A challenging hike for walkers unused to much rock scrambling, and not one I’d recommend in wet or hot weather, but good views and a real sense of accomplishment at the finish make this a worthwhile day hike.
Start/Finish: Jawbone Car Park, Cathedral Range State Park
Distance: Approx 9km
Time: Approx 4h 50m (included a 20min lunch break). Moving time was 2h 30m.
See also: Parks Victoria Map of Cathedral Range State Park which is very detailed.
Melbourne Cup weekend provides a fantastic opportunity (for those of us living in Victoria) to enjoy a 4 day weekend late in the year. Since no one else in my team at work was taking the day off, it fell to me to uphold this time-honoured tradition. Ignoring anything and everything to do with the spring racing carnival, Stephen and I followed our own tradition and decided to go for a walk somewhere away from the maddening crowd…
So, why this walk?
We first attempted this circuit in September 2010, having picked it out of John Chapman’s “Day Walks Melbourne“, probably because it looked interesting and slightly adventurous. Or possibly because it was located near Marysville, where I’d never been, and Stephen hadn’t been since the devastating Black Saturday Fires in February 2009. Or maybe we were simply enticed by the photo of two hikers looking over the range from Sugarloaf Peak featured on the books’ cover, which belies the challenges and amount of effort required to get to that point.
In our first attempt, we drove up Cerberus Road to Sugarloaf Saddle (apologising to the MINI as usual for asking it to be a 4wd) and walked up Canyon Track. John Chapman’s brief description of Wells Cave Track was enough to make us think the ‘easy’ option was more our level. We followed his advice and ‘scrambled carefully’ up the steep hillside, the gullies and terraces proving not overly challenging until we came to what I believe he refers to as “a short climb to the right lead[ing] to the summit of Mt Sugarloaf”. Which is where we got stuck. And this is how it looked.
Now, we’re not the only ones to have fun here. I’ve just read Greg of Hiking Fiasco’s account of his ascent (with a full backpack containing camping gear, mind you!) and he ratchets the difficulty rating of this walk to a level above merely ‘hard’. No wonder!
So, finding ourselves somewhat confounded – we’d never had to abort a walk before! – we retraced our steps, drove back to Jawbone Car Park back down the road and walked up to South Jawbone Peak instead. At that time it was only a year and a half after the Black Saturday fires when 92% of the park was burnt; it was very clear the greening bush still had a long road ’til anything near ‘full’ recovery.
For the last four years the memory of this failed walk has been at the back of our minds, nagging away. Almost every time one of us (ok, usually Stephen) suggests we go for a bushwalk, more often than not Cathedral Range has been offered up. Like that thing you borrowed and have been meaning to return to whatshername for yonks, you almost get used to living with the guilt of still having it hang over you.
This weekend was finally it. The conditions were pretty prefect – not raining, not too hot, not too cold, fire risk seemed reasonably low. When it came to it, there was just one fly in the ointment… my legs.
More specifically, the huge amounts of lactic acid in them from a PT gym session two days prior, rather impeding my ability to walk. Now, I usually go to the gym on a Wednesday night, but due to a couple of re-scheduling issues it was changed to Saturday. Never again, people! Certainly not if I’m planning to do a walk that weekend! Despite stretching after the session, it was coming back home and blogging for the next ~8hrs that probably didn’t help matters much. Had I but known how sore I was going to be, I would have continued to stretch through the day. (Ok, point made, enough complaining.)
Despite the legs, I felt that this was our chance to get this walk knocked over, struck off the list – and I didn’t want to be the one providing the excuse not to go yet again. Especially after I’d told everyone that this is what we were doing this weekend! So Monday morning we made lunch, packed the car and off we headed.
It’s a lovely 2hr drive from our place through the Yarra Valley to Cathedral Range State Park. I used the time to try to warm up my stiff and aching legs (and gluteals) – the benefits of being the passenger. Unsurprisingly, we found Cathedral Range right where we left it; tall, long and distinctive, though a bit tricky to photograph well from the road due both to the length of the range and the trees growing along the roadside.
The turn into Cathedral Lane from Maroondah Highway is at the northern end of the range and is marked with the usual brown sign for places of interest. The graded dirt Little River Road (that runs alongside Little River) is reasonably well graded – but mind the potholes.
(Of course, the middle of a State Park is the best place for the state government/Vic Forests to put a pine plantation…)
We were somewhat surprised to see the large number of cars parked at Neds Gully car park (we didn’t realise at the time that there is a camping ground across the creek) and there were also plenty of people parked and camping around Cooks Mill. Apparently it’s a popular weekend for coming to the park! Navigating solely by memory (naturally the book was in a backpack in the back of the car) we turned right at the campsite and headed uphill to Jawbone Car Park.
By now it was almost noon – despite my crossed fingers, we weren’t the only there. Given the numbers of people we’d passed, it wasn’t really a shock. The Mini blended in perfectly with the other cars.
Slowly changing shoes for hiking boots (while at the same time, going as fast as I could manage) I heard three or four groups come and go – mostly young families. Concerns about how busy the walk was going to be started to fill my mind – was the car park just an indication of the traffic on the track? Yikes!
Backpacks on, we set off – slowly – down the steps to cross the creek at the bottom of MacLennans Gully. In 2010 we crossed the creek on stepping-stones. Today there’s a nice, shiny new bridge…which you’ll just have to take my word for since I neglected to take a photograph of it…
The bridge marks the last downhill section for a good while. Although the climb up to the Farmyard is step, the path is very well made and if you take your time it is a very pleasant walk. I’m afraid I didn’t take too many photo’s along this section. On countless occasions Stephen has probably wished that I’d stop taking photos and hurry up. Well I’ve found what will limit my compulsion to stop and click: pain. Unfortunately that also meant my average speed wasn’t any faster than usual!
There was so much I didn’t stop for, too. November is a good time to see lots of flowers in bloom. The walk up to the Farmyard probably has the best number and variety across the whole walk, since it’s quite a damp and sheltered gully,with Jawbone Creek even supporting tree ferns to grow near the top.
A sign at the top of the gully directs you to turn left here to continue on to The Farmyard. Another walker had caught up to us at this point. He looked like he’d taken a wrong turn to a running race and somehow ended up on the mountain with only his drink bottle, but when we got to the next clearing and he ducked into his tent that blended in so nicely with the surrounding vegetation I completely failed to see it on approach, I began to think maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.
You are allowed to camp here, and if you want a bit of quiet and/or privacy and don’t mind lugging your gear all the way up here it’s certainly the way to go. He was the only person camping in this first clearing where there is another track leading to The Cathedral. In the next clearing there was also a single tent.
If you’re interested in climbing South Jawbone Peak, the track starts at this second clearing. When you enter the clearing from the north there are three tracks to chose from. On the left is South Jawbone Peak (sign posted), the middle one is The Razorback (also sign posted) – not, as I initially thought, an alternate route to South Jawbone – and the track on the right (which is roughly straight ahead as you approach) is actually the track to the latrines. No, not long drops, the unofficial latrine area used by campers. It wasn’t the smell that gave it away (at least, I didn’t smell anything); the tell-tale signs were toiletpaper and other non-biodegradable rubbish lying around. Goodness people! Dig deeper holes! Ladies – take liners and packaging home with you to dispose of, please!
Beating a hasty retreat we tried again, taking the middle path this time.
The Razorback Track undulates relatively gently at first (lulling you into a false sense of security) as it follows the ridge line south through fairly dense young trees and shrubs regrowing on the ridge after the fire. By now my legs had warmed up a little, but still seemed reluctant to handle anything but an incline with anything nearing a modicum of comfort.
Occasional glimpses down into the valley are obscured by burnt, dead trees; in the five years since the fire their charcoaled limbs haven’t yet fallen to the ground and they remain reaching, stark and barren toward the bright blue sky.
It’s quite clear that the path is well used and it’s simple to follow for the most part, but there are numerous orange triangle track markers along the way to ensure walkers don’t get lost. Indeed, it’s easy to think that Parks Victoria have put a whole year’s allocation of these markers just in this one park. (Maybe that’s why they’ve had to resort to carving blobby arrows into the signs at Wilsons Prom?) However, the further we walked, the more reliant on these arrows we became.
I lost count of the number of walkers that passed us going the other direction – young and old, all evidently following the generally recommended route. How had they climbed up the section that defeated us four years ago? Had we missed something – was there a way around that bit that meant retirees were seemingly able to do this circuit yet we couldn’t? What was going on? As with almost all our walks where we pass lots of people, the general state of attire seems to be ‘casual’; limited water, basic footwear, and no extra clothing discernible. How do people go for a bush walk so unprepared?
Walking along the ridge you really appreciate why the range is described as ‘sharply upturned sedimentary rock’. In fact, it reminded me of crunchy sand at the beach – the type that fragments into pieces as you break the crust. Only these rocks were formed from sand/silt in the Devonian period, a few hundred million years ago. No wonder they’re a bit harder than the crusty sand bits on the beach.
Don’t get too excited at the sneak peaks you get back over the ridge – soon enough you’ll have plenty of opportunity for looking around as you really start climbing. And there’s still plenty to see around you.
Sugarloaf Peak, being the highest point along the ridge, is tall and narrow and sticks out like a sore thumb. But we were too busy looking at the view behind us to pay much attention at first of what was ahead. I had in my mind that the ridge was pretty flat – that’s certainly how it looks from the main road – and the real challenge would be getting down that tricky bit from last time. But as we kept climbing and clambering over increasingly large rocks along the ridge line, the peak in front loomed ever higher. It even got to the point where I put my camera away so I could focus on climbing properly instead of worrying what it might be banging against as I held the strap between my teeth. That may be fine for short diversions, but when you’re combing what is essentially a rock wall – it’s better to keep the camera somewhere safe.
We didn’t re-read the track notes or anyone else’s blog posts about the walk before setting out (at least, I didn’t) and on reflection I’m really glad we didn’t. Although John Chapman certainly doesn’t make it sound scary, had I read Greg’s Hiking Fiasco post or Neil’s Bushwalking Blog (plus the mention in his Northern Circuit post) post on this walk, there’s a very high probability that we’d never have tackled this walk. Putting something in the ‘Too Hard’ basket is a very convenient excuse not to accept a challenge. As it was, I’m left to reflect the marvellous ways we try to kid and talk ourselves out of something we don’t really want to contemplate even when it’s right in our face.
“I wonder what mountain that is?” became, “Is that part of this ridge?” which lead to, “Surely we don’t have to climb that?!”. Inevitably, the reality of the situation is accepted and you admit to yourself that yes, indeed, that shark’s fin of some “Sharply upturned sedimentary rock” IS part of the track, and what’s more, “Yep, the track goes straight up”. Don’t forget to follow the orange triangles! There’s one place where it looks like the path leads down, but as far as I could see from the ‘junction’ it doesn’t go anywhere. Keep following the markers straight up.
I knew we were almost there when I saw someone else at the top. We knew had made it when we got our cameras back out. Wooo!
Now, about this down bit….
Once you’ve had the freedom of two hands (or maybe it’s just that the path down quickly requires both hands again) the camera was soon back in the top pouch of my backpack, only withdrawn for a quick photo here and there. The people we saw at the top were a group of three young hikers, who started back down shortly after us. I have to say I welcomed their company on this section because they clearly managed to get up – maybe they knew a better way down, or at the least, if we got stuck it was more people around to help out.
Follow the arrows. Uh-huh. In the end the ‘tricky bit’ wasn’t as scary as I had worried it might be, but thank goodness the day and been a warm and dry day. There was no chance of slipping on these lovely rocks that are pretty good to hang on to without getting torn to bits. I went first, and just like climbing up the peak, the one thing running through my mind was to keep at least three points of contact on the rock at any one time. The hand and footholds are there, you just need to find them – and trust your hiking boots. Now, having made it down, I found the step we both missed the first time. So obvious now…
Unexpectedly, getting down the next rock was almost the trickiest of the day! It’s a bit of a drop to the next level, and I have only vague memories of climbing up there last time. I tried to feel for a place to put my foot as I held onto a rock on the side and a tree root, but instead I ended up sliding down on my belly. It was only a drop of about 20cm – if that. I ended up with a tear in my shirt where it got caught between buckle and rock, but the others chose to slide down on the bums. Could be the better option.
From there it’s more or less plain sailing. My legs were still not properly programmed for descent, but otherwise hiking as usual. It took us about 4 hours to get to the rest area at Sugarloaf Saddle where there is a pretty fancy new covered picnic area where we ate lunch. There are toilets nearby (best to take your own toilet paper) and a car park.
Backpacks on again, Stephen took off and I hobbled after him, my legs quickly seizing up in our relatively short (but late) lunch break. (Why people chose to walk up Cerberus Road instead of down it is beyond me.) Downhill was not much fun, but by the time we made it back to Jawbone Car Park (a couple of kilometres later) I felt I might be loosening up a bit. Just in time for a 2hr drive home.
In all it was a really good, if challenging walk, and we’ve both come away with a sense of accomplishment. I’m glad it wasn’t any more challenging as there were a couple of sections there that we only just found a way to climb up or around.
We’re not in a hurry to do the Southern Circuit again. Other bloggers seem to rate the Norther Circuit as about the same but without a slightly lesser degree of rock climbing/scrambling. One day we might even pluck up the courage (or have forgotten enough details about this one) to go and check it out.
December 13, 2014 at 7:47 pm
Wow, sounds like a challenging but rewarding walk, Dayna. One for me to consider in the future but perhaps I’ll take some company! Great write up. It is interesting how the mind works. On one of my walks I thought we were meant to cross a waterfall section and we managed it because we thought it was class 4. Had I known it wasn’t part of the walk I wouldn’t have attempted it! Sometimes it’s better not to know how difficult a walk is meant to be. As you say, we can sometimes talk ourselves out of it before we even begin and miss out on a great experience. 🙂
December 13, 2014 at 10:54 pm
True Jane. Ignorance can either get you there, or make you really wish you’d gone better prepared! Fortunately for us this time it was the first option. We were fully kitted up (food, water, appropriate clothing, first aid, etc) just blissfully unaware of the extent of ‘rock scrambling’ that would be required!
Good to have it done.
May 10, 2015 at 8:30 pm
I’m just working my way through your archives and came across this post. I was up there last Saturday and wrote up a post on the Southern Circuit, I used a slightly different route to you. The climb up Sugarloaf Peak is pretty hard which ever way you go. One trick I’ve learn’t over the years is to carry some old dunlop volleys and slip them on when you get to the ‘scrambly’ bits, they have a lot more grip and feel than walking boots.
May 10, 2015 at 9:33 pm
Interesting tip – one that I might try next time for Cradle Mtn! I saw you posted – I’ll catch up shortly. Looking forward to reading your take on this one. 😊
May 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm
Thanks for all your terrific photos. I’ve started writing a story with a setting loosely based on Cathedral Ranges. I haven’t been there for twenty years so your photos have really brought it back to life for me and confirmed it as the perfect setting.
May 14, 2017 at 3:10 pm
Wow, thank you Karin! The cathedral Ranges are certainly a great place to visit. All the best with your writing. : )