By Barry Tucker
Gulaga (Mt Dromedary) dominates the New South Wales Far South Coast landscape, from Narooma to Bermagui and beyond.
Gulaga, from Bermagui
The mountain is an extinct volcano and now stands at some 800 metres (estimates vary from 797 to 806 metres). When it was active some 60 million years ago its peak was around 3,000 metres – that’s three kilometres above sea level. The peak has collapsed due to shifts in the Earth’s crust.
Gulaga is a place of ancestral origin for the Yuin people. These boulders on one of the peaks easily convey the impression of a special place.
In 1877 Pyrite rich veins were discovered near the summit. Small quantities of gold can be found in association with Pyrite, which has many industrial uses. The veins were mined by the Mt Dromedary Gold Mining Co. Between 1878 and 1920 some 603 kilograms of gold were taken from the slopes of Gulaga. Timber-getting operations accompanied the ravages of hydraulic gold mining.
After protests from the Yuin, the state government handed ownership and management of Gulaga National Park to the Aboriginal people of the Far South Coast in 1962.
A track was built from the village of Tilba Tilba to the summit, a distance of about 11 kilometres, in 1894. The track follows the edge of a steep gulley on the mountain’s southern side. After looking at Gulaga from my front veranda for three years, I awoke to perfect weather conditions today and decided to tackle the walk. It was an eventful decision, for many reasons.
Najanuga, or Little Dromedary, has been variously described as a rocky outcrop and the core of another volcano. It’s a few kilometres east of Gulaga. This shot was taken 50 metres from the beginning of the walking track. Below and a little to the left of this vantage point a steel-frame house is under construction. This is their view. Lucky devils.
The walk is described as steep in places, but easily manageable. I wouldn’t call it steep. It’s more of a steady slope, undulating in places and almost flat in others. Walkers are advised to allow five hours for the return trip. I would add at least another hour to that for recovery time in the rest area below the peak. I found the descent the hardest part due to the strain on my knees. I had almost worn myself out walking uphill and didn’t take enough recovery time at the top or provide sufficient nourishment to renew exhausted leg muscles; more about that later.
The rest area includes a toilet, picnic table and benches for several people. A new information stand awaits the addition of the maps and info. This area can be the launching stage for the final assault, via a rainforest, or a second descent/ascent trail down the “north” side connected to Central Tilba, a few kilometres from Tilba Tilba. Glimpses of Narooma can be seen between the trees.
In the distance, Narooma, the entrance to Wagonga Inlet and at the bottom centre, Forster’s Bay, linked to the inlet. You can just make out the faux lighthouse at Narooma’s Visitor Centre. The haze is due to bushfire smoke from recent blazes north-west of Gulaga. This shot is taken from near the start of the north side descent.
A couple, their baby in a carrier and a relative left Tilba Tilba with me but drew ahead while I stopped to remove a pullover and take pictures. They had been in the rest area for half an hour when I arrived, after stopping to look at the views, examine things and take more pictures. After lunch, a solitary mandarin, I went on to the next peak, via a rainforest, while they tackled the descent.
During my climb I could hear the occasional thump of a wallaby, many different birds, Whip birds lower down, and the occasional ruckus of calls from one location that indicates the presence of a Lyre bird – the master imitator. Cicadas kept up their rowdy chorus all along the track. I was pleased to see some honey bees (not native bees) visiting the flowering gums and bushes. At the rest area, a number of small birds, including a yellow breasted Robin, flew into a bush near the picnic table, checked us out and flew off. Beyond the rest area I came across a pair of Lyre birds. They had found a reasonably clear patch, dotted with boulders and close to some running water – an ideal location. A single frog, unseen, was calling from the water course. I heard two frogs altogether, in different locations.
There were scratchings beside the track in many places, but I did not see what made them and didn’t squat down to look for tracks. Suspects include Wombats, Echidnas, Goannas and Lyre birds. I was surprised I didn’t see any Goannas.
A clearing on a peak before the rainforest section provides a view of the opposite ridge, the valley running down to the left and Bermagui on the coast in the distance. It’s also the location of a natural arrangement of boulders, easily recognised by anyone as a place of mystical significance. These boulders remind me of those in my story “Two pillars, a lot of trees and not much else”. I am speculating that they are the solidified cores of the volcano’s side vents. They are not boulder shaped. Small and large boulders are eventually undermined by running water or dislodged by collisions, an ongoing process that rounds their shape over time as they gradually tumble downhill.
The return journey was a mixture of agony and pleasant surprises. Within a few minutes of beginning the descent I realised it was going to be difficult. The strain on my knees as they took my weight increased with each step. I expected this, but not to this extent. I guess I had depleted the energy reserves in my leg muscles during the ascent and had not given myself enough recovery time. I got some cashew nuts from my pack and put them in my shirt pocket, eating them as I descended, hoping they would restore my energy. A handful of cashews contains 9 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates and provides 1201 kilojoules (286 calories). A can of Gatorade might have been a better choice. I drank about 400 millilitres of water during the whole trip and never felt particularly thirsty. The temperature was around 23 C at sea level, but cooler on the shaded parts of the track. In places I was using my fighting stick (longer than a trekker’s pole) as a third leg, placing it in front of me and taking the weight off my right knee. The stick had provided assistance on the way up, which was not really necessary, but I would have been in trouble without it on the way down.
My misery was relieved by the sight of a local man pushing his mountain bike uphill. He said he often made the trip. Pushing the bike up wasn’t too difficult, he reckoned, but was worth it for the wild ride down. This young father was very fit. There was not a gram of fat on his bare torso.
The next character I met was this Mainland Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus). It was on the side of the track, in a patch of sunlight, and I had almost walked past it, not noticing, until it moved slightly. The word Tiger did not enter my head and I thought, because of its flat head and neck, it was some kind of Australian cobra. The Tiger snake’s venom is a neurotoxin, making it extremely dangerous. Its venom mix paralyses muscles and causes kidney failure. In addition, in hot weather, some species of Tiger snakes hunt at night. This one was not in the least stressed by my presence and exhibited no aggression. Its sluggishness may be due to the fact it has not eaten for some time – note the flatness of its body. Its main diet is frogs. There are frogs on the mountain, but this snake was nowhere near the few trickles of water beside the track. I’m extra careful in Summer when approaching and passing water on a bush trail.
The condition of this snake could make it doubly dangerous. A National Parks ranger in Victoria, a qualified herpetologist, told me a snake’s venom sacs are usually filled in preparation for hunting, once every few weeks. If this one was in need of a feed, its venom sacs were likely to be charged up. This piece of information has reassured me about an encounter with any snake. I’m not sure that the information is true of every snake and I treat them all with a great deal of respect and caution, observing them, not getting in their way and never, ever trying to pick one up. I have only ever known one, an Eastern Brown, to rear up and hiss at me and that snake had been wriggling away before I stopped to observe it.
The mountain bike rider caught up with me later and identified the snake, especially from the description of its distinctive and unusual tail.
Further down the trail I met another lone walker going up. I told him about the Tiger.
“It’s not at all aggressive,” I said.
“No. Snakes generally are not. But people throw rocks at them and then wonder why the snake gets hostile.”
Here and there, unnatural piles of rocks were possible indications of mining. I have seen this in many Australian locations where gold mining has occurred.
There were at least five logs in this pile. The steel bars are fitted in a way that suggests they were used as a ladder. My guess is they are the remains of a water tank stand. Miners would have to live on the mountain – walking up and down from Tilba Tilba every day does not bear thinking about and would be inefficient, so a water supply is necessary. A large volume of water is usually an essential in gold mining – and its use in hydraulic mining is destructive, resulting in severe erosion. Rain would provide some water for a tank, but more may have come from tapping a spring or stream.
The boulder has been split by drilling, followed by hammering wedges into a fault line, or explosive charges. I think wedges were used because the drill hole looks as pristine as the day it was drilled. The boulder was probably demolished as part of the track’s construction, or it may have been broken up later when it rolled down and blocked the track. The rest of it has gone over the edge and down the valley.
This rock, in another area, also shows some marks that look suspiciously like drilling (near the top of the first and second splits from the left). Quarrymen and miners would try to exploit natural fault lines. The rocks have the appearance of being carefully arranged. You will often find patterns in large rock masses. It’s nothing more than the rock splitting along natural faults. Rocks are thrust to the surface by churning, volcanic action or continental plate movement well below them. They slowly break down and eventually contribute to Earth’s topsoil or sand. I was surprised to see sandy sections on this mountain track — an indication of the amount of abrasive action occurring further uphill.
As I continued downwards the pain in my knees increased. I was using my stick more frequently now, changing sides occasionally. Although I walk up and down steeper hills in Narooma, I simply wasn’t fit enough for this trek. I had another problem, which I didn’t have on the way up. The track is littered with loose rocks, from golf ball size to fist size. I didn’t step on any on the way up, but coming down I stepped on several that moved underfoot – leading to the risk of a twisted ankle. Whether you step on them or not depends on your bodily attitude and your point of vision. Going up, I saw the rocks and stepped around or over them. Going down, semi-crippled, I was more focussed on where I was placing the end of the stick in front of me and less aware of the rocks near my feet. That’s the only explanation I can give. After stumbling on a few of them, I took more care to avoid all of them.
My caution served me well and I continued my slow progress until I got near the locked gate (which you walk around) about 150 metres from the beginning of the track. Just before the gate, a small tree had fallen over the track and I had to bob down to pass under it. I jammed the stick against an embedded rock beyond the fallen tree, crouched down, and kept going down – all the way to my knees. I didn’t have enough strength left in my leg muscles to hold myself up. Worse, I couldn’t get up! I made two or three tries and realised it was useless. I tried using the stick as a crutch and a lever – again useless. The muscles in my arms were now failing. I spent about five minutes on my knees, relaxing, controlling breathing, staying calm, recovering energy.
Luckily, I remembered a technique used to get yourself upright after you fall on a ski slope. I turned side on to the slope and using the stick like a ski pole, managed to get myself upright. I hobbled to a log beside the track, sat down and took stock of the situation. I had a mouthful of water and started eating some cashews but quickly gave that away when I felt like I was about to throw up; severe physical stress for sure. At this point I was about 1.5 kilometres from Tilba Tilba and my van. I thought if someone turned up I could give them my keys so they could deliver the van to me. I also thought I could hobble down to the house that was being built and ask for a lift into the village. I also considered checking in for the night at the holiday guest house a bit further on.
Whatever I decided, it most likely involved getting moving again. After resting for 10 minutes I resolved to walk into the village, taking my time and taking the utmost care to avoid tripping or falling over. I now had severe pain in my right knee. I thought when I got to the guest house I would lie down for at least 30 minutes on the green nature strip beside the gravel road.
When I eventually got to the nature strip I removed my back pack and prepared for my rest break. What happened next lifted my spirits enormously.
That’s when I spotted this little character, foraging on the edge of the gravel road. The Echidna was not spooked by a passing car. Because it was walking towards me, I got the camera ready and waited to see how close it would come. It came within about 1.3 metres before veering off and going over the sharp drop at the fence line. I think its burrow is under the ledge. What a pleasant surprise! The group that had gone ahead of me said they had seen several Echidnas. Up to this point I had not seen any.
I had put the camera away while resting on the log, after my legs went from under me. At the time I was thinking if I put the camera away I’m sure to miss something worthwhile. That’s the way these things usually work. While packing up again I got the second boost to my spirits. A big Border Collie suddenly came barrelling out of the guest house yard, ran 20 metres down the nature strip and stopped with its head resting against my right knee. What a lovely, friendly dog! No barking, no fuss. After a tickle behind the ear, a rub and a few pats it ran back to the guest house. A pure meet-and-greet exercise. Delightful!
Boosted by these encounters, I continued limping down the grass strip, the village and my van now just a few minutes away. When I hit the edge of the village I was “greeted” by a cranky cream coloured Scots Terrier yapping fit to burst. I wondered if it’s something in the different nature of the two dogs or, for the Scotty, if it’s the stress induced by living in town and being locked up in a small yard.
I reached the van, put my gear away and considered moving my bike to one side while I lay on the floor for a much needed rest. I decided to give that a miss because I did not think I would be able to manage that simple task. My leg muscles were so depleted I doubted I could hoist myself into the van.
I recognised I had to rest before attempting to drive the van, in case I was unable to lift either leg to operate the pedals, or suffered a cramp, or jammed the accelerator to the floor. I lay down on a bench under a Jacaranda tree and enjoyed the upside down view of birds feeding on its flowers. That’s when I received my third and final surprise of the day. One of the birds pooped on my trouser leg. Some say that’s lucky (others say don’t look up). The surprise was the nature of the poop: it resembled bright emerald green sparkle. What had that bird been eating? When I tweeted this to my followers, one replied: “It’s a rare man that can see beauty in shit.” I see beauty everywhere in nature.