I’d been back in the country a few hours. My phone beeped. It was Jamie.
Fuck fruit baskets, that, friends, is how you welcome a man home.
Jamie Mennie is the kind of guy that always has an epic adventure plan up his sleeve, and the balls up his pantsleg to pull it off.
He isn’t the kind of person to be obsessed with just one pastime either. Chuck him a mountainbike and he’ll outride most people, a kayak and he’ll paddle circles around ya, a longboard and he’ll bomb hills he probably shouldn’t, a wakeboard, climbing shoes, whatever; Jamie will give it a solid crack. So when he picks you up the only things you know you’ll get for sure is the cheekiest of grins and a legendary adventure. The last trip, he had me abseiling off waterfalls into a virgin rainforest canyon finding gemstones. The time before we were scrambling into an epic hidden valley so remote and dangerous that we found actual human skeletal remains on a ledge half way down.
So when he picked me up in the morning the adrenaline was already pumping in anticipation.
The plan was to head out to a place called Yalwal, at the end of a dead end valley in rural NSW, about 30kms West of a small town called Nowra. 150 years ago gold was discovered at Yalwal. A lot of gold. A whole town emerged in this remote valley along the shores of the little creek that ran through it. Centuries of silence was replaced by the noise of huge crushing machines that operated around the clock, stopping only for an hour or two on Sundays.
Over the next 50 years a huge amount of gold was mined at Yalwal, hewn from the solid rock in open cut mines and deep shafts.
After most of the gold was found and the Great Depression hit, the town slowly dwindled and eventually died, the nail in the coffin being a huge bushfire in 1939 which decimated most of the old mining town and killed one of the miners who ran back from the shelter of the creek to get his gold. After a few decades as a spooky burnt-out ghost town, the little creek was eventually dammed, drowning the remains of Yalwal town and the stories of the families that lived there forever under the deep, dark, cool waters.
But not everything was covered by the water. Jamie had heard rumour of the mines up on the steep hillsides surrounding the dam, now overgrown by bush, but open and ready to be explored.
“There’s mines on both side of the river, and as you paddle up you can see the remains of all the old mining operations cut into the riverbank, which used to be the hillside. We’re gonna head up and abseil, if we have to, into the old mines and maybe see if there is any gold left behind!”
And there was also the legend of Billy Blue to consider. He was one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the area. His people owned the land for thousands of years before the gold miners took over, sitting on the cliff tops sharpening their spears as the town emerged. Billy Blue knew the location of a hidden patch of gold, and whenever he needed money for something he’d just go dig some of it up and cash it in. He took the secret location of Billy’s legendary crack with him to his grave. Never know, we could be the ones to stumble across it…
Jamie had checked on google earth and some old maps he’s found for the locations of where he thought the good deep old mines would be. We pulled up on the south bank of the creek, dragged the kayaks up and trudged up the steep hillside in search of the lost mines.
Turns out, they’re everywhere. Using bullock teams and huge machinery brought in from all over the country, the miners at Yalwal had moved thousands of tons of rock, digging tunnels hundreds of metres into the hillside. Most of the ones we found had had partial collapses that we had to squeeze through, past the splintered remains of the eucalyptus struts. Most were full to knee-deep with freezing water that was seeping through the walls from recent rain. We spent hours exploring the tunnels crisscrossing the hillside.
Many of the mines were no more than 50 metres long, spooky, damp and completely empty of gold. Unfortunately for us it seems the gold miners were actually pretty good at finding it all.
We saved the biggun, the scariest tunnel of all til last. Cut straight into the hillside, full of green clear water and old tram tracks, it shot straight down into pitch blackness. There’s no way I would have gone into it if I was there exploring by myself. But with Jamie there, there was no way I would ever have backed out.
When adventuring, it’s always best to bring someone super brave, because your manpride ensures that you will pretend to be super brave too.
I got my pocket knife out, just in case I had to cut a leg off to escape from under a boulder.
In the dark, wading through century-old partially collapsed mines, ones imagination tends to amplify scary thoughts. They echo through the dark corners of your mind. Some ancient part of your brain begins insisting that this is not the kind place you should be on a Sunday afternoon.
We pushed on until the mine forked and narrowed to the point where we’d have to crawl through the water. Goldless and shivery we turned back, balancing on the submerged ancient tracks to wade our way back towards the light. As we neared the light and spirits began to lift the mines had one last surprise in store. A girlish shriek from Jamie (or was that me, who can remember the details…) alerted me to the presence of other living creatures in the cave. Bats. Little disgusting pug nosed blind winged rats, fluttering stupidly towards our faces. We’d disturbed a bunch of the little scary suckers and they wanted our delicious blood. Actually, we’d trapped them between their home and the light and they were freaking out as we edged them closer and closer to it. Ducking behind Jamie valiantly, we scrambled our way out of the last 100 meters of tunnel into the glorious sun, safety and freedom.
We paddled back to the car, kayaks buoyant with all the gold we didn’t have. Jamie had thoughtfully packed the back seat full of cold beer. This man knows how to adventure.
We were planning the next mission already. Jamie had discovered a remote mountaintop about 40kms away that he reckoned had one of the best views ever. Seeing as there was still a bit of daylight left, it was too tempting to pass up… But that’s another story.