the rocks and boulders, shooting tiny rapids. Ken manages to deflate his airbed on a sharp rock in a rapid so he takes to the bank for a while until we inflate the spare for him. More repairs in camp that night. We pass on the chance to shoot a 2 –3 m waterfall onto rocks.
Just neared the Colo the wind increased and as usual it was a headwind which slowed us noticeably. On the Colo we were subject to an even stronger head wind and we thought we would have to walk but when we were forced into the water making headway proved much easier than expected. Paddling on these 2+km long pools took its toll and we were relieved to reach a block-up and have to get out to walk. With the extra weight of the wet suits in the pack we all independently, soon decided that walking wasn’t the way and take to paddling again.
At the Colo junction we met three young men who had come down from Canoe Creek over two days. Only other people on the whole trip were a father and son at the Bob Turner Track end. Steve’s airbed was bulging at the repaired seam and slight leak again so we decided to exit via the Bob Turner track rather than paddle for 5 or so hours down stream. This necessitated a 7km walk to Upper Colo with packs and then 20+km walk (sans pack) to pick up the car. My feet were hurt much more after the road bash than over the previous 7 days.
There was a little amusement when we discovered the date was the 2nd not the 1st as we thought, three of us had lost a day in a delightful time warp. People have asked me since how the food held out my answer is no problems I could have gone two more days easily (although the last day would have been a bit bland) and Ken could have gone for a month more. When I was a kid I lived in a small village that was isolated from the outside for a couple of weeks each year so I’m used to the concept of being out of communications with big centres. On the Carnarvon Gorge walk a few years ago we we’re isolated for 21 days by rain and low cloud. That’s it stuck there, could only move round by foot as far as the next river, radio communications only on one or two days because of the atmospherics. The whole party just accepted it, as it was all you could do (most of us went walking in the rain).
Lasting Impressions :
Steve’s red hat above a lime green spray jacket, lying propped up on his purple backpack lying on the blue airbed, floating high on top of the water, propelling down the long pool with strong arm moving his hands through the sparkling water. Ken with his white hat, sitting up against his green backpack, knees bent more than half submerged on his air bed, quick short movement of his hands paddling him delicately along the pool, a wave of the gumtree sprig to brush away the flies for each stroke. Cliffs, river and air sculptured rocks and river vegetation making a perfect scene. Pale blue summer sky so warm above.
River pool of black sparling water under a grey drizzly sky, rainforest trees dipping branches down into the pool then curling up wards again with the leaves trying for the sky to keep themselves dry.
Boulder jambs of slippery wet brown slime sandstone under a sodden drizzly sky.
Paddling easily over a long brown eel in a shallow sandy bottom pool. Watching the big, red, 150mm long yabby eyeing us and waving big claws defiantly from the dead tree log before dropping 1m into the water as we passed meters away. Lilo passing over many other red crawchies on the creek bed, sometimes sandy, sometimes black covered rocks, sometimes leaf litter.
Huge dry brown/red cliffs blocking the way ahead, out crops at all heights – balcony caves, supporting huge trees, yellow pail rock where there has been a rock-fall. An apartment house design cliff face just for our eyes today.
Water so clear and crystalline it’s a pleasure to look at, entering and mixing and disappearing into the dull lifeless Colo River water. The Colo is a wonderful wilderness river but the upper reaches are in farming land and the runoff still affects this far down and just doesn’t compare.
The change of vegetation as we go down stream. The change of birds as we move from one habituate to the next. A dawn chorus of cicadas drowning out the bird dawn chorus at one place.
The dragon fly nymphs leaving the water on the rocks or even the airbeds and the dragon fly emerging to sit for a while wings twittering before they fly off. In the canyon section the wings were translucent yellow, lower down the wings were translucent blue.
Moving steadily down the long wider stretches of the tall V shaped Colo Valley, forested hills/ banks each side, blue clear sky above – for now. A km or so away, upstream along a straight section of flat river water between the steeply banked V, a big black thunder storm towering, reaching high into the blue sky. Vivid flashes and sheets of lightning forked or branched or stepped, loud rumble booms of thunder making the whole earth shake and vibrate. Steve and I perched on airbeds looking at each other Ken further upstream just a blob on the water. The rush of wind that propels us quickly along, the short burst of heavy rain that is much colder than the warm river water. It doesn’t mater where we go, it’s just as good or bad here as anywhere, may as well keep going we’re wet anyway and if we get zapped at least it will be quick. There are lots of things taller than us around to take the strike. Soon it all dissipates leaving some cloud but mostly blue sky.
Walking along the dusty road down the mountain to the bridge at Upper Colo. Thinking “I could do without the hurt in the feet but the forest in really nice here any way and the rock formations look great”. Further down looking at the cleared grass land along the river wondering “what the original river rain forest would have been like”. Pity I’ll only ever be able to guess now.
Wollangambe would probably be better as a lilo trip with more water, the level was probably 1m or so lower than “standard”. Thank you Ken and Steve for you good company on an excellent trip. Worth doing again sometime soon. But the Bungleboorie or Dumbano or Nayook down to Colo would also be worth a look! Photos by Ken Harris and Dug Floyd. © Copyright 2004 Dug Floyd