Start: Binna Burra
This is one of my favourite tracks in the park, and it’s been several years since I’ve walked in its entirety. I tried a few weeks ago, but it was closed because of backburning. It’s the eastern-most track in the national park, and as a result, it has the most diverse ecosystems as the deep rainforest of the centre gives way to sheer cliffs, palm forests and even open dry eucalypt forest. 21 or so kilometers, with an approximate walking time of eight hours. It’s also probably the least shaded of the walks, which is why I ran into some trouble.
We get there in pretty good time (Sarah had a rare day off so she walked with me). We start out from Binna Burra at about 8am, and already the heat is palpable. The forecast was mid thirties (c), but once we hit the slopes of the Lower Bellbird circuit it cools off, but the humidity is still very high though. I’m stopping pretty frequently for photos, but not as much as usual as I’m quite aware we have a fairly long day ahead of us. The rainforest is still pretty dry-looking. None of the waterfalls we pass are flowing at anything other than a distant, buried trickle. We see quite a number of Red-Necked Pademelons feeding pretty close to the track. Timid, yet curious, and of course the birdsong is a symphony.
The Ships Stern is usually walked in a clockwise direction, and it shares its start with several other tracks, so the first few kilometres are quite familiar- you have to follow Bellbird for a time before Ships Stern splits away to the right. As is usual this time of year. Yangahla Lookout is spectacular, but hazy. One day I’ll get a clear panoramic shot from there. After starting these walks in the cool of Autumn, the heat washing up the valley is like opening an oven door. Directly opposite the lookout, the Ships Stern shoulders out from the valley, a heavily forested ridge scaled with rock outcrops. As usual, the illusion of both nearness and distant grandeur makes it look both easy and somewhat daunting. I’ve always thought it slightly inappropriately named, as to me, the pointed ridge line looks more like a ship’s bow than a stern. Maybe there’s an old story there.
The track starts with a descent down into the rainforest, then a steady climb out. It’s easy going; humid, but not terrifically so, and the path is nice and firm. The slope gradually increases to a moderate incline that soon as us puffing. We have lunch at Kooloobano Lookout, which isn’t halfway, but it is right at the tip of the ‘stern’ and is the point where the track doubles back along the eastern ridge. Smoked ham baguettes with cheese. Brilliant. It’s a deliciously open viewpoint, looking northward back down the valley, and is suitably dramatic. Rocks are baking, lizards are supercharged with energy. We watch for snakes but with the exception of one lightning-fast green tree snake, they’re nothing more than the occasional disappearing tail-tip.
We’re wilting after the long climb. My shirt is soaked, and here’s where the trouble begins. I’d rather carelessly overlooked the fact that a long stretch of the Ships Stern is on the eastern-escarpment and isn’t rain-forested. It’s in full sun on the hottest day of the season so far. It’s also just after noon. The sun is merciless, there’s very little shade. A breeze would sometimes kick up from the valley, but it was hot and dry, gritty. Far below us, toy cars threaded silently along the road, just little colored dots. The views are really quite wonderful, and there’s a point, about halfway along the eastern ridge where the path splits in two for a kilometer around a breathtaking rock wall. We choose the higher path (because it looks a bit more shaded). The forest here is open, and last time I walked it, several years ago, a bushfire had ripped through sometime previous so the undergrowth with low, almost heath-like sparse in places. Now, it’s mostly waist high grasses, shrubs and opportunistic young trees making the most of the light. A huge fuel load just waiting to dry out in a month or so, then be sparked into a bushfire by dry lightning or a careless walker. The biggest trees are scarred around their bases, the black char reaching up several meters. These fires are (mostly) natural. An ancient cycle that reduces and rejuvenates the ecosystem.
By the time we reach Guraigumai Rock, I’m really struggling. I don’t normally drink lots of water when I walk, but I’m gulping it, sweating and feeling decidedly unwell. Lunch is sitting like a brick in my stomach. We stop for a while, shrugging off day packs (we’d loaded up with waterproofs on top of the usual gear as there were storms forecast for the evening, and in the forested mountains they sometimes strike without warning as you can’t generally see the sky to get warning). It started with just feeling a bit dizzy, but then Sarah was looking at me, and all I could focus on was the darkness that was creeping in at the edges of my vision. She steers me to a log and I plop down. I don’t black out, but I come close several more times. Drink lots of water. According to the map, we have about seven kilometers left, which wasn’t that many, but it’s still really hot and we’re now very low on water, and as I’ve mentioned before, this area is very dry so there are no streams running, so no chance of refilling. So of course once you start thinking about how little water there is, you become more thirsty, and I’m pretty sure I am suffering from dehydration and a little bit of heat stroke, and of course Sarah is hot and thirsty too. But there’s nothing for it. We have to walk out. It’s not a very nice feeling, but you just have to get on with it.
It’s hard to enjoy walking like this, but it’s still a magic area, and once we’re back heading westward, it starts to cool down. I check the map, looking to see if there was any chance of finding water. Nothing we’d crossed so far was running, but I see Ballunjui Cascade a couple of kilometers along the track. I know these falls from other walks, and they’re quite large, and I figure they’ll probably be flowing reasonably well. Problem is, they’re not directly on the track, and it’s bit of a round trip to them. As much as I don’t want to extend the day any more than I have to, by this point we’re out of water, and although it’s not that far out, I’m still not feeling very well and we’re both very thirsty. We take the chance.
I can hear the falls flowing long before we see them. In the forest, water sounds like wind; a low, persistent white noise that seems to fluctuate like breath. After following the thin, dog-legging track down into a gully, we finally see the falls. They’re not exactly the cascade as advertised, but the stream is flowing pretty well and the water is clean and cold. I fill one water bottle, then filter it through the microfibre of my floppy hat into my wide-necked Nalgene bottle (microfibre lives up to its name and is a pretty good filter at a push). It takes a while to drip through, but I want to make sure I remove any bugs and grit. I don’t have an active filter with me, and after one of my last walks I’m somewhat reluctant to drink the water untreated, but these falls are quite away from the common areas so they should be fine. There are quite a few blue crayfish in the pools too. The water tastes amazing, as it usually does when you’re very hot, dusty and thirsty, and because we’re not too far from the finish, we drink our fill.
We walk clear with sloshing bellies, and for the last couple of kilometres, the canopy above us is stirred to restlessness by the wind. The light is dropping significantly, and through gaps in the green, I can see grey clouds scudding eastbound. There’s a typical Queensland late-afternoon storm brewing. It doesn’t feel like it’ll hit us yet, but thunder is grumbling on the other side of the range. By the time we emerge at Binna Burra, erratic, fat rain is falling, big drops with enough space between them that they kind of feel almost deliberately-aimed.
The usual flask of coffee awaits us (as do two ticks on poor Sarah), and the drive home is an adventure in traffic as the storms finally hit us on the freeway, but it’s not too bad. Lots of barking and flashing, but little rain.
Lessons have been learned, and I’ll take a bit more care next time.