It's a walkover

Covering 44 kilometres in three days, Guy Allenby conquers the Six Foot Track.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper on Saturday 17th June 2000

It's February 1912 and scorching when Mr Dowdy and his wife set off along the Six Foot Track for a "pleasant weekend" walking to Jenolan Caves from Katoomba. "Our luggage consisted of night clothing only," he wrote in the Sydney Mail on March 6, "and our ration of four pears and two lemons, as we counted on being able to procure from one or more of the 'several settlers' any meals that we should want en route." A day or two later the pair doubled back half dead, long short of their destination, sunburnt and parched, having found none of the "several settlers" at home. "To anyone who thinks of essaying a similar walk, my advice is don't," he wrote, "unless accompanied by a guide, swag and plenty of provisions ..."

I'm about to tramp the three-day, 44-kilometre trail myself and Adam, our guide, Blue Mountains cabbie and former theatre restaurant actor (he played Manuel in a Fawlty Towers show that toured the area), has the group doing a getting-to-know-you-by-adding-a-rhyme-to-your-name routine.

"Eddie the eagle"... "Chung the chook"... "Helen the melon"...

The party includes a young couple from Melbourne who won the trip in a raffle and have dragged along a Sydney friend, myself (Guy the gorilla), Adam, two women from Adelaide, a middle-aged Sydney lawyer and four farmers' wives from West Wyalong. Our provisions are to be supplied by a seasoned local called Thommo and his four-wheel-drive with trailer. Thommo lays out bread, cold meats, cheese, tomatoes and lettuce on camp tables and we make our own sandwiches for lunch. An apple, a packet of sultanas, a muesli bar and a fruit box will complete the midday meal. Pears and lemons don't figure.

Lunches made and names remembered, Thommo is to push ahead by road to set up lodgings (night one in an eco lodge by the Coxs River; night two in tents on the distant Black Range) as well as cook our meals and carry our luggage. We are to walk between 12 and 16 kilometres a day for the next three days. Days one and three are listed in the tour company's notes as "medium"; day two is "strenuous".

We head down through Nellies Glen light of luggage and heart.

The track was built in the 1880s for £2,500, with most of that money spent cutting a path down the steep rainforest gully we now drop into. "The Six Foot Track's rationale was the Jenolan Caves," writes Garry McDougall in Heritage Walks in New South Wales. Visitors were coming in large numbers via Oberon, as well as via coach and horse from Mt Victoria once the railway reached there in 1868. By the 1870s the caves had become "one of the most popular attractions of inland Australia," he says. " ... the only thing missing was an adventurous way of getting there." The most direct route was from Katoomba. "Still a mining town in the 1880s ... struggling to establish itself as a tourist centre," says McDougall. So in an effort to capitalise on the caves' popularity a track was suggested.

The then Premier of NSW, Sir Alexander Stuart, got wind of the idea and liked it, and the track was built. It soon became popular and Jenolan could be reached on horseback in eight hours or by foot in two or three days. After Nellies Glen, the first section takes you three kilometres or so first through rainforest and then Sydney blue gums along Megalong Creek to Megalong Village. Here a couple of horses in a paddock guard what remains of what was home to up to 40 families between 1885 and 1904. It then boasted a school, a public hall and a nearby post office. None of it remains now, the buildings having been cannibalised to build homes in Katoomba.

Sometime around World War I, the Six Foot Track slumped out of fashion and became overgrown. It wasn't until 1985 that the historic track was re-marked, signposts erected and stiles built.

Meanwhile, back at Megalong Village we feed apple cores to the horses while the farmers' wives head en masse, giggling, down a nearby sidetrack to "spend a penny". Chung spots a rare Nellies Glen butterfly warming itself in the sunshine. Although it's a sunny autumn day, we've been advised to take enough warm clothing and wet-weather gear to tackle the worst of what the Blue Mountains can serve up. We head across the rolling green pastures of the Megalong Valley under a cloudless sky and up a single track that snakes along the sides of the steep valley walls to our first night's lodgings.

First we need to negotiate Bowfell's suspension bridge. Built by engineers from the Holsworthy army base in 1992, the swing bridge can be crossed by only one person at a time. Then it's a short walk to the lodge and Thommo greets us with a handshake, a "well done" and a practised spiel on the accommodation, facilities and the night's menu. Barbecued steak and sausages, chat potatoes and a Greek salad washed down with red or white wine are to be our reward for a pleasant day's footslog.

Accommodation is bunk style in one of two pot belly-warmed lodges: "Eleanor", named after local writer Eleanor Dark, and "Brereton", after a less accomplished writer, poet and journalist, John Le Gay Brereton, the author of 1899's Landlopers. The book breathlessly chronicles his adventures along the track:

"The kookaburras burst into long peals of laughter. I laughed too, wildly and plenteously, to the amazement of The Boy, who asked, "What's the joke?" And ... I shouted `Life!"'

The only lope we're concerned with right now, though, is down to the hot bush showers provided in three canvas cubicles open to the sky. The water is warmed over a fire, transferred to a bucket and mixed with cold and then tipped into a canvas shower bag. The temperature is starting the night's nose-dive towards freezing and the hot shower is welcome, if short, and the scramble back into clothes frenzied.

The next morning the thermometer reads -4C. At 9am we head off up the hill by Murdering Creek towards the fenced yards of Kyangatha Homestead, a heavy frost still carpeting the shadows. Kyangatha marks the top of the first steep stretch of the day's walking (up and down over 16 kilometres to a campsite at 1,050 metres from the lodge's 280 metres above sea level) and it's here that two of the fiftysomething farmers' wives decide the steep walk ahead is too much for them. We wave goodbye as Thommo drives them the long way round to the campsite. The rest of us press on.

We spotted surprisingly little wildlife, apart from a swamp wallaby near the Coxs River, a host of bellbirds early on the second morning, three black cockatoos on the third afternoon and a lyrebird which tore across the fire trail in front of me just before we reached the campsite at the end of the second day. Here we were greeted by a fire already lit, tents pitched and a kettle on the boil. Well weary, we looked forward to the promised dinner of chicken casserole and rice.

The next morning, heavy lidded and stiff of leg muscle, we broke camp at 8am and headed off on the day's 12-kilometre stretch to Jenolan Caves. A comparatively easy day, the track took us along the top of the Black Range and down 400 metres into a steep valley that conceals the caves. The cloud cover that had kept the temperature just above freezing during the night cleared to a beautiful day. We reached Jenolan after lunch and cele-brated with a soapy, lukewarm cappuccino at Caves House.

Thommo, meanwhile, had exchanged the four-wheel-drive for a small bus and we were soon heading for Katoomba, muscle-sore but smug at having tackled the Six Foot Track with more than a few pears, a couple of lemons and our night clothing in our knapsacks. CASE NOTES

Destination: Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains on foot via the Six Foot Track from Katoomba.

When to go: It's best to avoid the height of summer, the depth of winter and holiday weekends. The Megalong Valley can get extremely hot and cold.

Getting there: The 44-kilometre walk begins at the Explorers Tree, outside Katoomba. Parking is available near the Six Foot Track information bay. The walk takes three days. If you don't have three days to spare you can join the annual Six Foot Track marathon (next year's is mooted for March 3). This year's winner, Paul Arthur, took three hours and 25 minutes.

Where you stay: Great Australian Walks owns bunk-style lodges beside the Coxs River (the only formal accommodation available on the track). There are also public campsites at the Coxs River and on the Black Range.

Bookings: Great Australian Walks offers three-day guided tours every Friday during spring and autumn and on selected dates in summer and winter. The cost is $450 ($480 with GST) a head including accommodation, all meals and transfers to/from Katoomba station. Special trip on the first Friday of March and September and the last Friday in May and November includes an extra night free at Gatehouse Lodge, Jenolan Caves (meals not included). The company also offers a five-day tour ex-Sydney leaving Thursdays. Phone (02) 9555 7580, email gowalkaus@rivers.com.au.

Cox's River Escapes offer the reverse 4WD-supported trip (starting at Jenolan Caves). Accommodation is in tents both nights. The cost is $434.50 (children and seniors $390.50) including all meals, transfers and tents. Phone (02) 4784 1621, email coxrivesc@hermes.net.au

Sydney and Blue Mountains bushwalking clubs also occasionally organise walks along the track, although it is generally considered too civilised for the hardened walker. For a list of local clubs go to the NSW Confederation of Bushwalking Clubs' Web site.

What to read: Heritage Walks in New South Wales by Garry McDougall (Kangaroo Press).