TRIP REPORT FOR APRIL 25-27, 2003
Friday, April 25:
The time has come for our second trip, and back to the north-west slopes we go! Seeing as how it's a long weekend, I had changed the departure time to early morning so that it's a daylight trip and a bit easier on others in the group, as not everyone is a night owl like me. The Canberra crew were up again in their HJ60 diesel (new glow plugs all round so we're not doing THAT again), and stayed over on Thursday night at my house, ready for a punctual departure in the morning. And punctual it was, if you ignore the fact that we left at 0635 instead of 0600 hours, due to the camper trailer's lights not working properly. The driver had his multimeter out and measured full voltage at the light bulb contacts, yet the bulb would not turn on. Suspecting a high-Z connection due to corrosion, I jiggled and wiggled the bulb inside the contacts, hoping to rub away some of the corrosion and restore a half-decent connection. Lo and behold, eventually, there was light. "How do you know so much of the ways of electrons?", you might ask. You've got to know these things when you're a Dom (with no apologies whatsoever to Monty Python).
Travelling along the M5 into the city, it was a quick run into the northern suburbs, where we rendezvoused with the Bundera crew. After a brief period, we were off along the Pacific Highway, heading for the entry point to the F3 freeway. The weather looked fairly clear (although cold as it's now approaching winter), and I was wondering whether we'd have as much rain this weekend as we did for the trip back in February. Cruising along the F3 towards Maitland, the view over the hills was stunning. Thick sheets of solid white fog drifted over the valleys, in no hurry to go anywhere, and reflected the brilliant sunlight like a huge, broken mirror.
We made our regular food/fuel stop at the large roundabout in Maitland, where the road splits between the Pacific and New England highways, and then set off up the New England Highway for Muswellbrook. An hour later, we stopped again for a short break at the Blackhill Roadhouse a few kilometres south of Muswellbrook, where I made my final LPG refill. My truck is a dual-fueller, but I always take the opportunity to top up the gas tank. LPG is half the cost of petrol, and the FJ62 only does 5km/l. I only run it on petrol when the LPG runs out. By now, the sun was shining hotly upon us and it was real T-shirt and shorts weather. It felt like summer. We continued on north, past Scone, and then took the turnoff east which would see us off up into the mountains.
Some time later, we arrived at the first homestead but this time, we didn't enter. The track we originally took was closed, and we had to take the secondary track, which connected to the rear of the property. From a phone conversation I had with our host a couple of days before setting off, I obtained directions to the secondary access road, which we could reach by travelling about a kilometre farther down the main (public) road. The secondary track is shorter than the original one, but it's also a lot steeper. This proved to be significant for the return journey, which I'll get to when the time comes.
We quickly located the entry point and headed inland. This track was smoother, as it's the one that's used by the timber jinkers whenever they carry out the occasional logging operation on the property. We passed through a few sets of gates, and on the second set, I think, it was discovered that the front of my truck had taken on an unusual appearance. The off-side wide beam was hanging out of its housing, held only by the wires, and the near-side wide beam was missing altogether! It was obvious to me that I hadn't made sure that the reflector lip was all the way in properly after the little trip down the Yarramanmun Fire Trail near Nowra the previous weekend, where I got the truck up to the door handles in muddy water (snorkel works!) and had to pull the lights apart and flush them out when I got home. Fortunately the pencil beams and fog lights were OK, so I only lost one light due to my doing the reassembly work in the dark. Lesson learned. I reassembled the survivor and we proceeded to the next gate. Passing through lush scenery, we climbed our way upwards, watched by herds of wild goats, their heads popping up above the bushes in the distance. Although it twisted and turned a bit as it climbed, the track was dry and provided drama-free traction, and I didn't have to engage low-range even once. It sure was a vivid contrast to the way we had to make our way up the mountain last time.
We finally made it to the gate which marked the rear entrance to the property, and went through.
The Canberra crew said they'd catch up with us in a little while, as they needed to make a brief stop. I offered to wait, but they insisted, so off the rest of us went. After about 20 minutes or so, it had become clear as to why they needed to make a brief stop. Appearing out of the mist came a diesel Land Cruiser, with two naked submissives strapped to the top of the camper trailer. We couldn't tell if their nipples were hard from the excitement of being strapped naked to a camper trailer and driven up a mountain track, or whether it was because the ambient air temperature was around 6º C. But then again, who CARES? Personally, I think this is the only way a subby should arrive at the top of the mountain and it was heartening to see that the driver had not made them too comfortable. We can't have them getting complacent now, can we?
After a while, they were unstrapped (tragic, I know, but the wild goats roaming the property aren't much good at helping out when it comes to unpacking your stuff) and the unpacking of the rest of the supplies was completed. The weather was not as rainy as it had been the last time in February, but the whole area was shrouded in a heavy mist, which gave the place a wonderful, surreal atmosphere. This was to set the tone of the weather for the entire stay - we had the odd patch of bright sunlight, and the occasional light drizzle, but the rain was nowhere near as severe as the previous trip's weather. It was cool because it's no longer summer, but it was far from unpleasant. We spent the afternoon around the fireplace, socialising and settling in. I ended up having an afternoon siesta, as I had only managed to get around 2 hours' sleep before our leaving Sydney in that morning, and needed to recharge my batteries. After waking up, I rejoined everyone in the lounge, where several of the group were busy preparing the ingredients for dinner, and our host was setting up his guitar, MIDI, and microphone, for the evening's entertainment. We spent the evening with a good dinner, listening to song, and watching the crackle of the logs in the fireplace. At the end of the night, everyone turned in, mellowed from the wine and song. Two of our group made their sleeping arrangements on the floor near the fireplace. I stayed up last, as usual, and waited until everyone was settled in, and then killed the generator. The room plunged into the dim orange glow of the fire. There was no light from the moon or stars, as the mist was so thick, it blocked any light from the sky. Shining my torch onto the trees from the rear patio, I could see the tops of the trees swaying violently from side to side. I went back inside and put some more logs on the fire, and sank back into a comfy chair to watch the flames. The wind had risen by now, and all I could hear was the loud howl of the wind as it whipped (pardon the pun) through the trees and around the walls of the house, and the crackling of the logs in the fire. The logs also gave off a bright light, due to my adding the rest of the stockpile in one hit. I had already piled the wood up before everyone went to sleep, and one of our group had expressed concern about the possibility of a log falling off the pile, to which I responded by telling her that if it did, it would roll onto her, wake her up, and then she'd be the first one to know, and then she could tell me that it did indeed fall off. Problem solved. Really, I don't know why they worry so much. I'm sure the sound of her screaming after being set on fire by a rolling log would be far louder than one of those el cheapo smoke detectors, and besides, she doesn't need batteries. Ummm... well not for this particular function, anyway.
I sat and watched the flames for about two hours, and then finally turned in. The wind outside was absolutely roaring by now. It was a very cosy night that night.
Saturday, April 26:
Today would go down in the annals of history as the Day Of The Chainsaw. After a hearty breakfast and chat around the fireplace, four of our group took three chainsaws, an axe, my FJ62, and the Bundera (towing our host's trailer), and set off on a wood run. The rest of our group stayed behind, and the women were extremely hedonistic in their behaviour, giving each other facials, pedicures, and going through all the toy bags in a fireside version of "Show And Tell."
We would need plenty of firewood today, as we needed logs for the fireplace and the kitchen stove. The hot water system was working now, and the fire from the stove generated enough heat into the main plumbing to provide boiling hot showers, providing that you kept it going. It had been kept alight all through the night, but the supply of fuel for the stove was now running a little low, so we had to replenish it. Another need for the extra wood was for the play party to be held in the barn tonight. I wanted the barn to be kept nice and warm, and a make-shift space heater of some kind, located at the far end, was on the cards. If we had the inclination and the time, a bonfire afterwards could have been a possibility, but as it turned out, we didn't quite get around to that. The making of bush damper would have to wait for another time.
We set off down into the valley and looked around for a suitable fallen tree. After checking out a couple of candidates, we settled on a large tree that appeared to have toppled over some time ago, but the bulk of the wood was still in good condition and would make great fuel for the fire. As you can see from the photos, this was not exactly a tiny tree. We started work on it and on some of the smaller surrounding fallen timber, and before long, the hills were filled with the musical, resonant tones of the Chainsaw Sonata in D Minor. We worked this site for about three hours and produced several trailer loads of firewood. Much to my surprise, I was working up a good sweat, in spite of the ambient temperature being around 8º C or so. I thought about how this area was worked by the timber getters back in the mid- to late- 1800s: no chainsaws, no 4WDs or timber jinkers. Just hand saws, hand axes, a cart pulled by horses or oxen, and their own sweat and blood. They must have been mad. If I worked up this much sweat cutting trees with powered equipment, I can only barely imagine the hardships these guys must have endured, and really respect the fortitude that they must have possessed to do this sort of work, and survived doing it.
I was curious if there were any leeches about on the forest floor, as the ground was quite wet. Before we had left the house, two of our group had quite expertly stated (yeah, right, guess who needs a flogging?) that it was most likely too cold for the leeches.
During operations, I happened to glance down at my left foot and discovered an unwelcome visitor had climbed up over the top of my joggers and was attached above my ankle through my sock. Yes, dear and gentle readers, your writer had been grievously wounded in the performance of his duties! Now, I don't particularly like leeches (perhaps that's why I can't stand talking to my ex-wife) and so I grabbed the little bugger (I was wearing my leather recovery work gloves, and so had plenty of grip), pulled him off my ankle, and placed him on top of the tree trunk I was partially through. Before the little bastard had the opportunity to wriggle from one crack in the log to another, I put my chainsaw through him with the engine singing at full throttle, and scattered his slimy little carcass to the four winds. MUAHAHAhahaahaaahaaa.
That'll teach him. Nobody bites me unless they beg real nice.
Looking back, I realised that I shouldn't have forced the leech off without using salt or a lighter first, but the mouthpiece didn't remain lodged in my foot so I guess I was lucky in that regard. Perhaps the leech was vanilla, and the feel of the leather gloves freaked it out. Who knows? One of the others in our group was attacked far more viciously than I was - there was a mass of blood underneath her sock, and large, sticky patches of coagulant were visible when she pulled her sock back. This gives a whole new context to "blood sports." Personally, I believe it was a hit by the Leech Mafia, in retaliation for my gangland-style execution of one of their family. I consider myself most fortunate in surviving this attack, the other member of our group very fortunate to survive the hit, and I plan to write a best-seller about my experiences.
Hopefully, it'll get picked up for a movie: The Leech Father. It'll be a box-office smash.
By lunch time, we had transported several trailer loads of wood back to the house, and although there was more wood that we had cut and was due to be collected, we left it behind and headed off up towards the house for lunch. I headed off up the hill, followed by the Bundera with its final trailer-load of wood. A hundred metres after we had crested the hill, I heard "Help!" over the radio: the Bundera was getting zero traction and couldn't make it up the hill. The trailer was far too heavy. I backtracked the hundred or so metres back to the crest, and could just see the front of the Bundera. With the slippery mud that made up the track and a heavily-laden trailer, it was obviously going nowhere fast. I got out my bridle chain and connected it to the front hooks of my Land Cruiser, and the other driver came over with his snatch strap and a D-shackle. After hooking it all up, I reversed in low range and pulled him up the hill. Who says we don't do serious 4WD stuff up here? This ain't the K-Mart car park, buddy.
We went inside the house and witnessed decadence: while we had been out working, others had been getting pedicures! Outrageous! We had lunch, and then set about (leaving the facial-and-pedicure set behind) to find a drum that we could use as a space heater for the barn later in the night. We fitted a battery to the front-end loader and fired up the engine. Although it was very low on hydraulic fluid, it eventually wheeled its way out of the barn and got parked outside, so we had much more space to play in. After a short forage, we found a 44-gallon drum with the top removed, and transported it into the barn. The Bundera backed in with the trailer, and firewood was unloaded. I retrieved my cordless drill (best thirty-nine bucks I've ever spent at Woolworths in Coffs Harbour!) and installed eight eye bolts in various locations in the barn: seven in the support posts, and one in an overhead beam.
We were all set for the night.
We went back inside the house, and I set up my laptop on a log in the middle of the lounge room. It was movie time. After the seating had been rearranged so that everyone could see the screen, we warmed up with the "seal dunking" TV advertisement for Tango, and then the Dildo Song (see http://www.kicken.com/funnyfiles2/www.kicken.com-dildo.song.asf) which really cracked everyone up. Then, it was time for the main feature: Secretary.
After the main feature had finished, it was time for dinner. While some of our group prepared dinner, a few of us went to the barn and started up the fire in the drum to get the place warmed up. The fire smoked rather badly for the first hour or so, as the wood was wet, and I was concerned that we'd never stop smoking the barn out. Eventually, though, it went into a nice clean burn, and the bottom of the drum was glowing a deep, cherry red. We closed the doors and the space started to warm up quite nicely. This was going to work.
Dinner was consumed with great relish (though some people preferred tomato sauce *boom*tish*) and it was soon time for the play party.
Our first play party here in February had, I thought, rather sterile lighting, because we just used the barn's ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights. This time, I wanted something more in keeping with the mood of the evening. What worked incredibly well was my gas camping lantern on an extension pole, and somebody else's gas lantern hanging from the eye bolt in the ceiling beam. Coupled with the warm, deep, reddish glow from the fire in the drum at the back, we had wonderful, soft lighting, with long shadows being cast, setting the perfect mood for play. The play party finished at about 0100 hours, and then we retired for the night, with me ending my day (as usual) by killing the generator and watching the logs burn in the fireplace.
Sunday, April 27:
It was a much clearer morning than yesterday's, and the mountains were visible, now that the mist had lifted. The morning was spent with breakfast followed by fireside chatter, and it seemed a good day to do some exploring. By the time lunch had rolled around, the front-end loader had been driven back into the barn, the rest of the firewood from yesterday had been collected and placed into storage, and the decision was whether to go exploring in the adjacent national park, or in the 1000 or so acres at the rear of the property. One of our group, the Bundera, was off to see some of the scenery around the old timber getter's sheds. The Canberra crew and ourselves decided to explore the rear 1000 acres, so off we went.
We travelled back along the access road to the rear gate, and then headed down into parts unknown. This section of the property was rarely travelled, and it showed. Whereas all the tracks we had previously been down were well-worn, this track was overgrown and sometimes difficult to discern from the surrounding vegetation. It wasn't too long before we found our first obstacle: a small tree had fallen across the track.
Even though the tree wasn't all that big in diameter, it had lots of annoying limbs that made driving over it impossible, so it was time to get the chainsaw out. With some horses looking on, it wasn't too long before we were on our way again, driving through lush, wet, forest, and climbing slightly in altitude. The track meandered through some quite dense vegetation, and it felt as though nothing had changed here for thousands of years. The afternoon mist was setting in by now, giving the place a wonderfully eerie feel, and the temperature was slowly dropping.
Our next challenge presented itself promptly: another tree. This one, however, was a bit of a whopper. Out came the chainsaw again (yes, I was really starting to have fun now; I'm off to join Chainsaws Anonymous soon) and I cut the tree trunk into a few small sections, rolled them out of the way, and the idea was that the remaining trunk could be pulled out of the way. In case you were wondering, no, I am not developing an orange helmet fetish.
We wrapped a winch extension strap around the trunk, and hooked the free end to one of my forward recovery hooks. Putting my truck into low-range, I reversed and tried to drag the tree off the trail., but wasn't successful. The tree trunk was far too long, and the other end was tangled in some other fallen timber, making it impossible to just pull away.
In the end, we sectioned the whole thing off and rolled the individual pieces off the track into the surrounding bush. With all the wood cutting we had done yesterday, and this track clearing so far today, we were into some serious chainsaw action here. I'd already gone through 4 tanks of fuel for my own chainsaw, and that new bottle of bar lube I had brought along was practically empty.
After getting all of the timber out of the way, we continued on our trip. It was very obvious that nobody had been down this way for a very long time. The badly overgrown track, the dead trees lying all around, and the moss growing upon them all pointed to a severe lack of peak-hour traffic. A little way along, I had to make a sudden stop due to a couple of leeches that had decided to hitch a ride on my floor mat. In a scene reminiscent of Eraserhead, where Jack Nance's character Henry Spencer throws slimy, worm-like creatures onto the bedroom wall and splatters them, so I did brush the unwelcome intruders into the side of the driver's door trim. I got out and made sure they were excommunicated post-haste. I reckon it was another attempted hit by the Leech Mafia. I sprayed on half a can of Aeroguard, just in case, and we resumed. We had climbed up to an altitude of 1320 metres by now, and the track was getting harder to make out. Occasionally, we'd come to a fork in the track, and deciding which way to go came down to choosing which track was the less overgrown. This wasn't always easy to do.
Yet another tree blocked our path, but there was no way we were going to cut our way through this one. It was a real mess, and about the size of a semi trailer. Fortunately, there was a small bypass track that took us around it, and so we took the path of least resistance (pardon the pun). This was slippery mud, but we made it without incident, and rejoined the main track.
We had managed to get another kilometre or so before we came to yet another fallen tree. Out came the chainsaws. I think I was beginning to see a pattern forming here. This tree was another large one, and the afternoon was getting on, so two of us started to section it down in order to save time. The Canberra crew would have to leave for home soon, and we wanted to see how far we could go in the time remaining. We dispatched the tree before too long, but I had my chainsaw get caught on occasions, due to my not reading the tree properly. Due to the way the trunk lay, it was difficult for me to determine whether I had to start with an undercut or an overcut, which side was in compression or tension, and by the time the cut had collapsed, it was too late to pull the bar out. This is something I'll improve my skills on, over time. On these occasions, the other saw was used to cut a wedge next to me, so that I could retrieve my saw. All part of the great 4WD experience!
This was our last obstacle. After a short distance, the track opened up into a lush, fern-covered valley, and the view was truly breathtaking. We stopped briefly to take a few photographs, and then proceeded on into the valley, where the track split left and right, and we had to decide which turn to take. Both sides looked to have had equal use, and after some deliberation over our radios, we decided to take the right turn and see where that would lead us. We eventually climbed a ridge, and stopped in the forest for afternoon tea. The beauty of the place was indescribable, and all you could hear in the mist was the call of lyre birds. We stayed a while and enjoyed the serenity of this place, and then turned around to go back to the cabin. The afternoon had worn on, and it was time for the Canberra crew to prepare for their journey home. Back at the gate, I radioed to the other 4WD for them to go on ahead without waiting for us, as I wanted to make several stops for photographs on the way back. Some of these shots are shown below. We retraced our route, and were soon back at the house, where the Canberra crew had already gathered some of their gear together.
The rain had just started to come down in a light drizzle. The mist was still very thick, and the light had faded considerably by 1600 hours. The progress of the Canberra crew's packing was hindered considerably by JR, who was feeling a little too amorous that afternoon. He really needs therapy. The owners are getting him a nanny (goat, that is) soon, but personally I think he'd benefit more from a gift coupon redeemable at any respectable Jungian or Freudian clinic. The Canberra crew soon hitched their trailer and headed off for home. The crew of the Bundera were soon finished packing also, and they finally left at around 1700 hours. By this time, however, the rain had settled into a continuous downpour, and I knew it might be "interesting" getting back down the mountain.
We had with us an extra passenger, who had come up with the HJ60 when we rendezvoused on the highway on Friday morning. Seeing as how she lived in northern Sydney, we decided that it would be easier all round if she went back with us, as her place was on the way home for us anyway. We finally said our goodbyes and left at 1745 hours, heading off into what was by now, extremely thick fog. The journey to the property's rear access gate was slow but uneventful, and there was practically no daylight left by the time we got to the rear gate.
After passing through the rear gate, things began to get a little bit more interesting. The remaining light faded quickly and it was now night. When we got down to the first set of gates, we found them locked, but fortunately, we could talk to the Bundera over the radio and resolve that issue. That got me thinking, however: the Bundera only had a 500mW hand-held. Its range wasn't more than a few kilometres, line-of-sight. If they had left almost an hour before we did, and yet we could still talk to them over the radio, which meant they couldn't be more than a few kilometres ahead of us, how bad was the track with the rain?
We were soon to find out. The message over the radio was that after the second set of gates, there was no control. It looked like we were going to have some fun.
Oh goody. By the way, did I tell you that God, I LOVE FOUR-WHEEL DRIVING?!?
Sure enough, after the second set of gates, it was slip'n'slide all the way. The black clay-based soil had formed mud that was like slippery goo, and it quickly filled the treads and caked the tyres completely. The track was a little treacherous, as one side was escarpment and the other side plummeted straight down over the edge. We reckoned that it was about one hundred metres straight down to the tops of the nearest trees, but looking at the bright side, that would break your fall for the next one hundred metres of drop. The passenger in the rear stated that she wanted to make sure her seat belt was on properly. I think she had a good point: you don't want to plummet over the edge and get thrown out of the vehicle and hit the ground on your own, when you can do it all as a unit and do the group thing. After all, you've got to be sociable.
I made my way down very carefully indeed. Turning the steering didn't help. Whether you were on full lock or dead centre, it didn't change the direction of the truck at all. You'd go one metre forward, and the tail would immediately slide outwards by five metres, heading straight for the edge. This was obviously going to take some time. We stopped and got out the Staun deflators, screwed them on (took me a few minutes to find the valve on one tyre, there was so much mud), and aired down to a little less than one atmosphere of pressure. I had no option, as the old trick of using thin or highly-inflated tyres to "dig down" through the mud so that you could gain purchase on the solid ground underneath wouldn't do any good here: the was no solid ground to gain purchase on. So I opted for the "get as big a footprint as you can" approach. Stockton Beach this wasn't. While we were waiting for the deflators to stop their hissing, we saw a pair of dim red lights farther down the mountain, about two kilometres or so in the distance. Surely that couldn't be the Bundera?!? A brief radio conversation soon confirmed that it was. He was stopped at the next set of gates and appeared to be having as much fun as we were. Well, at least I was having fun. One passenger was dead quiet and the other had a nauseous feeling every time the tail swung out at 45º and headed for the edge of the cliff.
After we had completed airing down, we set off again. There was an improvement in the steering response with the new tyre pressures, but we still went down most of the track at 45º sideways. It was very slow going. The rear passenger stated that if we went over the edge, she didn't mind dying, as long as it was instant. If you're dead, you're dead. What she was worried about is if you go over, and you lie there at the bottom with horrible, nasty, injuries, and they can't find you for a week. I thought she had another rather good point, and reassured her that if we did indeed go over the edge, I'd immediately fart into the LPG converter, causing us to go out in a flaming fireball of glory. Although I'm a sadist, never let it be said that I'm not a considerate person.
Eventually, after a total of ninety minutes, we were at the final set of gates, and on level ground. We had reached the bottom. As we stopped for twenty minutes to air up, I thought of the owners, who were to follow us in their Prado, which had road tyres on it. There was nothing we could do, except ring them in a few hours and make sure they made it home all right - they didn't have a radio on board. The track conditions for the Canberra crew would have been easier, as the rain hadn't really started heavily until after they left.
Huge clumps of mud, some of them literally the size of house bricks, made "plopping" noises on the wet grass as they fell off the underside of the truck. I packed away the air compressor, and we hit the main road.
It was absolutely pouring on the New England Highway, as we made our way south towards Muswellbrook. One benefit was that at least some of the muck got washed off the Land Cruiser. We pulled into the Blackhill Roadhouse at around 2100 hours for fuel and food, and were surprised when we saw that the place was virtually stripped clean. It turns out they had been trying to sell for a long time, found no buyers, and tonight was the last night. In three hours the doors would close, and never open again. All the fittings had been taken away, and all that was left were the fuel pumps, and a fridge full of drinks. And yet on the Friday morning, on our way up, there were no signs that things were not normal. I'm saddened at this loss - for as long as I've been travelling this highway, travelling between Sydney and Brisbane, long before I purchased a 4WD, this place was a kind of institution. It had a comfortable lounge and dining area, with curios in display cases and a warm atmosphere. Now it's all gone. And there's nothing else anywhere close by that's 24 hours and provides food and fuel. The owners couldn't sell it. They're simply shutting the doors and walking away. I wonder what will spring up in its place?
At Maitland, I rang our hosts at home and found that they had indeed made it safely down the mountain.
We dropped our passenger off at 0130 hours, and finally got home ourselves, half an hour later.
All in all, it had been another magical weekend, and I'm already in the planning stages for the next one. Until that time, the mundane little necessities of life will have to take precedence. Our group seemed to enjoy themselves and were most keen to do it all over again. Stay tuned.