It’s been a while! Work’s been crazy and the past month or so has been a rather dark period in my life. It seems gone are the days when I could pull 16 hour days for a couple of months straight and not bat an eyelid. Age must be catching up with me! Running has been somewhat sporadic too, and having been deprived of my regular fix, I have turned into quite the grumpy dad and husband.
J & E are both out of the country, and after (yet) another crappy week at work, I decided to head a bit further out of town to spend some time in the woods. With our New Zealand trip on the horizon as well, it was a good chance to put some elevation and kms in the legs, and I decided to head back to Mt Donna Buang and have a poke around now that the snow had all gone. Weather forecast was beautiful, and with family away, I could take all the time I wanted, and so, bag full of food and water, I headed north.
The plan was to ascend via Mount Victoria trail from Warburton, and then join the Donna Buang summit trail to the summit. From the summit, I would join the rainforest track (better known as Cement Creek Trail as I now know), back to Rainforest Gallery, and then take the road back in to town. Simple enough!
The first hints of things to come came when I stopped by the Warburton tourist information office asking for directions to the trailhead. The volunteer staff looked at me quizzically and said “you can drive to the summit now”. When I said my intention was to go on foot, they then had to look around on their maps to try and figure out the answer to my question. This made me think that maybe this trail wasn’t something people came along to try on a regular basis. After a quick snack from the local bakery, I geared up and set out.
The weather was almost perfect, maybe a little warm. A partly cloudy blue sky was the perfect backdrop to the tree crusted mountain rising up behind the town. A couple hundred metres down the river and I was greeted by a first taste of things to come.
The road to the trailhead was aptly titled “Martyr Road”, and was essentially a 27% incline straight up a hillside. The incline was so great I could feel a big stretch in both my achilles tendons as I trudged up the street. I reached the top, and got a brief respite as I got onto the trail which descended a couple of metres briefly to cross a creek. And then, the real pain started.
The trail clearly showed signs of disuse. Debris and fallen trees were scattered over the trail, and the surface was pretty rough, with bad erosion in some parts. However, the reason for that unpopularity of the trail soon became clear.
There was no attempt of any sort to reduce the vicious gradient. No zig zagging or winding, just dead straight up the side of the mountain. Even with my walking poles handy, it was still a heart pounding, sweat drenching effort just to keep walking. I gained over 700m of elevation in 3km, and by the time I reached the summit trail, my legs felt like freshly made pannacotta. A short respite across the road, and it was back to crunchy trail goodness.
Although the summit trail continued to ascend, the gradient was nowhere near as brutal, and a few minutes of walking allowed me to catch my breath and actually get into a bit of a gentle jog. Although I had come through just a couple of months ago, with its coating of snow gone, the surroundings were an entirely different picture – the sun peeking through the trees, and greenery with abundant bird calls echoing through the trees. Now on familiar ground, I made relatively short work of Summit trail, although, with the hard packed snow cover gone, exposed rocks and roots along the bed of the trail made footing far more uncertain, giving my ankles a solid workout. Before long, I was at the top again, this time the open summit bathed in glorious sunlight, and a view far improved from the one I was greeted with back in July. A perfect spot for a quiet moment and lunch!
So, with quite an enjoyable first half done, I started back on the trail, and was looking forward to the next part – the descent! The trail started innocently enough, slightly rough but nothing I couldn’t handle. And then, the troubles began.
Barely five minutes in, the trail popped out onto a fire road at a T junction, with signs to Dom Dom Saddle and Archeron Gap, but no mention of Rainforest Gallery. I double checked the map, and it clearly stated there was only meant to be one trail with no turnoffs. A little confused, I decided to take a right, given that was the direction the map indicated the trail was meant to turn. Further along the way, there were more unexpected junctions, which were rather poorly signed, and still with no mention of my destination.
Based on my bearings on the GPS, I was still headed in the right direction, and so I kept up the pace, until I came to a fork in the road, with both paths heading roughly in the correct direction. Bearing left were directions to Archeron Gap and Dom Dom Saddle, and bearing right was a path to Cement Creek. None of those destinations were marked on the map I had. A took a quick peek at my mobile phone, and with a couple of bars on the connection, I decided to make a quick call to the tourist information centre.
Jim on the other end did his best (they are all volunteers there), and eventually, after some discussion and what sounded like him poring over several different maps, we eventually (and correctly, it turns out) decided that Cement Creek trail was the correct way to go. So, off I went, and things soon went from bad to worse.
If I thought Mt Victoria trail was in bad shape, Cement Creek took it to a whole new level. The trail was severely overgrown, and barely visible in places. A dense cover of ferns covered the ground, and it soon became a game of losing and picking up the trail every 20-30m. At the same time, the trail was descending into a valley down the side of the mountain, and as the altitude dropped, the vegetation became more dense, and light started to fade. On top of this, recent rains and winds had resulted in many fresh treefalls which made progress difficult. All the while though, with a bit of persistence, I managed to relocate the trail and keep up the onward progress, which was painfully slow despite going downhill.
The trail conditions worsened and in some parts, was densely overgrown. The trail markers had stopped about a kilometer back but small clues every now and then let me know that I was still on the right track – trees that had been cut by chainsaw, steps carved into fallen trunks, all gave me some comfort that I was still on the right track.
Finally, the trail came to a halt at a little stream trickling down the hillside. On the other side of the stream, the hillside rose sharply and there was barred by a thick mass of fallen tree and logs. Just five metres down the stream, I saw what looked like a continuation of the trail, and with no way forward, I decided to chance it and clambered down the miniature waterfall. The bet paid off, and there was a clear trail that led on for the next fifty metres or so.
That was where my luck ran out. The clear section of trail faded out, and, my confidence boosted by my earlier ability to relocate it, I decided to press on, looking out for small indicators of where the trail might be, and keeping an eye on my bearings. I was now half-way down cement creek trail, and it was either press on into the unknown, or try to retrace my steps and face a 400m ascent through the ridiculously harsh terrain I had just come through. My desperation to avoid having to head back up the trail kept me moving forward, and it might have been delusion or just seeing what I wanted to see, but twenty minutes later, I had to confess to myself that I had lost the trail. I turned around, and couldn’t even make out the way I had come by. There was just no defined way forward, and with the light fading, and no idea if I was even on the right path, I started to panic. I set up a reference point and did a 15m radius sweep around it, but with no luck – the ground was overgrown with ferns and a layer of dead vegetation that was over a foot deep – if there was a trail here it would take some serious navigation and digging to find it, and with evening coming up, that was something I didn’t have time for.
Based on the GPS, I was about 2/3 of the way to my destination, and I had to make a call – either try to find the trail I had come down by, and face a tough climb back up cement creek (if I could even find it!) or try to press on and hope for the best. Neither option was particularly appealing, but in the end, I decided that my best chances were to try and retrace my steps to find the trail that I had lost around 200m back.
I slowly made my way back, looking for depressed vegetation and broken twigs – indicators of where I might have passed through – and, to some relief, I eventually managed to make my way back to the point where I had clambered down the miniature waterfall. From there, it was another painful ascent back up the trail, over the fallen trees, and careful searching for the near invisible path. Now paranoid, I had my eye on the GPS every minute or so just to make sure I kept my bearings right.
Eventually, I came back up to the top of the ridge, and the path became clear again, and it was a quick jog back up to the summit, where this time I was filled with relief rather than satisfaction. I said a quick prayer in thanks for a safe return, and reassessed my options. I decided to take the summit trail back down, and use the 10 mile carpark turnoff to take a shortcut via the main summit road back to Mt Victoria trail, where the plan was basically to bomb down the ridiculously steep trail back to town. It was that, or follow the gentler Mt Donna Buang summit road back down and add another 7 or so km to my journey, something I didn’t want to risk especially since my PT tendon wasn’t quite fully mended yet.
The gradient of the trail meant that, although the pace was much much quicker, the descent was equally torturous. My quads burned as I tried to control the speed of my descent, and the debris made up of long strips of bark and fallen branches posed a great tripping hazard – something that wasn’t really an issue on the way up.
The 700m descent took just under an hour, and, back in civilisation, I slowly made my way back to the car. My quads were too destroyed to try running down Martyr Rd, and so it must have been quite a comical sight to see me shuffle down that slope. Back on the riverbank, it was a short jog back to the car. I took a few moments to cool my feet off in the icy cold river, and take stock of the day’s events. I had run/walked 23 or so km, and it had taken a monstrous 6.5hrs (how’s that for a half-marathon time!), covering around 2000m of positive elevation.
This was the first time I had given up on a trail and turned back, but, on the whole, I think it was justified. I wasn’t equipped to spend a night out, certainly not in a damp jungle environment, and although I did have limited guidance from the compass feature on my GPS watch, I was rather underequipped – no machete, running shoes and tights – there’s no telling how long it would have taken me to bush bash my way back to the main road on the end of the trail, which at some point had to cross a creek and make a sharp climb back up the other side of the valley. What was meant to have been an enjoyable, relaxing day on the trail had brought much unwanted frustration, but as I drove home, I was filled with a gladness that I had made it out, and that I would get to sleep at home in my bed rather than on the damp jungle floor.
For any of you who happen to read this that might want to give that a shot, I don’t think it’s impossible, but go prepared. To get through cement creek you’d need to be appropriately dressed, and you’d probably want a machete and a compass at a minimum. And lastly, please take note – the tourist maps are very poorly marked and when compared with the actual trails and signage, are actually more confusing than helpful. If you want to make the trip from Donna Buang summit to Rainforest Gallery, the name of the trail (which is not on the maps) is Cement Creek Trail, and to get there, follow signs to Dom Dom Saddle/Archeron Gap until you come to a right turn which directs you towards Cement Creek. That is supposedly the trail that links up with Rainforest walk on the other end, but don’t take my word for it – I never made it there!