Saturday, 3 November 2018

Molonglo Gorge Cascades, Canberra, ACT

The Molonglo River flows slowly over an ancient sandstone plain until it hits the Molonglo Gorge.

Lower Cascades, Molonglo Gorge

This gorge hosts 50 small waterfalls and cascades, through a Bull Oak Forest (Red Stringybark, Black Cypress Pines, and Bull Oak Casuarina).

Molonglo Gorge

In dry times, crystal clear water gently flows through the lengthy gorge. In flood, it becomes a long cascade of silt laden chaos.

Molonglo Gorge is an ancient pathway through the mountains. After rain, the waterfalls and cascades flow strongly. A path follows the banks of the Molonglo River through the gorge, but the path rises and falls to avoid great river boulders and cliffs.

Molonglo Gorge

While the cascades are very close to Australia’s capital city, Canberra, the gorge is seldom visited. This is perhaps because the waterfalls and cascades are largely inaccessible and can only be viewed from a distance. The noise of the waterfalls can be very loud and the air full of water spray. Most waterfalls I explore are too dangerous to swim near. This place is full of ‘human-sized’ waterfalls: when the river slows, the waterholes are gentle places of healing. There is something in the sound of a waterfall: it takes you away from the world. After very heavy local rain, the muddy river will submerge the river path. Fortunately it is possible to climb to the top of the gorge and rejoin the track about 1km along via a steep shale path. At this point, the river does two 100+ degree turns, creating the curved walls of the amphitheater, which in calmer times has a couple of nice swimming holes (it would be silly to try swimming with any force of water).

Lower Cascades 

The hiker into the Gorge starts downstream, at the end of the waterfalls. At first, the lower path follows the river.

Down-stream, Molonglo Gorge

A short walk will take you to the first pinch point and on to a natural wonder of the Gorge, Turtle Rok - an overhanging rock in the shape of a short-necked turtle (although you are more likely to find the small Eastern Long-Necked Turtle in the Gorge).

Turtle Rock, Lower Cascades

In summer the pools offer a cool respite from the heat, but water levels here can rise suddenly from local storms in the mountains to the east.

After the first set of pools, the Lower Track leaves river level and gradually climbs to the top of the gorge to avoid the steep drops encountered deeper in the gorge. I once met a couple of photographers on the track who asked how to get to the waterfalls in the Gorge. I swim out to a rocky ledge (making sure my camera gear is in water and shock-proof bags, and then rock hop over to a closer vantage point. The rocks exposed to water have the softest curves, and are very slippery even when dry. In winter, this is dangerous, as some of the river is in permanent shadow, and the rocks are covered in black ice.

Each fall is different and some are practically inaccessible - it is best to bring a zoom lens.

Lower Cascades, Molonglo Gorge

This is a great place to come cool off mid-summer. There are long deep pools for swimming between each of the waterfall clusters as well. The wildflowers are something to see if you get there early enough. The fall of water is something we understand intuitively and to see it in a natural setting is comforting. The setting of this first fall is intimate and as I look at it, I see integrity in the natural structure. This small waterfall is in proportion and harmony with the rocks around it. And then there is the brightness and clarity of the water itself. Some say that beauty can only be found where there is also utility. I am not sure of this, although I can imagine people swimming here to avoid summer heat or simply enjoying the day

Amphitheatre Falls 

Midway into the gorge is a chute waterfall, where a pinch in the Gorge has created a long narrow sluice. At the end of the chute, a waterfall fans out into a waterhole for summer swimming.

Amphitheater Falls, Molonglo Gorge
After heavy rain, water enters the scene with great force. The height of the water at the start of the sluice can be gauged from the overflow waterfall a little further along.

Amphitheater Falls, Molonglo Gorge
A natural amphitheater curves around the river at this point. In summer, the pools under the permanent waterfalls are great places to swim and relax. In flood, the river is dangerous and unpredictable with river speed and turbulence highest in the first couple hundred paces of the base of each river fall (which occur approximate 500 paces apart).

Cerberus Cascade 

Crystal clear water plunges through this lengthy run.

Cererbus Fall, Molonglo Gorge

outflow, Cererbus Fall, Molonglo Gorge

Coffee and Cream Falls 

Always a little sparky, in times of flood, this fall creates a stir

Coffee and Cream Fall, Molonglo Gorge
Flood waters, Molonglo Gorge

Gyrus Falls 

In the upper reaches of the Cullarin Block, a splatter of water in the form of an upside-down branched candlestick (girandole) or, perhaps, a bombe glacée. Many of the upper waterfalls are inaccessible without ropes and lots of time.

Blue Tiles Cascades

A group of hardy settlers came to live near this place on the Molonglo River more than a century ago, but hard conditions eventually forced them from the area. Today, only their abandoned farms remain, and the pools they once swam in.

A little further down the gorge, the waterfalls become higher. Here, near the top pools of the abandoned settlement, the cascades are ‘human-sized’.

Blue Tiles, Molonglo Gorge

Exfoliated/Carved Rock 

Flood, sun and rockfall (from natural and railway construction cause) have created curious patterns within the exfoliated rocks. Some are shaped into strange and amazing shapes and some show sign of additional chipping to produce specific forms. It is not known whether the chipping was caused by natural collision, railway construction or human design.

Exfoliated/carved rocks, Molonglo Gorge

(insert) Exfoliated/carved rocks, Molonglo Gorge
Molonglo Gorge

Flood waters, Molonglo Gorge

Flood waters, Molonglo Gorge


If you are starting your hike into Molonglo Gorge, take the low track if the water level is low and the high path if the river is in flood (the path at Turtle Rock will be under-water and impassible).
If you propose to enter the water to swim, avoid flooded reaches and rapids. Watch for wood debris in rapids (there is a lot of cured willow upstream) and snakes.

Back to Australian waterfalls and cascades page

Notes: The names used in this post come from original letters and diaries of European settlers and explorers and, like many features near the National Capital, have no formal recognition. The First People names for the waterholes in the Gorge (names were seldom given to falls) are unknown.

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