The first time I tried to walk the Onkaparinga gorge was over two years ago with Shane and Nigel. On that occasion we didn’t get very far. Kept out by impenetrable thorny bushes and greasy rocks on which non of our boots could gain traction. It was winter the water was cold and non of us wanted a dunking so we retreated and spent the remainder of the day walking the gorge top cliffs; plenty of up and down between orderly vines and unruly olives.
Jump to the present, armed with a little bit of research suggesting it was possible to walk the length (and a given that you’d get wet doing so) I felt ready to have another go. Nigel and I met early and spent the hours before midday exploring the many tracks at the head of the gorge. It started with a stepping stone river crossing at which a slip earned Nigel a sprained thumb. Being a previous Tough Mudder entrant this wasn’t going to deter him.
Climbing the hills on the north side of the gorge was easy and the landscape open and unremarkable, only when we left the open country and broad track behind for woodland and narrow trail did the experience become more engaging. Along the way we found a roofless stone ruin and rocky outcrop with waterfall potential. We climbed around a little and looked for flat ground that could make this place a future camp site but despite the welcoming surrounds we decided it would be inhospitable for a comfy sleep.
The trail twisted on for a while then we were out in the open with car parks and people. When immersed in nature, no matter where, I often feel unprepared for re-engaging with people and our man made world. The longer away from the human world the more pronounced this feeling. Fortunately this encounter was brief and we were soon on our own again and making quick time down to our intended entry into the gorge proper.
We were soon back at the place where two years ago treacherous wet rocks had caused us to abandon our push down the gorge. Not so this time. Then it was winter, now we were on day 10 of a spell of dry balmy spring weather. The rocks posed no problem what so ever.
There was one risk was on our minds though, the likely presence of snakes. A few months ago that might have deterred me but having recently completed a 2 day course in catching and re-locating venomous snakes I was sincerely hoping to see some. For that reason I walked out front my eyes on continuous scan, my mind alert to snakish forms, mindful of each foot placement. Through early spring the temperature had been consistently warm and would be considered snake weather and we were in an environment that would offer snakes food and shelter aplenty. To see one today, especially a red bellied black in it’s natural habitat would make the day complete…I’ll break any building suspense and say I didn’t see one. Perhaps I tried too hard or was just unlucky. Never mind, the gorge was a beauty.
I had no idea that it was so beautiful as I had never got this far, and I think not many have. It seemed to us both that this gorge was a world class gem hidden and often difficult to get ones hands on. And here we were amidst this portal of time travel from the now back through countless centuries, probably millions, all there to see in the exposed sections of gorge rock. At places beneath the river a solid bed of black/grey rock had been sculpted smooth with the gentle hand of this modest river water. Broad holes had been bored, rounded out, wearing away imperceptible layers, a painstaking erasing of that which had been built up over incomprehensible time.
It’s easy for me to get carried away in the awesomeness of my minds geological extrapolations, but whatever had been, the gorge was a pretty picture of sculpted rock, hardy, tangled vegetation, still pools, playful bubbling water and a sense of timelessness undisturbed by whatever pace our human race generated somewhere above the top of the gorge. We encountered waterfalls and deep, reed fringed pools that looked a picture to swim in. Though we didn’t we did get wet feet having to wade a short section hand gripping rocks for anchor points.
Our own pace was slow. A combination of cautious foot placing in the search of snakes, the natural hindrances of navigating the uneven obstacles of the river bank and the fact that we kept pausing to take it all in. At this point we had only travelled 2 km so I began to work out the equation in my mind. The Gorge walk is noted as being 17.5 km in length. The average walking pace given the terrain is not much over a km/per hour. If a productive days walk is 8 hrs on the move then the entire gorge walk would take 2 days. Well I’m up for that, but then it dawned on me that there are very few places to sleep. My usual overnight shelter is a bivy-bag, but even with that I’d struggle. The best option would be a hammock as there is a fair scatter of trees along the way but improvisation would probably be called for. At one particular point we even mused at the possibility of spending a few days down here, if only for the sense of being so geographically close to the beat of our lives and yet so removed from its pulse.
Time was running out for us that day though. Given the daylight hours remaining to us we had reached the point where we needed to turn around. In order to re-coup the ground covered we needed to get vertical and head upwards out of the gorge. The place we chose had an accommodating slope, whereas elsewhere the sheerness of the gorge side was too prohibitive. We scrambled out tentatively as the surface was the loose shale stuff where seemingly embedded rocks move like loose teeth in a child’s mouth.
Once up the top we made light work of the open country assessing the map so as to contour around the many gully heads that were in our path. Because our pace had been so slow in the gorge we had not used the usual amount of energy I would have expended by the same time on a usual walk. Due to that I still had a springy step and felt buoyed overall by our personal gorge discovery, a feeling that outweighed the zero snake encounters. This was further lifted when within the final kilometre a stag deer was sighted at the scrubs edge. As we continued on our path we sighted him a couple of times more, always ahead, shy and alert to threats. We posed none, our sight of him trophy enough.
The gorge remains in my sights though. Some further exploration, perhaps from the other end and careful planning could see me traversing its full length and having the story forever. (Ewan)