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In Stephen Waa, (woe, woe, woe what is he good for?) Doug McConnell goes back back the future
WORDS: Doug McConnell, IMAGES: Kamil Sustiak
‘Yes! The no-hands rest, I can’t fall off now.’ I thought with a little too much confidence ‘Grade 26 at most to the top now and it’s not even 2pm on Sunday – who said I always leave it to the last minute to send my projects? But what’s the sequence through the final bulge?’
Narrabri, the nearest fried chicken from Waa Gorge, is like Horsham only worse in all the ways you don’t like Horsham. It’s smaller, hotter, drier, flatter and less friendly to outsiders. At age nine my family moved there from Hobart for Dad to work on the new radio telescope. Narrabri Primary was my third school in three years and I wasn’t big on making new friends.
Other than being generally unfriendly, the main thing I remember from that time was the heat. As a kid who’d grown up on the flanks of Mt Wellington, where it’s not unusual to get summer snow, I didn’t know what to do with the constant warmth. I must have adjusted at some point as I didn’t own trousers all through primary school. As a kid there were limited options to escape the summer heat: rope swings into the Namoi River, which runs through town (think swimming in the Wimmera River); the Narrabri pool, which was packed all school holidays; Mt Kaputar (which makes up the ‘slopes’ part of the region’s ‘Northwest slopes and plains’ name) rising proudly 1300m above the plains was a long drive away; or indoor cricket with a ping-pong ball and signature bat – only an option when parents weren’t around.
One day Lachlan Mares’ dad, drove us what seemed an age into the bush to Waa Gorge (pronounced ‘war’). I vividly remember my first sight of the water-polished basalt. The gorge generally only has a trickle of water dribbling through it, but over the eons this has been sufficient to carve out a series of smooth-sided swimming bowls that are encountered before it opens into the huge sweeping amphitheatre of streaked stone that is the main event. I recall running up the stone bowl – Lachlan and I daring each other to go higher with his parents (Daryl and Cheryl – seriously) arguing about who should try and stop us. There is no one exact point at which it goes from being a rocky creek bed to a fall-off-able cliff, but somehow that singularity is always higher when scrambling back down than running up.
In the decade that followed I played a lot of cricket and did a bit of school then, at age 18, on a day that at 46°C was perfectly symbolic, drove out of Narrabri for what I assumed would be the last time. I was bound for Tassie and I was going to play cricket.
Rocks got in my head, as they tend to do, and in 2003 I found myself returning to the ‘Bri with Nick Hancock. I had a photo from my school days of a big orange wall on the side of Yulludunida Crater that looked remarkably like Taipan Wall and we drove straight there to check it out. Anyone who’s driven up Mt Kaputar has driven under the wall and knows how impressive it looks. I was further intrigued by an urban myth that I remembered hearing back when I was growing up there, that someone had chosen to end it all by piloting his Cessna, 9/11-style, into the middle of the cliff. Sure enough, as usually happens with these explorations, what looks like Taipan from a distance looks like vertical crumbled parmesan close up. The day was recovered when in a semi-macabre discovery I found a mangled heap of aluminium and fabric in the scree beneath the wall and located a burnt scar on the cheese above – the myth was a reality after all. Hancock and I resurrected the trip north by climbing a couple of new routes on Mt Lindsay, a compact buttress near the summit of Kaputar. I Got Learned at Narrabri High (27) and I Wanna Mount Lindsay (23) have probably never seen a second ascent but were a worthy consolation. It was at that point, as we were about to drive to the Blueys to do some actual climbing that I remembered Waa Gorge.
The first glimpse of the gorge comes as you exit temperate rainforest of figs and vines through a jumble of scree onto the smooth stone creek bed and the huge imposing main wall of the gorge towers more than 100m above. It overhangs wildly and without obvious lines of weakness. It was all too much for Hancock and I. We lowered our eyes and made do with a boulder problem at the top of the gorge we dubbed Waa and Peas. After that, the enormous scale, remoteness and obvious difficulty of any line on the main wall had us retreating faster than you can say, ‘Then my Transit van broke down in the middle of nowhere.’
Fast forward a decade (in both time and my Ewbank number ability) to 2014 and one of those lightbulb moments had me frothing about the next big thing with anyone who’d listen. I recalled an overhung pocketed wall of immaculate water-washed basalt and, ably assisted by a couple of Google images, talked Ado Laing into driving up with me to check it out. And we weren’t disappointed. Within 24 hours of driving out of Blackheath the line of Stephen was equipped. We prepared it together, choosing to equip one route between us rather than one each. There was a nice camaraderie about walking to the crag for the next few mornings to both attempt the first ascent of the same route – we vowed to not say who climbed it first and discussed how we were basically the modern Hillary and Tenzing. Actually, we were more like Mallory (okay, shit analogy, neither of us actually perished in the cold at 8000m…) driving home empty-handed, although not before a surprise visit from Simon Mentz (and a female project of his own) who was quick to declare ‘Why would you bother?’, and drive away before you can say ‘Share my tent if yours is too cold.’
Since my first visit to Waa Gorge the climbing world has transformed. I had no awareness of it, but back then during the early ‘90s, Kaputar was one of the main destination crags in Australia outside of Arapiles. The established style was very traditional with bold ground-up ascents by ‘70s climbers like Joe Friend and Tobin Sorenson pushing standards, at least in NSW. My first forays into climbing involved tying Dad to trees near the summit of Mt Kaputar with him waist belaying me while I grovelled my way up chossy cracks. I had no idea that rock climbing was a thing that people did, let alone a concept of ethics or style of ascent. These days I live in the Blueys, where it is not uncommon for people (myself included) to complain if a bolt on a fully bolt-protected route is located three inches from where it should be. In contrast, on a single day in 1979 at Mt Kaputar, an age when falling off a rock climb was a seriously bad idea, Sorenson and John Allen established five new, 50m routes, ground up, onsight, all at grade 20ish. That said, it is not surprising that there are no other established rock climbs (at least to my knowledge) at Waa Gorge, a mere hour’s drive away. The rock is smooth and compact and the cracks are fused, meaning placing traditional protection is next to impossible. The main wall overhangs steeply requiring modern techniques to even acknowledge the climbing potential. If the climbers of a generation ago were aware of this cliff I imagine they would have written it off as unprotectable (due to ethics of the day) and unclimbable.
Stephen Waugh, the legendary, stoic figure of Australian cricket was tough enough to be known as the ‘Iceman’ for much of his 20 years at the top of the sport. Stephen the rock climb is not as hard as the cricketer and will never be mentioned in the same sentence as ‘ice’ unless it includes ‘cream’ and ‘let’s go get some’. But Stephen did manage to avoid being climbed for a few more years. With another winter drawing to a close and finding Ado keener to wear Kookaburras than Cobras, I enlisted two new partners and made a weekend mercy dash north to try and free the route. I hoped that two days would be enough for me to get up the route I’d failed on three years prior. But when late on Sunday afternoon I found myself dangling 30m off the ground having fallen off above the crux, where I swore I’d never fall, I was sure it was over. Had we been any closer than six hours drive from Blackheath I would have gone home, but luckily Kerrin and Kamil convinced me to wait and recover and give it one final shot. I was totally smoked from a weekend of attempting the long and physical route and all I wanted to do was head to the Narrabri Fiesta Fried Chicken (where nothing’s changed in 20 years, including the deep fryer oil). Long fuck-that-was-close story short, I climbed from the bottom to the top without falling off or using any fixed protection to assist my ascent of the rock face. The sun set on the walk out and we drove into the night, briefly stopping for Kamil to satisfy his fried chicken cravings.
I could write about the potential for future rock climbing at Waa Gorge (certainly the best rock climbing between Narrabri and Edgeroi, maybe even Moree), and I could froth for ages about the quality of the route Stephen and how Mark is going to be even better, and Dean – don’t even mention Dean. But when I think about that place some of the beauty of it is the remoteness and the solitude. The more I think about it, I think Kamil is a good photographer and can make even huge piles of junk like Waa Gorge look worth climbing on. It’s not. Don’t go there. Especially if you’re driving between Queensland and the Blueys. It’s 45 minutes out of your way. Go to Fiesta Fried Chicken instead. Did I mention the Narrabri pool?
And if anyone does go there I think the 15th bolt could be three inches higher. Sorry.