Canyoning has a long history in Australia, starting in the early 1960’s. My father used to take me on bush walks through the country side and we would abseil down the side of mountains and wander along river beds. This was long before I had ever heard the term canyoning. These days, thousands of Australians go bush walking and descend into the canyons during the warmer periods, coming out with scratches and scrapes, experiencing a world of beauty that others only dream of.
With the Australian landscape being so isolated and vast, it holds some of the most interesting and spectacular canyons anywhere in the world. Claustral Canyon is one of them located just outside of Sydney, the Blue Mountains National Park, is one of the most well known parks in Australia. Heritage listed for its remarkable geographic, botanical and cultural significance, it is also home to other canyons dotted over a wide area with possibly more yet to be discovered.
While researching which canyon I wanted to photograph while in Sydney during the summer holidays, Claustral was always at the top of my list. It is classed as one of the top ten by most canyoners in New South Wales due to the spectacular canyon walls, moss, ferns and water flow. It’s a technically difficult canyon with three successive abseils in a narrow section of the canyon called the Blackhole of Calcutta usually taking an experienced party at least eight hours to complete. The scramble out of the canyon through the new route is quite strenuous and challenging for anyone not used to the Australian bush.
Before I arrived in Sydney with just my basic gear, harness, boots and few carabiners, I had to find someone to take me through the canyon. At that time Claustral was closed to all the commercial operators. I had come across the OzCanyons Group where a lot of Australian canyoners chat about the various places they have found and post trip reports.
A couple of days later after sending a message to the OzCanyon group a few people contacted me offering to take me through some canyons. The first person to contact me was Les Matthews. Les, who was celebrating his birthday on the same day we went, has been canyoning for 25 years in Australia and around the world. After a few emails we organised to hit Claustral in the second week of January.
Everywhere had a total fire ban and park access was closed to everyone. Luckily on the day we descended in to Claustral, it was cooler and the tracks were opened.
We left from Les’s home, in the inner part of Sydney, in the early morning to pick up our third member for the trip, Jack Scott. It’s his first time as well to see Claustral Canyon. With all of our gear firmly packed in to the Suzuki 4WD we zoom along the freeway chatting about Les’s trip through Antarctica, why I wanted to start Canyon Magazine, and other trips around the world for the hour and half to our destination, Mount Bell. Parking on the roadside clearing, we double check and gather all our gear and make off back along the road to find the entry point to the track.
There used to be an easier access to the canyon but that was through private land is now no longer possible to use due to the current land owners denying access. The track which we are following is fairly new and there are markers to show the way down into the canyon but the markers on the new exit have all been removed.
We follow the track around the side of Mount Bell and take a final look across the Blue Mountains before descending into the lower section. Scrambling, slipping and sliding over fallen trees, the flora starts getting darker and denser. We have reached the entrance to Claustral Canyon.
The canyon starts to envelop us about an hour after leaving the car and have now reached the point to change into our wetsuits. Despite the extreme weather that Australia is experiencing the canyon provides relief from the heat. A few down climbs and we reach the first section. An easy jump in to the cool water wakes us all up and we are ready for the main descent.
A few days before descending into the canyon Sydney reached 45°C!
The Black Hole of Calcutta is three abseils about a third of the way in, which you must go through to reach the main canyon.
The first abseil of about ten meters is two tape anchors which are tied around a thick log. We climb through a small hole, underneath a large boulder and abseil down a waterfall into the first pool. Today the waterfall is flowing but not very much. On some days, I was told, the water can be flowing quite rapidly.
The second abseil, anchored from a bolt on the side of the canyon wall, is just as easy as the first abseil. I look up and around and am amazed at the formations around me and the blackness that has started to surround us all as we travel deeper in to the heart.
The third and final abseil is done in just about complete darkness with only a sliver of light showing where the tapes are wrapped around a natural arch. At the end of the final slippery abseil, both Jack and I take a minute to sit down on the rock ledge and take in the abseils we just did. Although only small in size, they have their own beauty about them.
Leaving the ledge we jump into the pool and begin to swim our way through some of the darkest sections we’ve seen so far. Upon exiting the enclosed canyon, we reach the junction of Claustral and Ranon Canyon. Here we face for the first time a world of overgrowing ferns which line the walls, deep green moss over everything giving an eerily cooling hue to the sunshine making its way through the thin slots.
Although it had not rained in quite some time, it was still very lush and green down here. After a good rainfall and some time to let the water pass down, this would have to be one of the most beautiful canyons around. This is why I wanted to do this canyon. This simple beauty of a place untouched and allowed to grow in its natural state simply floored me. Next we walk and wade our way through the wide deep crevice in the earth, taking in the majestic beauty within.
I spend quite some time taking photographs and going through the sections. This is where some of the classic pictures of Claustral have been taken and one of the reasons why some people do canyoning. It proves to be quite difficult today to photograph the canyon. Every time I take the camera out of it’s waterproof case the lens fog up instantly, resulting in repeated steps of cleaning, shooting, reviewing over and over again until there is a shot worth keeping. Les and Jack are cracking on at a great pace while I’m slowing down trying to photograph as much as possible.
Continuing on, we are all now getting quite hungry and decide to have lunch in the sun at Thunder Junction, on the beach exiting the main section of Claustral. Thunder Canyon, which comes off Claustral has a special detour to a glow worm cave but this time we decide to continue on.
After several bites of food while watching yabbies play in the clear water we finally pack up and continue down on to the final section. Coming into a river style system and climbing over a rocky outcrop of boulders which transform back into a canyon, we reach the final tunnel swim before our exit; A choice of either an old hand line or a short five metre abseil.
Les rigs up a short abseil down his side which we both take while Jack uses the old hand line which is already in place. We complete a swim and a final wade through still water. Five hours after starting we had finally reached the exit point and changed back into our hiking clothes for the scramble out of Rainbow Ravine.
After a brief wait for Les and Jack to retrieve a stuck rope from a previous trip, we pack up and make our way out of the canyon. I had read about the hike out of the canyon and the reality did not disappoint. Although none of the climbs were exposed, they were difficult enough to require concentration. The exit route is pretty long and exhausting. On average it takes about three hours.
On the way, something occurred which had never happened before. My leg muscles cramped savagely. This was not good. Stopping every ten minutes to stretch and get the muscles working again was slowing us down considerably. This was going to add at least an extra hour to our exit time. Time we didn’t have.
After the climb up Rainbow Ravine we make our way to the exit at Camels Hump. Traditionally this is where we would have taken the easy way out along the old path but now, we had to bush bash our way out along the supposedly new path, the brush scratching and scraping our tired bodies.
At the first abseil we find a sling already in place confirming we are on the right track back into the canyon. This drops us down to another section which feels to be correct and we continue on to a small, second drop back in to the canyon.
Les was feeling that something was different here. A quick consult with the map and GPS confirmed the fact that we had indeed dropped into the Claustral Brook about 300 meters from where were supposed to be. This is where the Australian bush can be tricky, and dangerous.
Realising what happened, we make a quick U-turn and head back along Claustral Brook for our final two swims to the section of Dismal Dingle where we were supposed to be. Reaching the exit we finally hiked our way out of the canyon. My legs are still cramping and the sun is setting, this was taking too long.
The final hike out is taking much longer than anticipated the ascent being hampered by all the stops to stretch my leg muscles. As the sun was setting, we finally reach the rocky outcrop on Mount Bell. We could hear the passing of cars and trucks on the road where we left the car. We had completed Claustral.
It usually takes approximately 8.5 hours using the new entry and exit points.
We managed to complete it in just over 10 hours but this included a short side trip to retrieve a rope and a missed entry point back to the exit and of course the issues with my legs locking on the climb out.
Claustral Canyon is an amazingly beautiful canyon. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves canyoning. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would quite happily do again.
Many thanks to the following people who made this possible. First and foremost, my sincere gratitude goes to Les Matthews for being the guide, organiser, driver and everything else. Special thanks to Jack Scott who helped me out by carrying my pack after my legs failed on the way out. Konrad from Bushsports who rented me the wetsuit. Last but not least, the OzCanyon Group for putting me in touch with some truly great people to chat about canyoning in Australia.