Pioneer Falls: Dedicated, Mad or just Plain Stupid?

To the uninitiated to hiking and more specifically off- track hiking a common question is ‘how far did you go?’ the presumption being that the further you have gone the bigger effort you made. Interestingly enough the opposite is true and last night (10/2/11) I found myself in a situation where I spent twelve hours from 7:30pm to 7:30am bush-bashing up a steep overgrown slope to cover a mere 700metres. Machete in hand, working incredibly hard I was covering a mere 58m an hour.

Here is the aftermath.

So what in heaven’s name would possess anyone to subject themselves to such extreme torture? As many of you who follow my work will know I’m on a bit of a quest to visit every waterfall within 100km of Melbourne. And recently a friend of mine, Graeme Wheeler sent me a copy of a list of what was thought at the time to be every Victorian waterfall that was printed in a 1968 edition of ‘The Melbourne Walker’ of whom he was editor at the time. Now after five years of waterfall bagging I was pretty sure I had visited or knew of pretty much every drop around Melbourne, so it was with some surprise that I found 14 drops on this list that I did not know of and which have fallen off consequent maps. The list consists of a name (if it has one), the watercourse it is on and a dot on a 25cm wide map of Victoria so even with this list a fair bit map scouring is required.

One of these drops, number 36, officially has no name but is listed as being on Pioneer Creek (may be Falls Creek), the annotation in brackets being the only such guess on the list of 186 waterfalls and is one that cost me dearly. After an extensive scouring of maps I eventually found two creeks with the above names near Powelltown in the Yarra Valley. Falls Creek is a tributary of Pioneer Creek with both Creeks showing a sudden drop of 160m over 500m on the map.

Satisfied I had nailed down the most likely location I set off after work on Thursday (I work teaching drums at Upper Yarra Secondary College, in Yarra Junction every Thursday). Parked my 2WD on the side of a rough seasonally closed 4WD track and set off through the bush. Initially the west facing slope was pretty thick but as I passed over to the east side the undergrowth thinned (in a relative sense) out a little (information that would of served me well if taken into account later). I hit the lovely Pioneer Creek where it meandered over a flatter section and followed it downstream. As the grade increased the undergrowth got thicker and the Creek which fortunately was flowing well started to cascade down the valley. To start with the cascades were only small and often obscured by undergrowth, just as I was beginning to think it might indeed be on Falls Creek a modest undergrowth free drop appeared that was 3.5m high. Further downstream I came across a slightly higher 5.5m drop.

Pioneer Falls 1st tier

Pioneer Falls 2nd tier

Waterfall hunting is often about the journey as much as the destination and although these weren’t stand out pretty or spectacular as such I was wrapped with having visited another waterfall that has probably only had a mere handful of visits ever. By this stage the grade had started to ease off so I left Pioneer Creek and headed across the slope for about 500m to Falls Creek. So far I had taken 90 minutes to come this far so was confident of my ability to visit the next creek and return before it got too late even if the last bit was by torchlight. The traverse took longer than expected as it was crossed by a number of very thick bands of undergrowth requiring substantial machete work to see me across. Eventually the sound of Falls Creek was heard and upon reaching it I was disappointed to find it was completely overgrown, crowned with a thick layer of undergrowth that totally obscured it. Undeterred I headed upstream to see if it crossed any cliffs that shook this mantle free but it soon became so thick that I ended up searching further afield to try and find a less overgrown path.

By this stage it was 7:30pm with only an hour of light left. Looking at my options I decided that walking 700m up the slope I was on to McDonalds Knob and then following a road was the better and more interesting option rather than back tracking the 1.5kms I had come. The road section was about 5km long, but with the oncoming night I felt this was the more prudent option. At this point the undergrowth was incredibly thick but my experience of the country thus far lead me to believe that this would be interspersed with more open country particularly as I distanced myself from the lush valley I was in.

Unfortunately this north facing slope was completely unrelenting and as it got dark I checked my phone and found I was in mobile range so thought I’d better ring my wife to let her know I probably wouldn’t be home till ‘midnight or 1:00am’ and that I was walking between Falls Creek and McDonald Knob. After hanging up I realised Monique probably didn’t realise I was giving her potential rescue information so I rang her back and got her to add these specifics to the trip information I had left on the fridge (I always do this, just in case).

The undergrowth was a mass of shrubs, fallen branches and trees all tied together with an almost impenetrable matt of sword grass creeper, grass creeper and vines. Every meter required a concerted effort of machete work before I could advance a single step. Generally I do my utmost to avoid using a machete as it is generally much easier to find a way around an obstacle than hacking a path through it. In this case however there was simply no other way it was unrelenting solid on all sides all the time and generally like this to above head height. Working so hard I had emptied my water bottle so I decided to fill up again before leaving the Creek and taking a more direct line to McDonalds Knob. Although in close earshot this little detour took over half an hour to execute but is a move that proved a crucial later on as my exertions started to cramp me up and I needed to rehydrate to overcome this. It wasn’t too long before I realised my midnight home time was hopelessly optimistic but I figured if I just kept going, all night if necessary, I could be home and ready for work the next day.

My torch work soon became complimented by a spectacular lightning show above and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse at about 11:00pm the heavens opened. I decided to sit it out for a little under my umbrella to see if it eased off and besides that I was tired, after about ten minutes it did and armed in my Gore-Tex I set off again.

Because my tripod is attached to the back of my camera bag (a waterproof Lowepro Dryzone Rover which waterproofing wise performed flawlessly) and from past mishaps I am in the habit of frequently reaching my hand around to feel if my tripod is still there. This habit paid off when on one of my frequent checks I found only air. Having a ludicrously expensive gitzo tripod with a really right stuff head leaving it behind was not an option. Due to the hacked out nature of my path, back tracking along my convoluted route wasn’t too hard but never the less I soon came to a section where I just couldn’t work out what route I took, after five minutes spent checking various leads I was still no closer to working it out and was beginning to obscure my previous route with my searching anyway. It was then to my great relief and surprise that I found my tripod sitting on the ground right next to where I had just walked past half a dozen times (thank you God). The rain then re intensified and sitting under my umbrella I reattaching my tripod noticing that the bush bashing abuse had pulled the elastic strap end out of its fastening, retied I also transferred my laser distance meter into the waterproof section of my pack and continued.

Generally I consider myself to have a very good sense of direction; I rarely use a compass preferring to work out map orientation by the landmarks themselves. Personally I think there is too great a reliance on GPS’s these days and I have avoided getting one. It contributes to lax map work and I believe if you can’t work out where you are without a GPS then you probably shouldn’t be there in the first place (featureless desert areas excluded). Pride of course comes before a fall so imagine after all my hard work how surprised I was to hear the creek again, somehow as I had been working my way bush bashing around obstacles in the dark I had managed to turn myself around. I think during the day you just subconsciously orientate yourself by the lie of the land and trees n’ stuff. At night when your world is contained in a small pool of light it can be surprisingly easy to loose your orientation. Fortunately my mobile phone had a compass so I turned it on and at first thought it must be wrong, but compasses don’t lie (unless in a known magnetic anomaly area) so I set out again according to its dictates. From this point on I checked it regularly and was amazed at how much my presumed straight direction wobbled around. The other useful direction confirmation was the surprisingly regular sound of truck engine brakes (logging trucks no doubt as they tend to do their work in the wee hours to minimize public awareness of their activities) engine brakes on the Yarra Junction Noojee Road far below throughout the night. Whenever I heard this sound I was sure to make sure it was at my back.

Hour after hour I plodded on at my average speed of 58meters an hour. Slashing with my machete to clear a path for my head and annoyingly tangle prone tripod, high stepping to get my feet on top the amassed undergrowth and somehow trying to find a path of least resistance through the hellish thicket of tangled sword grass infested undergrowth. My head-torch, the excellent Petzl MYO XP has a flash function to tell you when the batteries are running low and mid morning this went off but when I reset it to a lower illumination level that seemed to make it happy again. When it is this hard, mentally you have to remain very calm, resisting the urge to think you are almost there which is very soul destroying when you aren’t and just methodically persisting with the task at hand. At no time did I feel in any particular danger as I knew that if I just kept going I would get out eventually, my main concern was that if I took too long others would worry and thus my decision to continue throughout the night.

In the past I have been scathing about the incompetence of buffoons like Tim ‘what do you mean I need snow shoes, no I don’t need help’ Holding with his Feathertop debacle and those two idiots who thought they’d get into The Falls Festival in the Otways by bush bashing around the back before getting lost, giving up and sitting down to wait to be rescued. These rescues involved scores of rescuers and in both cases with persistence they could have self rescued. With this attitude I was absolutely horrified at the thought of my wife calling in the authorities to do the same for me so I was absolutely determined to get myself out of there. As far as I’m concerned, unless I have a debilitating accident if I’m responsible for getting myself into a mess then I’m responsible for getting myself out of it. Since this incident a few people have asked me if I was scared about being alone at night in such inhospitable circumstances and I think its kind of funny that I wasn’t concerned at all for my physical well being I just accepted the situation and was working towards rectifying it. I was however absolutely terrified by the thought of how embarrassing a rescue would be and this really inspired me to keep working hard throughout the night.

The hours passed and to my surprise the new day started before I’d even reached McDonalds Knob. Just after dawn I slipped yet again and in a momentary lack of judgment reached out to grab a branch which turned out to be sword grass… ouch. By this stage every exposed bit of skin was quite lacerated and the continuing cuts on my cuts was wearing a little thin. Interestingly enough my body had adapted to my current plight and cuts that would normally bleed profusely dried up very quickly or didn’t bleed at all. I had only eaten a pie for yesterday’s lunch and had worked hard throughout the night but despite this I still felt strong. At 7:30am I finally topped out on McDonalds Knob which had an exposed mossy granite peak, a lovely spot not unlike the nearby Seven Acre Rocks or Ben Cairn but with better views. Below the Powelltown valley was clothed in mist and I felt rewarded for my night’s labors. To my joy I was back in mobile range so I rang my wife (who had for some reason not slept well) to let her know I was alright and would be home soonish.

I grabbed a few pics from the summit then headed down the slabs to the promised land of easy walking along roads. Despite my ‘road’ being marked on my Vicmap (2008) and Rooftop map (in bold mind you not dotted, 2004) my dreams were soon thwarted as it became evident that no such feature existed. Eventually I found a completely overgrown, trees and all, logging track whose existence was only visible via a cutting into the hillside. As I descended the trees gave way to sword grass but eventually I did make it to the promised land. It was a relief to removing my Gore-tex and gaiters from my raw skin but underneath I found over a dozen leeches partying like there was no tomorrow. I pulled most of them off but a few grabbed on harder than any I’d previously encountered and I couldn’t get them off. After my 5km road bash I took great delight in burning the fat little blood suckers off, the aftermath required a towel on my seat to soak up the non congealing blood.

By this point I was in a pretty poor state and despite my hunger felt too embarrassed to show my bloody, cut, and shorts ripped state in a store so waited till near home before getting drive through. I finally got home at lunchtime having well and truly missed work. My wife was shocked at my poor appearance and couldn’t believe I hadn’t slept. Being tired but too dirty to go to bed I jumped in the shower an experience of pain that had me shaking uncontrollably in the effort to control it. Despite this it was still only a half wash and I went to bed between two towels that were covered in twigs, puss and blood spots when I awoke a few hours later.

Stuffed

I have done a lot of off track walking in the past with my previous record being ten hours to cover 2.5km so this little adventure was by far the hardest I have ever done, I have never walked through to dawn before either. Am I dedicated, mad or just plain stupid, a bit of all three probably. Optimism regarding undergrowth conditions was an error as was not taking into account its northerly aspect, east is best as it gets the least sun to encourage this verdancy. I don’t think my decision to take the route I did was foolish with my experience of the country I had to that point and after a few hours I had invested so much effort in the route I was on that back tracking seemed like folly anyway. In retrospect four and a half hours in, and fifteen hours out, doesn’t hold this decision up to much scrutiny but it honestly seemed like the best decision at the time. Having a machete, one neoprene knee brace (think I’ll get a second after this effort) and gaiters were indispensable, as I find a T-shirt more comfortable I started with this but put my Gore-tex coat on once I started getting too cut up (I also had a long sleeve top in my bag but chose not to use it). I have now added some gardening gloves to my kit as the hands tend to cop a lot being in the front line as it were. It is also worth mentioning that I had mobile phone reception which is an enormous safety net in such situations and contributed greatly to my peace of mind as I struggled on.

As I gain an enormous amount of satisfaction from visiting and photographing the rarely seen and overcoming adversity in a self reliant way I have found the experience enriching. Sure it was difficult and painful but in a world that seems to do its darn-est to take away risk via the myriad of stupid rules and signs everywhere I feel such endeavors are increasingly valuable.

My wife and kids have a good way on giving me perspective however. They were quite shocked by my appearance and indeed so painful were my injuries that I asked my kids to refrain from hugging me. Half way through my early morning writing of this account my five year old got up to go to the loo upon returning to bed she started crying, “What’s wrong sweetie”, “I can’t, sob, hug you goodnight daddy”. She got her hug.

Travis Easton 11/2/11

An edited version of this article appeared in WILD 125 (Sept-Oct 2011) under the title ‘Bushwacked’.

Pioneer Falls: Dedicated, Mad or just Plain Stupid?

Travis Easton

Croydon South, Australia

Artist's Description

My crazy walk into Pioneer Falls.

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