TRIP REPORT FOR FEBRUARY 25-26, 2006
Friday, February 24:
The idea is to get away early today. Almost everybody that's going up has been to The Mountain before, so the usual departure time of 1800 hours doesn't really apply - they can find their own way there. The only exceptions are three newbies in two vehicles, and they've been able to arrange their schedules to get away early and meet up by mid-afternoon. The first, Sv, has rented a 100 series Land Cruiser just for the occasion - it's his first time 4WDing ever (boy is he in for a surprise) and he's new to the scene in general. I told him that if the weather was dry, he'd be just fine, but if it started to rain up there, he'd be stuffed, big time. How prophetic this was to turn out to be. We had of course been keeping an eye on the synoptic charts during the week. It was forecast to be fine and dry for the whole weekend, with the possibility of a storm at the southern end of the north-west slopes by late Sunday. We were confident that the weekend would be fine, noting the caution about Sunday - we'd play that one by ear. Sv turns up at around 1330 hours, and after we finish loading up my truck, we're on the road at 1400 hours and heading up towards the Pacific Highway.
The other new members, the couple of JW and jy, were to meet up with us somewhere on the road as we were travelling out of Sydney. We approach the Ryde Rd. intersection to the Pacific Highway in Pymble at 1440 hours, and I decide to try to contact JW over the radio, to see where they're at. To my surprise I manage to contact him instantly, and his signal strength is pretty good. So good, that I figure he must be very near, because he's only using a small hand-held.
"We've just gone through the intersection with Mona Vale Road. Where are you, JW?"
You've gotta love a fast learner.
We pull into a stopping bay on the F3 Freeway and wait for JW to meet up with us there. Seeing as how I spotted the bay a little late, Sv had to overshoot me a little bit and then reverse back into the bay. In doing so, he aimed the rear bumper of the 100 series straight into the armco. Only the blaring of my air horns stopped him from doing anything more than superficial damage to his 2-hour-old rental. This was going to be a fun weekend - we weren't in the dirt yet. After about five minutes, the
We chat for a short while and I outline our route on the map. If anyone gets lost, we're to meet up at the Mobil service station in Muswellbrook, which is our regular stop. We hit the road and head for Freeman's Waterhole, where we leave the freeway behind. We arrive in Muswellbrook at 1800 hours, refuel, and have some dinner. I notice that there's a sign in the window which states that the place is closing down on March 2nd. Bugger! That's going to make it the second of our regular Muswellbrook stops that's closed down - the first one was the Blackhill Roadhouse (see the Trip Report for April 25-27, 2003). If the Mobil goes, we can still get LPG at the BOGAS around the corner, but we'll be stuck for food. I don't think there's any other fuel place with food in town, and the one thing you've got to give the Mobil road houses in this state, their food is pretty bloody good.
At 1840 hours I give Barry a call to see how he's going. He's the last member of our group to leave Sydney, and he tells me that he's just packed the Bundera and was about to turn the ignition key and hit the road. His place is much closer to the northern suburbs than mine, so he should be on the freeway in around twenty minutes. We're expecting him to roll up at the homestead by 0100 hours.
We leave Muswellbrook and head on towards the back roads. We arrive up at the homestead at 2100 hours, and seeing as how the track was dry, Sv had no problems in getting up the track, though I admit I that did have reservations.
Did I mention that it was going to be a fun weekend?
After all the introductions are over, it's time to pitch tents and for the non-tent-ees to unpack their gear into the spare bedroom. Sv's Land Cruiser was equipped with a roof-mounted Howling Moon tent, so all that was needed was for JW to assist him in folding it out and dropping the ladder. G had his guitar, and most of the night was spent in song, with everyone enjoying the performance in the lounge room. At 0055 hours I try Barry on the radio, wondering where he was.
Within seconds, a blaze of headlights lights up the track and the rising dust on the far side of the western boundary fence, and The Fridge soon pulls up beside the water tower at the front of the house. Why is it called The Fridge? Well, it's white, it's shaped like a box, and when you open the door, the little inside light comes on...
By 0200 everyone's asleep or about to be, so I kill the generator. All you can hear is the leaves rustling. And, of course, the odd little fart coming from MP's tent.
Saturday, February 25:
This place has turned into a real car park, with nine 4WDs up here. I get out of the tent at 0800 and head off to the house for breakfast. Everybody is socialising either in the lounge, or out on the rear patio, which affords some magnificent views out over the valley. Over the past few weeks, I've been teaching jwl photography, and I told her that when we get to The Mountain, it'll be time to turn all of that theory into some practice. The idea is to go for a bit of a drive, and shoot some of the sights. Others want to come along and do a bit of exploring too, so at 1000 hours we take the Vitara, Hilux, and my GQ, and head off.
We drive along the north-eastern side of the boundary, where there is a largely-disused (read: highly overgrown) track that runs down a rocky, reasonably steep hill to a valley floor below, which is also resplendent in tree ferns. It's a bumpy ride in anything, and should be good practice for Barb, who's actually getting her Vitara dirty, unlike most people who buy them. Just as I get down to the valley floor and reach level ground, what do I see in a direct line ahead of my windscreen but jla, a newbie that had come up with F (who has been here a few times now). What's so unusual about seeing jla (and F) there? Nothing, except that jla was tied to a tree, and there was only about 10 metres of space to swing the trucks around to the right to head up towards the tree fern forest. We just waved as we went past. For some reason, jla didn't wave back. Maybe being tied to a tree had something to do with it.
In April of last year, I was driving along another track up from the dam when I spotted MP and jwl being naughty at a different tree. What IS it with these bloody tourists that they always end up playing alongside a bloody main highway? Can't they find a secluded spot somewhere? They might as well sell tickets.
Our first stop is the dam, and while I'm going over stuff with jwl, the others go for a walk around and take some shots of their own. For once, I didn't have my camera with me, as my D70 had shown signs of the well-documented and dreaded Blinking Green Light Of Death syndrome a few weeks ago when I was shooting at The Lost City near Lithgow. I had put it in for the free repair under the Nikon Service Advisory, but I wasn't going to get it back until Tuesday, so for this report, all of the photos have been taken by other people with their various cameras.
After about half an hour, it's time to move on. We still have to go over to the eastern boundary fence and into the back paddock via the dingo gate. We get into the trucks and begin to inch forward, except that Barb wasn't in her truck. Ooopsie. Sv was in the passenger seat of the Vitara, but Barb was still walking on her way back to the vehicle when she spotted us moving off. I knew I forgot something.
She gets to within a couple of metres of my window.
"Thanks for letting me know you're leaving! That's why I'm carrying this radio, so you can communicate with me and..."
She never quite gets to finish her sentence, because the next thing she does is scream out "WHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!" at the top of her lungs (mind you this is done in a Kiwi accent) and flies past me at the speed of light. Just where she was standing next to me, not 300mm away from her right foot, was the tail end of a huge red-bellied black snake, heading away from her.
Ever see those cartoons where the character's feet are whirring in the air and not touching the ground as they speed off? That was Barb. She shot past my truck so fast that I felt a sonic boom as the air came together to fill in the vacuum of the space she'd just left behind. There was no danger though - the snake hadn't even noticed her, though she had most certainly noticed the snake. They had just crossed paths, and the snake was already practically gone by the time she had put her foot there. The snake had gone underneath my truck, and jwl was looking out the window to see if she could spot it, though I'm unsure as to whether she wanted to photograph it or just make sure it didn't wrap itself around a drive shaft and hitch a ride home. After a bit of time had passed to allow Barb to calm down, we proceeded on to the eastern fence line.
We get to the eastern fence, and head north through the locked gate (G had given me the key) that took us along the boundary. I was quite surprised when we came across a dual-cab Toyota Hilux coming the other way. I stop beside their vehicle, get out, and have a bit of a friendly chat. There are three guys in the Hilux, they have a butt-ugly hunting dog in the back wearing a leather harness and a radio tracking collar, and there's some fresh light-game kill on the rack at the rear of the truck. The guy in the back seat is holding onto a bottle of beer, half-empty, and I mentally red-flag that as I don't know if these guys have been on the grog and shooting. It turns out that these three shooters had been hunting for wild pig on the next property and were now driving along here, where they shouldn't have been. G has made it well-known that he expressly forbids any hunting on his property. They hand me their digital camera and show me some photos of pigs they've hunted over the past week, and I'm keeping it neighbourly, but at the same time I'm checking these guys out and also checking out their .22 rifle with sighting scope that they have in the carry case on the back seat. They try almost too hard to convince me that they always do the right thing, use tracking collars on their dogs, that they're doing the property owners a favour by eradicating the vermin. That might be, but I'm not the one you have to convince - it isn't my property. Perhaps they got a little apprehensive when I stepped out with the hat and steel cap boots, and saw that there was a convoy out here in the middle of nowhere. I get the feeling they were surprised at having been "busted" out here on G's land. Who knows?
Anyway, we wave goodbye and carry on northwards. I radio the homestead that we've come across some shooters.
We go through a valley of ferns, and then Barb radios that the Vitara is making "funny humming noises." It turns out she's hit a rock, which has loosened the exhaust pipe where it fits into the headers, and it now sounds like a V8. She's rapt.
Before long we've gone through the dingo gate and head along the ridge line that takes you out onto a stretch of land that gives you magnificent views of the rolling hills to the east and to the west. We stop in the grasslands here and take some photos, admiring the view. I'm chatting to MP over the radio, and he says that they've got some "visitors" up at the homestead, so he's going to switch off the radio. Obviously the shooters have decided to drop into the homestead in order not to be accused of trespassing. Turning off the radio is a good idea, as they certainly don't need to overhear anything. And no, they didn't have any radios with them.
As it's now after midday, we decide to turn around and head back for some lunch. Going through the mud puddles, the Vitara has lost its V8 burble - the mud has clogged the leak in the exhaust system and has been baked dry by the heat. Instant repair! We finally arrive back at the house at 1330 hours (the shooters are long gone) and we relax with some lunch. While we've been away, Barry's been out along the western boundary, going berserk with the chainsaw (as usual), and jh has been fitting an inverter to the house wiring so it can run off the large lead-acid batteries in the antenna tower.
By 1430 hours, it's time to start setting things up for the formal dinner, and the play party in the barn afterwards. The tables are set up, one inside the house (the subs' table) and one outside at the front (the Doms' table). Black and burgundy serviettes, silverware, black tablecloths, and a candelabra with black candles completes the setting. While the dinner preparations are under way, the barn needs to be set up.
The first thing that we need to do is get the pay loader out of the barn, as it takes up most of the space in there. It's got a flat battery (naturally) so we need to give it a jump start. Problem is, you can't drive a truck alongside the driver's cabin (the poles get in the way) to use a single set of jumper leads, so I drive my truck in as close as I can get, and we use two sets of jumper leads in series. While this gives us the length to reach the battery under the driver's seat, the losses are so great that we don't have enough voltage or current to kick over the starter motor.
The only thing we can do is to tow it out. MP finds a very heavy chain which is more than adequate to support the strain.
We hook it up through a hole in the front of the bucket, and attach the other end to a bow shackle that connects to the Hayman Reese hitch on the back of my truck. Since the pay loader weighs about 8 tonnes, I wasn't exactly sure if my GQ would pull it out of the barn, but what the hell I'd give it a try.
I put the truck into Low First, and gently taking up the strain, I then just accelerate normally. Much to my surprise the truck just takes off like there was nothing attached to it. We move forward and then I feel a bump, which I assume is the front wheels of the pay loader hitting the wooden ground beam near the doorstop. I pause, and then take off again. We roll right on out and the pay loader is easily dragged into the yard. I'm impressed. The bump I felt was actually the bucket hitting the ground beam, and in doing so, it had torn out the post used as the doorstop for the barn doors, and left a small crater over half a metre deep. There was no way to avoid this, as there's no way you can lift the bucket without the engine running, but a half-hour's work replacing the log and filling in the hole repaired the damage and it was as good as new. The strain on the setup was evident by the two divots my rear tyres had left in the ground when we took off on the second go. We now hooked up the jumper leads and started the pay loader's engine proper, and drove it to its parking area away from the barn.
The rest of the barn setup went smoothly and quickly, and the weather was pleasant enough not to require us setting up a fire inside a drum, like we've had to do in the past. The most complex task was getting the length of the chains supporting the sling exactly right, because if that wasn't just right, it would lie at an odd angle.
By 1830 hours, all was prepared, and our formal dinner was under way. At 1935 hours, G's mobile phone rang. It was MP's birthday on Sunday, and unknown to him, I had set up for a mutual friend of ours in Texas to call G's number (his mobile was the only one here that was on the CDMA network and so had coverage) and wish MP a happy birthday. This picked MP right up and I'm glad CR's getting up at 0230 his time to make a phone call was worth it.
By 2000 hours, dinner is over and it's time to play. The dining table at the front is cleared and made available for other things now. Some people play in the house, some play in the barn, but by 2300 hours everyone's had a big night and it's time to wind down with more music from G and his guitar in the lounge room. By 0030 hours, it's lights out for all - it's been a big day.
Sunday, February 26:
I get up at 0800 again. It's been a warmer night than the last one, and the reason why is the small amount of cloud cover that kept the heat in the atmosphere. Today is a chill-out day, just taking it easy. In order to save time later on, the first order of the day after breakfast is to pack up all the tents. The rest of the morning is spent quad riding, talking, hanging around the house, and some even indulged in a little bit of play. A bit of time was spent searching for Sv, who seemed to have disappeared. That was resolved when we found him, sound asleep, in the back seat of the 100 series. Apparently the wine from last night had caught up with him. Towards the end of the morning, F and jla leave for home. I go for a bit of a quad ride, but encounter a little bit of rain on my way around a grove of tree ferns. No doubt now, it's going to be a little wet when we leave, but if it's like this, it won't affect the tracks in any great fashion. We start getting the trucks ready, and settle into lunch. As the gear is packed away, there's a little bit of show and tell from the toy bags.
It's now almost 1300 hours, and that threat of a storm for Sunday looks like it's going to be well and truly realised. Looking out across the valley, the rains could be seen pelting down. It was only a matter of time before they would reach here, and make leaving impossible.
We had to get off the mountain. Now.
We finish packing and cleaning up, and hit the trails by 1320 hours. Eight vehicles stir the dust as a few drops of rain hit the windshield. The track down from the east gate doesn't feel too bad, but the rain has increased a little and you just know it's got to give way to that nasty slippery mud sooner or later, so it pays to be alert and prepared.
t's driving my truck down, and when the track begins to get a little slippery, I get out and take the wheel of the 100 series from Sv. Seeing as he's got no previous 4WD experience, there was no way I was going to allow him to drive down - he'd just go straight over the edge. Making it harder to drive is the fact that although the 100 series was extremely well fitted out with all the good gear, even in having split rims, it was shod with skinny street rubber. This was going to be fun. I take the wheel and we move forward, following the GQ. We cover a short amount of ground, when all of a sudden my GQ just goes sideways in a big way. And I mean sideways, not swinging out the tail or anything - it literally just slid 90º to the right, as if it had been T-boned by an invisible car. t knew she was in trouble and quickly pulled it up to a halt. There was just over a metre of track left before the edge.
I stopped the Land Cruiser and took the GQ down the track to the next safest level, which was a fair way along. I radio everybody that from here on, it's strictly low-range first, and you'd better crawl it. After the GQ was parked, I walked back uphill to guide the rest of the vehicles down. My boots were slipping for traction in the mud, and it made for a very tiring walk. About three-quarters of the way back, I radioed MP to bring the 100 series down, and it was slip'n'slide all the way.
The top 30mm of the surface was mud, but where the GQ had gone ahead there was dry soil left behind, as the GQ had carried the sticky mud away on its tyres, making it a lot easier for the following vehicles. The more vehicles that passed by, the drier that bit of the track became. Mind you it was still slippery and care had to be taken every step of the way.
The rest of the convoy followed, and eventually we end up on the part of the track that had bits of gravel embedded in it, making traction a lot surer, but still of course not one hundred percent.
We continued on, and now the rain really started to come down. If we had left an hour later, we'd be stuck here on the track for a few days. G said that "they had no idea how slippery this place could get - on a scale of 1 to 10, it was about a 1."
That was probably true. I've driven it in the pouring rain, on a pitch-black night, where it's been so bad that you literally could not stand up without holding on to the truck for support. Try and stand on your feet without holding on to something, and you'll just end up on your arse. That would have been about a 6. Any more slippery than "6", and you simply don't drive. You just leave the truck where it is, and either walk back up (if you can manage that), walk down (probably sliding on your backside for most of it) or pitch a tent in the mud and enjoy the view. Although we were in a bit of slippery stuff, it wasn't anything everybody in the group couldn't manage (well, except for Sv), with care.
It's amazing how so little rain can make the track conditions change so much in so little time. The first drops of rain hit only an hour ago.
We finally make it safely back down to the bottom, and the rain ceases for a short while. We head along the main road and reach the parking area of a local attraction (caves) at 1500 hours to say our farewells. Out of the convoy, five vehicles will make their way to the Cessnock RSL for dinner. We say our goodbyes, and the five trucks leave for Cessnock just as the rain starts bucketing down again. In Muswellbrook, we stop at the car wash and blast the mud off a few of the trucks. Mine lost about 80kg after it was cleaned. At least you could see the paintwork now. We arrive at Cessnock at 1800 hours, and have a wonderful buffet dinner. The next hour and a half is spent eating and discussing the time spent over the weekend.
We leave for home at 1930 hours. The general consensus is that it's been the best Getaway! up at The Mountain ever, and everybody is keen on going back again, and soon. Sv is intent on buying a 4WD of his own now, and is keen to go and do some driver training. I reckon that after he's got around six months of post-VETAB training under his belt, he'll be ready to slide down the mountain in the wet with a pulse rate of only 220 instead of 260.
We head south for Sydney, as the rain starts belting down yet again.
At least it'll wash the rest of the mud off the underside of the truck...