A walk in the park

The challenging Green Gully Track offers a rare insight into pioneering life in the wilderness, writes Lance Richardson.

'The walk will never be as long as it is right now," says my companion as we stroll happily from Cedar Creek Cottage to the track's beginning. The morning light makes the New England landscape look like a plein air painting. There are wild flowers and the crushed-grass trails of a dozen kangaroos. We are energised by hot coffee and the comfort of a bed, unaware that only two days from now we'll be standing thigh-deep in a cold creek surrounded by spiders and stinging nettles.

By that point, more than 30 kilometres in, the walk will have lost any spatial meaning and will exist more as a psychological challenge. The rushing water and steep inclines will be measures of endurance. High on their plateaus, the brush-tailed rock-wallabies will be spectators watching us run the gauntlet of the Green Gully Track.

The NSW Wilderness Act of 1987 defines wilderness as an area of land that has not been substantially modified by humans - or one that's capable of being restored to that state. Wilderness offers "opportunities for solitude and appropriate self-reliant recreation", it says, meaning you're on your own, making your own path and carrying everything yourself. There are no visitors' centres, for example, or picnicking families standing around a coin-operated barbecue.

A wilderness area may fall within a national park but a national park is only sometimes, or partly, considered wilderness.

I'm 37 kilometres north-east of the Oxley Highway between Walcha and Port Macquarie, on the edge of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Though many visitors come for the spectacular Apsley Falls, Wollomombi Falls, or tiered drops of Tia Falls, the park also features a lesser-known wilderness area called the Macleay Gorges. It's through this that the Green Gully Track makes its circuit. Traversing the gorges, I'm struck by a sense of stepping into a parallel universe devoid of technology.

Jeff O'Keefe, who grew up in these parts, reflected recently on life here for a history book produced in nearby Armidale. "Down bush [in the gorge]," he said, "you go with your axe and horse and whatever you can carry over your shoulder, and you've got to dig everything out with a shovel, a brace and bit. You've got to work a lot harder in there than you would out here on top to do the same things."

While we forgo the brace and bit, his description of the land's challenge turns out to be as relevant as ever. Cedar Creek Cottage is a final bastion of civilisation and ease, with shower, bunks and fully equipped kitchen. As a benchmark, it becomes a place of mythical luxury in the following days.

Opened by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in April, the 65-kilometre Green Gully Track takes in everything from the highest point in the Apsley-Macleay gorge system (1200 metres above sea level) to its basement - a creek lined with nettles, thistles and every Australian plant capable of catching a hapless walker in a prickly embrace. On day two we drop 900 metres in elevation; on day four we must climb more than 600 metres, pulling ourselves up a punishing slope while the low-lying clouds disguise distances and cover everything in constant dew.

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Though the challenge is relentless, variations in the bush and the degree of physical difficulty keep spirits mostly high. Dry rainforest and dense ribbon gums are a picturesque distraction from the fact you're scrambling down a near-vertical hill with almost 20 kilograms on your back.

The man behind the trail, ranger Piers Thomas, compares it to Tasmania's Overland Track "20 years ago". But while that track now suffers at times from overuse, Green Gully is carefully regulated to maintain the tenets of a wilderness experience. Hikers must make reservations and stagger departure dates. At no point other than a small overlap near the beginning should people ever cross paths. And while some of the track traces maintenance roads, most is off-trail, meaning this is bushwalking in the truest sense of the term. After the first day, the only "track" is the one you make yourself along a roughly defined route between checkpoints.

Was this tramp through wilderness all that the Green Gully Track had to offer, it would be a worthy destination for the fit and curious adventurer. Among the numerous challenges are moments of sublime beauty: a clearing of trees covered in frost-like lichen; lunch at a pristine waterhole; views to Kemps Pinnacle, a pyramid-shaped hill and significant site for the Thungutti people. I have close encounters with mountain-stream tree frogs, crimson rosellas and a Burton's snake-lizard. A companion takes the lead to brush down orb spiders with a stick outstretched like a machete.

But what really sets the Green Gully Track apart is also the thing that inspired the National Parks and Wildlife Service to open it. Though it's now a state-owned wilderness site, much of the area was once the private properties of two neighbouring families, the O'Keefes and Youdales.

Sprinkled across the gorges are a series of their old stockmen's huts. It's with a dual intention, Thomas says, that the track has been developed: to make wilderness accessible to able visitors and to acknowledge the achievements of these families and the life they once led while mustering cattle here.

"These guys lived out here busting their guts," he says, meaning the likes of Alan Youdale, Laurie O'Keefe and his son Jeff. "I don't want that to be forgotten."

Each day of wilderness hiking is therefore concluded at a carefully restored stockmen's hut. After the exhaustion of a 17-kilometre scramble, these emerge like tiny sanctuaries, corrugated-iron boxes built near stockyards that corral nothing now except wild grass and paper daisies.

While they're far more rudimentary than the Cedar Creek Cottage, comfort levels are more than adequate. Outhouses and a fire pit are accompanied by stretchers for sleeping, firewood and a small gas stove.

Though food must be carried in, this is all you need to turn a few simple ingredients into a restorative meal, as one of our group demonstrates by producing a Thai curry with kaffir lime leaves and coriander. Even the possums and centipedes come to try and swipe a taste that evening.

Sitting around the fire at each of these huts, Thomas recounts anecdotes of life in the gorges: tales of accidents, perseverance and pest control.

"Why is this called Brumby Creek?" he once asked Jeff O'Keefe.

"Used to be brumbies in them."

"What happened to them?"

"Shot 'em," O'Keefe replied.

Each stockmen's hut has a name and personality and visiting them is like stepping into the past. At Birds Nest Hut, constructed in 1962 by the O'Keefes, rusted cans of gun oil and Resch's Dinner Ale sit alongside a faded calendar stuck in December 1972. A taut wire stretches overhead between the trees - once the only way of getting radio contact with the outside world. The outside world might have forgotten them now but occupation of the huts continues unabated. We wake on the second morning to find a trail of carnage courtesy of the Brown Antechinus, a carnivorous marsupial mouse that lives in the rafters. Subsequent evenings are spent with food bags dangling from hooks on the ceiling.

While the walk is spectacular, it's this evocation of a bygone time that resonates the strongest. By the time I emerge from the forest - bruised and exhausted - I've developed a deep awe of what it must have been like to contend with this land for months at a stretch. Evidence of the previous occupants' ingenuity in the face of great hardship remains in the form of a floodgate and dozens of resilient fences snaking through the scrub. I spend seven hours slipping over polished stones in the creek bed - these people made a life of it.

A history book at Cedar Creek Cottage places things in further perspective. "From the 1950s until his death," it says, "Alan Youdale managed over 15,000 hectares of very rugged gorge country almost by himself, with the help of his family, friends and neighbours. As Alan's son-in-law put it, over the course of his life Alan Youdale carved out an empire in the wilderness."

For four days and 65 kilometres, the Green Gully Track gives you an opportunity to walk in this "empire", tracing the footsteps of Youdale and the O'Keefes as pioneers facing the awesome power of the Australian bush.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The Green Gully Track begins at Cedar Creek Cottage, 37 kilometres north-east of the Oxley Highway between Walcha and Port Macquarie. Walcha is about 5½ hours' drive north of Sydney, or an hour from Armidale. Qantas has a fare for about $260 return from Sydney to Armidale (70 min).

Walking there

A reservation must be made with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Booking forms are available at nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/greengully.

For a four-night itinerary with the first night at Cedar Creek Cottage (with kitchen, beds and hot showers), the cost is $80 a person. For a five-night itinerary (the recommended option) with the first and fifth nights at Cedar Creek Cottage, the cost is $120 a person.

The Green Gully Track is a challenging 65-kilometre hike to be attempted only by physically fit and experienced long-distance walkers. All food must be carried in. Comprehensive notes and a packing checklist are available at nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/greengully. It's also recommended travellers carry a satellite phone in case of emergency. For hire, see epirbhire.com.au.

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