Aussie Wildlife and a Night in the Bush

30 11 2016

Wednesday morning we woke up not quite as early as the previous two days, but still earlier than most people when they’re on vacation. That gave us plenty of time to pack up our things because today we were headed out to the Blue Mountains!

As if Sydney couldn’t get any more awesome, there’s a mountain range about two hours outside of the city center with national parks, beautiful vistas, waterfalls, and of course, camping!

img_6658

Before skipping town, we grabbed breakfast at this Venezuelan place on the corner. The arepas and tequenos (fried cheese sticks)  were delish and the guys running the place were incredibly friendly. Highly recommend!

We were initially going to take the train out to the mountains, but I am so glad we decided to rent a car. The flexibility it afforded us was totally worth it. Especially because we were able to stop here on the way:

img_6576

It was totally worth the $30 entry fee (per person). There were so many animals and a number of opportunities to pet and feed them. For instance, just after paying, you walk through the gate of a chain link fence and immediately there are what looks like tiny kangaroos hopping towards you.

img_6565

No joke, this was 15 seconds after we had walked into the park. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of what these guys were (perhaps a wallaby?), but there were several out and about, and a few others were in their designated habitat, which was set up so that they could come and go freely.

We also got to see koalas and we even got to pet one named Victor. Unfortunately, they don’t let you hold them. Just pet his bum and pose for a photo while he sleeps. Quite glamorous I tell ya.

fwp0337113001228

Since I can’t remember all the names of the animals we saw, I’ll just post some of the pics.

We spent several hours at the park before our growling tummies told us we were well overdue for food. Park food was not appealing, so we hit the road in search of something tasty. Unfortunately for us Americans, Yelp does not seem to be their app of choice for rating and reviewing places to eat. They’re more Trip Advisor people it would appear. Anyhow, we found a small Thai place with decent Pad Thai and then we hit up a grocery store to get some supplies for our night/morning in the bush (oatmeal, some krumpets, and some water).

(Other fun things we found at the grocery store but didn’t buy)

I knew we were going to camp at/near the Three Sisters, but I hadn’t done much more research than that. Normally, I’m the planner and Bill’s the lax one when it comes to figuring out our itinerary,  but it always seems to work out when he wings it. So, this was my experimentation with “winging it” – I figured there’d be signs telling us where to go. Unfortunately, when Bill typed “Three Sisters” into the GPS 50 bajillion hits came up. Ok, not 50 bajillion, but definitely more than a handful. We picked one and off we went.

Soon, we arrived at what looked to be a restaurant in the forest. Someone who clearly worked there was just closing the door as though business was done for the day, so I ran out and asked where Three Sisters was. Surprisingly, she wasn’t quite sure, but directed us back towards the highway and Katoomba. We searched again in Google Maps, and found another “Three Sisters” in the general direction the woman had pointed us. Thankfully this time there were clear signs directing us to the Three Sisters at Echo Point Katoomba.

When we arrived, it was really windy and starting to get chilly. We ran out to the overlook to get a few photos before I went into the information center to ask where we could camp. It was late afternoon at this point and I knew we would run out of sunlight in the next few hours, so time was of the essence. I was thankful they were open- 45 minutes later and we would have been out of luck! I told the woman at the desk we wanted to camp and she asked if we were bush camping or in an RV. When I confirmed bush camping, she gave me a sheet of paper that listed a number of free (YES!!!!) campsites we could drive to. She told me two of her top picks and off we went (for another 20 minute drive!)

Finally, after a lot of twists and turns and downhill, we made it to the Old Ford Reserve.

We immediately got to unpacking and setting up our tent. Correction: we didn’t bring a tent; we brought a tarp, a ground cloth, and our trekking poles for our shelter. This would be my second time tarp camping, and to say I was a bit nervous to do this in the Australian bush was an understatement. We were in the land of crazy wild and dangerous creatures and I was not going to be surrounded on all sides by an enclosed tent?!

img_6659

NBD, just a little skink.

Why, you ask, did I agree to do this? Well, for one, this would be our only night out in Australia. In New Zealand, two of our nights would be in the Department of Conservation’s huts and there was one other night where I thought we’d be camping out, but we had the flexibility to get a hotel room if we wanted. So, for one real night outside, Bill and I agreed that the weight of the tent wasn’t worth bringing all this way. And, if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you, right?

Novices in tarp tenting, we spent a bit of time setting up our A-frame abode. I’m sure an experienced boy scout would have had a good laugh at us, but hey, we got it set up. Unfortunately, our campsite of choice was covered in these prickly things that poked through our ground cloth. Worried about puncturing our inflatable sleeping pads, I went in search of a new campsite.

We found one on the other side of the paved road, along a dirt road that didn’t seem to get much use. We were now further away from all the other camper vans than we had been previously, but at least this one didn’t have the prickly things!

Attempt number 2 at setting up camp was more successful. We decided to go with the lean-to this time, since it would have been a tight squeeze under the A-frame because our tarp isn’t a full-size tarp.

img_6662

Winner winner, campfire dinner!

Before we actually made our dinner, we explored our surroundings a little more. There was a hill just across the dirt road, which led up to what I believe was a horse farm; but if there was a stable, it was nowhere in sight. There was also a creek down the paved road in the other direction, but there were signs warning that it was unsafe to drink. How unfortunate, because it sure was pretty!

Finally, we made our dinner as the sun set. As it got darker, it got cold! We went for another walk (with headlamps on) back up to the top of the hill where the sky was absolutely full of bright stars. It was stunning! I don’t think I have ever seen that many stars- it makes you realize how small we truly are in our great, grand universe. Our star gazing didn’t last too long because I was needed another layer! Jeans + short sleeve shirt + fleece was not enough for this Florida girl.

Back at the tent, we changed into warmer sleeping clothes and curled up to watch a movie on the iPad. Yes, I said we watched a movie. I needed the distraction so I didn’t think about what might have been lurking beyond the tree line. Eventually, I was tired enough that I could fall asleep. I closed my eyes and prayed nothing would come get us!

 

 





No Use Crying Over Spilled Grits

12 06 2015

Day 5: Hazel Creek/Forney Creek trail

Planned Itinerary: Hike the last 1.2 miles to catch up to the narrative; then complete the 5.5 “burly” miles as described on Day 5, which requires fording six major creeks, including the ones around site 69 which the ranger had warned us of when I got our permits. Then, complete the last 5 miles back to Clingman’s dome.

Hazel Creek/Forney Creek MapIt rained during the night, but thankfully we didn’t experience any leaks. We also were prepared for prepping our breakfast in the morning, having already collected fuel for our stove and kept it out of the rain over night. #Winning!

We got to our usual morning chores again- Bill getting the bear bag and starting the fire for our stove, and I packed up our sleeping kits. Since it was (hopefully) going to be our last night, we didn’t bother walking over to the “eating area” part of the camp; we just made the fire right outside the front of our tent.

We looked at our food options: oatmeal, grits, dehydrated eggs, quick-boil Pho, some Laughing Cow cheese triangles, and the last of our GORP. Just enough food to get us through the day, and if we needed to, breakfast tomorrow. We opted for the grits, with the last of our Laughing Cow cheese for extra calories. As I was packing up one of our sleeping pads, I heard Bill say something in a frustrated tone. I looked over and there was a pile of dry grits on the ground. When trying to get the last of the grits out of the packet, Bill had accidentally knocked over the pot, causing our breakfast to end up in the dirt. Bill is generally even-keeled, so he carefully salvaged what he could and then tried again, this time with the eggs. Thankfully, there were no spills this time. We added a bit too much water, so the eggs were soupy and grit-y (pun intended), but they gave us the calories we needed to make our ascent and plow through challenging river crossings.

We only had a little over a mile to get to site 70, at which we needed to make a decision: continue our planned route which would include fording streams that had thigh-high, rushing water, or take the longer, but likely less dangerous, route via Jonas Creek Trail, which would likely add another night. 

That entire first mile Bill and I weighed the pros and cons of taking each path. When we arrived at our crossroads, there was a bridge crossing over Forney Creek towards the Jonas Creek trail. You could take the bridge, or, just north of it, it seemed like you could cross without the bridge, if the water was low enough. When we were there, the creek was about 15 feet wide and running pretty hard. It looked like the deepest part was about thigh deep for me. Bill decided that we’d use this one as a little trial run, because likely, the water wouldn’t be as deep the higher up the mountain we went. Bill walked out to the center of the stream as I watched anxiously. He got to the center (which, for him, was definitely less than thigh deep), stood for a few seconds and then came back out to me with a smile on his face. We’d be just fine he assured me. So, on we went, north on Forney Creek trail towards the ominous river crossings that awaited us.

IMG_9769

Soon, we came to crossing number one. It was definitely bigger than any we had encountered so far, but it was totally passable by an amateur like me. We crossed the next few as well, and yes they were more challenging than the others we had seen on Day 1, but with my Lunas, trekking poles, and some maneuvering around, I was pretty darn stable. In a few places the water was up to my lower thigh, but I didn’t mind getting wet, which I think is a key to success. If you try to avoid getting wet and instead you’re hopping from one slightly exposed rock to another, you’re way more likely to slip than if you always have three points of contact, and you actually put your foot on solid ground that you’ve poked at with your trekking pole. There were also a few places where I relied on a big boulder rather than my trekking pole for balance, but if you take it slowly and are methodical about your next steps, you will find success.

We came upon site 69, where we met two young men who had spent a few nights out there fishing. They asked if we planned to hike out today, to which we responded “We hope so!” They too planned to hike out today, and hearing that gave me confidence that we would definitely be able to make it out today.

We kept moving, knowing that this was the area where the ranger had said the high waters were. We had just crossed the 4th or 5th one, when off to my left I heard a loud sigh/grunt and a soft rustle of leaves. Immediately I picked up my pace and sternly told Bill “Keep. Moving.” Confused, he turned around and I walked right past him as he asked what was going on. I told him what I had heard and we moved a few more quick paces away and then stopped and looked back. Nothing. I told Bill I didn’t want to stick around to find out if there was something back there, so we kept moving ahead and Bill began his barking again.

When we successfully made it through the sixth major crossing, I squealed with delight. We made it! It certainly didn’t mean we were home free, but we were through what was likely the most dangerous part of the hike. We actually had one more major crossing after my celebration, which makes me think I counted one that wasn’t so major, but whatever; we were through! Bonus: we hadn’t heard any more sounds of bears (or hogs for that matter)!

Between crossings we gained some pretty serious elevation. We stopped several times to take a break. This was tough! Finally, we made it to site 68! Had I planned appropriately, we would have been done for the day (what a novel idea- finish hiking early in the day, so you can enjoy your campsite!), but because of my mistake, we’d need to continue on. Since we had plenty of daylight left for the rest of our journey (it was barely noon at this time), we decided to stop and enjoy our instant Pho. It was nice to take a leisurely lunch, refill water, and actually enjoy our surroundings, knowing we were nearly home.

Fueled up, we got back on the trail. We were barely out of camp when we saw three hikers coming down the trail. They were coming from Clingman’s, which gave me further confidence that we’d be out before the end of the day. We were headed home!

Unfortunately, the trail got TOUGH from this point on. The gain in elevation was no joke, and at some points, the trail was super narrow that a slight miscalculation in footing could cause a long and painful fall. Just put one foot in front of the other I told myself.

IMG_9898I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we came upon our next crossroads, where we had the option of hiking to Andrew’s Bald before coming back to this spot and hiking out, or just heading straight out. Stopped at this intersection we met another couple who, with their enormous backpacks and clunky hiking boots told us that they had spent the night at 68, and had been planning to spend a few nights there before coming back up. But, they were throwing in the towel early, humbled by the tough climb. At this intersection, we also saw a few other day hikers either coming down to go to Andrew’s bald, or coming back up from there. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We opted to just head directly out; we could nearly taste the success of being back at our car. What was even better was that, because of the popularity of this day hike between Clingman’s and Andrew’s bald, the trail was well maintained and even included a mini boardwalk at certain points. I nearly skipped, my feet were so happy!

Up, up, up we went, and we stopped at an overlook to take some pictures. We were so close!

almost there

IMG_9891

A bit more elevation and then finally, we made it! That sweet feeling of success washed over me as I gazed out into the valley from where we had just come. Gosh, it was beautiful up here! We were lucky enough to experience a clear day- drastically different from when we started our journey 5 days earlier.  We posed for some pictures to commemorate the day before the clouds rolled in. Bill and I had done it. Together. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner to tackle this challenge with me.

clingman's dome

We got into the car for our next mission: Food. And a warm shower (or ten).

jumbo burrito

Mission Accomplished.

***

I would highly recommend this hike, particularly if you want to get away from it all- including other people! For us, it was a bit challenging, and I don’t feel like I got to really enjoy the experience as much as I could have. I was always focused on the big miles we had ahead of us and the moment we got to camp we needed to get fuel, make food, and get camp ready before the sun went down. With the exception of Day 3, we never really got to enjoy being in camp for an extended period of time. I also spent a majority of the time yapping so that we’d warn bears of our presence. Next time, I’ll get a bear bell so that we can just walk in relative silence every once in awhile.

This hike reignited our desire to do more backpacking, so we’re looking for some fall options (our Grand Canyon request was denied (sad face)). We live in such an amazing world, so we need to get out there an enjoy it!





Always Read the Directions

9 06 2015

Before I dive in to my recap from day four, I have to share this article that my cousin sent me and this update that I found. Basically, while I sat and typed my Day 3 post on Sunday night, a teenage boy who was camping on the SAME TRAIL that Bill and I were on (Hazel Creek) was attacked by a bear, while sleeping in his hammock! (Insert jaw dropped emoticon here.) Um, SCARY! It could have just as easily been us who were attacked, I’m thanking my lucky stars and praying for a speedy recovery for him!

Day 4: Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Loop

Planned Itinerary: 12.5 miles along the Lakeshore trail to the Forney Creek trail, where we should “spend the bulk” of our day at campsite 70. (How to spend most of the day at a site that is 12.5 miles away is beyond me…)

Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Map

We woke up after a restless night, thankful we had not had an encounter with a wild animal. As we packed up camp, we planned our attack for catching up. Bill’s foot was feeling better and my body was less achy than it had been, so we were going to do our best to make it to site 70, which by my estimate, was probably about 16.5 miles away, and where we were scheduled to spend the night. I got out the map and read the narrative for the last part today’s journey, and I read ahead for tomorrow, our hike out. As I compared the map to the narrative, “Day five is only 5.5 miles…” I realized that I had made a big mistake. Five and a half miles from site 70 would NOT put us back at Clingman’s. It would put us at site 68, where, had I read the narrative more carefully, I would have told the ranger that we were spending 5 nights on the trail, not 4! Oh, and we would have packed food for a 5 night, 6 day trip rather than a 4 night, 5 day trip. Oh crap. 

We were fairly confident that we’d have enough food if we needed to stay for the 5th night, but we decided to try our best to stick to our original plan. Yeah, the plan that had us doing a 5 night hike for experienced hikers in 4 nights.

I have this problem of not reading recipes to the end before starting the recipe…Apparently, for me, that carries over into hiking as well…

The reality of being barely halfway back and only having a day and a half to do it was certainly motivation for us to finish packing up camp quickly and get on the trail.

The last four miles to get to site 76 felt long, but not painful. Today we decided that we’d stop more frequently for shorter amounts of time, rather than pushing on until we were pretty beat, taking a longer break, and then rebooting for the next part. So, we stopped at site 76, put our packs up in the bear rigs, and went down to the water for a quick snack and to refill our water. The water was cool and refreshing, and as soon as we stuck our feet in, a few fish started swimming near us. Off to our left was a small fishing boat, where two women were fishing. I presumed it was a mother-daughter pair, which I just thought was pretty cool. Fishing is not just a man’s sport!

Bill and I snacked on some GORP (trail mix) and joked about how we had no idea where we were right now, other than on the shores of Fontana Lake. What state were we in? We hadn’t a clue. (We were in North Carolina.) It didn’t matter. We were just taking in the beautiful lake in front of us, enjoying out time together outdoors. Soon the silence broke when one of the women said “Look! Snake!” Sure enough, about halfway between us and them was a snake slithering on the surface of the water. It disappeared into the marsh, so we decided (and so did the women) that it was time to go. We walked back to our packs and started hiking again.

dragon fly

Bill made a friend 😉

We came to a fork shortly after leaving camp, and we followed the path that was closest to the water. It didn’t last long, and quickly dead ended into the lake. The water was crystal clear, and the massive lake was just sprawled out in front of us, calling our names to come and swim. It was hot out, and the cool water would feel so refreshing…So, I did what any hiker would do and jumped (more like waded) in! This was the swimming hole tour after all! I dipped my head under and floated around for a few minutes before I started getting a little chilly and got out. As I put my pack back on, Bill noticed that I had a rash on my lower back. It didn’t itch, so we were pretty sure it was heat rash that had been aggravated by my pack sitting on my back. Hopefully it wouldn’t get worse!

We continued on our journey, rejuvenated by our little dip, and eventually made it to the next site, 98, where a wooden bridge crossed over a rushing stream. We laid out Bill’s poncho and did legs up a wall for some recovery while we munched on a granola bar.

feet up the wall

silly

As we packed up, I spotted what I believed was an inchworm. I had never seen one in real life, so of course I took a video. They’re such neat creatures!

At this point, I figured we had at least 6 miles to get to the next site, and about 4 more after that if we were to make it to site 70. Yikes. It was already early afternoon at this point. We decided to get to site 74 and then evaluate when we arrived.

It was a hot afternoon, and we were both keeping up on our hydration, so somewhere on the way Bill ran out. Of course it happened to be on one of the driest sections of the trail, so when we happened upon a trickling of water a little off the trail, Bill gingerly climbed up to the source to fill up one of our liter bottles. We figured that we would soon enough come across more (we did) where we could fill up all the way.

Shortly after filling our packs, we were chatting about how tired we were and how we couldn’t imaging running right now, when off to our right about 25 yards or so, down by a stream, we saw a flash of movement and realized that we had startled two wild hogs. They ran lightning fast away from us, but judging by the curve in the trail ahead, they had just ran towards where we would be walking shortly. Bill started his barking again, and I was talking loudly. As we approached a blind turn, we heard another rustle and I saw one of the hogs barely 15 feet in front of us. I promptly turned around and started to run. Its amazing what a little adrenaline will do! I didn’t go very far, just enough to get out of the immediate area. Bill was right behind me, and we stopped to evaluate the situation. The boars had run back down the mountain, away from where we needed to walk, so we decided to continue on our journey on high alert. Bill barked (now and then, he asked me to clarify that he wasn’t barking non stop like a crazy man), I talked. That’s pretty much how it went for the majority of the next 30 minutes.

Finally, we made it to site 74. By this point it was close to 6. We sat down on the bridge and did legs up the wall again and talked about our options for the evening: We could stop and spend the night here, leaving us still 4 miles behind schedule, or we could go another 3 miles to get to site 71, leaving us only a little over a mile behind schedule. Knowing that the big river crossings would happen tomorrow, and if they were bad and we needed to reroute, adding on even more mileage, we figured it was in our best interest to continue on to site 71. As we walked on the outskirts of the camp, we noticed a few others who had set up camp for the night. We briefly asked these two college kids where they had come from, and I’m pretty sure they said they drove there. I was confused until I saw the sign indicating the trailhead was only a short hike away. It didn’t hit me until later that night, but had things been terrible, that probably would have been our out.

I was so glad that we decided to keep moving on. Maybe it was because we knew we only had 3 miles to go, but those three miles were some of the best on the trail (to us). The terrain was not challenging, so we plowed through those three miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. I don’t think that was a good gauge for our overall pace, but that’s what we can do when we’re motivated!

Camp 71 was huge, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. We made camp in plenty of time to eat before the sun set. We even were proactive and gathered fuel for our stove for tomorrow’s breakfast, just in case of rain.

IMG_9865

We went to bed that night exhausted but proud that we had covered so much ground and were nearly caught up. Tomorrow, we hike out!