There is something odd about Claustral Canyon’s new exit track.
Last week a couple of friends and I headed through Claustral Canyon, one of the Blue Mountains’ most celebrated and controversial canyons. Found in the undulating wilderness on the northern line of the Grose Valley, Claustral plunges deep into the landscape, a sweeping chasm of sculpted sandstone waterfalls and arcing cliffs.
Somehow in my several years of canyoning in the Blue Mountains I’ve managed to overlook Claustral. Claustral is very popular with commercial and university groups and has been the site of several tragic accidents, some due to congestion and bottlenecks in the narrow, steep-walled canyon. Recently there was a furore over recreational access, when a local landowner decided to forbid people from using the access trail which passed either near or through their property. Totally within their rights, but not a popular decision with the adventure-loving public. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened, but after much negotiation and frustration a modified access trail was established. I wanted to find out what it was like.
Nine other cars were already parked by the roadside when we arrived in the morning. A logbook at the trailhead prepared us for what we would find in the canyon: a group of ten had left half an hour before us.
The short walk-in took us past healthland, wattles and lambertia formosa (Mountain Devil) in flower, before we descended into the cooler damp of temperate rainforest along a dry creek bed.
When we arrived at the start of the canyon there was a carnival atmosphere. The ten or so canyoners from the logbook were joined by another four or five who I guess hadn’t signed in and everyone was wetsuited and harnessed up, waiting at the first small abseil which signals the start of the canyon. The groups were kind enough to let our party of three pass, and we abseiled into a cool, shallow pool. After a short walk and scramble we found ourselves at the iconic series of abseils which take you through the narrow slot section of the canyon.
Claustral is famous for its dramatic architecture but nothing could have prepared me for its immense sweep, its grandeur, the darkness and heavy silence. Abseiling into these dark chasms filled me with a humility and wonder that I haven’t felt in many other Blue Mountains canyons.
Between two of the abseils we passed a worn, sawn off rope dangling a couple of meters above the water. It had obviously been used to enter the canyon from some 20m above, an unusual approach, possibly search and rescue. It swayed eerily in the ghostly light.
After the abseils we waded through the shallow, steep-walled creek, canopies of ferns scattering the slivers of light which penetrated the canyon.
As the canyon widened, fluorescent ferns clung to the mossy cliffs and slopes above, casting a brilliant green light over the the clear waters.
We came across a bunch of freshwater crayfish (also known as yabbies), bright orange and navy or translucent, skittering backwards weightlessly as we splashed past. It was great to see so many of these about as their abundance indicates a healthy ecosystem. There were a few underwater log bridges and fun scrambles to negotiate as we headed towards the junctions where Ranon and Thunder Canyons enter Claustral, before continuing along the rugged boulder garden towards the exit. We passed a couple of other groups, including two guys who were heading up into the canyon to score some time lapse footage of the sun filtering in through the day – that would be amazing to see.
As the canyon widened further we scrambled, down-climbed and swam through crystalline waters towards the exit.
At the end of the canyon we packed up our wetsuits and canyoning gear and started the hike back up to the car.
The walk out is beautiful, engaging and steep. It takes you through cool, narrow canyon terrain, then up a steep gully with a few sections of scrambling before you top out, triumphant, at a rocky viewpoint over the landscape.
From here you can almost see your car. You’re looking across at the old, now forbidden exit track and the promise of a short, moderate route back to the trailhead. Then you turn around and begin your descent some hundreds of meters to the start of Claustral. It turns out that earlier that morning you had actually entered the canyon almost halfway down, and now it’s time to end at the beginning. So you go canyoning again: more swims, wades and down climbs (including one down an exposed root system growing over a rock, which is cool) through a really fun section of canyon. We didn’t put our wetsuits on for this bit (only slightly chilly) and before too long we found ourselves experiencing some deja vu, back where we had entered the canyon some six hours earlier.
From there we took the familiar track back up through the heathland to the Bells Line of Road. Trucks and cars steamed past as we signed out in the log book. The nine cars in the carpark had grown to eleven. In the beating sun we changed into dry clothes and prepared for the drive home.