Rivers, Swamps & Pagodas Out Mudgee Way
May 13, 2014
The Goulburn River, you might assume, flows through Goulburn but actually, no. Head for Mudgee. Take the Ulan Road out of town for 50km. You can’t miss the gob-smacking Ulan Coal operation. Drive right on by. About 9km on, a signpost to the right will guide you into ‘The Drip’ picnic ground — and the Goulburn River, not far from its source.
When we arrive the River is flowing quietly between shallow sandy flanks but something is crashing about in the canopy. Three, maybe 4, Pacific Bazas are flinging themselves wildly into bunches of leaves. These beautiful crested hawks prey on stick insects. Such etiolated invertebrates are almost impossible to detect when static but, once knocked off balance and hanging by a claw, they’re lunch!
We pause to admire the hawks’ hunting tactics before heading 1.5km upstream. The riverbed becomes strewn with monumental blocks of sandstone and we hear a strange echoing clattering of water as if falling from a great height. We lift our gaze to a vertical wall of weeping sandstone maybe 50m high: the ignominiously named ‘Drip’.
We are standing in a natural corridor where once the Wiradjuri moved up and down, fashioning tools, performing ceremonies and painting on rock walls. Time is still. The weeping wall feeds the river. Blackberry brambles dangle from a fertile sill of rock on a nearby cliff. A Silvereye plucks its fruits.
It was 1970 and just a stone’s throw from here that the famous Sydney artist, Brett Whiteley, got his kit off and set to work painting a mural on the walls of a cave: objects and animals inspired by the Aboriginal spirit that haunts this place.
The River will wend its way eastwards, collecting 20-odd tributaries before joining the Hunter River. Later we learn that this fragile cliff with its life-giving waters may be in peril. The land here is owned by Mooraben Coal; just 500 metres from here grinds the machinery of subterranean mining.
Next day we zip along the flat 4km Castle Rocks Track. We are in Mughorn Gap Nature Reserve and marvelling at the native Black Cypress Pines, whose cone seeds feed thornbills and cockatoos alike. The track ends abruptly at a tiered sandstone outcrop. We scramble easily to the summit and are greeted by a wondrous strange landscape: ‘pagoda’ country.
Across the woodland below us are dotted weathered monuments of stone, scoured formations pockmarked with caves. The words ‘lost city’, ‘troglodytes’, ‘temples’, ‘stupas’ and ‘Angkor Wat’ fall from our lips. Amazingly the jury is still out about exactly how these massive mounds were formed.
Mooching around outside River Cottage (www.stonecottages.com.au), where we are staying, I hear a mewling sound. Mammal definitely. I look up to see a young Fox less than 10m away and just beyond, an adult. The young Fox is hungry. The parent (I presume) is over it. Junior stares at me pathetically and ventures close. Later I watch it across the River inspecting every boulder, crevice and cave along the cliffs. Brush-tailed Rock-wallabies have not been seen here for a long time.
Dunns Swamp was created in the 1920s by trapping the waters of the Cudgegong River for a cement works at Kandos. Today the Swamp is a serene and extensive waterway that wraps around sandstone pagodas on the western end of the mysterious Wollemi National Park. We walk the 5.5km Waterside Walk, disturbing a couple of Red-necked Wallabies and watching an Azure Kingfisher fishing. Kayaking here would be brilliant and the waterside campground, with its drop toilet, supplied firewood and miniature pagodas, is lovely.
On our last day we check out Spring Gully and Big River campgrounds in Goulburn River National Park. Both have upland open views along the river. A congenial mob of Eastern Greys loll around the grassland. There don't seem to be many walking tracks in this park. Our map indicates only one to the lookouts at Lees Pinch. We settle for a fire trail.
We stop dead! At the side of the track a Yellow-footed Antechinus is conducting a search and destroy mission among fallen timber. This is my first encounter with an antechinus but I am aware of its ferocious reputation. This carnivorous marsupial — bigger than a mouse, slightly smaller than a rat, with a tail shorter than both— can despatch a small bird or scorpion with agility and speed. It has a thick brown coat, distinctly yellow on the underside, a conical snout, beady black eyes and little round ears. As I reach for the camera, it's gone...dammit!
We hardly got here and it's time to go. Geologically, floristically and in so many ways this region is utterly different from the Sydney area. We are way out of our depth. It holds its secrets tight. It feels ancient. We are small here...very, very small.