Saturday, 6 August 2011

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

Nambucca Heads
After my best night's sleep in weeks - there's nothing quite as good as an incentive for lengthy sleep than exhaustion - and a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, we were underway on the return journey.

Climbing up the headland above the caravan park, we found the main lookout off Parkes St. Standing there with the Sunday sunshine warming our backs, winter was suddenly a rumour. Elevated on close to the highest point on the headland, it afforded as a stunning view over the mouth of the Nambucca River, with its complex system of sandbars, long man-made rock wall and narrow navigable channel. Shades of blue offset against white and greens and everywhere dots of colour as people moved back a forth. Behind the rockwall, the lagoon looked appealing and already children were nibbling at its edges. We were joined by some cheerful ambulance officers, trying so desperately to justify their appearance by checking we were both okay. One of them cheerfully commented on the "Go Dragons" bumper sticker which enjoys teasing Manly supporters in following cars but the other was Titans man, so the smile he shared with us was one of marked generosity.

From Nambucca, it was only ten minutes until we found Wirrimbi Rd at Newee Creek. Here we were searching for a house, which old photos and a description provided by Sue's uncle Wal Gibbens would hopefully allow us to identify the property which her father occupied after returning from Japan in 1947. John Christian Gibbens had been born in Sydney in 1922, was raised in the Blue Mountains at Lawson by his grandmother but at 14 was sent to Woodford Island in the Lower Clarence to work the property of a chap called Forester. After a few years, he left Forester and worked for better money at the MacGregors, but upon his enlistment to fight in the Pacfic, he vowed to return and buy Forester's farm. After six years, four of them as a Commando in the 2/3 Independent, he was demobbed in Sydney and left soon enough for the bush. The first stop was Macksville, where he worked in the meatworks, completing the second half of a half built house in his spare time. He finished and sold it and bought a small farm in Newee Creek on which he ran milking cows. This was the farm we were looking for.

Thanks to all of the good intel from Wal, we narrowed it down to two and took photos which we hope will help Wal identify the right one. Both of them were a good fit with the main northern railway line running through the back of the property and Newee Creek on one boundary.

The morning was beginning to escape us, so with photos safely stored, we drove down the few minutes into Macksville, crossing the Nambucca River and remembering meals in parks with the children on a long ago holiday at the coast. The Taylors Arm road beckons you away from town to the south west and goes on its on snaking journey which brushes the river occasionally when their minds liken but for much of the journey to Taylors Arm, it travels through green, green hills and sharp rises and sudden falls. Creeks cut across the path in several places, sliding under under noisy wooden bridges, keen to add their effort to the river. A fork in the road allows a choice between a road with an obvious destination - Taylors Arm Rd - or the quaintly named Boat Harbour Rd. It is landlocked for its entire course, starts ten kilometres inland and finishes closer to twenty and goes nowhere near a boat harbour. In the light of those facts, we chose it.

There's nothing so lonesome ...
Taylors Arm has two claims to fame. It is the home of the Pub With No Beer of which the immortal Slim Dusty sang, becoming the first Australian act to chart at No 1 in those new fangled  record buying contests of the 1950's ... and Tony Bennett was the teacher here in the early 1970's. That's Tony Bennett the poet, singer, cricketer, promoter, friend of Sue and Pete, Waratahs immortal and singer ... but not the Tony Bennett who sings with lesbians. Why is he famous ... well, because he told me he was and I've always trusted him.

The pub is still there and it looks perhaps better than the last time I saw it, in 1981, on the day of the first Pub With No Beer Festival. Then it was swamped by patrons and even though the music  started around lunch time and went all night, the beer actually did run out about 9pm! The ironic cheers of the swaying, boisterous drinkers soon turned to laughter as they realised the publican wasn't spinning a yarn. There were no doors on the toilets in 1981. They had been removed by impatience and need and people queued, male and female, in the hope of relief. The locals seemed to make their own arrangements. On this welcoming day thirty years later, there was more spit and polish and the walls were covered with what had been done and by whom. The bar looked the same as memory served it up and the staff were very friendly. As we mulled over what to do for lunch, a country band set up outside and suddenly a couple of things on the menu looked appealing. We read a history of the festivals which are, sadly no more, victims of insurance costs and the legalities which allow the fun police to break down the best times. Right there and then, we wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.

After lunch, we made the 40km hour long trip to Bellbrook, which is situated on the Kempsey-Armidale Rd. For most of it, through Upper Taylors Arm and then Bakers Creek and Millbank, we climbed out of narrow valleys and across the ridges between, on narrow dirt roads - narrow enough to have foliage from both sides of the road brushing us at times as we wandered slowly up and down and up again. We crossed bridges who's planks had long ago given up creaking and now jumped and banged instead. It was slow and delightful, a bit a like Saturday sleep in but with more dust. The offers to sell us produce were endless and the invitations enticing, including the one which said "Best Weed In The Valley - Cool". Eventually, near Hickey's Creek, we emerged on the Kempsey-Armidale Rd and climbing a long hill shortly later, stopped to drink in our first view of the Macleay River.

The Macleay River
Reputed to be one of the finest and cleanest on the NSW coastline, we had walked along many of its small tributaries in the New England NP over the years. So much of it is fed from national parks and nature reserves that the river doesn't suffer the fate of so many others which are polluted by man's activities. From where we stood, we could see back up the river valley of the Macleay to where we intended to drive over the next few hours. The river swept down from the narrows to where it had widened its course over millions of years, both cutting a path and laying down sediment for an entire eco-system and it all started with the planet's most precious resource and gravity. It swept around in a giant sweeping bend in front of us and then on away out of sight to our left. Standing there, I experienced that same wow moment I first had in 2nd form geography and wondered at God's work which I have had ever since. Busy fella.

On the road again, we were soon driving through Bellbrook, whose fame I am not sure of but Tony Bennett also taught here, although most of the tales he told of Bellbrook were about cricket and the old and cagey cricketers who often acted as banana skins under the egos of younger fellows who would venture up the road to Bellbrook on a Saturday afternoon looking for easy improvements to their averages. The pub was again a central element to these plots and we passed it, well patronised on our left. At the outskirts, a road works sign was quite specific about  closures owing to bridge repairs which lay 35kms ahead of us. The information on hand meant we would not pass that point until after 5:00pm which a little late in the day for my liking. My suspicion was that it was only applicable to weekdays but I wasn't prepared to get that far up the road and have to turn back to explore an alternative. We tried the police station but the local man was off duty and his mates in Kempsey were none the wiser, so it was back to the pub and my loudly asked question floated through the bar waiting for local to swat at it.

"zonly on weekdaz sport. No bugger 'round here works on a Sundy. She'll be right." Good enough for me.

From Bellbrook, the road became rather willing - rougher and more difficulties than I can remember the last time I drove through. Then, I went down to Kempsey and back to Armidale over the course of a weekend, driving a twenty seat bus containing a rowdy mob of cricketers who arrived at the pick up in Armidale at 6:00am with a carton and from there the weekend just got worse. It was the mid 80's and I must have been indestructible for as the kilometres unwound, I was glad to be in a higher clearance, all wheel drive vehicle.

A check of Google Maps will tell you that the drive from Bellbrook to the reserve just past Comara is 20kms and should take you about 23min but that would require an average speed of close to sixty kph ... not possible given the road surface generally, and the narrow and unsighted hair pin bends through the Pee Dee Reserve. By the time  we crossed Five Day Creek, whose origins have filled my personal water container off to the north in the wilder sections of New England NP, we were moving across alluvial flood plan where cattle utilised the strong pasture growing from rich soil. The property Comara marks the oblique intersection of the Armidale-Kempsey Rd and the Five Day Creek Rd and also the point at which the Macleay came back into view after being well off to the south since Bellbrook. The next few kilometres ran beside the river on the left and a short but imposing cliff face to the right and soon after the passage way widened, we took advantage of a camping area on the space between river and road.

It was well equipped for the real camper - pit dunnies, fire places, picnic tables and a river running beside it. Our toilet, proudly displaying a sign marking it as "unisex" (a subtle explanation for city folk that equity exists in direct inverse proportion to the level of facility expected) was also experiencing some engineering shortfalls, in that it was sinking into its own pit. We both enjoyed the facility, but in a state of ever readiness to bolt should the cement slab's movements exceed our own. The picnic tables were under a shelter and the area was surrounded by a tubular steel twin rail fence with swung gates. Judging from the deposits of the grazing cows - some of them pungent in their freshness - this was a move to keep the cows out. Sue considered a swim but reneged at the steepness of the slope down to the river and the arrival of the only resident of the camping area, a lone male about 120m away. For those not familiar with her adventurous swimming style in bush camps, it may be politely described as "au naturale".

After a lengthy stop which included afternoon tea taken listening the crunchy of the hooves of cattle as they crossed the wide expanse of rounded river rocks , we were back on the road again. The next 22kms got very hairy at times, the road hugging the Macleay as we moved into its upper reaches and the valley became narrow. There were several sections of the road under repair, which didn't help our passage as most of them had been plastered with water. Where springs were running from the cliffs beside us, especially around the section of road near Lower Creek, we were very glad to have a vehicle that was sure of foot. One section of about thirty metres had sodden, deep muddy ruts right through it, pools of water of indeterminate depth and signs that at least one previous vehicle had skidded towards the peril of a drop into the Macleay. It was low range for safety and no harsh touches of break or steering wheel and the best straight line I could muster. Oh my wonderful little Forester!

Climbing up above Georges Creek
After rounding the big U-shaped bend in the Macleay at Upper Creek, there were a series of zigs and zags and more close quarters driving along the Macleay before the road turned north at the junction with Georges Creek and we left the Macleay behind in order to climb from the river valleys and up onto the tableland up the western side of the Georges Creek Valley. Much of the 20km climb is steep, as it winds through switchbacks which pass around spurs and then pass into hollows on the other side. By now we were using the last half hour of sunlight as we wound our way in a slow second gear climb. When we emerged at the top, we saw glimpses of the sun sitting low on the western horizon through gaps in the Styx River Forest and then had it as a full orange fireball, bypassing the sun visors as we passed Jeogla Station. With no time left in the day, we had to miss a detour to the Oaky River Hydroelectric plant and drove on instead to the main Ebor-Armidale Rd and its intersection just above the Chandler River. 

Sue in the cold and twilight
Wollomombi also missed a visit but we did stop at Wollomombi Falls, just a few kilometres further on. The heat was quickly dissipating from the day and in about 7C and fading twilight, we quickly found ourselves on the lookout platform and watching the Wollomombi River flow into deepest vertical drop for a waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere about half a kilometre away. Twice that distance and to the right, The Chandler River descended  in its series of drops. Because of the aspect of this deep chasm, its very difficult to photograph the falls, yet in this dim but even light and with no sunshine to deepen the shadows, I finally took reasonable photographs of the twins which are known as the Wollomombi Falls. My first attempts, with a Kodak Instamatic, were made 34 years earlier and on crutches.

With the sun gone, the drive to Armidale was easier than it would have been an hour earlier, although we now had the hoppers to contend with. Several loomed and zoomed, including one rather large, man-sized specimen but each were spotted early enough to avoid panic-stricken evasion and we took our guilty pleasure at a certain Scottish restaurant about 40 minutes after the falls. The final stretch, Armidale to Tamworth, is without doubt the section of road I have driven the most in my life and at all times of the day and night, so we enjoyed reflecting on our weekend and the worthiness of the outing. The constant reminder of how grateful we are to have reached a point in our lives where we have the time and the resources for such jaunts was upper most in considerations.

As always, it felt good to be home.

840kms (Friday 208, Saturday 304, Sunday 328)

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