Edwin, Lewis and myself
Claustral is the quintessential Blue Mountains canyon. A deep, dark, sustained slot accessed by a series of abseils down a dark hole known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Once in you are committed, the slot can be as fearsome as it is beautiful. Flash floods do happen and the exit is hours away. It has claimed the lives of some very experienced canyoners and been the scene of various rescue operations over the years.
It’s part of the big three. Thunder, Ranon and, Claustral canyons and their tributaries, carve the saddle in between Mt Tomah and Mountain Banks into a deep maze that has come to be known as the Carmathan labyrinth.
In 1804 the botanist and explorer, George Caley, gazed up at the Blue Mountains and confidently declared “There is not a single peak which would take more than half a day to scale!”
He was right, but it wasn’t the peaks that would thwart him in his attempt to cross the mountains. His party reached the top of Mt Tomah with little difficulty then set about crossing the short distance to the next peak, Mt Banks. He didn’t know about the labyrinth that awaited him below.
We were taught at school that the early explorers failed to find a way across the mountains because they tried to penetrate the river valleys when they needed to follow the ridges. But Caley’s plan was always to follow the ridges between the high peaks. Unfortunately the ridge he tried to follow didn’t exist
Scrambling down through lawyer vines and disjointed cliff lines they eventually came to a deep dark chasm they called Gaping Gill (while a chasm still bares this name it is probable they were looking into the lower reaches of Thunder gorge).
With no way to cross the chasm they beat a retreat back up to the ridge and tried another approach. This time into a gully Caley would name Dismal Dingle. Night descended and they made camp in a small overhang. Awestruck by the glow worms lighting up the wall over head, tormented by possums who ran like little demons through their camp stealing their food, eaten alive by mosquitoes and, terrorised by a wild fire that ripped up through the Grose Valley his men threatened revolt if he tried to push on they way they were going.
Come morning they beat another retreat up to the ridge line and opted to follow this in a wide arc around the labyrinth below. They were now on the very ridge that would one day carry the Bells Line of road. A native track way, had they stayed on this ridge they would have achieved their goal of crossing the Mountains in little over another days walk. But, of course, they didn’t know this.
Their plan was to follow the ridge line they mistakenly believed connected the major peaks they could see from the Richmond plains . And so they veered off to explore the peak of Mt Banks with Hat Hill, their next objective. Upon reaching the top of Mt Banks they looked down in dismay at the 300m cliff line that plummeted into the Grose Valley with Hat Hill unreachable on the other side. Dejected they turned tail and headed for home.
Later, or so I have read somewhere (but for the life of me I now can’t find the source) an early female bush explorer (Mary Biles?) ventured into the rim of the Labyrinth and upon peering down into a dark slot dropping into bowels of the earth wrote words to the effect of “One day the depths may be explored. Whether brave or fool hardy those who do surely will not suffer from claustrophobia.” Thus the slot was later christened Claustral canyon.
OK, maybe I spiced a bit or even all of that intro up. I’m not a historian, don’t take it as gospel. After all, I got my history of the world from Mel Brooks and all I know for certain is “It’s good to be the king.”….
Anyhoo. I’ve a confession to make. I’d never done Claustral Canyon. I’d been into the system through Ranon and I’d wandered up the bottom section of Thunder canyon but back in the day Claustral was the most popular abseil canyon and I was put off by the thought of lining up to access the abseils. I was a bit of a canyon snob really and I come to realise I had cheated myself of a great experience.
Soooooo when Ed and his mate, Lewis, invited me along on a photophaffary trip I jumped at the chance. Now as you probably have worked out by now I have a little point a shoot camera (Olympus Tough TG4) and am not overly concerned at capturing amazing images of art, more documentaries of my travels so I had a sneaky suspicion that they needed a mule to carry the ropes so that they might lugg in more photomagraphary equipment needed to get their awesome shots but I was cool with that.
As it was everybody bought rope.
Anyhoo, I was running a bit early so stopped by the Emu Cave to get a few photos and explore the rock shelf a little more. then it was onto the car park
After a quick meet and greet, with the wrong party ( Are you Lewis, Says I. Nope, says he. Are you doing Claustral? We’re doing Ranon. Cool we’ll probably see you in there)
Lewis arrives and we introduce ourselves just as Ed turns up. We reconcile gear, stuff packs and we’re off. The traditional entry and exit point to Claustral was from the top of Mt Tomah, however in 2011 the land the access track crosses changed hands and the new owners built a house right where the track was. And who can blame them, they have some of the best views in the mountains.
A new route was found from the other side Mt Bell. This made the exit a lot longer and more convoluted which I think may have reduced visitor numbers a bit.
Anyhoo. We quickly make our way down through a pleasant gully and soon reach the junction with Claustral Brook
A bit of creek walking and boulder scrambling brings us to the first swim and we suit up and plunge in as the canyon begins to get deeper
A little more scrambling and we come to the abseils. 3 successive drops down into a dark abyss. Ed and Lewis scramble to get cameras out. Looks like I’m going first for want of a better model
The drops are pretty cool. Abseil 10-15 meters, swim across a pool to a small stance and repeat
The final abseil starts through a small hole and drops into darkness. Much awesomeness
From here its 50m through the darkest part of the slot until it widens slightly at the Junction with Ranon.
The moss covered boulders and fern strewn walls at the junction may well be the most photographed bit of canyon in the country but it is truly stunning.
After lots of photo phaffing we head down. The boys need to be very careful with keeping their gear dry so it’s in and out of dry bags a lot. The advantage of my TG4 is I can keep it at the ready. The photos may not be the same quality but as it’s so handy I have about 600 to trawl through.
Just as the big cameras get triple dry bagged to continue on Ed looks up to see one of the group coming in from Ranon has slid out along a fallen log that spans the canyon 40 or 50 meters up. There was a scramble to get cameras back out in the hope they were going to abseil down the middle of the canyon walls from this log but by the time cameras were out he had thought better of it and retreated to do the normal route through the waterfalls
With all the standing about i had begun to get cold so I peeled down the wet suit and put a light thermal underneath which improved things greatly.
Light rays, canyons and photographers
We caught back up to the other group at the junction with Thunder Canyon, which is a great spot for lunch. They soon finished and continued on, we have a quick look up Thunder and then followed suit.
After this junction the canyon opens up a little and there is some tricky scrambling down some drops before it closes back in.
Once it closes back in you encounter the infamous tunnel swim. Way back when I did Ranon the last time the water level was down and you could walk through here. Now it’s a spectular 50m swim
A little more scrambling, a couple of pools and you reach the exit
There is a steep haul up Rainbow Ravine, which has some pretty canyon sections itself, then a long walk up the ridge to the top of the Camels Hump. I remember last time getting to this point and thinking we had come up the wrong hill. From the top the hump it looks to be surrounded on all sides by chasms and the old exit point to top of Mt Tomah can be seen across a particularly deep chasm. You can see why, with no maps and no knowledge of the land Caley and his crew had so much trouble. I’m remember almost having my own muntiny on my hands as hungover and exstausted Della and Lurch were in no mood to drop down and climb out again.
Just when we thought we would have to descend all the way down and start again the trail crossed a narrow, bridge like rock saddle. It barely looks real. Something straight out of Tolkin. The old exit is now just up the hill. 10-15min up to the car park… The old exit.
The new exit is not so quick and does involved dropping all the way back down into Claustral Brook. We head steeply back down. There are some nice canyon sections and a swim or two before we reach the gully we came in on.
Yeah it’s a long walk out. Yeah I’m feeling it today but it’s not too bad, we’ve done worse.
Party Size: 3 All experienced
Time: 10hrs car to car. Lots of time spent striking poses and snapping photos