Distance: 31.59km Total: 204.57km.
Today was, without a doubt, one of the most pleasurable and scenic days ever ofn the whole of the MacKillop-Woods Way thus far. With the possible exception of the coastal walk over Cape Bridgewater on the Aussie Camino. The last day of the walk into Bairnsdale over the Mitchell River Valley was the best part of the first leg of the pilgrimage, but today’s walk surpasses that. The section from The Gap to Bendoc was really lovely, but again today surpassed it for sheer beauty. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brothers for a holiday to Melbourne, and we visited the Fitzroy Gardens (coincidentally right next to where I now work at the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne). We were there in winter and the gardens were shrouded with mist. It was so quintessentially alien to my experience of the South Australian Mallee that I concluded, as a child may be excused for concluding, that this is what heaven must look like. Today I changed my mind. Heaven looks like the Towamba River valley around Rocky Hall/New Buildings. I have long thought that if I could move anywhere in Australia in my retirement, it would be to the village of Evandale south of Lanceston in Tasmania. Again, I’ve changed my mind. I want to live at Rocky Hall. I refer you to the pictures of today’s walk. And in doing so, I rest my case.
So we left Bombala this morning, returning the key to Sister Therese at the Convent. By 8:30am we were on our way in Cathcart. I had a goal today of surpassing our planned walk to New Buildings by at least 5kms, as we know that rain is coming tomorrow on Anzac Day and every kilometre further that we walk today would be one kilometre less that we have to walk tomorrow in the rain. As I said in yesterday’s post, you could spend an hour easily in Cathcart just going from building to building and reading the green and white information shields posted on the buildings. But despite the charm of this little village, we could not stay. Pilgrims need to get moving.
I went to switch on my audio Divine Office for the morning (what Josh calls my “prayer wheel”) and discovered that all my downloaded prayers had disappeared. As there was no internet access out that way, I decided instead to pray the rosary, which I had not yet done on this journey. I remembered in my prayers my family, Rachel, Oliver, Tom and Nigel, to whom I had dedicated this section of the MWW pilgrimage.
Four flat traffic infested kilometres outside of Cathcart we eventually came to the junction of Big Jack Mountain Road. It was with great relief that we turned down this gravel track heading south west toward the rim of the Monaro Grasslands. It really is rather strange, as there is a kind of “rim” of mountains around the edge of the plains, and then a great and constant descent. At the top of the rim we passed a couple of signs declaring the border between Bombala Shire and Bega Valley Shire (Eden). It was then that the descent began – and it went down in a serious way.
The first kilometre or so was sealed, but I think this was only because of the necessity of providing the needed traction on the slope. After that, the slope relaxed a little and the road returned to gravel once more, but it was still a demanding descent. The balls of our feet and our front toes did all the work, assisted by our walking stocks, in the attempt to stop us from sliding forward. Walking actually took, on average, a bit longer than it would on level ground, or even on an uphill incline, as we could not stride out the pace. But the scenery was fantastic. We were very high up at the start – over 800m, so we could see mountain peaks all around us. In some places the forest was quite dry, but in others it was covered with fern-trees and crossed with fresh water streams. We were passed by only three cars in the couple of hours we were coming down the mountain, all going up. Otherwise, the road was all ours. Occasionally we would get a glimpse of the mountains around us, which would give us some perspective on our elevation. Very occasionally, between the trees, we would get a glimpse of the valley below us. At one point the road enter the South East Forests National Park. The sides of the road were made of large granite rocks, occasionally looming in little cliffs above us. Small creeks ran down through the rocks and under the road in various places. The other feature of the walk down the mountain is audible – bellbirds piping away for all they are worth in every direction. It is a unique Australian bush sound, as unique as the sound of a magpie in the morning or a kookaburra laughing at you from a gum tree. This background music accompanies you all the way down the valley to Towamba – and perhaps (we will find out) beyond.
In all, we descended about 550m over 6.5kms. As we came nearer the bottom – that is, under 300m – we began to hear the sound of rushing water. The Towamba River comes out of the mountain alongside Big Jack Mountain Road and flows right through the valley to Towamba and beyond. For some reason the road to Eden doesn’t follow the Towamba River after Towamba but goes over the hill. Perhaps it is more direct, but one would have thought the river valley was the natural route. The river bed is very rocky and, at least at the moment, the river is quite shallow. After getting to the bottom, we saw, in many places, properties on the other side of the river that were accessed by fords or causeways rather than bridges. Yet the flood meters over these causeways indicate that at times of the year the river must rise to a depth of as much as two metres. Even a rise to a depth of 1 metre would, I think, make the river almost impassable as the current is very strong. Because the road through the valley crosses the river a number of times on causeways or very low bridges, any pilgrim following this trail would be well advised to check before hand the level of the river. I think that the current time – late summer or autumn before the winter rains would be best. Spring, with the melting snow, would be right out, and Summer would be too hot on most of the road. (Paul just told me that according to Tony Ovington in 2003 the river filled to 12 metres above the causeway entering Towamba!).
So you get to the bottom of the mountain, and there is the Big Jack Rest Area. Which we did. There is a picnic table, grassed area, access to the river and toilets. The word “serene” comes to mind. We sat down and had our lunch – a little early – here. I took my shoes and socks off and sat on a rock on the edge of the river and soaked my feet in the icy water. Setting off from there the first thing I noticed is that, although there was still bush either side of the road, that bush is quite densely populated (for this part of the world, at least).
The landscape down the valley into Rocky Hall was completely different from what I expected. Firstly, I expected it to be flat. It wasn’t. In fact, while slowly descending, it is up and down all the way to Towamba, and in some places, the incline was really very steep, even if the hills were not very high in general. The other thing that I wasn’t expecting was the sheer unadulterated glorious beauty of the combination of the river, the open pastureland, the Australian native forest and the autumnal colours of the introduced species. The afternoon light was shining from behind us over the mountain, so everything we looked at was in full sunlight, highlighting the brilliant colours. Every step brought a new vista into view, and I was stopping continuously to try to capture something of it with my iphone camera. Alas, not successfully.
Seán quickly lagged behind me as he was far more intent on taking photos than walking. Occasionally we came across odd sculptures that the locals had created on the road side in front of their houses, such as a strange wooden mushroom formations and a collection of decorated dressmakers mannequins. A few kilometres down the road from the bottom of the mountain, I came to Rocky Hall. The main building in Rocky Hall is the Rocky Hall Hall (sic). As I walked past, I noticed that there was quite a bit of activity going on inside the hall, and cars parked around the outside. I approached the main entrance and found a man wearing a beret (good taste) and a woman having a smoke. I said hullo and asked what was going on. “It’s our sewing and textiles group”, the lady (Sarah) answered. And inside was a hive of industry. We met Therese who was weaving cloth on an antique loom and Joy Ovington, the wife of Tony with whom we had arranged our accomodation in Towamba at the hall. Some of the ladies were quilt making, the beret-wearing gentleman was doing an embroidery of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and there was a large quilting-sewing machine out the back. I explained to everyone what we were doing, and some had read/heard about our pilgrimage already through the media. In addition there was a visiting photographer from the Shire Council who was taking photos of the group for Volunteer Week. By this time, Seán had also arrived, and the photographer asked to take our picture. We took a pose with a metre or so between us, and he said “Come on, a bit of affection perhaps?” Putting my arm around Seán, I said that this was the closest that we had got on the whole pilgrimage – “Usually there is up to a kilometre or more between us!”. Joy made us a cup of tea and we had rhubarb slice offered to us as well. It was fun talking to each of the artists and looking at their work. I expressed my fascination with the countryside and they all agreed (naturally) that it was heaven. “I may be headed for Eden, I said, but this is paradise!” There were pictures of the establishment of Rocky Hall on the wall of the Hall, and also some ecclesiastical furniture in the corner. “Yes, it was used as a church for a while,” one of the ladies said.
We got going again, although before long we were talking to more locals over the front fence of their lovely stone house. They had recently moved there, having found the house for sale on the internet. I will start keeping on eye out for properties for sale in Rocky Hall myself, I think. More scenic views to die for on the way out of the village. If there was snow on the mountains, it would have been almost indistinguishable from some alpine sight in Europe.
Paul caught up with us in the car a few kilometres out of Rocky Hall. While Seán was filling up his water bottle, I climbed up Cemetery Road to the spot after which it was named, ie. the Rocky Hall Cemetery. I thought to myself “Most people have to wait for the resurrection before they get to Paradise…”
The aim at this stage of the day was to get as far as possible before dark. The forecast for tomorrow is for rain, although not until later in the morning. So, I figured that the further we could get today and the earlier we can start in the morning, the less likely that we would be walking in rain. Seán was not keen, but I would not be deterred. So I pressed on toward “New Buildings”, the next little locality. Seán found out that “New Buildings” was named after the “new pub” built there a century or so ago and of which there is now only a few bricks left. Still, New Buildings is important because it is there that the road from Wyndham comes down to the river, and a handsome white wooden bridge connects Big Jack Mountain Road to the rest of the world. If you are walking this way with a back up driver as we are, check that the bridge is open and in good repair, as they were advertising bridge works. It is a long way via Eden or Cathcart to come back into Towamba.
The sun was setting now, and as I made my way out of New Buildings, a car stopped and a white bearded man kindly offered me a ride – the second time this has happened on the trip. I turned down the offer, although he warned that I would soon run out of light, assuring him that our driver would be along soon. Beyond New Buildings, the road leaves the Rocky Hall valley and enters another section of wooded land. It was just before this section ended that I came around the corner to see the car parked on the side of the road with Paul reclining on the grass reading. “Sleeping on the job?”, I called out. I asked him to go and to pick up Seán before returning to pick me up. “Tell him we can start from where I finish in the morning.”
So we were soon covering the next 16kms/10miles to Towamba in the car, to the Community Hall where Paul had earlier dropped all our gear. The hall consists of two sections – an large mud brick hall and stage set up, and a smaller section with a kitchen and large dining or lunch room. Out the side there was a small building from which we could hear music emanating. We went around to find David running the local radio station. We chatted for a while about the station and local life before heading back in to settle into camp in the hall.
Tony Ovington came around to meet us, and explained that we could set up our gear in the main hall because the Anzac Day march morning tea would use just the kitchen and lunch area. The set up here is fairly good. There are toilets and hot showers, a well set up kitchen with gas stove and oven, big fridge and microwave, plates and cutlery and glasses and cups and a few pans (not many of the latter though – we used what we brought). Electricity of course. The only thing missing was beds, so we had to use our blow up mattresses.
We cooked sausages and potatoes and veggies (the latter Paul made to his own recipe) for tea, washed down as usual by a few beers and red wine. We were down to our last few bottles, but realised that I had brought just enough to last us until tomorrow. We made a rather early end to the day, as we intended to do a dawn start in the morning.