Text and pictures © 2006-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories. Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. Though, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all." — Douglas Adams (1952-2001).
Left: Playing the Didgeridoo in the fantastic and quite uncrowded Wolgan valley.
We get out of the plane from New Zealand to a 43°C heat. And to think that we can't get air conditioning for the tent... First night is spent with Marc and his family. He's a climber I met a 10 years ago in Alaska where we climbed Mt Hunter together, so it's been a while... which he used to give up climbing ! We get to their place in the late afternoon on the 31st of december, just in time to see if the reputation of aussies as great partygoers is verified. But by midnight, thanks to the time offset and my recent epic on Sefton, we are barely able to keep our eyes open for the fireworks. Actually, the real reason for meeting him was to borrow all his old guidebooks. Which proved a mixed blessing as some were hopelessly outdated...
Our first day climbing in OZ is not that successful. There's scorching heat on the approach, although we'd hoped the relative altitude of the Blue Mountains would help alleviate that somewhat. Then we drop a pack on the slope at the base of the routes and while looking for it down the unstable slope of sand, leaves and dead trees, I find a little camera pack containing a memory card. The card is wet but still works and contains a bunch of interesting shots the owner probably wants back...
Then we discover that none of the classic routes at our level actually go purely on trad gear: they always have what the locals call 'carrot bolts' which are basically headless bolts, only shorter and more rusty. We also learn quickly not to go on the 'starless' low-quality routes... Back to the shop to purchase a set of hangers which prove awkward to use. Well, to each country its own climbing tradition I guess, and we can get used to it, like they say, 'just as long as you don't fall'... And after that we bag a few good routes while getting somewhat lost on the approach of the Grouse valley. Finally after 3 days of rain we just leave, not having done much in the Blue Mountains.
We will come back to the Blue Mountains only at the very end of our trip, to discover the gorgeous Wolgan valley, heartily recommended by Mark: kilometers of cliff on both side of the road, good rock but heaps upon heaps of march-flies. We feel so alone at the campground that we hook up with two british old-timers and end up climbing in the same spot for company. And since it's their first day in OZ and it's our last, we dump on them all our wasted camping equipment and food leftover. But before I write about the end of our trip, let's proceed with order: off to Mt Buffalo we go.
Left: Jenny at the base of Maharajah, a 17 classic on the Cathedral. Or how to compress 4 pitches into a single one...
Right: Edge of Pleasure, not so enjoyable in scorching heat and with too many carrot bolts, but quite nice nonetheless.
"It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilized culture, they say) whereas all the aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick." — Douglas Adams (1952-2001).
Just in case one hadn't noticed before, Australia is big and it takes days just to drive from one place to the next, even in the southwest corner where people actually live, so we immediately give up the idea of going also to Tasmania, the center or the west coast where other good areas offer even more routes. Our original intent was to climb the main areas from Frog Buttress (center of the east coast) to Moonarie. But it takes a day or two to connect the dots, and locals keep telling us that some of those places will be too damn hot (and we actually listen) and some areas are just so large that even 10 days off our 40 day vacation won't do them justice.
Left: Rappelling off the cathedral.
Right: Slab to reach to summit of the Cathedral, via either Maharajah or Sultan.
Mt Buffalo is on the road between the Blue Mountains and the Grampians, and we stop there for a few days. Being higher in altitude the temperature seems at first more manageable. A little wind cools things off at the Cathedral where we start with the classic Maharajah which I find already tricky for a grade 17. Then get on the Edge of Pleasure, a superb slab classic only on carrot bolts, turned very dicey by the heat and lack of wind of the afternoon.
Left: The gorge of Mt Buffalo, where Australia's longest routes are located.
Right: Stupendous layback on Hard Rain.
On the second day we want to get in the Gorge itself and since the guidebook doesn't contain any picture nor any map or drawing we are not too keen on trying the rappel. Better to walk down... a disgusting gully filled with broken bottles of beer and aptly named Glass Gully. We have to fight the bush on the last section of ledge of the approach to reach the base of Quo Vadis, our planned route, and find a really ugly start. There's a stupendous layback dihedral on the right, even if it's the start of Hard Rain, a grade 27, but I'd much rather do that and traverse later ! Actually, traversing between the routes is not too bad, but maybe it wasn't such a bright idea anyway; with such a sucky start the route can only stay this way, and indeed it's full of grass and the sun just cooks us while on the 2nd pitch. I find the large crystals painful and brittle and globally loathe the route. We should have stayed on the 27... maybe !
Left: Climbing inside the Gorge, on dark rock taking as much sun as a frying pan.
Right: Rappelling down a gash.
"Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was at one time the world record holder for fastest skulling of a yard of beer." — Australia, a country that knows how to reward core competencies.
Left: Steep granite at Mt Buffalo.
Right: The base of the Initiator crack at the Hump.
Left: The traverse on the middle pitch of the Initiator.
Right: The final crack on the Initiator.
Right: Struggling with the big roof of Manic Depressive (25) at Bundaleer. I don't normally climb at that grade, but it was raining and the roof kept the route dry...
"Tips to Surviving Australia:
— Douglas Adams (1952-2001).
- Don't ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever.
- The beer is worse than you think, regardless of how bad you think it is.
- Always carry a stick.
- Air conditioning.
- Do not attempt to use Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fistfight.
- Thick socks.
- Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.
- If you leave the urban areas, carry several liters of water with you at all times, or you will die.
- Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore."
The thing about using a different grading system is that the psychological barrier coming from some grades you are used to not try just disappear. In Europe I usually don't bother trying 7a and in America I won't try a 5.11+. But when you are new to the OZ rating, what's the difference between a 19, a 21 and a 24 ? Other than just a few digits I have no idea. After doing the first 2 grades in the small sector of the Watchtower near town, I just head up the 3rd and manage to onsight it, never mind the thick spiderwebs on most of the holds ! That's also the thing about being deprived of climbing for an entire year, I'm all the more ready to lunge on anything that looks good. Falling be damned.
Right: Traversing at the base of the Gallery, Grampians.
The Gramps are huge, with plenty of separate areas, far from each other and sometimes requiring long drives on poor roads and long enough hikes in the heat. It's where we figure that our oldish guidebooks are far from being very good: not a single picture, map or drawing of the routes and their accesses. The descriptions are based on the concept of describing one start in reference to the one next to it, like "route A starts 3 meters left of route B. Route B starts 3m right of A" and more complex variations on that theme. You figure it out. It would have been hopeless if it weren't for the initials painted at the base of some of the routes.
Left: The perfect dihedral of the Blimp at Bundaleer wall.
Our worst error happened when looking for the Gallery, supposedly the best sport climbing area of the Gramps. We manage to follow the directions for the Gallery Creek instead. At totally worthless area, with a difficult sandy road and, worse, an approach in the middle of the bush that we perform in sandals and short pants, stupid tourists that we are. It's like cross between a scene from Crocodile Dundee and the worse in 'Net masochism. We get back to the car all scrapped, not having done a single route. And then the next day when we make it to the real Gallery, we immediately get lost on the trail. If it wasn't for a climber met back at the parking lot, we'd never have found the proper access. At Mt Rosea we take the wrong trail and hike 90 minutes for a 20 minutes approach. At the Pekin face we really struggle with the car not to get stuck in huge 4x4 potholes worthy of our worst memories of Utah... Sure I've done worse, but after getting lost on drive-ins, approaches, starts and routes we finally give in and purchase the more recent and much better guidebook.
Right: The major sandbag of the Last Act.
In such a large area I'm surprised to meet... no climber at all. For 10 days we are absolutely alone at the Plantation campground where our only companions are curious kangaroos, and we meet climbers on a wall only once. Of the few climbers we met in OZ, none were australian. But the aussies know better than to climb in full summer heat ! Many of the classic faces in Grampians face east and take the sun early, so we take late starts and find a warm wall waiting for us. One of the best pitch I've ever done is the airy 3rd pitch of the Scarface/Ascention combination. It looks totally unprotectable from the belay but offers regular TCU placements in tiny slots barely suitable for fingerlocks. A stunning pitch, exposed like a parachute dive.
Left: Smoke from the 2006 forest fires raising above Grampian National Park and visible from tens of km away.
Our last day at the Gramps is spent climbing the excellent classics on Barbican wall in a thunderstorm. The roof protects us from the rain but we are a little more worried about the constant thunderstrikes in the distance. It's thrilling to watch but unfortunately as we leave the Grampians for good, we learn that a fire has broken off south. And it will indeed burn for the next 10 days, destroying a good portion of the park and sending ashes a hundred kilometers away.
Left: Panoramic view of Arapiles from the Mitre salt lake.
Right: Party of climbers trying to figure out the start of Scorpion at the Bluff.
"See Also: 'Deserts: How to die in them', 'The Stick: Second most useful thing ever' and 'Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, volumes 1-42'." — Douglas Adams (1952-2001).
When in Australia you can easily forget where you are and think you may be in the US for its Blockbusters, 24/7 supermarkets and other similar facilities. But there are small differences making me think of an upgraded version of the US: you can enjoy a beer outdoors without the fear of ending you life in jail; people can and actually do bike on highways where the truck trains are way bigger than the puny 18 wheelers found in the US; cops don't put their hand on their gun when they talk with you; people don't smoke as much pot (probably because they don't need to forget about the previous differences); trad climbing is bolder as you don't usually get continuous cracks that you can protect with a cam every foot...
Left: Climbing with a net against the flies !
Right: Just plain impossible to be at camp without taking shelter from the flies.
The main drawback of climbing in OZ are the flies. When the heat is high you get either small and fast flies that land on you eyes, mouth and any kind of skin scrape, and that comes back immediately if shooed away; or you get March flies flying slowly and noisily around you until you drop you guard, at which point they land and bite. We feared those more than crocodiles or poison spiders and people use various contraptions to keep them at bay: head nets, large nets that can cover your whole camp, helmets with bottle corks hanging on short strings or the ultimate: just staying indoors !
Left: Belayer at the base of Scorpion at the Bluff. Sure, I've played with the colors, but I like it this way!
Right: Sunset on the Organ Pipes where lots of easy classics are located.
And indeed we soon learned to get up early and climb from 6 to 10, then head for the swimming pool or the movie theater, and then get back onto the rocks from 17 to 22. A bit hard to cook properly with such timing, particularly since the afternoon is so hot, you certainly don't want to spend it in front of a stove. On the other hand such temperatures are perfect for raising bread dough. Yup, I was comparing Australia to the US before, and the bread is unfortunately not something they've improved upon.
Left: Standing on top of one of the Organ Pipes, Arapiles.
Right: Struggling with the famous roof of Kachoong (21).
We found the climbing in Arapiles to be spectacular. The rock is p For the entire 10 day period we stay in Arapiles the sky is yellow-grey and we see sinister plumes of ash raise from the Grampians east of us, while that lovely park gets burnt to the ground.
Left: Footsteps on the salt lake.
Right: Natimux Lake, quite a disappointment if you expect to take a swim, much less a dive.
Right: Panorama from Thunderbird wall to the Lighthouse.
Right: A view of Point Perpendicular, with Thunderbird wall in the middle.
Strangely this place doesn't seem to attract much people. Of the aussies climbers we talked to, they were all, like: "Yeah, I've heard of it, but never gone there, mate". Well, it's a shame as this is a lovely place... provided the military actually let you reach it. They own the place and are kind enough to let climbers and others use the area when they aren't. So basically weekends and vacation periods are available. The cliffs are high, a good 100 meters.
Left: The very balancy Turning of the Tides at the far end of Seaside Upper.
Right: Turning of the Tides at Seaside Upper.
The rock is a bit soft and sandy but provides for interesting moves. The routes we do are either cracks, purely trad protected, or face climbs on carrot bolts or even real bolts (what a luxury !), all in a great setting. We would have liked to stay more, but the army closed the range on monday, so off we go, back to the Blue Mountains to discover Wolgan valley.
Left: Jamming the Lighthouse crack.
Right: Jenny on Rex Hunt's Lovechild below the lighthouse.
Left: The excellent Northern Exposure (22) below the lighthouse.
Right: Jenny jamming the crack on the lighthouse wall.
Left: Memorable Moves (22) at Seaside Upper.
Right: Rappelling down Thunderbird wall.
Left: Cormorants watching over their fishing grounds.
Right: Pelican taking off.
Left: Kangaroo enjoying lunch.
Right: Galah cockatoo (also called Rose-Breasted cockatoo) eating wattle seeds on the ground.
Left: Chocolate cake prepared at the campground. And pretty decent Aussie wine.
Right: A spiny echidna, a cousin of the platypus. Those strange animals form the monotreme class and they lay eggs while still being considered mammals.
Right: Crimson Rosella on tree branch.
Left: Jean-Marie and his just broken surfboard. Apparently it takes more than a year to become an australian surf god...
Right: The bridge across Sidney Harbor.
As we are due to fly back home we head back to Sidney where we return the dusty guidebooks and hook up with other friends recently installed in Australia. They enjoy the relaxed lifestyle by going surfing in the early morning, before heading for work. On that day, the surfing is actually foreshortened by a broken surfboard, but still it seems a pretty nice place to live. Go Australia !