Summary: Not a trip for the faint hearted. This walk requires a solid level of fitness, non-technical climbing skills, multiple rappels and appropriate equipment. Extremely remote gorge country that is difficult to access should things not go to plan. Strongly ill-advised after heavy rain. Several 25m pack swims are required. Thrown in for good measure is a 1km climb out with an average slope of 55%.
Location: 20km NNE of Gelantipy, VIC
Distance: 6 km
Duration: 2 days
Difficulty: Very Hard
Timing: ANZAC Day weekend 2014
So what are a bunch of intrepid friends to do with a long weekend up their sleeve? To put their heads together over dinner, a beer and a phone hook up and come up with an epic of course! Multiple options were open for the weekend but it didn’t take long to reach a consensus. And oh what an epic it would be.
There were six takers for this mad adventure: Glenn, Bec, Marty, Ester, Finn and myself.
Little River is a tributary of the mighty Snowy River, originating in the Alpine National Park and snaking it’s way into the Snowy River National Park. Little in name only, the river has gouged its way over eons, cutting a deep gorge through the surrounding volcanic rock. At 600m, Little River gorge is Victoria’s deepest and one of East Gippsland’s hidden gems.
The established Parks Victoria facilities, including a short walking track to Little River Falls where the McKillops road crosses Little River itself; and viewing platform located off the McKillops Road further to the east, allow less adventurous souls to appreciate what the gorge has on offer. But to truly understand the sheer scale of the place an up close and personal look is a must. That is exactly what we had come to do on this ANZAC day weekend.
The plan was straight forward, follow Little River down from the bridge, through the gorge and climb out on a ridge up to The Bluff.
An early start from Karoonda Park and a quick car shuffle to deposit a car at our exit point and we were on our way. The day was idyllic with blue skies above and cool morning air. From the picnic area we followed the short established walking track to the viewing platform above the Little River Falls, chatting excitedly. Looking down to the deep pool and boulder strewn river below it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a trip to remember.
Starting our walk at 800m elevation the river rapidly drops down to 360m through the gorge over a few short kilometers. At least navigation was going to be straight forward – follow the river. A few quick snaps and we down climbed the steep slope to Little River itself.
The first few kilometers were easy enough, requiring a little sure footedness (did I just make that word up?), some minor rock scrambling around steep drops too bold to be down climbed and the odd bush bash along the rivers edge.
It’s about 3km in when things become interesting. You can see the gorge walls closing in. With less sky above and less day light filtering down to the river, it’s easy to guess that the first big drops are approaching.
The boulders start to get bigger and you find yourself using more of your upper body to climb around rock shelves, lower yourself down and balance off the walls.
At around the 3km mark the first rappel presents itself, a short drop of about 15m. There are a couple of options here which really depend on if you’re up for a swim or not. Option A) set up an anchor near the falls and rappel into the black pool below; or B) climb further around the ledge and aim descend the rope to a small rock platform below. Time to harness up. It wasn’t the middle of summer and the water was freezing so we choose to go with option B. Glenn quickly had a traverse rope set up across the high wall above the water and had a descent anchor rigged in no time.
Running from the anchor, it wasn’t quite a straight drop for the rope to the platform below, it was off by about 2m. Just enough to make things interesting.
First onto the sharp end for the day I wasn’t looking forward to wet feet so early on by ending up in the drink so we resolved to hook the rope to the right a little with Glenn keeping it in place with his feet. Bad move. Once the rope had taken my full weight it slipped sideways into a more direct line down causing my elbow to scrap hard against the coarse rock. Blood pissed down my arm. Descending lower on the rope that was now hanging straight down from the anchor and into the water I was determined to make the rock ledge. With a little pendulum and finding just enough rock crystals to hold some finger skin, I crept sideways for 2m and made dry land.
Next in line was Finn. The aim of the game now was for the person on the rock platform to toss a short line and drag the rappeller across to them as they approached the water. With six in line it took longer than expected to get everyone down but we had plenty of day light left. One after the other we descended with packs on to the the platform, myself, Finn, Ester, Marty, Bec & Glenn. All managing to keep our shoes dry.
The rope was pulled and that was it – we were committed. No turning around now. Only one way to go. Down River!
A quick scramble further down to the next rock platform and it was time for the longest descent of the day, a full 60m, requiring the two ropes we had with us.
A drink and a feed was called for after this descent with most of the group down. There was a minor moment of hilarity with Marty tossing his bag of scroggin, that had a bit too much air in it, across a short gap to eagerly awaiting hands. BANG! Like a bursting balloon, the bag bursts spraying scroggin across the rocks. Not to be wasted everyone crowded round like a clutch of hens picking nuts, chocolate and sultanas from small crevices.
The final descent for the day was the shortest, only around 10m, but hard up against a waterfall and onto slippery rocks below. It was close to 1:30pm by the time everyone had descended the final rappel and tummies for eager for some food.
Our next mission was to find a suitable spot for lunch, preferably with some sun over head. Down the river a little further we went.
The perfect lunch spot on some flattest boulders and next to a good sized swimming hole was found but the sun didn’t last in time for everyone to enjoy it. With high walls and a narrow opening above, the gorge doesn’t get a lot of sun, particularly this time of year as the sun dips lower daily on its way to the solstice. It was quite surreal watching the sun disappear in the middle of the day, blocked by the gorge wall. The shadows rapidly chased us and I seriously don’t think I could have outrun the shadow creep had I tried. Only three of us (Bec, Ester and myself) were crazy enough to brave the water for a swim, each lasting as long ad each other – all of about 30 seconds. It was absolutely freezing and numbness quickly seeped into your feet and legs.
With the day light disappearing on we traveled to find suitable digs for the night. We met the junction of the Wulgulmerang River, which we would walk up tomorrow, and continued for another 200m. Here we found enough flattish spaces on rock platforms and under overhangs near the Infinity Pool that would accommodate 6 people. Bec and Glen had the best spot under a small overhang – or so everyone though. Ester and Finn opted for a tarp in the bush while Marty and myself found enough space to set up tarps on opposite sides of the river.
A coolish night called for a camp fire to warm the hands, while some fine cask wine, a bottle of port and a nip of whiskey warmed the soul. Marty cooked up a storm for everyone. Fishermans Pie – a hearty mix of tuna, fresh veg and mashed spuds. It hit certainly hit the spot but I’m not sure that anyone could get through their share given the chef had inadvertently doubled the recipe required.
The campfire was sublime and the night quiet before the silence was shattered BOOF! It seems that the rock alongside the river doesn’t like getting too hot. It continued to split and explode apart at intermittent times throughout the night, showering debris and fire coals around where everyone was sitting. After a few games of ‘The Thing’ (“would I lie to you, I’m not the thing, you’re the bloody thing…i swear…”) it was time to call it a night.
Rain was forecast overnight but the bureau had hedged it’s bets and predicted a 50% chance. Was it going to rain or not? Who knows. Flip a coin. Of course it did. Not for long but heavy enough to see a few head torches bouncing around in the dark trying to secure their lodgings for the night. The nice rock platform I had turned out to be a nice funnel for the rain that then collected in the tiny depressions I was sleeping on top of. I had been using a Tyvek ground sheet for a while now but had never really tested it in truly wet conditions. It certainly got tested and now stands the test of time. With rain pooling underneath I basically ended up sleeping in a puddle but the Tyvek held up and between it and my Thermarest z-lite Sol my sleeping bag remained dry from underneath. The most damage was coming from rain drops bouncing off the rock, landing under the tarp and onto my sleeping bag. Still I think I fared better than Bec & Glenn who had to shift camps completely as water pooled around them and from above as the rain run along and underneath the roof of the rock over hang. They managed to find a dry spot, really only suitable for one but which now had to accommodate two – we dubbed this ‘the coffin’.
Dawn broke and things were a little damp but it was nothing that coffee wouldn’t fix. The weather had cleared. A brewed was boiled and a breakfast fail of shake’n’bake ensued. pikelets turned into pikeballs. Sorry guys. All promises, no rewards.
Today was all about ascending up to view the Wulgulmerang Falls and then continuing down the Little River for about 1 km before climbing out. We started the day with plenty of time up our sleeves but it slowly slipped away.
We left camp around 10:00am to climb to the falls. The going was initially easy but quickly turned into a bouldering session and full body work out as we weaved our way up the river. Finn and I lead the way in. We reached one spot where we could see a piece of climbing tape had been left as an anchor. Hmmm….with no climbing gear do we commit or not. Hell yeah! I found a lead and with a little bridging and using several chock stones for hand holds made it over the hurdle. It was a little bold and committing but nothing that we couldn’t get everyone up and over. We continued climbing up, sometimes around the sides of boulders perched above water, other time underneath or through smalls gaps between boulders.
We got to the lower Wulgulmerang Falls and the tranquil pool below but really wanted to get into the upper gorge and waterfalls. There didn’t seem to be an obviously route but with a bit of scouting Finn found a way up a very steep and narrow scree gully. The going was ok but with numerous loose rocks that were easily dislodged and sent flying towards those below we all took our time to carefully place feet and move up. Once onto some more flattish ground, it was an easy sidle around a bluff back to the river to continue following it up.
We approached the main gorge and were blown away. Sheer walls rising 300m straight up. A raft of climbing opportunities here and it was awesome to finally spy ‘The Grand Old Of York’, a 9 pitch, 291m grade 17 climb. One of the longest climbs in Victoria. We will be back (but maybe from above next time).
The scale of this place is unbelievable.
We spent enough time to soak it all in but knowing we still had a big day ahead we headed back to our camp site to pack up and get going.
One more rappel to go which we agreed we would get it out the way before hooking into lunch. There was a manky old fixed rope in place at the last drop. I looked alright but really needed to be retired. There were a few drops where you would be best tied into the rope and one spot that if you slipped you would definitely not stop before sliding down a sloping face, tumbling over a lip and landing in the cold water 10m below; but I saw most of the descent as very doable using the fixed rope as a hand line or just clipping it with a donkey tail. So being the smart arse that I am I wanted to show everyone it could be done. But first I needed to lower my pack to make the decsent easier. So what happens? I lower my pack using a donkey tail but it doesn’t quite reach the rock shelf. I let it go fully thinking my pack would sit on the ledge and it does … for a moment. But then it decides to find just enough momentum to turn over and keep lowering itself down. Packs hey… they have a mind of their own. One drop…bounce… two drops… bounce……oh shit it’s not going to stop….and it doesn’t until hitting the water. It lands right in the middle of a large pool. I’m left a little embarrassed, thinking ‘you idiot’ and positive I’m now going for a swim to retrieve it for sure. It floats for now but I’m not taking any chances and what to get it out of the water asap. I call up to Finn to see that the fixed line is tied into the anchor, it is. As fast as I can I fixed my ATC to the line and shot off like a rocket in hot pursuit of a wet pack before it sinks. I reckon it takes all of 30 seconds to make it down the descent and to the waters edge by which stage the current has pushed the pack to shore. Luckily the contents of the main pack are secured inside two garage bags and remain dry. Still the pack is full of water and has be turned up and left to drain while everyone one else makes their way down the final rappel. I’m a little concerned when everyone tells me the fixed rope was making squealing noises as they all descend. In my rush to reach my pack I didn’t hear this at all.
We have a leisurely lunch thinking we have plenty of time to make it out of the gorge and the girls opt for a swim. Brrrrr… I’m cold just remembering this. They make it the 25 meters or so to the bottom of the waterfall but turn back fast. It’s just too cold.
We haven’t got far to go now. Maybe a kilometer down river and a kilometer up. Sounds easy. We make tracks and continue down stream. All is going well until the gorge walls quickly close in further and become sheer right down to the water. The way is barred. We have reached ‘The Sheep Dip’. Hmm… what to do? Finn and I explore high route options up and over this section but to no avail. We end up at much higher sheer drops that will be difficult to down climb safety. Glenn who had been through the gorge maybe 10 years ago had forgotten to mention this section.
There is nothing for it. We have to swim through. Off come the clothes, closed go our packs and into the water we head. I’m wet already from carrying a recently drowned pack and opt to go first. Fuck it’s cold. Enough the take your breath away. It’s close to a swimming pool length and deep for the most part. You can not touch the bottom. My advice: jump in, move fast and keep moving before you cramp. We all make it across, put dry clothes on again and warm up. Little do we know we have to repeat the process 100m further down the river. After a second swim, time is really ticking away. We press on.
Following the river down a little
further it sweeps around a distinct bend and we spy a ridge to exit on. We aim to climb across slope onto this ridge and follow it up to The Bluff. It’s fairly steep and required a steep climb up loose scree. Two steps up and one step back. Hell yeah it’s steep. It takes a while to make the main ridge but once we are on it, the direction is fairly obvious – follow the spine to the road. The height profile shows an average slope of 55% and sections of 66%. It feels every bit of it. At times it is more like low grade climbing than bush walking. At half way we have around an hour of day light left. We continue up, Finn and I breaking the route to make it easier for everyone else, especially those carrying the heavy wet climbing ropes. With failing light I never though I would enjoy the sound of motor bikes ringing around the bush air but in this case I’ll make an exception. It indicated we were not far off the road. Just as the light faded to the point of requiring head torches we hit the road. I made a dash to collect the car and we were out of there.
Thanks Little River Gorge! What an amazing trip. Great crew, great times.