Gone wanderin’ in Gondwanaland

By Gemma Chilton 26 September 2016
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A weekend hike in Barrington Tops National Park that will take you from subtropical to subalpine, just a short drive from Sydney.

Day one: Take one

IT WAS ABOUT four o’clock in the afternoon when we reached Wombat Creek Campground, 10km from where we’d parked the car and set off just before midday. That’s 10km of mostly steep uphill on what they call the Corker Trail for pretty good reason.

It was the Friday afternoon of a long weekend and we’d planned on spending the night there and trekking the 8km to Junction Pools the following day, and then the 18km home on day three.

It had been raining on and off during the past few hours, but not miserably so – surrounded by verdant temperate rainforest, giant moss-covered tree trunks and the music of birdsong, the weather only added to the lushness.

barrington tops nsw

Dropping our packs, stretching our backs and eagerly anticipating a hot cup of tea, I wasn’t prepared for the look of dismay that swept over my husband’s face as he stood over his open pack, looking up from the tent bag in his hands.

A couple of weeks earlier, we’d camped out on a friend’s rural property, and had brought along two tents – and, as we were now discovering, at some point between then and now the poles for one (which we had with us) had ended up with the other (which was in a cupboard, a 10km hike and 3.5-hour drive away in Sydney).

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We had to make a call – we could Bear Grylls-it with some sticks and the tent fly and spend a soggy, cold night there, or we could turn on our heels and make the return hike under what remained of daylight.

It’s impressive the mental about-turns that are possible when necessary, and all thoughts of “the campsite is just around the next bend” and “I can’t wait to take off this pack and kick off these boots” turned into an unexpected 10km return trip, half in the dark.

Day one: Take two

Having elicited a few laughs from friends at our own expense, we were determined to give the Corker Trail another shot based on what we’d seen so far – gear-list checked and re-checked, and unpacked and double-re-checked this time.

Located in Barrington Tops National Park in the NSW Hunter Region, the Corker Trail is mostly an old fire trail, so it’s wide and easy to navigate. The biggest challenge is that first steep section that gives it its name, but to be honest ‘corker’ is probably a bit of an overstatement: last time, we’d made it to the first campsite in four hours (back in two) and the ascent flattens out at regular enough intervals that the overall effect isn’t too punishing. This time around, we didn’t have a long weekend to play with, and instead had overnighted on Friday at a pub at the nearby town of Dungog, and the following morning set off with serious deja vu from the same starting point, Lagoon Pinch Picnic Area.

barrington tops nsw

It was late May and the air was icy fresh and the skies clear, but as we’d approached Barrington Tops we’d seen the gathering clouds – the forecast was for snow.

Knowing how we’d (in the end, relatively comfortably) survived a return trip last time, we figured we’d make it all the way to the Junction Pools campsite on day one this time and return the next day.

This section of Barrington Tops National Park is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia – 50 separate reserves between Brisbane and Newcastle, World Heritage listed in 1986. “Few places on earth contain so many plants and animals which remain relatively unchanged from their ancestors in the fossil record,” the listing boasts.

barrington tops nsw

Historic Carey’s Hut.

The track is flanked by giant ferns only outdone by the imposing tree trunks coated in dangling mosses. We listened out for the familiar whip birds and stopped in our tracks in excitement when we heard the strange, almost schizophrenic cry of a lyrebird somewhere out of site.

We passed that original Wombat Creek Campground at about midday, at which point the landscape had begun to transform from subtropical to subalpine, as the forest flattened out and opened up and those green ferns turned to gnarly eucalypts.

Winter wonderland

From early on in the hike, wind had picked up and was moaning through the trees and rustling the canopy somewhat disconcertingly – at one point we came across an enormous eucalypt that had fallen across the track.

With almost perfect timing, what had been intermittent, misting rain turned into snow when we reached historic Carey’s Hut, just before Carey’s Peak lookout. The charming old hut was originally built in 1934 and repaired in the 1970s. It was here we took shelter from the snow for our packed sandwiches and to fire-up the camp-stove for a cup of hand-warming tea as we watched snow fall outside, weighing down dainty ferns and overlaying a quietness on the surrounds.

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We made a dash to the lookout, but there was no visibility, so continued on our way through alpine country, now trudging through fresh snow, past another campsite, Black Swamp, which looks out over a large, open expanse of alpine swampland.

We also stopped at Aeroplane Hill, a memorial site for a plane crash in the area in the 1940s. The National Park is notorious for plane crashes, including another in the 1980s, from which the crew and wreckage have never been located – an apt reminder of the size and remoteness of our surroundings.

Our arrival at Junction Pools campsite – accessible by 4WD from another direction – was marked by a wide, clear mountain stream that we rock-hopped across. There were a few other campers scattered about the area, but the campsite is spread over a lovely wide-open space high on the plateau of Barrington Tops and there was plenty of room for us to find a quiet corner just to ourselves.

barrington tops nsw

It was definitely going to be a good night to have shelter. The wind had picked up more and the snow had become more like sideways sleet. We pulled out our trusty tent with all its poles and before long were bunkered down for the night ahead.

Day two

By the next morning the snow had mostly melted. We packed up and retraced our steps back down the Corker. The silvery morning light soon brightened as the sun rose in the sky and alpine country turned back into ancient rainforest.

We enjoyed the final descent with fresh eyes – having previously navigated much of it by the single beam of our headtorches, which had only seemed to blacken the forest either side of the track. At the time, we’d spooked ourselves with stories of that mysterious airplane disappearance.

This time, we discovered at least one of the mysteries that really lived beyond those ancient stands of trees when a pair of lyrebirds emerged ahead of us on the track. We stopped in awed silence for a long while, watching the beautiful creatures with their long fern-like tails that so perfectly match the surrounding rainforest, and listened to their fascinating calls.

There’s probably a moral in the story about tent poles, but that wasn’t what lingered in our minds by the time we were back in Sydney that very evening – it was the prehistoric flora, the charming old hut, the flurries of snow and the clear mountain streams.

A touch of misadventure the first time round is what had us making the return trip – but it’s the stunning place itself that will have us back there again, no doubt.

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The essentials

The Track: The Corker Trail is officially a 20km return track from Lagoon Pinch Picnic Area to Carey’s Peak lookout. Junction Pools campsite is a further 8km along the track.

Where: Barrington Tops National Park is in the Hunter region of NSW, about 200km north of Sydney.

When: October to May. Several trails close for the winter, from 1 June to 1 October.

Camping: There are three campsites to choose from on this track: Wombat Creek, which has a fresh water stream and a pit toilet; Black Swamp (no facilities); and Junction Pools campground (accessible by 4WD, has toilet and barbecue facilities according to the National Parks website).

More info: www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/Walking-tracks/Corker-trail