Hiking With Ben

Tales from the Wilderness

The Cliffs of Mt Stapylton

Posted Saturday 31st October 2020

Contents

After a freezing cold night I woke to find a heavy fog blanketing Halls Gap. From the house I could see a few peaks of the Wonderland Range before they too were swallowed up, leaving me unsure as to whether I’d be able to start any of the walks I’d planned. But things started to improve after breakfast, and I settled on the Hollow Mountain – Mt Stapylton circuit.

Variants of this walk have been described by Tyrone Thomas in many of his books 1, and by Glenn Tempest in Daywalks Around Victoria 2. Both agree it’s an excellent walk: Tyrone Thomas said it’s his favourite 3 and the “walk of a lifetime” 4, while Glenn Tempest said it’s “one of the most spectacular daywalks in Victoria”. Parks Victoria don’t share the enthusiasm, however, and have a long history of discouraging this walk 5. Regardless, there is no prohibition against walking off track, and this has endured as a popular walk.

Hollow Mountain

I’ve always done this walk starting with Mt Stapylton and finishing at Hollow Mountain, but today I was doing the reverse, both for the variety and because I hoped to have Hollow Mountain and the caves of Echoes Block to myself for a while. So I was pleased to find I was the first to arrive at the Hollow Mountain car park.

The crisp morning air made for pleasant walking, and I set a good pace. Springtime flowers bordered the track, their pink petals covered in sparkling diamonds from last night’s rain. Branching off to the left were side tracks to rock climbing sites in the Summerday Valley, but straight ahead and towering above were my two early objectives: Echoes Block and Hollow Mountain. The rocky landscape gave no clue as to how they could be reached, or even whether it was even possible to reach them.

Sparkling flowers lined the track.

After about a kilometre I realized I didn’t have a hat — despite having brought three in the car, but somehow not remembering to put any of them on my head. Luckily it didn’t look like being a particularly hot day. By now the track, which had started wide and gently graded, had narrowed and become rocky as it ascended a rise and reached a junction with a bouldering track on the right. This would be my return route later in the day.

The track climbed up to reach the cliffs, then turned right below an overhang. Now the scrambling began in earnest along a route marked by painted arrows over huge boulders: quite a contrast to the earlier track. I emerged at the lower end of a large sloping slab of sandstone, with Echoes Block standing above me, and behind it the orange and grey cliff of Hollow Mountain.

Echoes Block and the Hollow Mountain cliff.

Later Echoes Block would provide access to the ridge along to Mt Stapylton, but first I was going to make a side trip to the summit of Hollow Mountain.

The Real Hollow Mountain Hollow Mountain was named by Tyrone Thomas back in the 1960’s 6, and it’s very clear from his guide books that he applied the name to the cave-filled block of sandstone 7. Somehow over the years the name has migrated to the adjacent peak, and new names have been given to the block: Echoes Block 8 and Wind Cave 9 among them.

The summit of Hollow Mountain was fifty metres above me, just over the top of the cliff I was facing. The track to get there runs in a long circle around the northern flank of the mountain to approach the summit from the opposite side. Making a start, I walked up the lumpy slab to Flat Cave, located where the track first starts circling left, and spent some time in the cool shade.

Leaving the cave, the track ascended steeply up the rock. A little water had collected in hollows in the rock, and in places there was enough earth for plants to grow, with drifts of lovely purple flowers opening their buds as the sunlight touched them. Behind me the wide, low opening to Flat Cave grinned like a mouth in the mountainside.

A small gully opened on the left, and the track followed it up to a shelf overlooking the amphitheatre. There were already some rock climbers in action, tiny specks on the Taipan Wall.

Another left turn and a short climb completed the circle, bringing me in sight of the summit. A few crows were perched there and eyed me with suspicion before leaving as I approached, sailing away on silent wings. Alone again, I walked up the steep ramp to reach the very top of the pulpit-shaped summit.

Mt Stapylton and the amphitheatre.

The peak stands at 388 m, which may not sound impressive — it’s only a couple hundred metres above the surrounding plains — but its ruggedness gives it a character beyond its stature. And the view was tremendous, covering most of my route for the day and giving a preview of the rocky chaos awaiting me on the traverse to Mt Stapylton. Below, the amphitheatre was still in deep shadow, waiting for the Sun to rise above the ridge.

A kilometre and a half to the northwest was Mt Zero, slightly taller than Hollow Mountain at 391 m. The solitary peak glowed in the sunlight, marking the end of the Grampians. Behind it the plains of the Wimmera extended to the horizon and beyond with mind-numbing flatness.

Major Mitchell’s Australia Felix In 1836 Major Thomas Mitchell 10 made his third surveying expedition, ending up in what is now southwestern Victoria. On the 20th of July he climbed Mt Zero and took inspiration for the name from the temperature — it had been 0°C at dawn on the morning of the ascent. The nearby Mt Stapylton was named in honour of his second-in-command on the expedition, Granville Stapylton.

I wandered over to the northeastern edge of the summit where, perched on the edge of the vertical orange cliffs, I had a view straight down to Echoes Block and the route out of the top of the caves and along the ridgeline. There’s such a confused mess of fantastically shaped blocks, towers, and ravines that it scarcely seems possible to find a way through it. But I know from experience that once you enter into it, a way opens up.

I left the peak and retraced my route back to Echoes Block. The orange cliffs I’d stood on just minutes before now towered above. While looking up I spotted a sulphur-crested cockatoo perched on a finger of rock near the ridgetop, watching my progress. He was filthy, his white feathers smeared with dark grey on his chest. What had he been doing?

A cockatoo kept an eye on me.

To reach the ridgetop I needed to climb up through Echoes Block: a huge block of sandstone sitting at the tail end of the Mt Stapylton ridge. Wind and weather have carved multiple levels of caves inside the rock, with doors and windows opening on both sides allowing access and providing light.

It was breathtakingly beautiful inside the caves. The light reflecting off the adjacent cliffs illuminated the sculpted multi-coloured sandstone in cream, grey and orange, with bars of smooth colour framed by intricate lacework, and layered stone scooped and gouged by the erosion of millennia.

Inside the mountain.

Ramps and shelves lead upward inside the caves.

There were swallows nesting in the caves, with a constant stream of birds flitting in and out bringing food to their chicks, who peeped with excitement at the appearance of a parent.

I climbed the ramps and shelves, worn smooth by countless visitors over the years, spiralling up through the caves to the topmost level, and emerged through a window on to the shoulder of the block. To my left the view of Mt Stapylton and the Taipan Wall was framed on both sides by cliffs.

To reach the very top required chimneying a few metres up a slot. My previous experience descending here was that it was quite awkward finding footholds. Ascending was much easier, and I’d also learned from the past and brought a length of rope to haul my pack.

Stapylton Traverse

A short walk along the ridge brought me to the first ravine. To descend into it was just a two metre drop, but it was considerably more awkward than it sounds. Much of this was due to the psychological effect of an abyss that runs along the floor — not wide, but dropping down to unseen depths — and a gap to the right emptying straight into the void.

The view ahead after reaching the ridgetop.

Stepping across the abyss led to the most exposed part of the entire walk: a small ledge in the upper part of a cliff a long way above the bottom of the amphitheatre. I made my way carefully along the ledge, taking my time. There were plenty of handholds so it wasn’t terribly hard, but there was nothing to stop a fall if I made a mistake here. When the ledge ended I made my way steeply upwards past a projecting blade of rock and back to the security of the ridgetop.

The blade of rock leading to safety.

An easy walk along the side of the ridge ended at the next obstacle. I was on top of a block of stone four metres tall wedged into a gap in the ridge. I used my rope again to lower my pack to the grassy floor at the base of the block, which left me free to work my way down a crack between the block and wall. The little patch of grass ended at a serious ravine, but with a convenient boulder forming a bridge there was no trouble crossing it.

On the other side was a small valley enclosed on most sides by rocky walls. This was one of the very few places up on the ridgeline with trees, with the fallen remains of several large fire-marked trees littering the valley. But new trees were growing again, so we may once again see the valley as a tiny forested oasis. Climbing out of the valley I entered into a wilderness of rock, but even here clumps of moss, grass, and flowers found a toehold where pockets of soil had accumulated.

Purple flowers grew all along the upper sections of the walk.

There are several ravines on this walk, but only one is The Ravine. Located right on the ridgetop, it’s about a metre wide and fifteen deep. Combined with minimal space to stand on either side, it can make a daunting obstacle. I chose to bypass it by heading down to the left around its base. A series of little cairns showed this to be a popular alternative. Having passed the spur of rock at the base of the ravine I was faced with regaining the ridgetop.

The steep slope in front of me was covered with tumbled boulders, and above them stood the crest of the ridge, broken into great blocks. To the south the continuation of the ridge was guarded by a sheer wall. I rock-hopped up the slope as far as I could to avoid some low scrub, then climbed up among the blocks, wormed my way through them, and emerged at the wall. A narrow ledge allowed me to shuffle across its face and around its end to a point where I could scramble back up to the ridgetop.

On the ridgeline: a wilderness of rock.

I wandered over to the cliffs and happened upon a natural shelter scooped out of the rock, nestled right into the clifftop. It was a lovely spot with shade, somewhere to sit, and a garden of wildflowers: a perfect spot for an early lunch. The views extended back along my morning’s route from Hollow Mountain, as well as down into the amphitheatre. The only interruption to my solitude were some butterflies (caper whites) that fluttered around restlessly, their white wings fringed with black lace.

Lunchtime views: the ridge back to Hollow Mountain, with Mt Zero behind.

Southward the Asses Ears and Victoria Range align on the horizon.

Continuing on, the sandstone was pockmarked by pools and small channels draining from them, all dry today. The pools were occupied by dry mosses and lichens, waiting for the next rains to burst back into life. Erosion of another kind had left a hollowed-out boulder as a convenient shelter right on the ridge: a welcome refuge from the the heat of the Sun.

The final section up towards Mt Stapylton followed the spine of the rocky ridge. On the right a wide chasm opened up through the cliff line, gradually becoming shallower until it was reduced to a tree-filled gully. On the other side the summit of Mt Stapylton rose up. The gully wall was steep enough to make the descent into it difficult, but a fallen tree provided a convenient way down (and has done so for decades).

This point in the gully was only about fifty metres from the official track to Mt Stapylton where it rounds a horseshoe bend. A short way up there were a couple of walkers, the first I’d seen today. Incidentally, many years ago the official track came into this gully and went up the route I was taking to the summit.

I climbed out of the gully, starting on a rocky ramp, then made a fairly airy scramble straight up the side of the rock. I’ve never had much luck locating this route while descending, and glancing back suggested the answer: it looked disconcertingly like retracing my steps would result in plummeting off the edge of the mountain, with no obvious way down.

I stopped short of the summit at one of the larger dry rockpools, the rim of which made for a convenient seat, and phoned home to report all was well now that all the trickiest walking was done.

A dry rockpool near the summit of Mt Stapylton made a convenient seat.

Amphitheatre

I climbed up to the summit proper, which at 518 m is considerably higher than Hollow Mountain. The extra elevation made itself felt: the views were far more extensive, ranging from Mt Zero and Hollow Mountain to the north, the Black Range off to the southwest, Briggs Bluff and Mt Difficult to the south, and Langi Ghiran far away on the southeastern horizon. All around were the flat plains of the Wimmera, nearly four hundred metres below.

Shortly after I arrived at the summit, so did the two walkers I’d seen earlier. We chatted for a while: they were with the group climbing on the Taipan Wall but weren’t climbing today as the routes were above their grade. They didn’t seem to have much grasp of where they were or even which mountain they were on, but were enjoying themselves regardless.

The route down from the summit was marked by arrows painted on the rock, and dropped down the southern extremity of the peak, then doubled back along the western flank to descend a long sloping ledge. This led to a small chimney, after which the route doubled back again to head south along a wide shelf. Beside the track was a large overhang, extravagantly shaped like a breaking wave petrified mid-flight.

The overhang below the Mt Stapylton summit.

The circuitous route taken by the official track continued as it climbed back up over the tail end of the peak and descended northwards on the other side. A little way down was Swallow Cave, a substantial cavity eroded into the sandstone of the peak. On a sunny day the cave draws you in with its cool shade and, depending on the season, you may have company as swallows use the cave for nesting. They choose sites up the back of the steeply-inclined cave, or in secluded cavities in the roof. Both the roof and walls have been eroded into beautifully intricate shapes from stone varying in colour from pure white to orange, with bands of slight variation giving an effect somewhat like woodgrain.

In the shade of Swallow Cave.

Eroded sandstone inside Swallow Cave.

From the cave it was a short descent to the horseshoe bend that marked the end of the gully I’d crossed earlier on my way to the summit. It’s easy enough to enter the gully here, and while it provides quicker access to the summit than the official route, it’s not as much fun. The track headed south for a few hundred metres, descending into a hollow and climbing out again, before turning west to cross the shoulder of Mt Stapylton one last time.

This whole area was terribly affected by the fires back in January 2014. I was in Halls Gap at the time and had intended doing this walk, but the fires made that impossible. I returned the following December and found the forest here and all through the amphitheatre had been reduced to ash, sand, and blackened sticks. But even then the regrowth had begun, and it was encouraging to see how far it had recovered five years later.

When the track turned back northwards to head into the amphitheatre I passed a group of about twenty heading the other way, spread out in twos and threes over a considerable distance. My timing at the summit had been fortuitous.

Bird Rock.

The cliffs of the amphitheatre: the morning’s traverse was across their tops.

A little way down was Bird Rock, which is so bird-like in its shape that it’s hard to imagine how it could have formed. On my right the Taipan Wall dominated, painted with vertical stripes of orange, grey, black, and white, and stretching from below the summit of Mt Stapylton back through most of the amphitheatre.

Colours of the Taipan Mt Stapylton is made of quartz arenite, a naturally white rock that has been weathered to grey. The orange colour on the cliffs comes from iron oxides washed through the rock and left on the surface by evaporation, while the black streaks are decayed organic matter washed down the tops. The white streaks running down from spots on the cliffs frequently mark where raptors perch, and are caused by the inevitable and ultimate result of digesting their prey…

The Taipan Wall. The ravine cutting through the cliff is the same chasm I crossed just before reaching Mt Stapylton’s summit.

Earlier while I was having my lunch on the clifftop I’d used my vantage point to spy out a good route up to the base of Hollow Mountain. Applying what I’d seen, I took the rock climbing side track near the northern end of the amphitheatre, then branched off left to head cross-country into open forest above a small gully. The forest was dotted with grass trees and felt like a secret world, lush and vibrantly green, guarded by the cliffs towering above. Just a couple of hours earlier I’d scrambled around the tops of the same cliffs.

The little forest tucked in under the cliffs.

I worked my way closer in to the base of the cliffs, where I crossed the gully and climbed up to a wide rocky shelf. Now above the forest, I had a spectacular and uninterrupted view of the whole cliffline stretching from Hollow Mountain to Mt Stapylton: the gloriously coloured Taipan Wall, pierced by a few dark ravines, and capped by fantastically intricate stone.

To the northwest and below me, the official track descended across Flat Rock towards the Mt Zero Picnic Area. My more direct route back to the Hollow Mountain car park skirted the base of the Hollow Mountain massif. I continued on over a small saddle and began descending slowly through an enjoyable wilderness of boulders and light vegetation.

There’s a real pleasure in finding your own way through a landscape, adapting your course to fit the circumstances you find yourself in, and exercising your skill in choosing a workable route. Though even here I did have occasional small cairns to mark the way, if any guidance was needed. A little way further down I joined a series of cairns marking another route coming in from the Mt Zero Picnic Area.

Leaving the rock and heading into light forest, I joined a small path used as access to bouldering sites. The northern side of Hollow Mountain was a mess of huge boulders and tumbled rock that have crashed down from above over the years, providing the opportunity for a bit of exploration. As I progressed the track became more defined and passed a lot of nice rock, and went through the middle of a massive boulder split in two by erosion. Many of the boulders in this area were still bleached very pale, the result of fire.

Fire-bleached boulders north of Hollow Mountain.

My side track joined the main Hollow Mountain track — my route earlier this morning — in the valley below Echoes Block and Hollow Mountain. I turned left and a kilometre later I was back where I’d started, having taken 4¾ hours to cover 7·3 km and climb 530 m on what had been an exhilarating walk.

Postscript

It was still early in the afternoon. Making the most of a good opportunity, I drove around to the Mt Zero Picnic Area and climbed Mt Zero. From the summit I had a magnificent view of Hollow Mountain and Mt Stapylton. Distance had reduced them to a single gigantic mound of grey sandstone, and the ravines that had dominated the walk earlier were now lost in the details of the worn and weathered rock.

References

  1. Tyrone Thomas has described this walk in 100 Walks in Victoria, 120 Walks in Victoria and 50 Walks in the Grampians, but it does not appear in 80 Walks in the Grampians.
  2. Tempest, Glenn (2011). Daywalks Around Victoria (1st ed). Open Spaces Publishing. p 44. ISBN 9780975233375.
  3. WALK Volume 35 (1984). Melbourne Bushwalkers. p 18.
  4. Thomas, Tyrone T (1986). 50 Walks in the Grampians (3rd ed). Hill of Content. p 52. ISBN 085572160X.
  5. Despite this being Tyrone Thomas’s favourite walk, he removed it from 80 Walks in the Grampians after pressure from Parks Victoria who had refused to stock an earlier edition in their shops.
  6. Thomas, Tyrone T (2003). 80 Walks in the Grampians (rev ed). Michelle Anderson Publishing. p 224. ISBN 0855723335.
  7. Thomas, Tyrone T (1976). 100 Walks in Victoria. Hill of Content. p 44. ISBN 0855720670.
  8. Tempest, Glenn (2011). Daywalks Around Victoria (1st ed). Open Spaces Publishing. p 45. ISBN 9780975233375.
  9. Federation Walks 2016, Walk 2: Hollow Mountain. Bushwalking Victoria & Wimmera Bushwalking Club.
  10. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2. Melbourne University Press, 1967.