The immediate and overwhelming impression generated by this book is of the massive number of hours that have been expended by the authors (Michael Keats and Brian Fox, both established authors with a number of publications to their credit) in walking this magnificent country of rocky ridges, slots and Pagodas. Then you realise that this is "just" book number 1, and that there are seven to come! However, it quickly becomes obvious that this book is a labour of love, recording many pleasant days of wandering and exploring. The objective being to impart "the knowledge" to others, so that they too can experience these special places. Few of us are this altruistic, nor would we be able to craft the time and energy to go through the considerable research and publishing grindstone to bring such a project to fruition. Therefore, we who will enjoy the munificence of this bounty, should be duly appreciative of this marvellous present!
Having walked a fair bit in this area, having had many a “break” on a Point pondering a distant ridge line, and wondering “does it go?", I found myself skipping ahead to find out the key points of the route, and experiencing a number of "Damm! If only I had known at the time!" moments. I feel certain that many others will have a similar reaction, and that this volume will serve as a very valuable reference when planning walks in the area. Nor will it be just "shelf ware", rather, due to the book's fairly robust construction and high quality paper (with large font), I suspect that it will become the Bible to be carried when walking in the area.
Twenty Five Walks are described, with the format of: an extract of the relevant Topo Map (with a dotted route marked), a list of Maps, a Table with Grid References and times, Walk Notes, and then a number of pages narrating an actual walk that was conducted. This provides a very comprehensive "How To" guide for anyone wanting to plan and lead the walk, or to read up on a walk that they are to participate in, or to reminisce about a past foray. The level of detail is such that any competent leader, who had some experience of route finding in Pagoda country, could easily follow. The narrative section may strike some readers as a bit "folksy", but it is an effective and empathetic way of providing the necessary progressive detail, whilst avoiding overly complex and prescriptive "Track Notes".
The text is generously sprinkled with the names of current members of SBW (also some names of other well known walkers, who are members of a certain "day" walking club) and there are nice photos of many of them (although be warned, there are 14 photos of Michael..., and Brian is obviously a much shyer person). The 400+ photos are a good mix of people, places and routes which combine to give a realistic perspective of this wonderful, yet challenging country. Certainly, the authors have emphasised the attributes of the Gardens of Stone whilst also being quite responsible in making it very clear that this area is not for the faint hearted - one needs to be prepared for scrub, for heat, for grazes and bruises when traversing this rocky countryside and be able to navigate & route find in complex terrain.
Many of the photos show the remarkable twisted and contorted rock formations that make this area famous, along with their romantic names drawn from mythology. Unfortunately, the finish on the photos is slightly uneven to the touch, and this is probably a function of the unenviable trade off of quality to cost (and at only $50 this book is very moderately priced in relation to the substantial cost of producing a book of this standard - it would make a wonderful Xmas or birthday present).
I tried hard to pick some holes in the routes described (after all, I was asked to make this a "Critical Review") and in the end, I found one! The 2007 trip from McLeans Pass is listed as "exploratory"... yet Oliver Crawford has only been doing this trip for the last 30 years, and it was done again, and written up, early last year? It is one of our classic weekend trips, where the traverse from Newnes to Baal Bone Gap is conducted, spending two days enjoying the vision splendid of sandstone cliffs, Pagodas, obscure passes and secret slots (having walked all over the world, I rate this trip as in the top 10 "traverses" in the world). There is also a magical mini city of Pagodas that is known as Tenochtitlan. The rest of the routes look fine, although I think some of them are probably "rope handy" and I will have to go and do some wandering.
There is a wealth of information on the geology of the area and the competing theories concerning the origin of Pagodas and the associated weathering process. It is a bit humbling when you read the age of these formations, and realise that this area has been one of the most geographically stable landforms for eons ie the Pyramids of Egypt and the Ziggurats of Ur are but "Johnny come lately" compared to our Pagodas. This then sets the scene for interesting sections on the aboriginals, early settlers and the extensive history of mining in the area. One deficit is the scant detail in respect the fine old bush pass time of "Cattle Duffing", for which the area was renown (due to the abundance of Passes, and discrete valleys for hiding the beasties until things had "cooled off" and the Traps otherwise occupied). Also, that in the 70s to 90s, that a fair amount of Pot was propagated in the valleys with water (often protected by Guards with Guns, Dogs with sharp teeth and Booby Traps.... which certainly added spice to a trip!).
The end papers contain a substantial list of abbreviations , list of maps and a bibliography to aid further research. There is also a good index with each page offset by a full page photo -but a note of caution , Page 395, has a Black Snake who strikes off the page at you! The other useful focus is to alert readers to the need for concerted action to conserve this area against the ongoing threat of coal mining, and particularly of the impact of the big wall technique - this sees the "face" progressively collapse behind the Digger and results in cracking of the overlying sandstone, cliff collapses, fracturing of the water table, destruction of swamps (through draining) and the associated impact on the unique flora and fauna of the region.
In all, this book is a very valuable addition to a walking library (or even a coffee table), and a testament to a great deal of skill and commitment by the authors. I look forward, in the years ahead, as the seven companions are progressively released (not sure that I can juggle my commitments to walk that fast though...)