13-Aug-2002 -- I became interested in this confluence when I noticed that it was the only unvisited one in NSW that is located near a significant (in Australian terms) population centre, being located about 40km east of Walcha (population 1200) in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park.
The Oxley Wild Rivers is the seventh largest national park in NSW (111,000ha.) and contains the eighth largest declared wilderness – the Macleay Georges Wilderness Area. It is a World Heritage national park, in recognition of its dramatic gorges and waterfalls, extensive wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, and rare plants and animals.
As an interesting aside, the park is named after John Oxley, a British born Australian explorer who came through the area in 1818. In an odd coincidence, Oxley is the maiden name of my mother and a relatively rare name in Britain (where I am from) but quite common here in Australia. It seems John had an inclination to explore more than just deep gorges. John Oxley was born in York in the north of England not far from where I was born and it is quite likely that we are distantly related, giving me extra impetus to be the first to visit this confluence.
Having just quit my job and begun a four month hiking, cycling and surfing tour of Australia it seemed like an ideal opportunity to tackle this confluence. Initial investigation revealed that it was probably reachable via a good day's hike. Topographic maps of the area revealed a 4WD track into the park that got within 6km of the spot. However, the topographic maps are based on satellite photography taken in 1980, making them 22 years old and predating the gazetting of the park. The area is also rugged wilderness and has many of those literally named ‘wild rivers’. These would normally present navigation issues if they had to be crossed, but with 82% of NSW currently in the grip of drought I was confident they would not present any problems.
My partner and I decided to drive to Walcha (pronounced ‘walka’) to spend a day there and try and tap local knowledge of the area. We arrived in town and asked around and found that the 4WD track still exists and is now maintained by the National Parks of NSW. The track leads through a camping area called ‘Budds Mare’ and then via a locked gate decends 800m over 6km to the Riverside wilderness camping area. The key to the gate is held at Aspley Motors on the main street in Walcha and can be obtained for $22 for a day visit. We decided to stay overnight in the local caravan park and tackle the confluence the next day, the 12th August, with a dawn start. The caravan park had a notice in the toilets reading, ‘Whoever is spitting on the walls, please stop now or you will be evicted’. This notice was in the ladies, the gentlemen of Walcha apparently being far more hygienic.
After a cold night (-6°C), we set off for the park along the Moona Plains road and arrived at Budds Mare around 8:30am. Budds Mare is an excellent camp ground with a viewing platform giving stunning views out over the wilderness. We had been told that the descent to the Aspley River was quite demanding so we dumped some load at Budds Mare to improve our 4WD’s clearance, entrance angles and departure angles. Budds Mare has a good shelter and we had plenty of good food with us so we decided we would camp there that night.
Back on the 4WD track to Riverside, we came to the locked gate, passed though it and began the quite hairy descent into the valley. A 4WD with a low range gear box is a must for the descent with many tight switchbacks and 45 degree descending gravel tracks. There are also many water runoff pipes buried in the track making nasty bumps to go over. Our Subaru Forester grounded a few times on the descent making me glad we had dumped some load.
On the way in we had seen large numbers of kangaroos and wallabies but were disappointed when we arrived at the Riverside camping area to find cow dung everywhere. During the day's walk we saw many cattle and they are doing terrible damage to the riverbank. There is a farm 40km downstream and the cattle may have made their way upstream to find food (the drought has destroyed the grazing land). Alternatively, and somewhat more cynically, a local farmer may have run them into the park in winter hoping no one will notice. We informed the National Parks office in Armidale a few days later. Hopefully any repeat visitors to the confluence can update us on this problem.
GPS, compass and the Kunderang 1:25000 topographic map in hand, we began hiking south along the Aspley River. We had decided to follow its upstream winding path about 4km until we reached Rowleys Creek which the map indicated would take us to within 500m of the confluence. The walking was relatively easy as the river was running extremely low and where it was making its full breadth we were able to follow riverbank paths. These paths were probably make by kangaroos and dingos but are now substantially widened by the cattle.
The day was crisp and cold, making perfect walking weather. The scenery was majestic, consisting of open eucalypt forests interspersed with creek hugging rainforest pockets. John Oxley, looking into the ravine from above in 1818, had described it thus ‘This tremendous ravine runs near north and south…..the separation of the outer edges is from two to three miles. I am certain in perpendicular depth it exceeds three thousand feet….From either side of the abyss, smaller ravines of similar character diverged’.
After about two hours and without encountering much wildlife apart from a few interesting birds and a wild dog, we made it to the intersection with Rowleys Creek. Predictably, Rowleys Creek was completely dry, but judging by its width at the mouth of about 30 metres, when it does flow it carries a lot of water. On the south side of the mouth of the creek we noticed a decrepit old stockade which was probably built by squatters many years ago, prior to the park being gazetted. Further inspection revealed that the stockade still had some rusted old relics including horseshoes, a shovel and a cracked old billy pot. To the south east we could see two unnamed) peaks about 1-2km away.
We turned and headed up Rowleys Creek for two kilometres, the terrain being much the same, but with the riverbanks becoming progressively steeper. We reached the bottom of an unnamed creek which from the map we thought might take us to the confluence with the GPS reading 550 metres to go. The creek looked steep and the hills either side of it looked steeper! It looked like we were in for a scramble as the map indicated the confluence spot was around 400m altitude, the base of the creek being about 200m. After some map studying we decided to take the direct route and head up the creek. We were hoping a more forgiving ridge could be found to take us up but the map didn’t show anything suitable, so we tightened our packs and began to scramble up the unnamed creek.
After about 100 metres we came upon what we think was an Aboriginal Canoe tree. This is simply a tree out of which the aboriginal people had cut a large slice for use in making a canoe. We carried on up and around the scrubby hill with some difficulty. Ahead of us, a few large kangaroos effortlessly shot up the hills. After about 30 minutes of scrambling, the GPS was indicating the confluence was a mere 200m away, but to get there we would have to work our way around a very steep and unstable looking hillside. We dropped our packs and began scrambling round the edge of the hill. Luckily, the kangaroos had been before us; they had cut some fairly solid paths along the edge of what was now definitely a ravine. I think there must be a kangaroo submitting confluences to the site because when we arrived at the confluence spot itself it was bizarrely clear of vegetation, as if a group of people had been tramping on it, but we couldn’t see any footprints indicating anyone else had visited. We took the usual shot of the GPS displaying the coordinates. As the tree canopy was fairly clear, the GPS was indicating 5m accuracy. At the bottom of the ravine about 250m below, we could see the dry bed of Rowleys Creek which had wound its way around the hill with us. About 100m before the confluence spot along the wall of the ravine we had travelled there was a ridge ascending from Rowleys Creek which looked like it would have been an easier way to get to the spot.
After a rest we headed back. As it was now mid afternoon we were lucky enough to see some wildlife including a few large lizards and a venomous red bellied black snake which I nearly trod on! We hoped to spot a few platypus but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to spend waiting at the riverbank. The confluence duly nailed, we headed back up to Budds Mare for a celebratory cup of coffee and some well earned beans on toast!
The Oxley Wild Rivers is a magnificent wilderness which I would love to visit again, perhaps in summer and when the state isn’t in drought. The scenery is inspirational. The return walk from riverside took about 6 hours at a fairly leisurely pace, but using the information above it could be done much quicker. It was around 12km return. I would recommend travelling further up Rowleys creek before attempting the ascent to the confluence. Hopefully someone else will try this route. I will keep checking back to see how they fared.
Happy confluence hunting!