What a challenging and empowering hike this was and it if it wasn’t for Covid, it may never have happened.
Think a 65km loop hike over 4 days through the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park (between Walcha and Kempsey in NSW) along remote service trail, some off track navigating, and 14km of creek wading and crossings….. in July! The hike follows old stock routes from years ago before it was reclaimed as a wilderness area.
My mate Claudy invited me to join her an her sister-in-law Michelle to do sections 8-12 of Larapinta. We booked last year for our transfers and flights and were enjoying our odd training hikes and gearing up Michelle who hadn’t yet done a multi-day. But with border closures, that hike couldn’t happen. Ever hopeful, Michelle found Yurragir on the north coast as an alternative option but unfortunately we couldn’t get transfers and water crossings. At a bit of a loss the Green Gully Track presented itself and we found a vacancy in our time range and booked it on the spur of the moment. I’m so glad we did. It had everything… beautiful scenery, animals, new technical challenges and huts! Yes huts. So no need to take tents and the added bonus of a fire place every night – a winter hikers dream. When I say huts though, don’t be fooled into thinking beautiful modern decked out huts. Think old corrugated iron shacks that are as basic as it gets but that made it all the more interesting.
To book this hike it’s $600 for up to 4 people. You can add another 2 people for extra but that’s it – 6 people tops. And its your booking so you aren’t sharing the track or hut with people you don’t know. That was really cool. So we decided to invite Felicia, a woman I did my first multi-day hike on the Overland Track with. On day 1 of the Overland, it was bloody hot and Felicia and I kept passing each other and commenting how challenging and exposed it was. That day bonded us in friendship and she was someone with good track legs and multi-day experience that I thought would love Green Gully. She accepted our invite and began training with us just 6 weeks out.
Being July, we knew it would be cold so our packs were laden with warm gear, so the weight savings by not having a tent were rendered negligible really. As the days got closer we started to get worried. We were ready but the weather forecast was for an East Coast low potentially landing on the mid-north coast. That did not bode well. Calls were made to National Parks to determine if our water crossings would be too dangerous. But as luck would have it, as it always seems to, the low hit further south and the weather was good.
On the Saturday we drove the nearly 6 hour drive through gorgeous little towns like Stroud and Walcha. It was an hour of dirt road though from the highway to our digs for the night – Cedar Creek Cottage the start and finish point.
It was a cute little cottage with kangaroos there to greet us and we whipped up a fire and started checking all our gear. We did discover that both Claudy’s and my Sawyer water filters weren’t working. That was a big problem. Luckily Michelle and Felicia had water purification tablets and we came up with the strategy that we would just have to boil our water every day.
Because the hike is a loop, you stay the last night at Cedar Lodge, about 100m from the Cottage. So we took some food and wine over to the Lodge to put in the fridge there. As Claudy and I walked over later to charge our phones for the last time, it was dark so we put on our headlamps. As we strolled along I noticed the ground was covered in sparkles of blue glitter. It was beautiful. As I investigated further by shining my torch closer, there were hundreds of small grass spiders. Then I was so careful with where I was walking. Michelle got to cooking a yummy mushroom stew with eye fillet steak and homemade garlic bread! Holy smoke it was the best meal before a big hike that’s for sure. As we slept we could hear each other turning on our mats and sleeping bags. It’s hard to sleep that first night knowing you start tomorrow and when the alarm went off at 6am, we were rearing to go.
DAY 1 – 17km – Cedar Creek Cottage to Birds Nest Hut
We gave the cottage a quick clean, threw on our packs and began the trek north with some kangaroos sending us off.
As we followed the service track past the Cedar Creek clearing we hit forest pretty quickly and were overwhelmed at just how close the recent bushfires had come and how virulent they were. All of the trees were black but the clearing of the undergrowth by the fires had produced fresh bright green carpet of bracken fern. It was breathtakingly beautiful and heartwarming to know that some of the bush can regenerate. It was quiet though and we can see how so many animals would have perished.
We essentially followed management track the whole of day 1. It followed high up on a ridgeline overlooking a deep valley to the east with spectacular views. Although it was mostly cloudy, the sun broke through on occasion warming my face. Crimson Rosella’s flew past us noisily in pairs. The red and blue of their plumage shooting past us so fast would blur their colour into a purple flash.
I felt quite fatigued that day. My pack felt heavy and cumbersome and I was a little concerned about my new boots. My wonderful old boots decided to fail just 3 weeks out from our hike and I was barely able to purchase let alone wear in a new pair in time. I went a half a size up too thinking I needed a little more room in the boot. What a mistake! Still, they held up ok and I barely had the beginnings of a blister halfway through day 4. So I can’t complain too much. But with being tired, they just added to it.
We stopped for lunch about 12km in and boiled a billy. Funnily though, as someone went off for a wee, they noticed a camera. Parks openly state that they place the odd camera along the track to track animals and make sure humans are doing the right thing. Turns out, this wasn’t going to be the first time a camera along the track would be perfectly positioned for watching us toileting!
As we descended into Birds Nest Hut that afternoon, we were so excited to see a cute hut by a babbling brook. The sun had come out and it was only about 2.15pm. We explored the hut and decided to prepare an outdoor and indoor fire. Parks provide firewood at the huts as part of the fee you pay but the timber is sooooo hard! It was virtually impossible for us to cut through. So Felicia and Michelle came up with a baton strategy working together to break up the timber. Claudy and I tended to collect tinder and kindling of various sizes and we created a very organised system. I had been hoping to start some fires with bark or dried lomandra as tinder but it was all damp and wouldn’t take. Luckily I had been watching survival videos on Youtube recently and took some cotton balls in vasoline with me. These little greasy balls were a life saver and I will never leave home without them again. It was fun to all work together to build and bring our fires to life keeping us warm in such cold conditions.
That afternoon we sat around the outdoor fire pit chatting and pottering through our gear, wandering around the hut grounds and stock yards. As it fell dark we ventured inside, got another fire going, set up the sleeping stretchers and talked about our sore body parts as we made dinner on the gas burners.
Each hut has a pit toilet and this one had a little bird sitting up in the corner that night (I later identified as a Welcome Swallow). As I walked back down to the hut the stars were sparkling through the branches of the trees above and the ground was like a reflection of the starry sky, shimmering with the eyes of little glittery blue-eyed spiders. I stopped to watch the smoke rise out of the chimney from the fire that we built in the hut and listen to the trickling of the creek by it’s side. Flashes of distant lightening revealed the shadows of the mountains enveloping us like a big hug and reminded me that there was bad weather out there. I sent a little wish to Mother Nature to spare us as I curled up in my cozy quilt with a roaring fire spitting and crackling before me.
DAY 2 – 15km – Birds Nest Hut to Green Gully Hut
The alarm was set for 5.50am. Today was a big day according to all reports so we wanted an early start. There were embers still in the fireplace and the sky was starting to lighten through the small hut window but it was cold and it took a bit of courage to get up. It was so cold the leaves and grass on the ground were frozen. I went up to the toilet and the little bird was still there but it flew off as I attended to my ablutions. I guess that is his house.
We said goodbye to the gorgeous Birds Nest Hut and headed up a hill past the old dilapidated stock yards, the timber fences icy and the track covered in frost. The sunrise wasn’t far off. We arrived shortly at a sign which advised this was the first off track section and directed us to follow the ridgeline to the peak for about 90 minutes.
We had read that there were human pad marks to follow but with the fires having shut down the track in October and it only having reopened a few weeks ago there, it was overgrown and we were on our own. It was great fun. There were animal tracks but they started and ended erratically. The sun rose and its rays filtered through the trees behind us and we were accompanied again by Crimson Rosella’s as we gained ground and altitude. We were grateful that it was winter as the ground was a wonderland for snakes cutting through the bush, rocks, downed trees and grass.
As promised after an hour and a half we made it to Birds Nest Trig, 1200m above sea level. It wasn’t a great view (mostly filtered through the trees) but we were proud of ourselves and loved the bush bashing.
Having reached great heights meant we had to go down and there were some steep sections on rejoining the management trail. We wandered through tall eucalypt forest again burned but lush with great ferns. At every turn I felt like nature had set up a beautiful little vignette of rocks and ferns or tree stumps and termite nests made ripe for photographing. We ate some snacks as we continued on, agreeing how beautiful this was and why did everyone say Day 2 was hard?
We arrived at a spectacular lookout (Green Gully Lookout) and took in the expansive views including vertically down to Green Gully below. It was so far down. It was hard to believe we would be down at that level later today. There was a cairn assembled at the lookout and it made a great backdrop for photos (although I am not a great fan of them – it means people have been there and is against the Leave No Trace philosophy).
A little further along was the Rocks Lookout. It had been so badly burned that the rocks were still charred black. We stopped here for lunch and enjoyed the views as we wondered just how bad the descent down to Green Gully from here would be. It had been reported as tough and given how high we were, we were reasonably nervous. Furthermore, it was going to be off track. There were signs, no doubt with instructions on how to get down, but the fires had burned the inscriptions off but one sign pointed northwest down the hill saying “Green Gully Hut – 7km”. I had entered what I believed was the ridgeline from aerial topography maps on my Garmin InReach GPS if we needed it but felt confident that we would be able to navigate by sight alone. It was hot up there on the ridge and we were exposed. We decided to just get going. Off in the distance we could hear some type of heavy machinery and chainsaws trying to work out what it could be.
It was pretty quick that we realised that it would be a long hard slog. There were short sections that almost fully gave way on both sides, so that any wrong move or gust of wind might lead to a not so happy ending. The ground here was dry and gravelly and slippery as fuck! So many little slips even early on. We were all heavily reliant on our poles. Actually to be honest, we couldn’t have done it without them. Every single step had to have three points of support or down you would slip. Keep in mind with water, we each had about 11-12kg of gear on our backs, making us top heavy and our thighs and calves were shaky because of the slowness of each step. We were pretty much doing 6km of lunges and squats. I’m not even joking! Just when we got down what we thought was an impossible steep section, the ridge upped the ante. It is difficult to put into words just how steep it was other than to provide angles and I reckon it was at least 60 degrees at some sections. The trouble was, there was no other option but to go down. We had to do it. We eventually worked out that if you placed a foot on the small grassy bundles they would mostly stay anchored. This strategy pretty much got us down.
I fell twice. Once bending my good knee underneath me and falling onto it. That hurt and still does actually. The other time I slid falling onto a rock under my hip. A bit of bruising but all good. Felicia got fed up and decided to just slide down a section and Michelle thought it apt to do the same. Claudy was the descent hero that day, nailing the shit out of it. However, her knees paid the price.
When we finally reached the Gully we were pretty tired and happy to have seen a signpost so we manage to navigate it well. However, as we followed the gully we saw massive tractor tracks by the creek. I was literally like a truck had been through and destroyed it. It even went through the creek. It was pretty ugly and smelly, dredging up mud. We followed these tracks and crossed the shallow creek a few times. Then we got to a point that we couldn’t see a track on the other side of the creek. I started to feel a bit panicky. It had been a bloody long day. It was getting really cool and darker down the gully. I decided to cross the creek and go up through the bush to see if a track was up above. I went through thick brush and heaps of weeds getting little thorns stuck in my pants. The fear struck up in me again. Then I saw it! A track. Phew. It was smooth sailing from there and we were once again glad to see another hut, our shelter for the night. There was fresh firewood there too so we are pretty sure that noise we heard was a tractor and someone doing the wood for the hut.
Now this is the hut with the “hot” shower. A hot shower is super luxury for hikers. The hot shower didn’t work at Cedar Cottage so we were dubious. But halleluiah it worked. We each had about a 3 minute outdoor corrugated iron shower with views to the ridges that we just traversed. It was so refreshing. It was getting dark so we only set up an indoor fire tonight.
We all really liked Green Gully Hut. It seemed more spacious. There was a creepy old chair that belonged to an old stockman apparently. The visitor journal entries from other hikers reckon it was haunted so it stayed outside the night. Probably sacrilege but we didn’t care. There were snake skins strung above the little kitchen and a possum came to visit that evening, later hissing and screeching no doubt unhappy that we were visiting his territory.
We spent the night by the fire enjoying stories from the visitors journals. They were hilarious. The toilet here was beautiful and we had to pass the cranky possum with its red eyes glaring at us from the tree. But it was nice to sit on the toot with the door open looking out at a blanket of stars. It was so clear that night that as I looked at the Milky Way above the hut by the gully, I could see the Dark Emu constellation as clear as can be and my heart filled up thinking of the dreamtime story. I’d never seen it before. It was so defined and obvious it was an emu. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life.
DAY 3 – 13.5km – Green Gully Hut to Cowell’s Hut
The alarm went off at 5.50am again and Felicia was rearing to go with a bright and happy call of “Good morning!” I was so tired and just a little cranky and cold. I wasn’t ready to get up. I’m not a morning person. I may have growled an obscenity at her under my breath and I pulled my quilt over my head like an insolent teenager. What I needed that morning was a slow and gradual awakening. But I was in the wrong place for that. Today was our 14km gully/creek day. There was a lot of planning and extra gear purchased for this day. We had no idea what to really expect. It was also supposed to be a long day so no time for dawdlers like me. Fuck it was cold too. None of my body parts wanted to work – my fingers were stiff and my knees like rusted old wheels. But a hot Milo and Moccona sorted me out and we packed out of the hut.
As we walked down the small hill from the hut we were presented with our first crossing. This was funny. We were carefully navigating options to keep our feet dry for about the first 3 or 4 crossings then we realised it was futile. The first submersion of our feet was chilly but not as cold as expected. From then on we just rolled with it. The girls had runners on. I had my new boots. The Gortex waterproofing worked very well. So well that each time I was submerged they filled up and stayed that way for sometime. I was worried I’d end up with trench foot but surprisingly the layer of cool cushioning water between my boots and feet and felt wonderful giving my tired feet a break.
There were genuine concerns around to day with potential for hypothermia. The creek reportedly had the potential to be chest deep in some places. We’d purchased water proof socks and neoprene pants. In the end we decided against the socks as they would have been compromised early. That was true. (Damn that extra unnecessary weight!) Claudy and Shell wore neoprene pants to keep warm and Felicia and I went with our rain pants. All of us wore gaitors which were absolutely essential given the thigh high mud in some sections.
Bemused by cute Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby’s, fluffy with their winter coats, watching us slosh through the crossings, there were parts that we just had to wade through the creek rather than the option of crossing to the other side. There were sections of track, much of which that awful tractor had bulldozed through and in other places we made it up as we went. There we so many weeds along the gully. There were different types including Potato weed, Farmers friend and Mexican Marigold (which smells minty at first then becomes really overwhelming in pungent). Much of the weed was chest height so at times we were picking up prickles on our clothes. To add to that there were animal droppings everywhere. There were horse and cattle prints and dung everywhere. There were also other types of droppings which were less familiar and we figured were probably pig, goat and dog. I’m so stupid. I kept saying, “I can’t believe that someone could ride a horse through here especially being a National Park.” I also couldn’t fathom that people could even get horses through some areas as it was so dense. I knew from the literature and my dad that there might be stray cattle and definitely some bush pigs but not horses. There were two sets of prints in the mud I could not identify. Almost like emu or some large bird perhaps (they were kangaroo prints as I later researched). They were huge. I wasn’t until that night as we read through the visitors book that people reported seeing brumbies, pigs, dingos and giant goannas. It was lucky we didn’t know at the time as some of those tracks and dung were super fresh! Speaking of dung, I was keen to try out my ferro rod, a flint rod that can be used in any weather to create sparks to light fires, on some dry horse poo to see how combustible it was (saw it on a YouTube). The girls were looking hard for dry specimens for me, laughing at my ridiculous endeavour. You can just imagine me bent over trying to light up poo like a pyro. It was too damp though.
The creek itself varied in depth the whole way along. It was clean clear water but given all the animal dung there’s no way I would drink it untreated. The whole creek was covered in large boulders, river rocks, gravel and submerged tree trunks and branches. There was a grey long hair like moss that covered much of the way. The entire length was slippery and today was Felicia’s turn to fall… twice. She was the wettest of us all. As we tried to cross one steep bank Claudy managed to get sucked thigh deep into the boggy bank. Unfortunately we all had to follow. It was not pretty. We were actually really lucky not to have lost our shoes (thanks to the gaitors) as the suction power of the mud was strong.
We wound back and forth along the creek until we started to notice the terrain change. We were coming up to some steep cliffs. Could this be the famous Green Gully Canyon we knew we would have to wade up to chest deep to cross? The GPS said it was. So we decided to have an early lunch surrounded by the giant boulders and imposing canyon faces that sandwiched us. It was cold and overcast so we were keen to get changed into our crossing gear and have some warm food to get us ready. We were joined by a lyrebird jumping across the boulders and scratching its way through the dirt looking for its lunch too. When we finished we felt like we were ready to tackle the icy cold canyon waters. I ended up taking off my merino top so that I had an extra layer when we got through. I just wore my raincoat. We scrambled over some boulders and kept to the left as the instructions said and were surprised that it didn’t look anything like the photos and videos we’d seen at all. There was a section that had some fast water running through and we all negotiated this. It was thigh deep and we held fast to the cliff wall. Then it was over. We rock hopped over some boulders to the other side. That was it! To be honest it was a bit of a let down. So much so that we genuinely thought that might not have been the canyon at all! The water levels must have been very low and given June and July are the lowest rainfall months for the area, I guess it was true.
So we continued on crossing back and forth and through the creek with no new canyon in sight. The rain started to fall but it was light enough not to soak us through, at least our top halves anyway – our bottoms were saturated all day. A 4WD track presented itself about 10km in and we were back on designated trail again. That would be the last of the off track section of this hike.
As with all the days, we knew we were getting close to camp, but it always seems to take forever toward the end. A family of Red-Browed Finches put on a friendly display for us and not long after the Cowells Hut sign appeared and we headed left up the hill. It was a sight for sore eyes and we were early enough that we thought it sensible to light an outside fire this afternoon. There were shoes and socks that needed to be dried out. No one wants to carry the extra weight of water in your gear. So we all had a quick wash behind the hut and got busy finding wood for the fire. Once again the timber provided at the huts was huge and hard. So we sought kindling from the trees that had been burned in the fires. Claudy got the fires going this evening.
We sat around the fire, each moving from the smoke billowing around it talking about what our highlights were and what we could do without in our packs.
Cowells Hut was a surprise. It was so small. There was no way 6 stretchers would fit into this hut. There was an outdoor shelter but given the wet and cold weather it was not appropriate. We all put our thinking caps on to work out how to fit. As we boiled water for tomorrow, one of the gas burners seemed to be leaking so we were left with just one to cover us all.
It was really cold that night and we set alarms to take turns to tend the fire overnight. I put my strategy of drying my boots out with newspaper and chemical hand warmers to the test. Michelle put a frying pan over the hole in the floor in an attempt to keep spiders out. Once again Felicia was packed and ready early for tomorrow. We enjoyed our dinner in the cozy little hut. During our now nightly Visitors book reading which had us in stitches again, I had an urgent call to nature. As I returned to the hut through the drizzle I sought to find some dry wood deep inside the fire pile. Felicia came out concerned that Claudy was feeling unwell. It looks like she dropped her blood pressure. I was also feeling nauseous and we were concerned the water, although we had well treated it every night, may have been the cause. However an increase in fluid intake for Claudy and a nausea tablet for me, sorted us out. I started reading the Visitors book again and put everyone to sleep. It’s a talent.
DAY 4 – 17km – Cowell’s Hut to Cedar Creek Lodge
Another early start for an 18km day that’s touted to be a bit of a killer and a lot of hikers say its their least favourite. So on that note, we left Cowells Hut anticipating a long sharp ascent out of the gully and it wasn’t even polite enough to wait for us to warm up. It was straight into it. One foot after the other, higher and higher. We all climbed at our own pace and there were the beginnings of newly flowering wildflowers, popping yellow and purple every now and then along the trail, which served to distract from the tight and straining muscles and tendons.
It took us over an hour to get up to the ridge along the winding steep track and as we reached the top a rainbow lit up the sky, rewarding us for our effort! We all agreed the ascent was actually quite fun – like a gym workout.
Unfortunately for me, the new big boots finally revealed a flaw….. they don’t perform on ascents. I developed a hotspot on my right heel. I should have attended to it earlier but mentally I wanted to finish the hill. A good lesson learned though was that I needed the first aid kit for the blister and Felicia was way ahead. We now know not to let the person with the first aid kit get too far away!
Back at the ridge line, we continued along the service trail passing eucalypt forests and were led down into a beautiful gully lined with big old majestic trees and a small creek where Claudy might have spotted an endangered frog. After a few kilometers we eventually linked back up to the Kunderang trail where the loop ended and we were to follow the track that we had walked in on the first day. The weather was overcast and there were lots of fungi to be found on this day, which makes the hiking more interesting. We passed open woodland with carpets of the white headed cogan grass moving like waves on a lake.
We stopped for lunch enjoying the last of the views, all quiet and reflective, knowing this was our last couple of hours on the track. The sun came out in the final few kilometers and it was nice to see the forest floor light up in neon green and we all silently said our goodbyes to this surprising track. We congratulated and hugged and thanked each other as we came into the Cedar Creek clearing.
It was nice to get the packs off at the lodge but we were straight into collecting firewood, knowing once we stopped it would be the end of us. We drank champagne and devoured a feast prepared by Felicia as the sun set over our adventure.