“Tread softly, because your way is over men’s dreams … [and] there is no going so sweet as upon the old dreams of men.” – Poet Edward Thomas
The message of tread softly is always a key part of the “Welcome to Country” speech given to runners by Gundungurra man David King ahead of each Ultra-Trail Australia 100 event.
The trail running festival, now in its 11th year, boasts a number of races in the Blue Mountains that range over Gundungurra land and attract thousands of runners, support crew and spectators each May. It is Australia’s biggest trail running event and the biggest annual sporting event in the Blue Mountains.
King welcomes runners to his country but also asks them to respect it by treading softly across some remarkable features of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area that have been part of Aboriginal dreaming for thousands of years.
SCENIC WORLD: This great tourism icon of the Blue Mountains is the start and finish for the headline UTA 100 kilometre race as well as the finish line for the 50 kilometre, 22 kilometre and Furber 951 sister events. It is home to the Scenic Railway, the worlds steepest at 52 degrees. The railway, which descends 310m into the Jamison Valley below, was original built to haul coal and oil shale out of mines that started to be developed in the valley from the 1870s.
FEDERAL PASS: This famous and historic track at the base of the towering sandstone cliffs between Katoomba and Leura was named in honour of the colonies of Australia federating in 1901 to form a new nation.
THE LANDSLIDE: An extremely rugged section of the race, it was created by debris from the collapse of the Dogface cliff at Katoomba in 1931. It is believed that extensive coal mining beneath the cliffs contributed to the landslides. About 100 kilometres of mine tunnels still exist beneath the cliffs of Katoomba.
GOLDEN STAIRS: This steep climb of about 200 vertical metres from the Jamison Valley to the top of Narrow Neck got its names from members of the Salvation Army who would visit shale miners at Ruined Castle to conduct religious services. On their way back to Katoomba they would climb the stairs while singing the hymn “Oh, I’m Climbing up the Golden Stairs to Glory”.
NARROW NECK: This wall of sandstone separates the Jamison Valley from the Megalong Valley to its west. The fire trail that runs along it offers beautiful views of both these mighty valleys. Narrow Neck boasts a lonely bushfire observation tower on top while in the rock below lies the Mount Rennie Tunnel, engineered so oil shale from the Megalong Valley could be transported to the Jamison Valley and then up the Scenic Railway.
TARROS LADDER: Pioneering Blue Mountains bushwalker Walter Tarr first installed a primitive ladder made of fencing wire and saplings down a 17m cliff at the end of Narrow Neck in 1933 “for the convenience of weaklings”. The original ladder was destroyed by bushfire in 1939 and subsequently replaced by metal spikes hammered into the cliff. These spikes are not adequate for UTA so a crack team of roping experts create a much safer temporary ladder for the race. About a kilometre of rope is used in its construction.
DUNPHYS CAMP: Named after the legendary father/son team of bushwalkers and conservationists, Myles and Milo Dunphy, this clearing and campground is a fantastic spot to stay or step off on numerous adventures in the southern Blue Mountains.
IRONPOT RIDGE: This section of the UTA100 takes runners along a spectacular ridge top that boasts Aboriginal pots and sharpening grooves in the rocks. It is thought Aboriginal people used the water that collected in the pots to help sharpen their tools and weapons on the nearby rocks. At the turn-around point on the ridge there’s always an Aboriginal didgeridoo player during the race.
MEGALONG VALLEY: One of the few areas of the Blue Mountains that boast granite soils rich enough to sustain agriculture. Here runners go past the historic Green Gully property of the Carlon family, home of the Packsaddlers horse riding business.
SIX FOOT TRACK: First surveyed in 1884 and now a legendary bushwalking and trail running destination, it was originally a bridle track built six feet wide so two horses could pass each other as they carried tourists the 45 kilometres between Katoomba and Jenolan Caves.
THE GULLY: When runners stop at checkpoint four (Katoomba Aquatic Centre), they are in The Gully, a fringe settlement where the Aboriginal people of the Blue Mountains made their homes from the 1890s through to the 1950s. Long before then it was one of their summer camps and today it is recognised as an official Aboriginal Place.
PRINCE HENRY CLIFF WALK: This historic track between Katoomba and Leura takes runners past the Three Sisters and offers stunning views across the Jamison Valley to Kings Tableland, Mount Solitary, Narrow Neck and beyond.
WENTWORTH FALLS: This mighty waterfall plunges 187m and none other than the great naturalist Charles Darwin, in 1836, declared the view here to be “quite novel and extremely magnificent”.
KINGS TABLELAND: A sandstone battlement jutting south from the village of Wentworth Falls, it is home to a rock overhang where Aboriginal occupation has been dated to 22,000 years ago – the oldest known Aboriginal site in the Blue Mountains. Kings Tableland is dotted with Aboriginal sites as it was a major thoroughfare for travelling between the valleys and clifftops.
KEDUMBA PASS: One of the most vertical bits of dirt road you will ever encounter, this is where runners descend from Kings Tableland to the Kedumba Valley. Before their land was drowned beneath the waters of Lake Burragorang, this was also a route farmers along the lower Coxs River used to move their livestock so it could be loaded onto trains at Wentworth Falls.
FURBER STEPS: Few trail running races could boast a finish steeper and more scenic than the Furber Steps. There are more than 900 of them taking runners from the Federal Pass at the bottom of the Jamison Valley back up to the finish line at Scenic World, where the race began 100 kilometres ago.
Ultra-Trail Australia 100
By Dan Lewis