Tim the Yowie Man: The unicorn hunt

Carefully we creep down a dozen or so higgledy-piggledy wooden stairs covered in a tangle of vines. At the bottom is a tranquil pool surrounded by verdant tree ferns. The water is crystal clear, the sun is high overhead and there is a not a breath of wind.

It's hard to believe we are only a 10-minute stroll from the hectic Pipers Lookout and the congo line of cars winding their way up and down Brown Mountain. Immersed in this secret forest hidden under a canopy of towering southern sassafras and sitting by such a serene natural pool, it's as if we've been transported by magic to another world.

With me is Sarah, my six-year-old daughter, who suddenly shouts in delight from upstream, ''A unicorn daddy, a unicorn!'' I respond with a generous nod of the head and an inquisitive ''Really?'' Like many children her age, Sarah is going through one of those obsessive phases in the realm of make-believe. Last year it was fairies and now its unicorns, and I'm not going to be the one who breaks the news to her that unicorns might not be real.

I half suspect that Sarah has merely seen the reflection in the pool of her pink unicorn T-shirt, which has hardly been off her back since Santa left it under the tree a couple of weeks ago. However, adamant that she has glimpsed a unicorn, she scurries back along the overgrown track, grabs my arm and animatedly drags me upstream.

''Look daddy - there it is!'' she exclaims pointing excitedly towards the far end of the pool.

She's not close enough to the water for it to be a reflection of her T-shirt, so I look closer, and there it is - a unicorn in all its glory. Sure it's a tree branch washed down by the last flood, but it does bear an uncanny resemblance to a horse-like beast with a horn protruding from its forehead. It even appears to have its tongue sticking out, maybe in protest at my lack of belief.

After the obligatory photo, we snoop further around the pool (during our visit it's only knee-deep, so not really suitable for swimming), discovering other mysterious shapes lurking in the shallows. I spot a boa constrictor and a crocodile, although both are not as convincing as the unicorn.

Clambering back up the stairs, we continue our stroll along the Rutherford Creek walking track and five minutes later reach an old log hut with stone chimney. It's like a poor man's version of Grizzly Adams' mountain hut, only there are no bears here, or unicorns, for that matter.

Built in the 1940s, it's named in memory of Dan Finn, who successfully promoted the potential for the creek to generate hydro-electricity for the Bega district. Inside it's dark and damp and not all that inviting, but it would be a potential life-saver during a blizzard, which mid-last century were surprisingly more common than they are here now.

Just as we are about to turn around and head back to our car to continue our drive down to Tathra, a fluorescent-vested hydro engineer drives towards us in his four-wheel-drive ute. We start chatting and, after Sarah breathlessly recalls her unicorn encounter, the friendly worker suggests we walk another couple of minutes down the track. ''You'll go down a steep section and then reach a footbridge, which leads to a really cool boardwalk, one of the best I've ever seen,'' he says as he leaves.

Sarah grips my hand tightly as we slip and slide to the bottom of the track (although, it can't be too steep, as the worker just drove up). From the footbridge, the view up and down the creek is like a scene from a Steve Parish rainforest calendar and ahead the bridge eventually makes way for an elevated boardwalk. We have to crouch to pass under a number of giant ferns as the boardwalk twists and turns through the forest. It has a similar feeling to the one at the Botanic Gardens in Canberra, only this one is flanked by naturally occurring vegetation and lots of it, and is home to several melodious whip and bell birds.

Although the track continues beyond the end of the boardwalk (an adventure for another day), we retrace our steps back to the car and, importantly, with a hungry six-year-old with an insatiable appetite in tow, morning tea.

We grab our sandwiches and cross the road to Pipers Lookout. In stark contrast with our Rutherford Creek walk, where, apart from the chance encounter with the hydro worker, we didn't see another soul, it's packed with travellers (most with ACT number plates) - both those returning from holidays and soaking up one final glimpse of the sea on the horizon, and those heading down the mountain, pointing expectantly towards their coastal getaways. I've got a friend who reckons that on his last 20 visits here he's had a clear view to the coast only ''once or twice''. However, today it's a stunning midsummer's day, so clear it feels as if you can see into the future. OK, well at least the Bega Valley and beyond to Tathra.

From the southern side of the lookout, there's a knockout 10-minute circuit walk (this one is signposted), which leads through the forest to a number of other elevated lookouts. Only a handful of other travellers opt for the walk during our extended stay at the lookout, which is a pity, as it's a great way to stretch and refresh before your onwards journey.

Sarah likes the circuit so much that she demands we do it twice, although, having just completed the walk along Rutherford's Creek, I suspect it's because she's on the lookout for another unicorn.

Pipers Lookout Walk: The lookout is located on the Snowy Mountains Highway at the top of Brown Mountain between Bemboka and Nimmitabel. The 10-minute circuit walk (a mix of elevated boardwalk and stairs) is accessed (and clearly signposted) at the southern end of the lookout.

Fact file

Did you know? The lookout is named after Bob Piper, a bus driver who braved the icy conditions driving the Cooma-to-Bega return route six days a week for 28 years, until a fateful day in August 1947 when, while shovelling snow off the road, he collapsed and died.

Rutherford's (Creek) Walk: Not well signposted but accessed via a gravel road directly opposite Pipers Lookout. When the track reaches a T-intersection, turn left. The next left turn (signposted) leads to the ''secret pool'' (labelled on some maps as Rutherford Creek Picnic Area), while a five-minute walk straight ahead leads to Finn's Hut (labelled on some maps as Finn's Hut Carpark and Trackhead) and then beyond (past a gate and down a steep decline) to a wooden bridge and boardwalk (called Carters Creek boardwalk on some maps). NSW National Parks hopes to upgrade the walk and signage in the next 12 to 18 months. Once the new signs are erected, the walk will become more popular, I imagine, so if you want to avoid the crowds, check it out in the next year or so.

Warning: Although you can drive along the gravel road that starts directly opposite Pipers Lookout as far as Finn's Hut, I'd suggest driving only if you must, as it's a delightful short walk. Also, the road can become slippery and covered in tree branches after storms so, if you are not in a four-wheel-drive, take considerable care.

Tim's Tip: Grab a snack at either the Nimmitabel or Bemboka bakeries, both of which are less than 30 minutes from Pipers Lookout, and take it on your walk. There are a number of seats along the boardwalk sections of both walks.


Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at canberratimes.com.au/travel/blog/yowie-man.