Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Road Home Weekend July 29th-31st - Tamworth to Nambucca Heads

Sue and I just love pointing the Forester down a lonely dirt road and letting the hours escape through clouds of dust and sometimes mud whilst the GPS has fits trying to guide us back to the bitumen. Its a fine thing to sit by a river when its still in its youth and intent on busting rocks and grabbing any foliage that dips in its way. To listen while it sings its hopes downstream through shallows where stones bath occasionally after a good season of rain. To watch Rainbow Bee Eaters and Swallows dip and drink on the run. We've read and seen the damage to life that comes from rivers once they are slow and wide and tired of the journey but to be there beside them in their exuberance give you back some of what life takes away from us encased in the suburbs ... but to get there, its dirt tracks, tight bends and some faith in your vehicle.

Two of the great drives into these river hinterlands in the top half of NSW are the Old Grafton Rd and the Armidale- Kempsey Road. Headstrong for fun and in need of a youthful recharge, we decided to do both in the one weekend.

Friday 29th July 4:30pm

Its always later than you planned but when you hit the 100km sign on the outskirts of town. It doesn't matter. The car is full of what we'd need, spreading from the back door to the flattened back seats immediately behind us, the cruise control is set to 100 and the iPod spits the first album of the weekend as her little hand snakes across the short distance between us and touches a thank you to your grip on the wheel. A full tank and a destination always getting closer.

This first night isn't about experience: its about getting us to the starting point which will be Glen Innes. In the middle of the Northern Tablelands, July is cold beyond freezing at night so we stayed at the Glen Innes Motel, with its discount rooms which include breakfast for only $69 a double. The room wasn't much bigger than the double bed but it had everything we needed and the one or two things it didn't were happily provided by the manager. There was a minor kerfuffle on arrival when a patron attempted to pass under a two metre sign with a 2.2 metre load. The load of adjustable building stays weren't damaged in any way but the sign adopted a rakish angle in protest.

With all things in place for a pleasant evening, I encountered a migraine for the first time since the mid 1980's, complete with fractured vision, then sparkling flashes and then the pain. Luckily, Sue jammed me full of pain killers in the early stages which reduced the pain to manageable levels. Unfortunately, it meant all but four hours of the evening were wakeful and progress the next day highly questionable.

Saturday 30th July The Old Grafton Road 

I was still in an ordinary state the next morning, managing breakfast but wanting desperately to send food the other way. It was touch and go but after fuelling the car, I decided to try and make it to that point on the Gwydir Highway where the two roads bound for Grafton part company before we made the decision to abandon and run for home. The day was clear and delicious and painkillers had removed all pain and just left me with tightness.

There was no thinking when we got there, just a right turn and straight on the short distance where the tar dips over the edge of The Big Hill. The bitumen lasts all the way to the bottom - well at least until the hairpins are exhausted - and despite the winding steepness of the road, the solid surface explains why so many people bring their caravans down The Big Hill to find the Mann River Reserve where the forest thins. The Reserve is a spacious, tacked between the road and the Mann River which at this stage is a mere stripling of the big beast you find on the main Grafton Rd. This is granite country, so big round boulders are dotted about and giant cassurinas provide both shade and a screen which hides the river from the road but a blind visitor would have no trouble finding it. It splashes and roars across the rocky river bed before gathering inviting pools, which even in summer would cause a sudden intake of breath as skin touched cold. This area looks well managed and oft visited but the facilities were in good nick. Our early start caught the only occupants still in their tent home.

Leather Jacket Creek
It was all dirt now but two car wide and well sealed with an encouraging amount of stone in the surface for traction as we came down the short slope into the crossing over Leather Jacket Creek, in the locality of Die Hard. In October of 1874, when this was the only road connecting Glen Innes to the coast, James Midgely was at the reins of a dray which held his wife Mary, their nine children and his mother in law, Ann Brown (nee Shepherd), approaching the same crossing on likely the second or third day of a five day journey to Grafton. The main purpose was so Ann could catch the boat back to Sydney in those days before the northern railway line had been completed. The dray hit a stump in the road, broke a wheel and tossed its passengers in every direction. Mary was badly injured and two of the children had minor injuries but Ann lay dying and would last only until the next day. She was eventually buried at a location unknown at Big Hill. A collection was taken up in Glen Innes to pay for Mary and her injured children to be transported home.

Ann Brown was my great, great, great grandmother.

Next it was on to the large plateau of Newton Boyd, where the Mann has meandered over the millennia and meets the Henry River. The mountains retreat to open up a broad valley which shapes into three corners of remote grazing land for cattle in front of slopes of the surrounding mountains and the state forests which cover their crags and dangers. The Gibraltar range begins to the north, covered by the Gibraltar Range State forest. Brother Forest to the west and Glen Nevis to the south, conjuring images of the Scottish highlands and the giant Dalmorton State Forest loomed up on us as we crossed the Mann for a final time. It would lay a parallel course for a time and then after gathering up the Henry River, head north west to pass Jackadgery and torment drivers on the New Grafton Road as it appears to flow back up the mountains against convention and physics, till losing its identity after meeting the Clarence at Coombadjha.

Sue enjoying morning tea beside the
Henry River
Only 2 kms from the spot where the Henry meets the Mann, it crosses the Old Grafton Road at a very pleasant spot which also happens to be the boundary between neighbouring councils - Glen Innes Severn and the Clarence Valley. The Henry is less than a few feet deep here, burbling over stones and providing homes in threes and shrubs on several small riverine islands which the feral cats would take a dim view of pursuing given the soaking they would receive in the process. We set up for morning tea - Sue organising the chairs and snacks and me the water and a means to boil it. This last bit was curtailed suddenly when Sue spied a flame coming from where the hose fitting met the stove. After much fiddling, we abandoned the cuppa but enjoyed the view anyway.

Underway again, the valley closed in on either side until one valley gave way unto another and we emerged over a rise and onto the snug lines beside the Boyd River - known in its earlier years as the Little River. Its water was so clear and remarkably blue and the opportunity for land use restricted to the inside of substantial meanders. The outside of each loop of the river had cut steep cliffs, beside which the road makers had clawed a narrow roadway. This would prove to be the slowest part of the journey but its rewards were not to obtained by haste. This was rich, wild country, pure in its description of itself and the pace was sufficient to allow even the driver to drink it in.

The convict built road
tunnel in Dalmorton Bluff
As we neared Dalmorton, the Dalmorton Bluff loomed on the left and took its presence defiantly from the sky to the river below, making it clear that no passage it invited. Faced with this obstruction, the road builders used men fastened by ropes to trees above to drill holes and set dynamite charges but this proved ineffective so the convict labour had the entire task left to them. The result, a twenty metre passage about four metres high and wide was hewn by pick, shovel and hand. It stands less as a monument to engineering and more a victory for the working man, even if he was an incarcerated one.

A few kilometres further on is Dalmorton, which was a gold mining town which sprang to life on the hope of fortunes and struggled to die over the next hundred years. We had lunch at the small but tidy picnic area and Sue sucked up information at the obligatory national parks notice like an African elephant dying of thirst. A few dwellings remain, mostly of those last built in the 1950's during the post war fibro building boom. Their windows are gone and feet and fists have done for the large sheets of fibro walls. Of all things, a flushing toilet was the last of our expectations in one of civilisations remnants but there it was, clean, tidy and with extra rolls!

The Boyd River
After lunch, we followed the Boyd on to Baccarumbi, which has nothing to say for itself other than it being where the Boyd meets the Nymboida, a river of the north coast hinterland famous for the opportunities it provides for white water rafting and other small water craft enthusiasts. We climbed immediately after crossing the Nymboida, up through eucalypt forests and the odd hippy misadventure which had retreated back into the woods for love and mung beans after once hosting roadside stalls. We crossed the small Orara River in the final stretch to rejoin the New Grafton Road at near Waterview Heights about 7 kms from Grafton.

It had been a delightful day driving through the bush and always, made more exciting by crossing new territory. After a short stop at Bunnings for a new gas fitting and the obligatory trip across the bendy bridge at Grafton to allow Sue to call "Susie Island" at each sighting through the partially grated sides, it was south to Nambucca Heads (actually, the calling game has been made redundant by now owning a vehicle high enough to provide a constant view of Susan Island as we cross).

Bathing Box at Nambucca Beach
Caravan Park
We arrived at Nambucca at sunset. Our accommodation was a single room, spartan but extremely functional Bath House. Designed to mimic the bath houses built along the beaches on the Mornington Peninsular, they offer the camping experience but with a more substantial roof. For travellers such as us, it was perfect - price included. My head had survived the day's driving - mainly thanks to a constant supply of pain killers from Sue's apothecary - and I felt improved for the effort. It was the traditional "Tom Piper on Toast" dinner meal which is required on such camping events. Sue hit the bed early whilst I watched the second half of "Lawrence of Arabia" ... now there's a bloke who was bipolar! 

I slept for nine hours ...

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