Alison Mackay and Richard Morecroft test their uphill fitness climbing two of the South Coast’s most prominent landmarks – Pigeon House Mountain and Mount Dromedary.
“It only takes about half an hour to get up and back!”
The man looked incredibly fit and had clearly just jogged all the way. That was not our plan. Slow wandering was more our style – and as his voice drifted away on the light breeze, we began our leisurely trek along the Pigeon House Mountain trail. We were immersing ourselves in the bush, revelling in the views and enjoying the wind on our faces. Not to mention our plan for a fabulous picnic at the top. Because walking up mountains is all about the varied experiences along the way – the camaraderie of the journey, the reward of the view and ultimately, the sandwiches.
Pigeon House, though quite high and pointy, is hardly a mountain; it’s really more of an uphill stroll. The track winds upwards from the carpark, which is well signposted from the Princes Highway in Milton. And you can see the distinctive peak of Pigeon House popping out of the Budawangs long before you get there. Aboriginal inhabitants referred to it as Didhul, meaning “woman’s breast” – a rather more obvious connection than Captain Cook’s homesick reference to the pointy pigeon coops of his motherland.
The first part of the track takes you to about half way up the mountain, where you can take a breather and wander around a rocky plateau soaking up the views over the Budawang National Park. This wilderness country is superb, with its rugged geology and wild bushland.
Then it’s time to tramp on along a rough track and as you climb, the rocky summit of Pigeon House begins to come into view. The distinctive shape of the mountain comes from the collection of huge rocks which crown the peak.
There is something, for the faint-hearted or those inclined to vertigo, that is worth knowing before you set off on this ascent. To get to the very top of Pigeon House you will have to negotiate metal stairs, walkways and open ladders. These are all in good condition, but it’s important to be wearing proper shoes with grippy soles.
However, this final push is actually the most exciting and when you finally reach the top, on a clear day the view is truly breathtaking. You can see right up the coast to Lake Illawarra and all the way south to Narooma and Mount Dromedary in the hazy distance. Maybe you could do it all in 30 minutes, but we spent about four hours on the round trip, thoroughly soaking up the experience. And we didn’t rush the picnic.
Next day, we jumped in the car and headed south towards Narooma – a dot on the horizon of yesterday’s view, but close to the location of our next peak. Narooma is a coastal community also known as the jumping-off point for eco tours to Montague Island. The island, known as Barunguba by the local Yuin people, was originally an isthmus that was long ago cut off from the mainland. Legend has it that Barunguba was the elder son of Gulaga (otherwise known as Mount Dromedary) which sits in the hills to the west of Narooma. Barunguba left home and was forever separated from his mountain mother by the sea.
We turned inland before Narooma, heading to Mount Dromedary via the townships of Tilba Tilba (tiny, quaint and famed for its cheese) and Central Tilba – the start point for our walk. We parked near the local store and were directed along a track, which meandered beside farmland to the foot of the mountain. From there it was all uphill to the top.
As walks go, Mount Dromedary is even more straightforward than Pigeon House – there’s a single broad walking track that heads to the summit. No ladders, no walkways, no tricky bits, though it’s a bit further – the round trip takes about five hours, as it’s 11km and 797m high. It’s a wander that takes you through an intriguing variety of small ecosystems. Warm and dry at the start of the walk, you go through a zone populated by bellbirds – their gorgeous chimes emanating from the bush all around you. As you climb, the environment becomes cooler and wetter, until right at the very top there’s a perfect little rainforest nestled just under the summit.
This walk isn’t so much about spectacular views, though from time to time you can peek through the trees and see right down to the ocean below. It’s more about the enjoyment of the changing landscape and the fascinating geology as you climb higher. Orange lichens and soft green mosses cover smooth boulders and the stillness of the forest is palpable.
About three quarters of the way up is the saddle area – a location of great importance to local Indigenous people. It would be remiss not to mention this part of Mount Dromedary, since the rock formations are one of its most notable features. But visitors to the mountain are asked not to wander off the main trail into this area due to its spiritual significance.
Having reached the second summit in two days (and yes, there were sandwiches again!) we meandered our way back down the long track to the carpark in Tilba as the sun dipped towards the bumpy ridge-lines in the west. It was a slow, contemplative stroll, which in a sense wandered into dinner that evening. We sat sharing our impressions of the landscape and our memories of the last two days. We hadn’t been up and back in half an hour on either of our summits – but we’d ended up with a lot more to talk about!