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Alone Time: camping on Mount Solitary

March 28, 2018
Alone Time: camping on Mount Solitary

Pointy, snow-capped, bare as a bone, and surrounded by dozens more just like it; climb to the summit, pop your tent on the most wind-battered ledge you can find, and you’ve got one helluva #youdidnotsleepthere post on your hands. This is usually how peak-bagging rolls in the more archetypal mountain ranges of the world. But in NSW, if you were to climb to the top of a mountain – say, Mount Solitary in the Blue Mountains – you’d be greeted not with a jagged, crumbling, un-camp-able pitch and the twin joys of sun and wind burn, but with a 5km-long forested plateau; a tent-friendly oasis suspended in the clouds.

Getting your tent there is another matter entirely. Situated in the Jamison Valley directly south of Katoomba, Mount Solitary is surrounded by sheer cliffs, gaping gorges and pelts of wilderness on all sides – obstacles that make it known to people only from a distance. To us, it’s a reassuring thought that despite the thousands of eyes gazing upon it from the lookout at Echo Point, few people go the extra klicks to camp there overnight.


Hike in, hike out

So, it was on the high of autumn’s arrival that we shouldered our packs and set our sights on the summit for a Saturday night away from the crowds. At 12-ish kilometres return from the Golden Stairs at Narrow Neck, the walk leaves buckets of weekend leftover for the time-poor. (To the colleagues who would otherwise be met with the funk of our unwashed clothes on Monday morning, you are welcome.)

We set off around midday, carefully making our way down the knee-rattling 800m descent with runoff from recent rain rushing beneath our feet. Joining Federal Pass at the bottom, the walk levels out as it follows the old horse-drawn tramway once used for transporting shale. All the better for enjoying the rainforest, where bracken, tree ferns and mosses thrive in the cool, damp protection of the cliffs, and where we were lucky to witness a seldom-sighted lyrebird scratching amongst the leaf litter.

Eventually the track leads to a junction. You could forge ahead for direct access to the Mount Solitary ascent, but if you have the time we’d recommend detouring via Ruined Castle. The short steady climb leads to a jumbled protrusion of granite boulders that make a fine perch if your belly’s crying for some tea and scroggin. Once refuelled, continue down the Ruined Castle track and you’ll eventually rejoin the path that climbs the ridge to Mount Solitary.


The Koorowall Knife Edge

So far you’d be forgiven for questioning why a straightforward, signposted track is considered a grade five hike recommended for experienced bushwalkers, but once you hit the Koorowall Knife Edge the ‘ahhh’ moment happens. Here, the path becomes rough and unformed as it ascends suddenly – and near vertically – up the western ridge. It’s comprised mostly of short, semi-exposed scrambles and a couple of awkward yoga moves through slots, so you’ll need to be fit, comfortable with heights and prepared to do a bit of pack-passing at times. That said, with plenty of juggy holds and no overly difficult maneuvres, it’s widely considered a surprisingly fun and satisfying climb up, to which we – and our still-recovering quads! – can cheerfully attest.

For the most part, the route is well worn, follows the ridge and is obvious to experienced walkers, however it does braid in places and we were lured down one or two false tracks. Arrows engraved in the rock can be helpful but they are faint and sporadic. At the end of the day most roads lead to the top, and common sense, if nothing else, should get you where you want to be.

The Koorowall Knife Edge will do its darndest to bust your lungs and trash your legs, and with its westerly aspect, it’s not made easier by full exposure to the afternoon sun while carrying a fully laden pack. Dripping with sweat, we stopped often to rehydrate and look smugly back upon the ground we’d covered. Oh, and the view ain’t half bad either.


Camping on Mount Solitary

Once on the plateau, the trail continues for another five kilometres passing various bush campsites nestled among the casuarinas and banksias. Only two of the main camping areas have a creek, Chinamans Gully and Singa Jingawell Creek, and neither should be counted on during a dry spell. To spend the night up here we need to be self-sufficient, carrying enough water, and versed in the elegant art of bush toileting.

With plenty of daylight up our sleeves, we assessed several of the camping options before settling on a secluded site on the northern escarpment about 30 minutes beyond Chinamans Gully. Looking out to the cliffs of Katoomba and with room for no more than one or two tents, we were pretty chuffed to claim this unnamed gem before someone else moseyed on up the track. A quick scan of the cliffline lead us to a couple of nearby outcrops where we could watch the dawn and dusk alpenglow a dozen or so metres from bed – if that’s not ‘penthouse’ luxury, we don’t know what is!

If hauling four litres of water and popping a squat behind a tree is more than you signed up for, the NSW National Parks Wildlife Service has done a mighty fine job pimping the Ruined Castle campground with rainwater tanks, shelters and composting toilets. Many walkers base themselves here and tackle the Koorowall assault without the burden of heavy packs. Alternatively, Ruined Castle campground is a good place to stop on night one of a three-day 34km walk, which then climbs up and over Mount Solitary to a basic bush campsite near the Kedumba River, before finishing in Wentworth Falls where you can jump on a train back to Katoomba.


Stop and stare

To say the views from Mount Solitary are worth the climb is to put it mildly, and the usual superlatives do them only half the justice. To the south lie the rugged Wild Dog Mountains and Kanangra Boyd Wilderness, and from Melvilles Lookout near Chinamans Gully you can see the striking blue waters of Lake Burragorang in the distance. Look to the north and you’ll clap eyes on the villages of the Blue Mountains; Leura, Wentworth Falls, Katoomba. We’ll admit that after nightfall, when the eerie rustling and twitching of the bush went into overdrive, seeing the cliffline sprinkled with lights was a comforting feeling.

If astrophotography or birding is your jam, we’d suggest saving some space in your pack for the additional gear. Falcons circle, eagles ride the valley thermals, and away from all the light pollution of civilisation, the Milky Way does some of its best work – however you’ll need to scout for an open lookout to make the most of it.


Seeya out there… or not

Unless you’re prepared to veer off-trail and bash through the backcountry in search of true isolation, getting away from it all for just one night is easier said than done. But Mount Solitary comes pretty damn close – especially if you strike out early and go to the extra effort of finding one of the more secluded camp clearings. Will you feel wild and alone and at one with nature? Absolutely. Is it a mountaineering feat that’ll score points with the more intrepid of your mates? Possibly not. But with its quad-crunching scrambles and rugged terrain, it’s bound to tide you over while you plan a bigger (read: pointier) adventure.

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