The Maze of Donkey Mountain

Forgetting the map and some serendipity helped James Tugwell rekindle some childhood joy … but not before a little fear set in.


Words: James Tugwell

I remember being stuck in mazes as a child. Running along paths, heart in your mouth, all sense of direction lost. Around each corner is something new, or maybe nothing at all—a dead end which sends you frantically retracing your steps to find a different path. Gradually fear creeps in. “Will I ever reach the end? What if I am stuck in here forever?”

Before Donkey Mountain, if you had asked me if mazes were fun, I would’ve replied “Yeah … for kids.” Well, I have now been humbled like a child. I had heard legends, stories, tales about Donkey Mountain. Just 30 minutes from Lithgow, and close enough to Sydney be a perfect overnight adventure, the peak is, I’d heard, a hikers’ paradise, full of slot canyons cloaked in moss, with thick vines that make you feel like Tarzan and sandstone pagodas offering panoramic views over the Wolgan Valley. With a free weekend looming, it was time to see if the rumours were true. “I’m gonna download the map right now,” Joe said as we left Lithgow and all phone reception. I didn’t know this yet—none of us knew this yet—but these words would prove to be fateful. We didn’t know yet that soon our fear would be rising, that this fear would be making us sick to our stomachs. No, for the moment we were clueless, and so, when Joe uttered these words, the rest of us relaxed—we had a map. We didn’t know that we were slowly entering a maze, the walls of which were gradually surrounding us, beginning to tighten their grip on our hearts.

Leaving the carpark, we climbed over the stile, and our party of four all turned to Joe for instructions.
He looked at us blankly.
“Where to mate?”
“Oh crap,” was the reply.

We were faced with two options:

  1. Returning along the road until we found phone service and loading the map.
  2. Backing ourselves.

Obviously, we picked the latter. That’s what adventure is all about right? And so, we went in blind.

Donkey Mountain rose 400m above us, a beautiful mesa looming like an unconquered fortress above. Rocky outcrops of sandstone shone orange in the sunlight, nestled between patches of thick foliage. All that was beautiful, but that wasn’t what we noticed first. What we noticed were the stark sheer cliffs that rose out of the eucalypt shrubbery and towered over usbeautiful, but impenetrable for hikers without rope. We would have to navigate around the cliff line, scouring out a path to the summit. And we would have to do it without a map.

Beautifully, Donkey Mountain has many interchangeable routes to the top. We commenced walking, aiming for the eastern summit, where the cliff line morphed into bulging sandstone outcrops that offered hope of a potential path through.

The walk started off flat through open fields littered with eucalypt and abandoned wombat holes. We were all feeling good. The ground was clear and open; we were joined by a mob of kangaroos. This was going to be a breeze.

However, our route gradually became steeper and steeper. Was this the right route? It felt too steep to be true, like a maze route dog-legging off in the wrong direction, convincing you it can’t possible lead to the centre. What’s more, our path looked to be heading directly to a sheer cliff face at the top. Morale started to crumble as we paused in one of the many caves littering Donkey Mountain’s north face.

Were we struggling towards a dead end? Would we come so tantalisingly close to the centre of the maze, only to reach a blank wall? Like children in a maze, fear was rising, creating a sickly feeling in your stomach slowly growing despite how much you try suppressing it. 

Winter is never generous with sunlight; by 4PM, time was slipping away. We had another decision to make. We could (A): Push for the summit, and hope we make it, but potentially be met by the cliff face, and then be forced to pick our way down in darkness. Or we could (B): Turn around now and descend in the light while we still have the chance.

We decided I’d push ahead—alone. While the others would stay in the cave, I’d race up to find a possible way to summit, and then return here by 5pm. If successful, we’d continue; otherwise, we would turn around and descend in safety.

When I left on my mission, expectations were low; Joe had already resigned himself to descending that afternoon. But by 4:45, I’d I summited. We would make it! I have never seen morale change so quickly as Joe did upon hearing we were going to summit for the night.

We were soon on top. It was only now, though, that the real fun began. It quickly became clear why Donkey Mountain has its reputation, because the summit is a natural maze for adults, with slot canyons lined with ferns, caves and tunnels all interlocking, intertwining and leaving you with absolutely no sense of direction. At every intersection, we were faced with multiple forks, all equally appealing, and equally explorable.

As children, mazes are enjoyable before they are terrifying—we now experienced anew the joys of mazes: the sense of the chase, of the unknown, of adventure. It’s why we love them as kids, and why that love never fades years later. We all long to feel like explorers, forging new paths and conquering unreachable locations.

And now, without the map, we were doing nothing if not exploring. We had no idea what was located where; every route was unknown and exciting. We’d walk around corners and say, repeatedly, “Wow, check this out!” as we’d find constricted canyons, or two storey high caves, or secret exits to caves we thought contained nothing at all. We shimmied through crevices barely wider than our shoulders; crawled through caves that one moment were tight constrictions, and the next opened into wide caverns large enough to stand three abreast. We climbed through holes in rock ceilings and emerged at lookouts over every angle of the Wolgan valley.

Everywhere, attractions called out and enticed us, too many paths to explore, too many tunnels to pursue. To use the old cliché, we were like children in a candy store—our hands too small to hold everything our eyes desired.

We camped in a small patch of ground surrounded by walls of sandstone. Well, some of us camped; half our party chose to sleep in caves rather than pitch a tent. We had conquered the impenetrable sandstone fortress, and now we slept like royalty in the keep. Before we slept, though, there were beers to enjoy, and we drank them overlooking the Wolgan Valley, stoked with life. As darkness crept over, the full moon came out to play. It was blazing, overpowering the stars.  

Oh, Donkey Mountain you have so many more undiscovered secrets. We barely scratched the surface of all you have to offer. I will be back. And so I can again have that sense of adventure, again have the joy of a maze, I will—just like this time—not bring a map. Next time, however, that will be deliberate choice.