For our four day Easter long weekend, we headed down south to an idyllic campground set in the middle of a vast wilderness, nestled in a valley along the banks of the Wollondilly River.
Wollondilly River Station is a fabulous campground due to its location, the very generous size of the campsites and the fact that campfires are allowed there year-round. To get there, we take the highway 90 minutes south of Sydney to Mittagong, then turn onto a long dirt road that plunges deep into National Park land, twisting and turning its way up and up through tall eucalyptus forest before finally descending steeply in a series of nerve wracking sharp, blind turns, complete with heart stopping sheer drop offs beside the narrow dirt road. Eventually you emerge from the forest and are greeted by a peaceful, green valley nestled between mountains, bisected by the slow moving Wollondilly River.
To me, there’s nothing like getting away for a few nights in the great outdoors. Spending the day exploring the area’s mountains, caves, canyons and rivers and getting up close and personal with kangaroos, wallabies and goannas (huge lizards) is a real treat.
A hearty dinner followed by a campfire, toasting marshmallows with the children, then a beer or two, before eventually nodding off in my camp chair late at night warmed by the dying fire with the amazingly clear and bright Milky Way twinkling down on me.
After the fire finally dies, I wake in the cold night to hear… nothing, not a sound. How refreshing that is, to hear absolutely nothing. But if I listen, really listen, there are sounds. The faint sound of water running over rocks in the river beside me, an owl hooting far off in the distance, and then, as I approach the tent, soft snoring from one of my children, deep in a well earned slumber. These are the moments that fill my soul.
Waking in the morning to Laughing Kookaburras cackling in the trees overhead, heralding a new day, the occasional fish heard jumping in the river, tempting you to cast a line in, the sun streaming into the tent and my family sleeping peacefully in their sleeping bags beside me is my idea of a perfect way to start a day.
Quietly slipping out of my sleeping bag, I unzip the tent flap, step outside and greet the day ahead. The air is fresh, crisp and clean. As I look about, the morning sun bathes the leaves of the trees and bushes with a golden glow. The river beside our campsite is sparkling and glasslike, reflecting the mountains that rise steeply beside the river. A few Eastern Grey Kangaroos are nibbling on the grass not far away, watchful and cautious of any approach.
I fire up the Coleman stove, for morning coffee and prepare to make blueberry pancakes, as my dad did many years ago. Camping always brings back my fondest childhood memories of time spent with my mom and dad and my brothers. In times like these, I feel like my dad is with me and I smile and wish it were true.
Over the course of our 4 days at Wollondilly River Station, we played in the river, swimming or paddling about in our little 2 person inflatable boat. Heather and I climbed up the mountain across the river one afternoon, inspiring Teresa and Brian to tackle it with us the following day. We took a day trip to Wombeyan Caves, a further 40 minutes along the windy dirt road. The caves are breathtakingly beautiful, decorated with a multitude of colourful limestone formations, but this time instead of going on one of the guided cave tours, we opted for a hike in the area and chose the trail to Limestone Gorge.
Our visit to Limestone Gorge turned out to be a lovely outing for the family as well as a great adventure for Heather and myself, even if I did manage to get my foot crushed by a massive boulder along the way.
We arrived at Wombeyan caves around midday and ate our lunch in the shade of a tree that drops massive, car denting heavy, pine cones. Note, we were in its shade, but not directly under it. With lunch tucked away, we hit the trail. After hiking up a steep path for a while, we noticed a short side trail and checked it out. Turned out it led to the entrance of one of the tour caves. Exploring further, we followed some stairs that led down through a cool cavern, ending at a locked door. Enjoying the cool air, I hopped over the railing of the stairs and using the light from my camera flash, I explored a bit finding a hole leading to a smaller cavern that had some beautiful stalactites and crystal formations. As the rest of the family had already moved on, I took a few photos and made a mental note to stop again on our way back.
The hike to the gorge was lovely. It was sunny and hot and we were treated to a display of native wildflowers and the occasional colourful bird darting about. On the way to Limestone Gorge, there is a small self guided cave with a few nice formations, leading to a cavern exit perched high on a cliff face, overlooking Limestone Gorge. From here, we can see a few people swimming in the gorge below. Seeing that, I couldn’t wait to get down there.
At the bottom of the gorge, we found quite a few people hanging out on the rocks. After testing the water Brian decided that having a swim in water that felt like it belonged in a cooler full of ice wasn’t on his to-do list for the day. Teresa graciously kept Brian company while Heather and I headed off to explore the canyon, and I am so glad we did.
The canyon was beautiful. The rock walls looming up on either side were graced with moss, ferns and air plants. Leaving the crowds behind, we waded through the first section with the cold water nearly up to my chest. The canyon floor alternated between boulders and rocks to scramble over and pools of water to wade through or swim across. My favourite section was one that was totally flooded. Heather and I had to swim about 100 yards through the very cold water to make it to the next section. As we swam, I looked at Heather and said, “Remember this moment.”
Part of our trip through the gorge we shared with two men. One from Germany, the other, his friend, from Mexico. The guy from Mexico had a cast on his hand, shaping his hand into a permanent “thumbs up”. This led to a few queries of “How’s the water?” as he swam with one hand held up. Of course, his answer was a resounding “thumbs up” even though the water nearly took your breath away. Maybe you needed to be there, but, the four of us found this very funny.
Our international friends turned back at one point, but Heather and I went just a bit further. We were reluctant for this adventure to end. We climbed to the top of a giant boulder and had a snack before we also turned back.
After we rejoined Teresa and Brian, Teresa pointed out a massive spider, the like I have never seen. It was seriously the size of a dinner plate. I took a photo and would’ve put my hand next to it for scale, but I value my body parts. This spider was much bigger than my outstretched hand.
Another wonderful adventure in the books, we headed back along the trail. When we neared the cave we’d found on the way out, I borrowed Teresa’s phone to use as a flashlight and took Heather and Brian to see the cool little cave I’d found.
At one point, I had to drop off a ledge, and pass Brian over to another ledge that led to the cave. It was dark at that point, so I got him to sit down and turned to help Heather across. Just about this time, Heather climbed on to and off of a large boulder near where I was standing. Much to my dismay, the boulder was dislodged from it’s perch on the sloping cave floor and rolled down and over my foot. The fact that I didn’t swear a blue streak in front of Heather and Brian at that point should earn me a few credits when St Peter does the tally at the end of my life. Oh. My. God. I didn’t swear, but I did shout, quite a lot, in fact.
My foot had just been crushed, right on the upper joint of my big toe. Luckily, I was wearing good hiking boots and I was standing on a bit of soft soil. Those two things are what saved me from a trip to the hospital. I had a look at the boulder afterwards, it was big and mostly round and as tall as my knee. I couldn’t move it at all where it stopped next to me. Thank God it didn’t stop ON my foot. After a minute or so, I took the kids into the cave and showed them the beautiful crystal formations and the limestone stalactites. There were a few broken pieces on the floor of the cave, so I let them take a souvenir.
After we drove back to the campsite, I got ice for my foot. The toe was a dark black and blue on the bottom and side already. I applied a few beers, internally, as I iced it down. By the morning, the black and blue encircled the entire toe, but luckily I could still walk on it okay. It’s now been a few months and aside from some scar tissue on the top and bottom of the toe, it seems to be okay.
The next day, Heather and I hiked up the ravine that leads to the top of the mountain across the river from our campsite.
The hike was enjoyable, following a washed out, dried up waterfall course. At one point, the overhead canopy of trees and vines was so thick that Heather wanted to leave it and go out to where we could see the sun shining up on the ridge to the side of the ravine. We did just that, emerging from the thick vegetation out to a wide open rock slide area. We carefully climbed up the rock slide, Heather in front of me as my boots dislodged stone after stone. We made it up to a goat path that crossed the side of the mountain and headed up a ridge line towards the top. Here’s where I learned a valuable lesson about cactus. I have relatives that are from the desert, my wife included, will surely get a chuckle out this.
Prickly pear cactus, loaded with fruit, were scattered around the mountainside. Some of the fruit was purple and appeared to be ripe and sure looked intriguing. Okay, so, I should be smarter than this, but… using my walking stick I knocked a ripe looking fruit off the cactus. I was going to have a taste of whatever was inside. Looking closely, the fruit didn’t have any spines, only some little tufts of fuzz. Not having my knife with me, or any other tools, I used what God gave me. My hands. Hmm. That was easy, those little tufts scrape right off. I’ll just scrape this all away, shall I… with, my, hands! What was I thinking? Was I planning on having a bite? All of a sudden I realized that the “fuzz” on the fruit were little, very fine needles. Those needles were now implanted in the tips of most of my fingers and were starting to hurt, A LOT! ARGHH! Wow, that really hurt! It took me a while but I managed to get the needles out of my skin. I can’t remember ever getting a taste of that fruit either.
The next day, Heather and I convinced Teresa and Brian to join us for the same hike up the ravine. It was slower going with Brian along and we stayed down in the ravine this time. No more cactus adventures for me! Brian found something else in the ravine though. Something unpleasant. Stinging nettles. They live near limestone and when you brush the leaves of them, you skin feels like you got stung by a bee. After Brian got nailed by it, we kept an eye out and it turns out this path, if you can call a dried up waterfall course a path, is littered with stinging nettles. It was all we could do to avoid any further mishaps. Interesting that when Heather and I had gone the same way the day before that we never even noticed they were there.
The Easter bunny managed to find our campsite. It even managed to scatter some eggs for Heather and Brian to collect.
Four days camping goes much too fast and before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tale and aren’t asleep in your chair, like me by the fire with the stars blazing overhead.
Love to all,