The Yurrebilla Trail winds through 54 kilometres of the southern Mount Lofty Ranges that mark the eastern boundary of Adelaide. Walking the trail had always appealed to me as a way of exploring the ecology of our home on foot. In the tail-end of a wet winter, Sophie and I (and Emmie for the first day) finally set out, setting aside four days to walk its length. We’d planned the walk for July because we thought that the cold season should have been all rained out by then. As we later discovered it was actually the wettest July for 20 years, and some of the towns we were walking through were preparing for floods.
On the first day, we walked on the familiar trail from Belair railway station, through the National Park and back down Brownhill Creek to our house in Unley. Sophie commented how car travel distorts your sense of distance. It’s true: cars can only go where there are roads, while travelling on foot encourages an understanding of how each hill or valley is connected to the ones surrounding it. I remember the first time I did the walk from Belair to Brownhill, and the realisation that these two places, places separated by a long, meandering train journey or a winding suburban drive, are really only in neighbouring valleys, a ridge apart.
The pace of walking opens you to the subtle changes in landscape as one ecosystem meets and transforms into the next with shifting sunlight, elevation, soil and moisture. It’s a powerful thing to remember that your front door meets a web of trails that criss-cross the continent. That in an hour, you can be deep in hidden gullies or ancient forest, far out of sight of the city.
From the foot of Brownhill, we take a narrow, muddy track, closed in on both sides by olive trees. It twists through the gullies above Carrick Hill, slick with the freshly departed rain. The olive scrub gives way to open woodlands. The ravens and magpies that marked our journey with songs and caws above our heads are replaced by the high calls of currawongs, birds I’d never seen on the edges of the suburbs just below.
Grey box trees lean across the wet, winter-green grass, the crests of the hills are obscured by clouds. Once grey box used to cover the Plains, but now they exist only in remnants, pushed back into the gullies by successive waves of logging and clearing, farms and concrete. We twist up the gullies and emerge on the ridge, the sea and half the Plains have disappeared in an approaching wall of rain clouds. An icy wind rips through us and the rain comes down.
We walk on, leaving the woodland for pasture, watched with mild curiosity by furry winter cows, ruminating above the freeway below. Everywhere we walk, our steps are noticed and heralded by watching birds. In the open country, cockatoos, galahs, magpies, ravens, and unexpectedly, a duck, perch high in old red gums and sing us through their territory. In the forest, currawongs and robins seem to almost escort us, waiting above us before darting ahead to wait for us again.
The old freeway to Eagle on the Hill is deserted. A handful of hilltop mansions with For Sale signs, and an abandoned petrol station hulks darkly. It’s cold, and ravens chase kookaburras across the big, hard, empty expanse of bitumen. Eagle on the Hill has become a private home, the bottle-o transformed into a garage, the garish, big-taloned eagle statue still standing guard, but now flanked with “Private Property: Keep Out!” signs.
We pass into the ridge-top scrub above Cleland. Thin, black-barked acacias stand scorched in the pale, sandy soil, their bark cracking open in some places to reveal blood-red timber beneath. This track marks part of the Pioneer Womens’ Trail, a track that follows the 35 kilometre route that women settlers used to walk daily to supply Adelaide’s markets with fresh produce. Apparently they would leave at midnight in order to reach the markets by opening time, carrying their loads of fruit, vegetables and dairy products on their backs, normally barefoot to save their shoes. Carrying their income home on the return journey, they would be preyed upon by “tiersman”, loggers who lived in the hills and “gained a reputation, some say undeservedly, for horse and cattle raiding, sly-grog selling, and general thuggery and thieving”, further described by colonial Governor Gawler as a “very low class of man, lawless vagrants, principally runaway sailors and escaped convicts from the other colonies”. Their name comes from the ranges being once known as “The Tiers”, their “thickly vegetated gullies” providing “an easy place to avoid the lawmen”.
We come to a crossroad, unmarked on any of our maps. Three options, and after two tries we get the right one, a steep gravel track down to the bottom of the valley, where the ruins of Chinaman’s Hut stand elevated on a bend in the creek. Two cockatoos watch from the hollow of a tree. The trail takes us over the creek, the valley dense with bracken and the ancient trunks of stringybarks, bark reddish in the rain. We follow the creek, wattles clustering thick around the sound of water. Cockies watch us across the gully, brilliant white against the soft greens and greys of the hills.
We climb again to a ridge and cross into dense stringybark forest. It’s quiet here. When you pause, the sounds of birds are distant, although the undergrowth flutters with their diving and darting. At the fold of two hills, we walk up on a family of three grey kangaroos. They watch us at the trailside, grass in their mouths. We notice that the trees on the southern side of the hills grow tall and slender, reaching for the light, while those on the warmer northern slopes twist squat towards the sky and share the ground with yuccas and long grass. Fires have been through these hills not long ago: blackened trunks are clouded by a profusion of new foliage.
We wind our way from Cleland and follow the road into Summertown. It’s a little strange walking among the geometry of vineyards and barking dogs again.
On the third day, the forecast was for rain, intensifying into thunderstorms in the afternoon. When we awake, Summertown is enshrouded in mist and rain is falling steadily. We layer ourselves and set out. By the time we’re halfway to the trailhead, my pants are soggy and both of my shoes have filled with water.
We pick up the trail again, and the driving rain softens a little and the mist gathers thickly about us, vanishing farms and fields and making all else pale silhouettes. We enter Horsnell Gully, and it’s not long before I roll my ankle, the weight of my pack pulling me over on the track and lodging cold gravel in my palms. We wash my hands with icy water, blood flows freely from the tiny cuts, diffused by the dampness of my skin.
It’s hard to tell whether it’s still raining, or whether it’s just the water falling from the forest’s canopy. We come to a slight rise and pause. The undergrowth is alive with birds, among them a scarlet robin, bright in the mist. Yellow and pink wildflowers carpet the ground, stretching away in the fog and rain. We head downhill now, the incessant rain has turned the path into a creek. Clawing black outlines of saplings scorched in a past fire stand ghostly in the grey. As we descend, the mist clears, and the path is lined with what look like lilies, stretching like a gardener’s advance guard into the scrub. Soon enough, we come to a stand of bay trees, and rising from the blackberries are segments of old stone walls that once stood here. At the floor of the valley, the water of the path meets a larger creek, flowing deep and fast and muddy. We leap across and begin our climb out again. We pass the ruins of houses, unexpectedly intact, with brick-bordered windows and doorways in the stone walls. One still stands with window frames and wooden lintels, grass tumbling from the chimney where smoke used to be. They stand, roofless in their own island of deciduous trees. The houses crumble, their families long moved on, but a few survivors of their gardens persist, thriving in the shelter of the valley and winter rains.
We zig-zag up again and see a koala curled against the rain, sleeping in the crook of branches that seem too thin. Along a ridge until we meet a road, superb blue wrens skip on the roadside among blackberry tendrils. As we walk into Norton Summit, it looks like it might clear. Our shoes are filled with muddy water, each foot carrying it’s own puddle, and when we stand by the hotel’s fireplace our clothes steam. I feel like I’m waist deep in a swamp, and once we stop, we’re tired and can’t go any further.
On the final day, we pick up the trail in Morialta, climbing up the steep track to the Deep View Lookout amid well-meaning dads taking surly teens on holiday hikes. Once we rejoined the trail, we were alone again, walking up along the ridge and into the northern parts of the park. It was drier country here, despite the mist and intermittent showers. The vegetation finer and harder, for surviving hot summers in stony, open ground. Acacias twist, almost bonsai-like, with small leaves and rippled, finely textured wood amid ancient, black trunked yuccas, flower spikes dead straight against their writhing trunks. From a point on the northern side of the hill we look out and can see the hills and valleys that are still to come, tracks wandering beneath the canopy. The country opens, big gum trees populated by ravens and lorikeets.
As we follow the road to Black Hill, cars pass us in the rain, some drivers look horrified, others grin from ear to ear. We pass a cyclist, and smile at each other in soaked solidarity. In Black Hill Conservation Park we pause to eat a sandwich pressed against a cliff-face for shelter. The rain soon eases, droplets lingering in banksia flowers and the needles of the sheoaks that give the hill its name.
As we climb, we can see more rain clouds to the west and south. They’ll be on us soon enough, so for a moment we enjoy the sunshine and rest in a clearing at the summit. There’s a sudden stillness, then a whisper of a cool breeze, and it seems to mean that the rain is coming. Scarlet robins guide us a little further along the track. They dart to a tree ahead, pause and wait, before dashing on a little further. Kangaroos run for cover.
On the far side, the rain comes again, sprinkling, and we weave down to Ambers Gully, down green hillsides of gum trees and acacias, the track narrow in the grass. We pass the 53.5 km marker, we’re in a carpark on the edge of suburbia again. Perhaps in farewell, blue wrens leap among nasturtiums at the trail’s end.
Post by Joel.