After spending ages first trying to find the route out of the river and then many hours fighting our way up to Mt Shillinghaw against failing light in 2009/10, I dreaded the Black River section. Especially alone, with no moral support. Even the name was ominous: the “Black River”. And with the repeated flooding throughout Victoria over the summer I was concerned about how deep and fast it might be flowing.
I reached the river at 10:30am after a knee smashing descent down a little used 4wd track. I treated 3 bottles of water. I still had over a litre on me. I budgeted on about 4 hours to the top where I had a litre of water and a coke stashed for the road bash to my full food/water drop on the Jamieson-Licola Rd. I had used up all that water by the time I emerged.
10:45 and I was wading downstream. Forget the guidebook that talks of tracks along the riverbanks and crossing back and forth. The jungle has reclaimed that track and the river is your best bet. It was cool and clear but became inky black where the undercurrents swirled into deeper pools as it wound its way around corners and over and under logs. I didn’t remember going so far downstream. I ducked under a couple of logs and around a few corners. My thighs were wet but no deeper thank goodness. Then rounding a bend the familiar big log high above the water reaching horizontally from one bank to the other. I scrambled up the left hand bank. It was fiddly but I got onto the log and walked out into the middle.
I put some orange flagging tape out for Dave who was coming through in a couple of weeks time. Then climbed down onto the right hand bank and up into the scrub. There was no track. There were no markers. I was glad I had been here before. I knew I had to angle across to my left and climb onto that spur in front of me. Still no track. But as I started up the narrow spur I saw the remnants of a burnt diamond marker on a tree. Then it got interesting.
It was worse than last year. Way worse than I remembered. Even with the added flavouring of 12 months of nightmares about it. The same12 months of extra vigorous growth made it worse. I actually saw another burnt off marker and found a couple of short sections of track but otherwise it was just find the least resistance. And stay on the spur. Sometimes I was cocooned and caught in vines and branches and couldn't move at all. And it was hot. There was no air. No wind. The branches would snag on my pack or wrap around me and I would have to fight to move forward. It was claustrophobic. And I was climbing the whole time. But stay on the spur. And keeping fighting through the growth or climbing over the burnt logs.
When I finally got to the knoll where I was supposed to turn right (north-east) all I could see was a sheer drop into thick bush. Last time we had taken that, following the gps and ended up in thick impenetrable bush. After hours of bush-bashing I was keen to try and avoid more of the same. So I kept going across the knoll along the right hand edge hoping to pick up the trail leaving the knoll. I checked the gps frequently. I should have crossed the trail. Nothing. Just dense bush. Eventually I started dropping off the back of the knoll and realized so came back onto it. My heart sank. I would have to just make my way down into the saddle before climbing up to Mt Shillinghaw as best I could.
I lined up parallel to the trail based on the gps plot. It was terrible, sliding where it was open and strangled where it wasn't. I went back and forth hoping to pick up the track or just trying to find the least dense path. When I finally bottomed out in the saddle it was impenetrable and I couldn't see a thing. Fck! I went back and forth trying to find a way through. I gave up and started just angling across to where I thought the trail should be again based on the gps. I got into a little clear space. Out of the blue a footpad appeared coming across my path from the left. Which surprised me as I thought it should be on my right still. But I was so excited to see it I just angled slightly to follow it. I started climbing straight away. Oh yes, I was already climbing Mt Shill. I wanted to celebrate but something told me not to be cocky until I reached clear ground again. Then I hit another wall of bush. Bugger. I looked down at the gps to get a heading and WTF? I was headed back up to the knoll! Angling onto the trail had taken me back the way I had come. I couldn't believe this so checked the compass and map and sure enough I was going the wrong way. In the dense undergrowth I had worked around in a semicircle until I hit that path. I was shattered. I turned around, now totally unconfident with where I was going and went back across the saddle, again hitting a blank wall. I rechecked my compass and gps and just plowed on following the heading.
It was so hard to make headway. I was hot, tired, frustrated and disappointed. But above all else I was calm and focused on just getting through there. There was this overwhelming understanding that I had to just keep going until I was out, no matter how hard it got. There was no option of giving up. There was no other way out.
Slowly I started climbing again and eventually I hit the old overgrown vehicle track and just kept bashing until I saw the ribbon I had put out last week when I hiked in from the food drop on the road. Now I was happy. And relieved. I stamped my poles into the ground in a little celebratory exclamation! I had beaten the Black River. I thought then that I would get to Tharwa for sure.