A grand canyon all our own

The towering scenery of the Capertee Valley is geology on a grand scale. Barry Stone experiences its highs.

"Then slowly we crawled by the trees that kept tally/Of miles that were passed on the long journey down./We saw the wild beauty of Capertee Valley/As slowly we rounded the base of the Crown." - Henry Lawson

When Henry Lawson wrote his poem, Song of the Old Bullock Driver, in 1891 he became the first notable Australian to put into words the rugged beauty of the Capertee Valley, though it's fair to wonder how many more verses he may have devoted to the valley had he known he was looking at barely the westernmost tip of the world's second-largest enclosed canyon.

The Capertee Valley is said to be longer than US's Grand Canyon by almost a kilometre. Capertee's sandstone escarpments soar to hundreds of metres in height and encircle the valley from south of Mount Marsden near the town of Capertee all the way to the short-lived mining town of Glen Davis, 20 kilometres to the west, and beyond, broadening out as it goes until the escarpments are in excess of 30 kilometres from north to south.

Pantoneys Crown, an Uluru-type sandstone monolith, is now the centrepiece of Pantoneys Crown Nature Reserve and dominates the western end of the valley.

The Grand Canyon. Uluru. It all sounds rather pretentious, this Capertee Valley. Which is why you have to come here and see it for yourself. This is geology on a grand scale, a world of slot canyons, towering limestone formations and prehistoric Wollemi Pines - world-class scenery that is wild and breathtaking and it's all just a three-hour drive west of Sydney in the Central Tablelands, a 30-minute drive north of Lithgow.

Getting in among it all requires more than the usual family sedan and that's where Peter Roberts comes in. The proprietor of Wheely Good 4WD Tours has lived in the area all his life and his day-long four-wheel-drive tours introduce you to panoramas that will reignite your love of the bush. One of the options is a drive up precipitous Mount Airley, following fire trails, past abandoned diamond mines dug into the mountainside by Col Ribaux that once, Roberts told me, produced diamonds as big as peas. Ribaux, a former prospector and geologist with mining giant De Beers, once found 77 diamonds in six days and still lives in the area with a horde of uncut opals and a fossilised dinosaur egg that bears an uncanny resemblance to a granite bowling ball.

There are billabongs lined with water reeds in the shadows of banded granite outcrops, with water so pure and deep that they never dry up. Aboriginal rock art of stencilled hands, boomerangs and throwing sticks painted by the local Wiradjuri people speaks of a 2000-year history of corroborees with other tribes from the adjacent Wolgan Valley and beyond. Small clearings like Heffron's Hole were once prized by bushrangers, who hid their stolen cattle there as recently as the 1920s. Surrounding mountains and valleys are laced with old bush tracks, bridle paths and dray tracks from Nulla Mountain all the way to Putty. Ken Sampson, an old fire-control officer at Rylstone, used to walk them on patrol and sometimes wouldn't come back for days. Billabongs, bushrangers, Aborigines - the Capertee Valley is a microcosm of everything that is Australian.

The valley first came to prominence in the 1930s, not for the landforms that rose from its floor but for the vast geological deposits that lay beneath. The Capertee Valley, it turned out, was far more than just escarpments, canyons and rugged, towering monoliths. It was also home to one of the planet's largest reserves of high-grade oil shale.


The bitumen road that winds its way through the valley ends at the small town of Glen Davis, built in the 1930s to service an oil shale industry that ultimately failed to live up to its promise. Glen Davis became a virtual ghost town in the 1960s but now is a kind of beacon that draws you up through the valley for no reason other than to see just how far you can go.

Accommodation ranges from the recently renovated art deco luxury of the Glen Davis Boutique Hotel, built in 1939 without any regard to cost to cater for a town that never was, to the rustic splendour of RooTreat, an 1839 early settler's stone cottage that has had just four owners in 170 years. RooTreat's current owners, John and Jolieske Medcalf, moved up the mountain in 1999 to live in a yurt and only took their clothes when they left, leaving the cottage virtually as it was, including the vestiges of two very well-travelled lives: a penis gourd from the West Papuan highlands, wooden riding stirrups from Argentina, two gorgeous ceramic bowls from Tashkent, Aboriginal clapping sticks, a bark painting from Arnhem Land and wooden llama statues from Peru.

The writer was a guest of Wheely Good 4WD.



Wheely Good 4WD offers a range of day trips departing from Rylstone at 9am, priced from $170 a person. Phone 6379 1709, see wheelygood.com.au.


RooTreat rates start at $150 a couple B&B, $250 for B&B and dinner. Phone 6379 4318, see rootreat.com.


Mudgee Region Tourism, phone 6372 1020, see visitmudgeeregion.com.au.