Saturday, 4 October 2014

Day 16 - Bungonia NP

With nearly 300kms to be covered, we were away from the caravan park in Morisset by 7:30am. After making a detour for gas and petrol, twenty minutes later we were on the M1 Freeway, bound for a passing rendezvous with Sydney. The northern, western and south western outskirts were as close as we would come as we made for the southern highlands.

As luck or good timing would have it, we called in to see Dad at Camden – on the fly – and caught him during the morning tea break of croquet club. We joined them for a cuppa and I was asked to retell my encounter with the magpie at Bingara, now being referred to as the “Bingara incident”.

After morning tea, the traffic got a bit thick in terms of quantity and ability. Long weekenders, travelling on the open road at 110km/hr for one of the few times of the year, are amongst the most inept and dangerous drivers you can encounter. They change lanes like it is Sydney traffic, snipping across the front of your vehicle within panel beating distance, often without signal and always without consideration that you are driving a combined vehicle that is much heavier and somewhat less manoeuvrable. We must have been cut off three or four times and witnessed emergency breaking as many times. On one occasion, a driver who had stopped beside the freeway, waited until he saw me with caravan in tow and decided I would be the best vehicle to dive out in front of. This went on for most of the trip from Camden until we turned off toward Bungonia.

Bungonia NP used to be a popular destination for Sydney adventure types who liked to slip into overalls, don mining helmets and spend the day twisting and contorting their bodies through crevices so narrow that they had to breathe out and squeeze through openings a mouse would be proud to traverse. All of the latter, in the pitch dark of bad dreams and worse movies. The caves at was once the State Nature Reserve, are the best “free range” caves in NSW and there are plenty of them. Speilo ends the same as weirdo and that’s all you need to know.

The modern park stems from one of the oldest nature reserves in white Australian history, having been established in 1872. Land around the caves was later preserved in 1902. The area was declared a state recreation area in 1974 and a plan of management implemented in the late 1990's as one of the Carr Government's creation of many new national parks. It’s a well-resourced park in terms of facilities, with modern amenities, including hot water showers. The camping grounds undulate across the western side of the plateau that sits above the Shoalhaven River, which has cut a deep mark through the limestone country to produce stunning cliff faces. Water has been responsible for the formation of the caves and sink holes that are right across the area.

We arrived just before 1:00pm and after some judicious questions asked at the Ranger Headquarters, navigated to a quiet area of the camping grounds, off the main loop but still with a pit toilet and gas bbq’s. Our site was level and shaded and one of only four in our quiet little cul-de-sac. One of the neighbours set up camp at the same time as us. Even with the added problem of setting up the awning to avoid the western sun, we were sill set up and eating lunch within half an hour. The solar panel was perfectly positioned to catch the sun to provide us with power, whilst avoiding the shade which fell over the main section of the van.

After fiddling with things around the van, including setting up the pushbikes, we cycled off for an explore of the park. I must admit, I wasn’t that keen, this being my first time back in the saddle after the “Bingara Incident” and having put a reasonable gash in my shin only minutes before we left. Within moments of riding across the rough gravel roads, my hands were regretting the decision to ride.

The main road across the plateau which is Bungonia NP is undulating in the truest sense which makes the downhills a welcome relief from the sudden sharp rises. Most of the rises would be on the return to the campsite, so we would worry about them later. We made our way out to the Bungonia Lookdown - probably so named because of a sudden drop over limestone cliffs and steep talus slopes to the Shoalhaven River below. Our shock wasn’t the drop but what was included in the view, for across the river, dominating the landscape on the other side, was the open cut limestone mine. A deep gouge is cut in the trademark steps of such an enterprise and the wilderness stops abruptly, there, to the south of the lookout, as though it is one of the features.

Although we couldn’t see it clearly, a slot canyon starts adjacent to our second viewing platform. It is a short, vertical walled cut in the landscape caused by cracks in the limestone rock beds giving way and cleaving shear walls on either side of a narrow passage way for the river.

Second ladder in the Grill Cave
Returning to the carpark, we rode the bikes halfway to The Grill Cave, presumably named because of the iron gates that have been erected at its entrance. Completing the remainder of the distance on Shanks’ Pony, we arrived at a reasonably wide entrance in terms of the other caves in the area. It wasn’t as spacious as the ranger had made out earlier but it was big enough to do that swinging cat thing. Almost immediately through the entrance is the first of the “ancient ladders” which we were told to expect by the ranger. Sue waited at the head of the ladder whilst I investigated with an all too inadequate LED torch which is usually only pressed into service for after midnight toilet trips.

After descending the first runged ladder of perhaps eight or nine rungs, a drop down across rocks worn smooth by traffic soon led me to a second ladder, this time steeper and with steps rather than rungs. This was a serious ladder, with the strings made of I-beams and the steps of thick plated steel and all of it welded together to outlast the caves themselves. Here it became spooky and cold and dark, especially when I decided to test out how much light was bleeding down from the entrance, probably 25 feet above and through several twists and turns.

The answer was … none. I brown corduroyed myself and quickly fumbled for the on-off switch on my little lamp. The decision whether to go on by myself – Sue had remained on the landing just inside the entrance – was made easy when we lost the sound of each other’s voices. Wimp? Maybe, but I have little to prove these days and even less need to prove it. We rode and walked the bikes home in time for sundowners.

It had been a warm day but a chilly night was the expected prospect. I promised I wouldn’t mention Sue running around the campsite naked like one of Norman Lindsay’s nymphs, so I won’t. Apparently they had red wine back in Lindsay’s day too.

She spent the next hour giggling. She has always been a crack up.

POSTSCRIPT: about 9:45, two teenage couples arrive on site, set up their tents and drank till after midnight. No beef with that but the noise they made was inconsiderate. The girls, in particular, with their shrill laughter and loud chatter, audibly overpowered the lads, who we didn't hear until this morning. The empty bottles around their campsite was enough for any newcomer this morning to know how uncomfortable they made us, long into the night. Oh well, at least they are out in the bush and not sitting in some pub.

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