After a hot summer on the coast, the promise of some cool-weather bushwalking saw me heading for the high country of Gibraltar Range National Park in early May. This year I decided to look beyond the network of walking trails I've trodden so many times and explore some off-track locations.
Top of my list was the area around the huge rock outcrop known as Old Man Hat. You can see 'the Hat' from the well-visited Anvil Rock – it's a mysterious looking formation less than two kilometres away as the crow flies, but isolated from any established trail by rugged, rocky ridges and swampy watercourses.
After a six hour drive I arrived at the Anvil Rock carpark and hit the walking trail with much anticipation for the adventure ahead. Half an hour later, I left the comfort of the trail and plunged straight into my first encounter with the heathland swamps....literally! A bootful of swamp water cooled my enthusiasm and I quickly realised that this would be slow going. This part of the swamp was narrow and wet - forward progress involved pushing through a chest-high tangle of spiky vegetation, testing each step for solid ground before committing to it. Two steps forward, one step back!
Another half hour and only 400 metres covered, I dropped my pack on a dry rock at the edge of the swamp and took a long swig of water. Even in cool conditions, this was hot work. My hands had taken the brunt of the spiky shrubs so I sat down to apply bandaids to the bloodiest nicks. My earlier concerns about finding water along the way had disappeared – there was enough in my boot to keep me alive for a day or two!
Back on course, progress was slow – edging forward until the tangle closed around me, then retreating to look for another route. I considered climbing out of the swamp to higher ground but the steep, rocky hillsides were thick with even more impenetrable undergrowth.
Eventually, the GPS told me I was getting close to my planned campsite for the night, a small patch of heath not far from Old Man Hat. I'd hoped the edge of this little swampy area would be a good spot to pitch my tent, but no such luck – all of the low ground was boggy and steep hills rose up all around. A quick scout around the hillside revealed only one small patch of ground in amongst the shrubs that was flat and dry enough to pitch my tent. None of the open space or great views I usually aim for in a campsite, but it would do. With the tent up and some food in my belly, I clambered up the rocks behind camp to investigate the options for photography.
A ten minute scramble put me on top of the ridge and in view of the big, squat shape of Old Man Hat. My vantage point overlooked a small gully that was collecting runoff and seepage from the woodland around the Hat, and funneling it down through the overgrown swampy country I'd just spent half the day fighting my way through. This water eventually finds its way via the Mann River to the Clarence River, but it is never more pristine and pure than right here.
Satisfied that this would be a good option for a sunrise shoot, I made my way back down to the tent for a rehydrated dinner and a sound sleep.
* * * *
An early night makes for an early start, and at 4:30am I crawled out of my tent, threw together my camera gear, some water and a snack and headed back up the rocks to my chosen sunrise spot. The top of the ridge was quite flat and easy to explore for potential compositions.
To the north-west, the stark, almost comical silhouette of Anvil Rock rose above the still dark woodlands. I'm sure I've seen Wile E. Coyote roll a similar rock down a hill to try and catch that pesky Road Runner! Less than one kilometre to the south-west, Old Man Hat loomed big and ominous on the skyline. All around, rock-topped ridges and deep wooded gullies completed a view as wild and beautiful as I'd seen for a long time.
In the half light, I began framing compositions with my 70-200mm zoom to bring the main rock features a little closer. I'm usually a big fan of wide-angle landscapes, but here the feeling I wanted to capture was of the imposing rock formations that dominated the scene. A wide-angle view rendered these features as little blips on the horizon and seemed to only diminish their grandeur.
For the next two hours I watched and photographed as morning light spread over the landscape, completely engrossed in the still and almost silent surroundings. There was barely a breath of wind to ruffle the leaves on the ridgeline gum trees, and only the faint sound of water trickling through the swampy gully well below my vantage point, occasionally punctuated by the evocative morning song of a lyrebird.
The spectacle of the first sunlight of the day lighting the eastern face of Old Man Hat was a highlight, as was the slow creep of sunlight down steep hillsides and into dark, wet gullies. It was really only the unmistakable call of a cup of coffee and some breakfast that eventually lured me away from what had been a pretty special morning up on the ridge.
Retracing my course back through the blood-sucking swamps later that day, I couldn't help but contrast the smile-inducing photo session I'd just experienced with the sweat and toil of getting there. Gibraltar Range can be hard work and it doesn't give up its secrets easily, but the words that kept ringing in my head were 'reward for effort'. My short encounter with this patch of wilderness taught me not to underestimate how harsh it can be for a puny human, but also what a wonderful experience is available if you can overcome the difficulties and discomforts. Nothing good in life ever comes easy!