One of NSW’s best and toughest day hikes
I first found out about this walk while camping in Bungonia National Park about a year ago. Short on time, my partner Melissa and I had looked down upon the open gorge and the impressively sheer slot canyon from the plateau high above, and after reading about the Red Track - a 3.8 km, 4-5 hour trek through the canyon - I was keen to get back there as soon as possible to complete it.
As soon as possible turned out to be almost 15 months, but after recruiting my brother, we finally got around to making the three-hour drive down to Bungonia from the Blue Mountains.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Bungonia National Park - about 2 hours from Sydney - is a rugged and spectacular landscape of dramatic gorges, steep ravines, rocky bluffs and limestone caves. Popular with hikers, abseilers and cavers, it’s a place that deserves a few days to fully explore. There’s even a great campsite with hot showers to help make the most of your visit.
It’s one of those spectacular places that you wouldn’t even know was there, despite the fact that it’s hidden just off a major freeway. The surrounding countryside is flat and drab, a mixture of dry farmland and open woodland, only for it to drop suddenly away into one of the most awe-inspiring gorge systems you’ll ever see. And most people drive right past it on their way to Canberra.
The information centre, campground, and a handful of short walks lie atop the plateau that borders the gorge, an area of sparse and open eucalypt woodland dissected by rocky gullies and patches of dry rainforest. The National Park itself was first declared for its network of limestone caves, several entrances to which can be found hidden around this area and freely explored by sufficiently prepared groups.
The caves are home to several species of bat, including the vulnerable Bent-Wing Bat, and also contain a handful of significant fossil sites that make Bungonia one of the most important geological sites in Australia.
From Bungonia lookout, at the end of a short drive from the campground, you’ll be able to see just what you’re getting into by attempting this walk. Expansive views of the gorge, the sharp ridges, the slowly meandering Shoalhaven River as it disappears into the Morton wilderness. To the left, an open cut quarry rests atop the opposing plateau, something of an eyesore, but it does add to the landscape in its own way. Beneath it lies the sheer cliffs that plunge down into the slot canyon, one of finest examples of limestone gorges in Australia.
The walk starts from the nearby carpark, and although the sign implies clockwise is the way to go, the general consensus seems to imply otherwise. As I said, it can supposedly take 4-5 hours, and from what I’d read this figure was reasonably accurate. We had already decided to extend the walk by following the White Track over Mt Ayre and down to the Shoalhaven River, before following the creek back to the gorge.
A total of about 7.5 km. Six hours, maybe? If the estimates were to be believed. It also happened to be about how much much daylight we had left, so I was hoping the National Park and Wildlife Service might have been exaggerating the timeframe.
The White and Red Tracks begin as one, running through open woodland until it hits the edge of the plateau, which soon narrows to form a ridge. It’s about here that the Red Track into the gorge branches off, for those taking the shorter route. Shorter, perhaps, but not necessarily easier. From the top, there is certainly nothing gradual about the steep gullies of loose scree that run down to the valley floor some 400 metres below.
We headed past the turnoff and up towards Mt Ayre. A short detour takes you to the top, although the views are just as nice from the other side. From here, the trail drops as the ridge narrows, and what started as easy ridge walking becomes rougher as the track skirts down the jagged slope. The ground falls sharply away to either side, lending superb views of the rugged, near-vertical landscape of exposed cliffs and jagged arêtes that snake down towards the Shoalhaven. The broad slopes of the valley really frame the river here, and even though it was barely 20 degrees a swim was already sounding like a fantastic idea.
We’d picked a great day for it, with full sun and clear skies, although it was still relatively cool with a nice breeze to cap it off. There were more than a few goannas around, with at least three scampering off the track and up nearby trees by this point, and the flowering black boxes above were filled with calling honeyeaters.
The final descent down to the river is a rough, steeply switch-backing path of scree and loose stone. It’s fairly exposed and receives the full brunt of the sun, so it’d be a nightmare in summer. The open slope affords great views the whole way down, the serpentine curves of the river ahead, and the high plateaus and distant glimpses of the quarry to the left. I’ll say this, it’s rough on the knees, and will likely leave your legs shuddering by the bottom, so hiking poles can come in handy here.
When you finally reach the bottom you hit a small saddle and the track forms an impressively narrow knife ridge with the Shoalhaven to one side, and several still turquoise pools to the other. It passes a lovely grassy camping area right on the bank beneath a copse of native pines, before reaching the junction of Bungonia Creek and the larger river.
We had a quick snack break and a swim here before heading up the creek. Shade from the pines, a lovely pebbly bank and good views of the ridge we had just descended. It’d definitely be a lovely place to spend the night.
Following the creek, we passed another raised grassy camping area beside those spectacular turquoise pools. For the most part, the creek flows slowly and the rock-strewn banks are open and flood-washed. We switched back and forth between banks, rock hopping and weaving between the gnarled and twisted pines along the water.
This was some stellar walking, with many lovely emeraldine pools and some spectacular volcanic-looking rock formations, with the gorge walls closing in on either side.
Eventually, the towering bluff comes into view between the trees, with the lookout we had started the day from just visible through the camera lens. We passed the only other walkers we saw at this point, so there was a definite feeling of isolation about the track. This is also near the point where the Red Track meets the creek, although we saw no sign of it.
We had another quick rest below the towering cliffs at the mouth of the slot canyon, where magnificent limestone boulders spill forth to construe the river. The cypress pines grew taller and more constricted here, while huge strangler-figs snaked their way across the rocks.
This was the fun part; into the stream of boulders, where slabs of limestone the size of small houses tumble out from the mouth of the gorge. The exit is so constricted with the cliff walls rising sharply to either side, that there really is no defined path. Scrambling, jumping and climbing between and over the titanic chunks of stone is the only way to go here. We would come to dead ends and have to backtrack, only to resort to squeezing under and between narrow passes.
Ultimately, this section ended far sooner than I had expected it to, which was both a shame and a bit of a relief, considering just how exhausting it was. We were now in the slot canyon itself.
The creekbed was completely dry, and the high walls provide a straight channel of flat, sandy walking. The curve of the cliffs prevents a full view of the rocky bluff high above, which is a shame, as it’s hard to visualise just how deep you are. Looking back lends a glimpse of the wild gorge beyond, above the congestion of boulders.
We found the exit easy enough, with a few small red signs pinned to trees or rocks, although none of the arrows were quite pointing in the right direction. It didn’t really matter, as there was really only one obvious path up the narrow gully. We took another quick break here, with an exhaust-ing glimpse of just how high we now had to climb.
The ascent wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting. Far less severe, beginning with a scramble up through a great patch of strangler-figs and dry rainforest. The gully grows steeper and narrows in, although the rocky climb forms natural steps. Tiring and uneven, perhaps, but we gained a significant amount of elevation in a short time. This uneven climb continues until the gully eventually opens up, and you reach the switch-backing path along the scree slopes.
In the end, the walk took us almost exactly four hours, way ahead of schedule. Having finished, I would definitely say anti-clockwise is the way to go, and I would definitely recommend adding on the White Track too.
After a short rest and a snack at the car, we decided we still had the energy to explore one of the nearby caves. The entrance is surprisingly inconspicuous, hidden just off the road down an unmarked trail that heads into a small gully. This particular cave wasn’t nearly as spectacular as some of the other limestone karst reserves of NSW, but it’s worth an explore all the same. A series of descending chambers that plunge into the earth, assisted by rusted old ladders and railings.
After this, we dusted ourselves off, climbed into the car and began the slog home. If you have the time, I’d really recommend spending the night at the campground and having a look for some of the park’s nocturnal wildlife.
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