It's rare that I travel alone, save for regular trips to Sydney to spend time with my Dad and on those, it's usually only the pleasure of driving the Putty Road south into Windsor that equates to anything other than "getting there". There is after all, the scent of Jack Brabham on the wheel of any over fifty Australian male's steering wheel. The young have to be content with Mark Webber loitering there to influence those drives taken on challenging roads alone.
Sedate is created by wives.
Therefore, the chance to have two days almost alone, travelling partially across country I have always wanted to see, was attractive. It wasn't a chance created immediately by choice.
Several months ago - six in fact - I fulfilled the first part of a wish I had harboured since becoming well. I desperately wanted to re-engage the skills I had fine honed in teaching and to put something back into the mental health system I had taken out. As a result, I went to Brisbane and trained to be a community presenter for the Black Dog Institute.
My first assignment came with a request for me to deliver two presentations on the one day at Gloucester High School, with the focus being on Teenage Depression. With resources in place and a presentation tailored to reflect both the research of the BDI and my experiences, I set myself the leisurely drive to Gloucester from Tamworth.
A couple of things made the start of the journey difficult.
Firstly, the GPS decided it wanted me to go the most banal way, something unnatural for me. As often happens, it knows little beyond bitumen and white lines, so I turned the sound off and applied prior knowledge to the task. This meant leaving Tamworth to the east, by turning off the New England Highway at Nemingha and following the Peel River Valley as far as Dungowan, before avoiding the turn off to Nundle and heading up the ever narrowing Dungowan Valley along the Ogunbil Rd.
Before I had the chance to set the tyres beyond Dungowan, I remembered a piece of equipment I would need for the presentation and despite the half hour time loss and a fifty kilometres back upon my tracks detour, there was little choice. School zones and slow drivers and buses and farm trucks didn't help.
It didn't kill me so I tried to act stronger and with no audience to be angry for, I just accepted this little quirk in fate.
At second glance, this was pretty country along the Dungowan Valley, with short river flats of rich soil under the feet of satisfied cattle and an interesting collection of occupants of small holdings with a liberal share of artists and other dreamers among them. It feels remote, despite being only 40kms from the coffee shops in the main street of Tamworth.
Eventually, the valley exhausts itself as the walls close in, the road narrows and climbs up the Port Stephens Cutting (B). The cutting follows the path of one of the first routes created by the AA Company back in 1835 to take wool from the Peel River runs down to Port Stephens and Newcastle.
Despite the RTA spending millions on this pass over the mountains, it remains a little more than one car wide in the tightest of spots as it winds 5kms to a T-intersection with the Niangla Rd. Driving with the window down, you'll hear oncoming traffic before you'll see it and the sharp rise to over 1300m means you won't need air-con on even the hottest days. After the winding bits are over and you turn right at the intersection, its another 15kms to Hams Corner and the Thunderbolt Way.
I taught at my next stop, Nowendoc (C), in the early 1980's, I remember the days when this road was dirt and most unpleasant in wet weather. In some ways, the very comfortable tar which has replaced it takes some enthusiasm from the drive. Despite this, nature can still draw courage from drivers who tackle the road on winter's nights as the fog rolls up the Dungowan Valley and rolls across the tops heading east.
At Nowendoc, I stopped at the shop, the only commercial business in Nowendoc. The benches are still outside where I sat drinking "long necks" with men from the two timber mills which were once the life force of the place but have long since closed. The large bare rolling hills to the north, with their piles of burnt left overs and bareness, are testament to the pine planks which have passed through saws in this place. Saws did more that rip and tear at timber. Men died here or were disfigured. "Wingy", the former owner of the shop was one of them.
When I first came to Nowendoc in 1981, with a young wife and a younger marriage, Wingy was one of the characters here. They were a collection Tim Winton might have been proud to collate. Wingy had only his left arm to conduct business, after losing his right when it was torn from shoulder by one of the big saws. Determination will paper over even the most profound cracks and he learned to do more than manage. First he drove the big timber jinkers, transporting logs to the mill. The word was, when you saw Wingy's big blue truck coming the other way, you got well off the road because he liked to wave. He refused a lighter and taught himself to strike matches left handed because his natural right had left him. He played darts like a demon, nearly throwing himself of his feet with each unbalanced lunch at the board. He was a fabulous table tennis player and won the A Grade championship at Walcha Golf Club.
He was just one of the cast.
Sue and I lived in Bridlevale, a wooden three bedroom house located in one of the sudden deep valleys immediately to the east of the village. It was built in the best bush carpentry traditions with gaps below and above all the closing surfaces and nothing in square. They windows kept some of the wind out except the noisy drafts of July and August. It was there our first was conceived.
I ordered tea in the vastly different interior of the shop I remembered and chatted with the Kim who was working for the owners. As I sat back to recollect, a familiar face came in for milk on slightly bowed but very tall legs. Herbert Higgins was and still is a grazier, keeping a few hundred acres now just to keep his hand in. He is also a very interesting and interested man. An avid gatherer of information and interesting facts, he tells story with the pace and inflection of a bushie, beguiling me as a young man into thinking he was simple before the surprise of his intellect embarrassed me. Age has created empathy in his view of people and experience has created understanding. In the mood for a chat, it was a half hour investment which made my life richer by such important increments. My mum's core belief, that there is always time for a cuppa and chat, again proved to be a paradigm that required no shifting.
Beyond morning tea, I was soon descending off the range into the valley of the upper reaches of the Manning River. Steep and at times winding, it's guard rails, signposts and good bitumen surface have made it into a Sunday afternoon drive. Thirty years ago, even the thought of such aids to passage were a long way from my mind when I would ascend on a Saturday night, terrified of Skippy and on one occasion, out of fuel. After an afternoon playing cricket in Gloucester and more beers than I needed for the task, the 80km drive home across a mountain pass with potholes and fallen rocks as large as bowling balls, loose surface and a long drop and the occasional nocturnal biped ready to kamikaze into your car, was always gladly finished.
I arrived in Gloucester (D) in perfect time to set up for the first of my presentations and in between it and the second, I relaxed at my accommodation.
The King St Motel is a converted house, which is more bed and breakfast than motel. Beautifully refurbished in a very modern style, it has a central kitchen and entertainment area from which its eight rooms stem. My room was an en suite queen room with tv, bathrobes, bar fridge and all the ups and down and ins and out. Breakfast was a choice between continental (packaged in your fridge) or a full breakfast cooked by the hosts to order. Ample off street parking is provided. If that's not enough, then the pool will likely tick all your boxes.
I dined at Roadies Cafe, which is nothing like it sounds. Decor is fifties/sixties, with an accent on motor vehicles. A number of classic motorbikes share the space with diners. The food I had was excellent and the choice broad enough to cater for all. A few cold Lashes weren't bad either.
On the road by 8:00am, I was looking forward to driving over new ground.
Gloucester Mountain towered above the town, glowering in the early morning sun. Every September, it is the setting of a gruelling triathlon as competitors ride bikes, paddle canoes and run up, down and around it. "Because its there" wouldn't be enough for me.
Its only a few minutes drive to Barrington (E), gateway to the real mountains of the Barrington Tops, which are hidden from view in Gloucester. This small village rose from Scottish settlers in the 1850's who grew wheat. By the 1960's, it was a well established dairy area but the Barrington River and the mountains which loom above bring tourist dollars which now drive the economy.
Just after crossing the Barrington River, I took the turnoff to Scone which would take me over the rather large lump of imposing ranges which make up the Barrington Tops and the climbing started immediately. The passage onto the tops took me first over the Copeland tops, a steep rise through tiny communities which hug the steep sides of narrow gullies made by creeks which run most of the year. The mixture of old farm houses and alternate designs is interesting. I was soon consumed by the state forests and twice lyrebirds darted quickly from the roadside and up steep banks into the forest above and to the right.
The climbing suddenly gives way to a large open plain at the point where the Kerripit and Dilgry Rivers join the Barrington. The sudden transition from a steep winding road surrounded by dense forest and it's attendant darkness, to an open plain of native grasses was dramatic. This is Copeland (F), although nothing remains to prove it once was a lively area crawling with a population of 1100, most of the miners. The open plain was tree covered before George and Bartlett Saxby discovered gold at Back Creek in 1875. Trees became props and rigs in the 51 mines which operated here.
The start of the final climb (G) onto the Barrington Tops themselves begins about 10 kms further on, where the Cobark River joins the Dilgry. It's steep and winds along, clinging to the edge like so many eastern state mountain climbs, with hopeful guideposts the only man made sentinels protecting cars from taking the fast way down. The thickness of the trees are nature's protection. Here, you climb the snakes - the road - and you fall down the ladders - the steep sides of the mountain.
The start of the Barrington Tops State Park (H) - one of the jigsaw pieces of state reserves which together constitute the national park - provides a sudden and obvious entrance. Not only have the adjoining council erected a sign to make it clear you are leaving roads maintained by them but the National Parks have backed that up with the quality of the roadway which follows. From that point, to the end of the National Park's jurisdiction at the Dingo Gate, perhaps 35 kms to the west, the road is rough. It is rated 2WD and whilst the average family sedan would probably make the traverse with great care, there wouldn't be many nuts and bolts left on it that didn't need a tighten and the suspension would be worse for wear.
The Forester picked its way carefully ahead but then, its not a place where you'd be in a hurry. There is more of the winding, climbing stuff until you reach Cobark Rest Stop, where the first of a series of picnic spots it provided and views to the east over Bowman State Forest. From here, it mostly levels out as you travel across the top of the range. The trees are mostly snow gums and Antartic Beech - which provide a mottled light to the roadway, making spotting pot holes a lot more difficult, so I rarely exceeded 40kms/hr. A big Landcruiser bounced past at one stage with some form of government logo on the door. Its easier when you don't have to pay the bills, I guess.
The next 8 kms were much the same until Honeysuckle, where picnic tables and toilets support the 1km loop track which takes in the edge of the escarpment. On the northern side of the road are the first trickles of the Manning River. The air was crisp up here over 1500m and the first of the snow gates had been passed. In winter, this area across the Tops is regularly blanketed with snow and like all elevated regions, the weather can change rapidly. At such times, the snow gates are closed in sections or completely to prevent further incursion into areas where it would be so easy to become stuck.
I passed up the opportunity to walk out to Thunderbolt's Lookout, despite the offer of great views back over the southern sections of the park, because the track was narrow, with the distance to unseen fangs in the foliage too short. Being by myself and with no phone reception, the cost/benefit equation fell away from the benefit side of the equation. However, a few kms further on, Devil's Hole provided me with a wonderful view, not unlike those that can be seen from several vantage points at New England National Park. The track here was shorter and wider and paved, three things which gave me a fighting chance at least. Despite this, the first rustling by a penny lizard had me squeaking like a child's cheap plastic toy. I cowboyed up for the return trip to the car and only flinched twice.
At Polblue, the landscape opens up onto an area of high country wetland which has by far the largest picnic and car camping area along the traverse. There is a 3km walking track, some of it boarded, to discover the wetland. This was an unexpected and most pleasant surprise. The same could be said - minus the most pleasant - of the magpie that swooped me while I was taking photos. Cunningly, he waited until I was at the furthest point from the hard topped safety of the Forester. For some absurd reason, it had never dawned on me that magpies would nest in a national park. I put my palm on my head, with my fingers waggling skyward and returned to the car looking like some ridiculous old grey fat Foghorn Leghorn, while three park workers stood around a bladed tractor on the other side of the road, laughing.
The last and most fascinating of my stops was at The Firs (I). Driving off the road through a dense pine plantation for perhaps fifty metres, I emerged in a small circle of light surrounded by the pine trees. The width of the turning circle of an average car, this space was complete with large puddles reflecting the trees to those on the other side and visa versa. Away from the circle is darkness and the noise of branches moving against each other. I expected knights or warriors to step out from behind the pines and surround me. Among the densely planted pine trees, were large felled eucalypts and their stumps, left there after making way for the small plantation. It was as though the pine trees had won this place in a battle of timbers. It was fascinating but unlike anything I have seen in the Australian bush before.
I reached the Dingo Gate soon after and the western border of Barrington Tops National Park. The huge gate is over three metres tall but the rather large gap underneath begs one to ask the question of why they bother.
From here, it is most definitely a rapid descent. The road is very well maintained, with an even surface and plenty of rock for holding tyres ... but it's not for the faint hearted. There are few guide posts and no side rails to speak of and any drop from the edge would be fatal. I simply placed the Forester in low range and selected second gear and only touched the break twice in the 7km descent. Had I not been driving, the views would have been spectacular.
Now in the upper reaches of the Hunter River Valley (as opposed to the Hunter Valley), I drove through Moonan until picking up the New England Highway at Scone and then on to home.
NOTE: Capitalised letters in brackets represent points on "Today's Map".