Photo credit: Ian Armstrong, flickr
A week in the Blue Mountains – Part 3: Canyoning with High n’ Wild Adventures
“Hey, dude, this is probably a good time to tell you that I’m absolutely freaking the f**k out right now.”
I’m standing at the top of Malaita Point, near Katoomba. Jason, my guide from High n’ Wild Adventures, has just asked me to step down onto a rock that juts out over a sheer 30 metre high cliff. The rock looks smaller than my size 12 hiking shoe.
“You don’t have to do it mate. We can just go back and do a smaller one,” he offers, but that’s all I need to hear.
Need to Know
The full-day Empress Canyon tour can be booked online through High n’ Wild Adventures. Trips run between September and April. You’ll need to dress for the weather, and bring runners that you don’t mind getting wet, swimwear, drinking water, and a waterproof camera. High n’ Wild offer a courtesy waterproof camera for some trips (ask at time of booking). Lunch is included (and if you’re staying at the YHA, free breakfast is also included). Please note that this trip wouldn’t normally include the Malaita Point abseil, but would start with a few different abseils ranging from 5 to 30 metres.
Visitors looking for more walks, Aboriginal Discovery Tours, or information about Blue Mountains National Park, should check out the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service online or contact them on 1300 072 757. Information on booking campsites is also available on the site.
“Nah, it’s alright. I’m good. Let’s do it.”
Before we’d even started the tour, Jason asked me if I’d ever done any abseiling. When I told him I’d done a handful of abseils, most recently about 18 months ago, he’d mentioned that since I was the only one taking the tour today, we could deviate from the usual morning abseiling preparation and do something a bit bigger and more fun. I’d assured him I was confident, but it wasn’t until we’d arrived at Narrow Neck for our first abseil that I realised I’d lost the confidence I thought I had.
It took a couple of tries at a much smaller abseil before I could get started without visibly shaking, but Jason couldn’t have been more supportive, talking me through my anxieties, and always giving me the option to start smaller. I felt like an idiot for having talked myself up, and for making his job more difficult than it needed to be.
I step down onto the ledge and lean back while Jason sorts out the ropes. He gives me the go ahead, and I shakily descend the trickiest part of the 30 metre descent. Once I’m over the edge, my confidence starts to return, and I drop myself down to the first ledge below with relative ease. I untie myself and have a seat, heart pounding, as I try to make the most of the incredible view. Mount Solitary looks so close I could touch it, and it’s such a clear day that I can see every detail of the Jamison Valley surrounding it.
Soon Jason follows me down, pulls down the ropes, and starts setting up for the next drop. As we repeat this four more times, onto ledges of varying size, my confidence grows to the point that I’m actually finding this easy again. On the final drop, my rope becomes snagged on a tree branch, but I have no trouble sorting this out as I go. I feel on top of the world.
When we finally touch down in the valley below, I look up in wonder. I wait five minutes or so for Jason to follow and as he pulls down and packs up the ropes, I tell him how much better I feel about this whole abseiling thing and how excited I am to be able to say I’ve done a multi-pitch.
“This has been one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” I exclaim.
Then I realise we have to get back out of the valley, and the only way is up the Furber Steps. We walk a short distance to Scenic World and begin the ascent. The steps are incredibly steep, and there are about 1000 of them.
“I f**king hate steps,” I grumble to Jason, as I trail behind him, struggling to find the breath to talk. “Give me a steep hill with no steps, any day.”
After a 20 minute descent into the Valley of the Waters, taking a slightly different path to my previous day’s hike, Jason and I find ourselves at a yellow warning sign with the heading “Empress Canyoners”. It stands surrounded by bracken-fern and shaded by fern-trees, on the sandy bank of a creek which disappears into a slot-like canyon.
“I guess this is where we start,” I remark, stating the blindingly obvious.
Jason waits while I struggle into my wetsuit, and don my helmet and runners, and then helps me into my harness. It’s about 32 degrees and sweat is already pouring down my face, so while Jason runs through some safety advice I struggle to maintain eye contact, yearning for the cool creek that tumbles over and between the mossy rocks beside us.
Before too long our feet are wet, and the relief is instant. A very short walk through ankle-deep water takes us to a large boulder, which Jason tells me to jump from into a gorgeous rock-pool. The water is so cold it takes my breath away, and swimming with a dry-bag pack isn’t easy, but I side-stroke my way to the other side.
(Photo credit: Ian Armstrong, flickr)
I warm up again quickly once I scramble out of the water onto a rock-slab, so the next few walks, swims, rock-slides and jumps are less challenging. I’ve been thinking it would be hard to beat the Malaita Point abseil, but this is nothing short of amazing.
We’re trudging along, ducking under and scrambling over flood debris, and carefully choosing which rocks to step on, when we come to a bend in the creek. The canyon is wider here, and the outside of the bend is lush with vegetation. Jason points to the inside of the bend where in thick white paint, above a tiny, pebbly beach, it says “Mr and Mrs J Heeby 1931”.
“This is called Heeby’s Beach,” Jason tells me. “They were married here.”
If it wasn’t for the fact that nobody would come – Lori included – I could think of no better place to get married.
I remember hearing that this was a half-way point of Empress Canyon, but it seems like no time before the end is in sight. Before we can abseil our way down Empress Falls, we have to have a go at the biggest jump of the trip.
The fear kicks in again and I hesitate; then again. Frustrated, I try once more successfully, and I’ve barely hit the water before I’m keen for another go. Jason leads me on the slippery rock climb back up, and this time I just go for it.
Satisfied that I’m past the fear, I wait while Jason sets up the ropes for our waterfall abseil. A few minutes later, I’m standing at the lip of the waterfall and Jason is tying me on. As I look out into the Valley of the Waters my legs turn to jelly, and I notice that a crowd of onlookers has formed along the walking track.
“We’ve got an audience,” I mutter. “Excellent.”
Abseiling out of the canyon at Empress Falls
(Photo credit: Ian Armstrong, flickr)
Jason gives me a few tips about navigating the waterfall, and I lean back and go for it. The morning’s practice is paying off and once I’m over the edge I descend relatively quickly, unfazed by the frigid stream pouring over me.
Soon, I’m floating on my back in the gorgeous pool at the base of the falls. I quickly untie myself and swim over to the edge of the walking track, where I clamber out and stand staring back at the mouth of the canyon.
Malaita Point was incredible, bit this is even better. I’ve already got a new “coolest thing I’ve ever done”.
I have to apologise to you, my awesome readers, about the photos. As you know if you’re a regular around here, it’s not my style to use photos that aren’t my own. The problem is, I have no visual record of my amazing day at Empress Canyon. Though High n’ Wild Adventures did offer me a waterproof digital camera to take on my tour, I refused because I had a GoPro. This turned out to be a huge mistake, but that’s a story for another blog post. Here’s a promo video from High n’ Wild that will give you a better idea of what it’s like in Empress Canyon….
Looking for the rest of the series? You can find all 5 posts in the series right here.
Housed in a converted auto-repair shop, Leura Garage Café & Restaurant (84 Railway Parade, Leura / Open 7 days, 12-5) is without a doubt my favourite eatery in the Blue Mountains. The staff are friendly and accommodating, and the food, sourced locally as much as possible, is absolutely to die for. We feast on tapas-style dishes like semi-dried tomato and parmesan arancini, a platter of roasted and smoked meats, sticky chicken wings, and grissini pizza dipped in olive oil and Leura Garage’s own pomegranate balsamic. Much to my excitement, Lori likes a beer these days, and we fall in love with one of their tap beers, the Badlands Pale Ale (brewed in Orange). We love it here so much that we can’t resist our final opportunity to try some different dishes, and return for a second night in a row.
Victory Café (17 Govetts Leap Rd, Blackheath / Open 7 days, 8-4) is our breakfast stop before a few of our days out hiking. They make a delicious coffee, and their yummy breakfast burger is the perfect fuel for a day in the bush. Once again, the staff are lovely and very accommodating, but this seems to be the trend almost everywhere in the Blue Mountains.
Blackheath Continental Deli (32 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath) seems to be the go-to place for a packed lunch when hiking, so much so that they even have a roll on the menu called the “Bushwalker”. It’s a 10 out of 10 – would eat again.
Our favourite accommodation during our week in the Blueys is Waldorf Leura Gardens B&B Resort (02 4784 4000 / 20-28 Fitzroy Street, Leura). Set on magnificent landscaped gardens, they even offer guided tours with their resident gardener (check with reception for dates and times). I take full advantage of the pool (probably why it’s the favourite), which the balcony of our spacious, modern room overlooks. There’s nothing like a swim after bushwalking on a summer day. We also enjoy a late night game of table-tennis and pool. The pool table is a little worse for wear, but I play so poorly that it makes no difference anyway. The resort has two restaurants but we only make it to one of them, for their excellent buffet breakfast.
Blackheath Motor Inn (02 4787 8788 / 281 Great Western Highway, Blackheath) has a rustic, mountain cottage feel but still feels new. Lori and I feel very cosy in our room, and love that we’ve got a back-door leading out to the garden and our own table and chairs. It’s also great being a short walk from The Gardners Inn, when we’re in need of a post-walk beer. The owners, Senga and Eddy, are a great source of local knowledge, especially for bushwalkers.
The Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa Retreat (02 4782 2155 / Corner Apex & Lovel Street, Katoomba) sits on a hill overlooking Katoomba and some rooms, fortunately ours included, have views over the Jamison Valley. Despite hosting a wedding on the night of our stay, staff manage to make us feel like we’re their only guests.
Redleaf Resort (02 4787 8108 / Corner Evans Lookout and Valley View Roads, Blackheath) is perfectly located for hikers, just down the road from Evans Lookout, trailhead for the Grand Canyon Walk and the cliff-top track to Govetts Leap, among others. They have a games room, heated undercover pool, and playground.
During our stay in the Blue Mountains, we were guests of Blue Mountains Lithgow & Oberon Tourism, NPWS, Tread Lightly Eco-Tours, High & Wild Adventures, Scenic World, and Blue Mountains Guides. As is always the case, this has no influence over the opinions I present on Bushwalking Blog.
Have you checked out the Blue Mountains? Abseiled Malaita Point or canyoned at Empress? Do you have an experience with High n’ Wild Adventures? If you’ve got any tips or tales to tell, please let us know by commenting below.