For Whom The Bell Tolls: traversing Bell Creek complete in a day

Aaaaah Bell Creek, the old nemesis, the canyon trip that just never seemed to happen. Just mentioning the name seemed to conjure bad weather forecasts and obstacles. I remember at least two planned trips which were cancelled before they left Sydney, and a third attempt with Steve Hare that actually departed, but ended up with us making it about 2km down the trail before turning back in pouring rain and ravenous leeches.

Finally, I set out on a day with perfect weather, and we got lost and ended up back in Du Faur creek.

Now the Bell Creek “complete” trip has been on my mind since our last great highway-to-Mt-Wilson traverse, via the Upper Wollangambe canyon. Tom Brennan’s notes end with the mysterious suggestion “With an early start, it is feasible to do the whole of Bell Creek as a day trip, though you would not want to take lilos in this case”. I mused this would be a spectacular way to arrive at the Mt Wilson campground from the train station at Bell on the night before a Boree Log weekend.

Topographic map with route marked
At this point we’ve clearly shown it’s possible to walk from Bell Station to Cathedral Reserve if necessary. No more excuses guys.

Much like hunters sneak up on game by sidling up sideways without looking directly at it, I tricked Huey by trying to organise a whitewater kayaking trip, where huge amounts of rain would be desirable. So sunshine followed, of course. The kayaking never happened, Lucy’s birthday party was at Mt Wilson campground on saturday night, and there was only one thing to do. After a long wait, I was going to deliver a knockout punch.

I got Dave Dearnley on board (he even had plans for a ‘secret weapon’ he promised would make the long swims fly by. Basically, dive fins! However, to save weight we would only take one pair and use a single fin each!?). However, the curse of Bell Creek was not to be overcome that easily, and the night before Dave decided not to come. Undaunted I decided to go by myself anyway. At least, if I got trapped by a fallen boulder for 72 hours, I’d be able to blame it on Dave.

I don’t have any photos because I don’t usually take a camera canyoning, and the GoPro doesn’t work well in the dark, but Tom Brennan has excellent photos from his most recent trip down there.

Matilda, Che, Timo and I were the only ones camped at Mt Wilson on the friday night. We managed to get to bed early enough, and my alarm beeped at 5:30AM the next morning. I drove out to Watertrough Hill and packed a satisfyingly light pack in the pre-dawn light. I set off about 6:30.

The walk-in went smoothly, and it was very pleasant and fast walking through the open fire re-growth in the dawn light. It’s looking very green now, always great to see the post-fire recovery coming along. At one point I did get a cut on my palm. But the bleeding stopped quickly so I pushed on.

I had a quick go at using my phone GPS with Google Map’s terrain layer, just for kicks, and to my surprise it worked really well! Actually, I practically put away my real map and kept using my phone, and was able to pinpoint myself to the entry point I was aiming for, and was at the creek by 7:30. I quickly check that the creek was flowing left to right as it should. All in order – there was no confused navigation this time!

Ferny creek
Actually, I lie. I found this one picture on my phone, just before I stowed it in a dry bag. Looking down at the fern forest where I reached the creek.

All I knew from this point was that I just had to keep going downstream, after some time I’d meet Belfry canyon coming in on the right, and eventually Du Faur’s Creek would come in on the right, and shortly after that I’d reach the Wollangambe for well-earned snooze on the beach.

After some ferny creek walking, the canyon began to cut down into the rock. There was a great subway section, one of the better subways I’ve seen in the Blue Mountains. The water at the chockstone duck-under was smelly and gross, so I climbed over with a bit of grunt. There were some long swims after that.

The canyon just kept on going. It was great. I lost count of how many different sections I swam and waded through. Just kilometer after kilometer of canyon landscape.

After one very long swim through a pretty and uninterrupted canyon section, the canyon opened right out to a delta with tall trees. I figured this might be the Du Faur junction. Actually, it narrowed again to another great canyon, and I finally arrived at another spectacularly beautiful creek junction, greeted by a flock of rosellas that flew away squawking. So this must be Du Faur, and the last one junction must have been the Belfry canyon creek coming in.

Happy in the knowledge I would reach the Wollangambe in like 300m (I was getting tired at this point and had had more than enough canyon for the day), I went on to a section with a huge boulder choke. Huh, this was some creek. There was very tricky climb down and then a squeeze through a hole, and at the bottom, there was yet another swim and it narrowed again a bit (damn).

Then the bottom dropped out in a very narrow squeeze/climb down, and I found the actual Bell Creek main constriction! Wow, this isn’t the Wollangambe. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I squeezed along in the dark, along narrow swims, making some very difficult climbs over log jams. It was spooky down there.

Actually, on the most difficult log-jam scramble, I went to put my hand on a log end, and there was a baby snake there. Whoa! We stared at each other, both frozen, until I carefuly snuck by, shimmying down a vertical log, straight back into the dark water up to my neck.

When I emerged from the depths of the main constriction it was deliverance. I felt like I had made the choice to go big, been humbled with fear and doubt, and finally rewarded more than I could have ever expected.

More awesome canyon followed – but wide and towering and sunny. I had lunch at the actual Du Faur creek junction, before making the final scrambles down to the Wollangambe, to a familiar beach that almost felt like home when I reached it. My feet felt like lead at this point, I was getting chafed in my wetsuit, and my whole body was rooted from endless scrambling and swimming.

I reached the Wollangambe sandy bend track at 12:30PM. I had a second lunch and a lovely siesta. Finally, refreshed, I started the walk up the hill, and got back to the Mt Wilson Fire Station at about 2:30. I had almost no food and water left but pushed on to walk through the village (quite nice) and reached the campground at 3:30PM. Total time highway to campground was 8 hours.

Actually, I was the first one back! I popped the can of victory Pringles, and relaxed into a camp chair. Mmmm, a solo trip every now and again is good for the soul.

This was by far the most canyon I’ve traversed in a day, and a lot of it is some of the best canyon country around. Bell Creek really is in the same league as Claustral, Whungee, or Starlight, and despite Tom Brennan giving it 10/10 and Dave Noble calling it “the best canyon near Mt Wilson” it really doesn’t seem to get as many visits or discussion as a lot of other canyons. I guess it has a relatively long walk in, is cold, and doesn’t have any wild abseils to boast about around the campfire. Actually a few people (who have clearly had different experiences) gave me the impression it was really average – so when I did stumble into the main constriction, I was blown away!

My through-trips from the highway near Bell to Mt Wilson via upper canyons have both been exceptional and some of my favourites. I think they should get done more often.


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