A walk can follow a trail, but it can also determine one. It can shape a trail from a network of real and latent paths. The trail may shift from the uncertainty of an animal track to the clarity of a paved road.
What can I say about this particular walk?
It begins just across the street. A short steep trail ascends between two houses to a large, grassy paddock (the remains of an old farm). People don’t use the trail much. Feral deer descend the slope at night to forage in gardens and drink from Byarong creek.
What I find remarkable is that the trail is so close and yet instantly marks a transition to another space. It leads quickly up to a green and open field. From here, it is possible to look back across the coastal hills to the sea. Ahead the trail ascends a steep grassy hill towards a forested ridge. On this particular day – the first of two consecutive days that I make this walk – it is late afternoon and the air is noisy with flies. A herd of deer scramble through the bush. Mount Keira is sunny and prominent above the suburbs.
Further up, the field becomes an empire of weeds. Scotch thistles moult drifts of whispy white fibre. Thickets of lantana are covered in clumps of bright small flowers. A fox hurries across a small section of open ground. Parrots emerge from the brush and fly up to the trees. A track between the lantana leads up to the ridge line. Near the top, a feather lies on the ground.
The ridge line marks a change. The rough trail intersects with an established track. A high fence encloses a large modern water tank. To the right, the track continues past some old pump infrastructure towards the escarpment proper, first dropping down to a saddle and then following the ridge consistently upwards. I have never seen the path so lush. Bracken ferns grow along the edge and soft mounds of grass obscure the old water pipes. A new steel-mesh fence runs along the left edge of the ridge and a rough track to the top of O’Brien’s road is now sternly gated with a “no entry – private property” sign.
Just before the track proceeds steeply up through some bedraggled rainforest to an old pumping station, a scarcely visible track skirts the ridge to the right and connects to a dirt road heading directly west towards the escarpment. The plant life in this section is especially compelling – a mixture of extravagant weeds and curious natives.
The dirt road is less immediately inspiring, with its blue metal mounds and faded heaps of dumped domestic goods. The road proceeds gently up for awhile and then drops to a shady saddle with fire trails twisting down to the valley on either side. Shortly afterwards, the dirt road contracts to a walking trail and then suddenly becomes paved – the black asphalt appearing incongruous in such an overgrown and inaccessible place. A set of smashed guard rails are visible on the left. A steep slope down into the forest is strewn with wrecked vehicles. This must have once been a publicly accessible road, with cars rolled off the edges late at night. Through the break in the trees, I can see the Mount Kembla coal mine in the opposite valley. I decide to turn around. It is 6pm and there is not enough daylight left to complete the walk.
The next day I begin a bit earlier, although there is the sense of a late storm approaching from the West. Deborah comes up with me as far as the water tower. She finds the feather that I had seen the day before and another one as well. She puts them both in her hair and walks back down the hill. I continue up the track. My aim is to finish the walk.
Taking up from where I left off yesterday, the asphalt road curves up steeply after the dumped cars. Then in the shadow of tall eucalypts and the looming green escarpment, it passes through a metal gate and alongside more decaying water pipe infrastructure. The sound of trail bikes in the distance. Roaring mud-covered bikes were common on the track a few years ago, but a series of locked gates have thinned their numbers. Instead, they now swarm like angry wasps in the nearby and much more concentrated space of the Mt Kembla trail bike park.
The trail follows the old water pipes south. A small waterfall on the right is just visible through the confusion of weeds and ferns. Even the highest branches of trees are covered in vines. Just past a disused concrete bridge, a large black snake lies on the edge of the track. Seeing me, it turns back into the undergrowth.
The afternoon grows increasingly dark. It starts to rain – first lightly and then heavily. I keep an eye out for the obscure right turn that indicates the trail up through the jungle to Harry Evans Drive and the old coal mine. Eventually I recognise the turn near the bottom of a hill and begin the long clamber up the dark and muddy trail. The first time I walked up here, the path was scarcely visible, as though it had fallen into disuse. More recently, it had become more obvious. There were signs that it was being developed as a mountain bike track, with little wooden bridges running across the gullies and precarious jumps at the top of steep slopes. But now the track seems once again to be disappearing beneath the undergrowth. Several year old mountain bike ramps already look ancient – rotten and covered in yellow mould.
I persist upwards for awhile, slipping about in the mud and pausing occasionally to pick thin and speedy leeches from my legs. Eventually I reach a pretty sheltered area with large flame trees. Something about the place suggests an old settlement. I walk to the edge of the trees and then suddenly there is only an unbroken sea of green ferns. Perhaps I could push through to the other side, but it seems more appropriate to stop. The trail is gone. This is now, for the time being, where the walk finishes.
As I descend back down the sodden track, I can just make out the bright flame from the distant Port Kembla steel mill surging through the fading light, the rain and the mist.