Claustral Canyon, Blue Mountains National Park

Claustral Canyon, Blue Mountains National Park

by Lee Duguid, December 12, 2012
LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY | travel stories | Claustral Canyon, Blue Mountains National Park

Well what to say about the amazing Claustral Canyon…first up a word of warning. For anyone that might be inspired to venture to Claustral Canyon please note doing so is extremely dangerous and has resulted in death for a number of people. It should only be undertaken by those who are fit and experienced in abseiling and rock climbing. So onto my experience…

An intrepid group of four, including Tim Wrate (photographer), Lewis Fogerty (photographer/fearless canyoneer), Craig Margieson (fearless canyoneer), and myself ventured into the depths of Blue Mountain’s canyons. The long and hard day started at 5.15am with a quick sunrise shoot at the popular Three Sisters, the most photographed rock formation in the area. I’ve never been happy with my photos from this location and this morning was no exception.

Light rays Claustral Canyon
Claustral Canyon floor – shafts of light pierce through to the other wise dark environment.

Anyway back to our lovely motel to ‘gear up’ before driving North to the start of the track. This involved packing a 50L dry bag with a minimal camera setup (Canon 5D MkII, Canon 17-40mm F4 lens, remote release, circular polarising filter, spare memory card, GoPro) housed in a medium Internal Camera Unit (F-Stop camera bag terminology) along with an emergency blanked, a warm wind proof top, a small towel, and a compass. The dry bag slid perfectly into my F-Stop Tilopa Country backpack along with 2.5L of water and food for the day. The whole thing weighed about 12kg with my tripod strapped to the side, this was the minimum I could take. At the start of the trail (side of the road, point marked on map) on went my thermals, a full length wet suit, harness, board shorts (to protect harness and wet suit), canyoning shoes, and helmet. We set off at 7am, little did we know we wouldn’t return for another 17 hours.

Light rays Claustral Canyon
Rays of light broken up by rocks and vegetation, open space can just be seen high above

After a bush bash following no obvious track we came to a 15 meter drop, this was the first chance to get my abseiling technique down pat. I was happy to practice self belaying having only done indoor rock climbing prior. We lost an hour with this detour but now started to follow streams and progress further into what seemed like small canyons, we were back on track. The excitement grew and we had landed right at the start of Claustral Canyon.

Black Hole of Calcutta and its amazing carved walls

Light reflects off the canyon floor

The next stretch consisted of a series of abseils through amazing carved narrow passage ways. From water level to what seemed to be the top, or at least where we could see light had to be 30 meters of smooth, wavy, mossy walls. I had a feeling of vulnerability when we waited to abseil the Black Hole of Calcutta a stunning cylindrical tunnel dropping 15 meters. I thought if the water was to rise here we would die for sure, I have since learnt this has been the case in one instance. The ‘lucky’ survivors were pushed by the increasing water levels through the small exit hole falling the 15 meters into the water below. The remaining member of the party was not so lucky.

Tim and Craig wait for the next abseil (down the Black Hole of Calcutta), is that fear or determination on Tims face?

Craig looks on after abseiling the Black Hole of Calcutta

A short distance after the Black Hole of Calcutta, what a beautiful start to the magnificent canyon floor and fern forrest

After the abseils and a 50 meter swim we were now at the canyon floor, this was our chance to photograph. Unpacking and setting up my gear took some time. Even after taking every precaution to keep our gear dry the canyon floor is a very wet and humid environment. I soon gave up on my polarising filter which I planned to reduce indirect light with. Rattling off a few shots before packing everything up to swim a short distance before unpacking it again slowed things down. What felt like 10 minutes was probably more like 40, it was time to leave.

We then proceeded to scramble down lots of rocks using hand lines on the harder bits working our way towards the exit. This took the best part of two hours, the time approached 5pm. This gave us 2 hours for the exit before it got dark. The instructions for the exit were “Scramble up the exit gully for about 20m and then traverse left under the cliff to Rainbow Ravine”. We choose to ignore the second part for some reason and headed straight up the gully for about 100m. This was tough climbing for the inexperienced me, I was dry retching with fear, oh joy! We finally made it out after a hard slog only to realise that we had messed up and had to abseil back into Rainbow Ravine which was 50 meters below us. Having 60 meter ropes doubled up meant it would have to be done in two stages. The first a 25 meter abseil then a difficult traverse to a small ledge where all four of us clung onto for our dear lives. It was Tim’s turn to freak out with lots of gasps for air and shakes of the head. This was not good and we only had a few more minutes of day light left. Not the best time to be going back into a canyon.

Looking up the fern lined walls

We had all reached the canyon floor again, this time it was dark. The first technical climb I remember thinking this is stupid, this is how people get hurt. In reality it was a pretty easy, however it was made all the more difficult as we were now navigating using head torches and there was a 5 meter drop. The glow worms were out and I had to remind Craig on the gravity of our predicament, he was all too relaxed for my liking. Following the track notes and with a bit of guess work we made it high enough to get some phone reception, we could now message loved ones that we were safe…I failed to mention I was still stuck in the middle of nowhere, oops. It was 9pm, we had all run out of water and still had another 4 hours of walking (thankfully we didn’t realise that).

Following very old, under used and over grown tracks it took us a great amount of time and luck with lots of back tracking to finally get out to the road then our car. We had climbed 600m in elevation over the space of 5km, now that’s hard work. Back to civilisation, and Pizza, the only food available at such a late time. I had decided that I had enough of canyoning at 4pm whilst in Claustral, needless to say the next 9 hours hadn’t changed my mind. Sunday involved sleeping until checkout, a cooked breakfast in Katoomba, lots of coffee and a hasty retreat back to Sydney. All in the name of photography!

The deadly yet beautiful Claustral Canyon at its best

[vimeo clip_id=”55329118″ width=”900″ height=”506″ vspace=”25″]
A short video to give you an idea of what visiting this amazing location entails


Write a comment

Comment from Glenn
Time: December 12, 2012, 5:57 pm

Amazing photos and story Lee, thanks for enduring the pain so I never have to ! 😉

Comment from Rod Thomas
Time: December 12, 2012, 10:03 pm


that shot with the rays is EPIC.. my fav shot of yours to date I think… Well done mate


Comment from Jamie Paterson
Time: December 13, 2012, 10:43 am

Absolutely stunning shots Lee. I just love the way you captured the light.

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: December 13, 2012, 4:10 pm

Cheers guys. Which shot is that Rod? Interested to see which photos people like. I’ve only posted two in my gallery, maybe I should add another.

Comment from Jamie Paterson
Time: December 13, 2012, 7:12 pm


For me my favourite would have to be Light Rays 2 mainly as I love the abstract shapes created by the canyon and light.

Comment from Odille Esmonde-Morgan
Time: December 14, 2012, 7:11 am

Thanks for a wonderful story and imges. I’ll never get to see this for real (I’m an unfit 59yr old and I know it is beyond me) but really enjoyed your stunning images. I’ve bookmarked this to come back and enjoy again.

Comment from Sze
Time: December 20, 2012, 9:59 pm

Inspirational photos Lee – well worth the hard slog. Looks like fun as well. Will have to try and get up there next year.

Comment from Nick Reid
Time: March 14, 2013, 10:02 pm

Top story Lee. Came across your work on 500px and bothered to follow the link onto your site. Glad I did. Always interesting to read about a fellow photographers hardship. Great work and great results!! Keep at it.

Comment from Wood PPCnSEO
Time: March 15, 2013, 2:39 pm

Thank you for the fabulous photos,
Try the truely great experience with us at

Comment from Fiona Thomson
Time: May 16, 2013, 1:02 pm

I just wanted to say I was amazed by the pics taken in Claustral Canyon…saw on Blue Mtns page that goes to my FB page daily. I was gobsmacked by the pics. The one I saw today was up there with the best few pics I’ve seen taken in the Mtns…in fact, it would be the most beautiful. Thankyou so very much Lee for venturing there..x

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: May 16, 2013, 1:34 pm

Thanks for your kind words Fiona, I love the Blue Mountains, it’s beauty is not always obvious and you must seek out these hidden gems.

Comment from Lisa Durrant
Time: May 16, 2013, 7:04 pm

Amazing photos of Claustral Canyon.

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: May 16, 2013, 9:11 pm

Thanks Lisa, glad you like them.

Comment from Jonathan
Time: August 19, 2013, 10:15 am

Hey Lee,
Beautiful images from such a beautiful place.
I haven’t been there for about 10 years, and I hope that 17 hour experience didn’t put you off Canyoning, there’s lots more to explore, but Claustral is one of the best !

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: August 19, 2013, 10:22 am

Thanks Jonathan, well that was my first and last experience. I hope to do some more in the summer, this time with some gloves and maybe an underwater housing. It was too much hassle getting the camera out or the dry bag all the time!

Comment from Chris
Time: January 3, 2014, 10:13 am

Such a tempting, beautiful place by the looks and sounds of things. Great shots. I laughed when you said minimal camera equipment and then went on to mention a dslr with lens kit and tripod etc. If you were worried about taking too much you could have always just taken a compact camera and used nature as a tripod. Just saying it may have made your load a little less mighty.

Comment from Judy
Time: February 1, 2014, 10:05 am

What incredible pictures! Sounds like such an amazing adventure. Thanks so much for sharing!

Comment from Niki McNaughton
Time: June 7, 2014, 7:01 pm

This is awesome!

Comment from Janina
Time: June 23, 2014, 1:03 am

Thanks, this is fabulous, Always knew Australia was fabulous, but sorry to say after 40 years here had never ever knew. Shoot, and Channel 10 spends a fortune on “reality” shows when they could be showing us and the world more of the beauty of Australia. 🙂 Thanks heaps now to share to everyone I know 🙂

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: June 25, 2014, 11:15 pm

Thanks for your comments Janina, this place is just amazing and unfortunately out of reach to most. Would love to see a doco about Australia’s hidden gems, maybe I can host it 🙂

Comment from Harvey
Time: November 11, 2014, 12:58 pm

Congrats on brilliant pix which take me back to my canyoning days ~45 years ago. Didn’t wear a wet suit in those days – so it was hard to get people to hold a pose during an absail. Not included in your pix is the tunnel at the bottom — after the Black Hole that comes as quite a surprise. Still glow worms there?

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: November 12, 2014, 7:57 am

Thanks for the comment Harvey. Yes the wet suit is a must…we’re made a bit softer these days 🙂

Pingback from Claustral Canyon by Lee Duguid » ShutYourAperture
Time: December 16, 2014, 10:58 am

[…] You can see more on his website. […]

Comment from Brendan
Time: July 16, 2015, 2:01 pm

You have so many beautiful shots Lee! Shows how breathtaking Claustral (and the Blue Mountains in general from your other photos)can be! Keep it up 🙂

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: July 20, 2015, 4:42 am

Thanks very much Brendan. It sure is a great spot, one with many hidden gems such as Claustral.

Comment from mi
Time: February 10, 2016, 11:47 pm

Omg lee!! Ur photos are amazing.. I loved the way u captured the light dressing the black hole.. really fantastic

Comment from Lee Duguid
Time: February 12, 2016, 9:37 pm

Thanks for your kind words 🙂

b Facebook
r YouTube
x Instagram

photoshop videos

remote photoshop tuition