4 x 4 Australia - - Explore - WORDS & PHO­TOS ROBERT NOR­MAN

HILE Ox­ley Wild Rivers NP is the largest of five other na­tional parks ei­ther ad­join­ing or ad­ja­cent to it, there are an­other 22 na­tional parks and 30 na­ture re­serves in the New Eng­land area. Trav­el­ling east across the table­lands to­wards the Great Di­vid­ing Range and onto its eastern slopes, an­nual rain­fall rises from 800mm to 2000mm cre­at­ing a di­verse range of forest types from tem­per­ate to trop­i­cal rain­for­est. Around Walcha, south of Ar­mi­dale, it is easy to see how the New Eng­land Table­land got its name. Deciduous trees such as elms and poplars paint the rolling green hills with vi­brant splashes of yel­low and gold in au­tumn. The area sees most of its rain over sum­mer and au­tumn, but it re­mained in the grip of a se­vere drought at the time of our visit in late April. The lo­cal ser­vice sta­tion at Walcha, Ap­s­ley Mo­tors, is the NSW Na­tional Parks agent for per­mits and keys to some con­trolled ac­cess ar­eas – a sys­tem that some of the other states could do well to con­sider. The en­try per­mits gen­er­ate ad­di­tional in­come for the care and main­te­nance of sites in ques­tion, while al­low­ing Parks to con­trol the num­ber of users.

The key ac­com­pa­ny­ing the per­mit al­lows ac­cess via locked gates that can only be de­scribed as im­pres­sive. Heav­ily built, they make the gates on the sea­son­ally closed tracks of the Vic­to­rian High Coun­try look like they were bought on spe­cial at Bun­nings.

NSW Parks’ care and main­te­nance of its camp­grounds is sec­ond to none. The ma­jor camp­grounds are reg­u­larly pro­vided with cut fire­wood and the fa­cil­i­ties reg­u­larly cleaned. How of­ten in other parts of Aus­tralia have you seen a Park’s em­ployee mow­ing the grass and tidy­ing up, what are in some in­stances, very re­mote camp­grounds with a leaf blower?

Sur­pris­ingly, with the NSW school hol­i­days be­ing in full swing, we had our first camp at Ap­s­ley Falls to our­selves un­til late in the af­ter­noon, when three or four grey no­mads pulled in for an overnight stay. De­spite the ex­cel­lent fa­cil­i­ties at Ap­s­ley, in­clud­ing flush­ing toi­lets, un­treated rain wa­ter on tap and the

afore­men­tioned free fire­wood, it was very dis­ap­point­ing to see very few cam­pers both­ered to pay the self-reg­is­tra­tion fee of $6 per head.

The drought meant some of the park’s more spec­tac­u­lar wa­ter­falls were not flow­ing. Ap­s­ley Falls was one of these, but the deep gorge with its pre­cip­i­tous walls was still an im­pres­sive sight and pro­vided a strik­ing tes­ti­mony to the power and vol­ume of wa­ter that flows down the Ap­s­ley River at times. There is an easy walk around part of the gorge rim, with view­ing plat­forms pro­vid­ing spec­tac­u­lar views.

A di­verse range of birdlife can be seen around the camp­ground. Scar­let robins were the most strik­ing, with their iri­des­cent red plumage stand­ing out like small bea­cons as they flit­ted through the oth­er­wise drab green-grey bush.

The mag­pies proved to be a lot of fun as they picked over our camp­site for crumbs and even ate from our hand (whether in­vited or not). The group’s al­pha male, built like an avian rugby player, would perch on the edge of the ta­ble star­ing fixedly at the food on our plates, and on one oc­ca­sion deftly re­moved a sand­wich be­tween hand and mouth with a flash of black and white.

River­side camp­site is a per­mit-only area some 20km from Ap­s­ley Falls, but get­ting there en­tails a drive back to Walcha to cross the Ap­s­ley River. A nar­row but well-main­tained gravel road runs through dense forest for sev­eral kilo­me­tres be­fore reach­ing the locked gate af­ter which it be­comes a nar­row track (rough in places) that drops very steeply to the val­ley floor 800m be­low. With steep pinches, switch­backs and few places to pass with plenty of on­com­ing traf­fic, it is easy to see why camper trail­ers are not per­mit­ted. Most of this slow de­scent was tack­led with the auto in low-range first gear, al­low­ing the en­gine com­pres­sion rather than our brake pads to fight grav­ity on the steep track.

River­side can only be de­scribed as one of the nicest camp­sites you could hope for. With his and hers fa­cil­i­ties, gas bar­be­cues, pic­nic ta­bles and a large mowed grass area

pro­tected by heavy bol­lards, it was per­fectly main­tained de­spite its re­mote lo­ca­tion. Hid­den be­hind a line of trees just a few me­tres from the grassed area is a post­card-per­fect stretch of the Ap­s­ley River with its invit­ing crys­tal-clear wa­ter. While a pleas­ant des­ti­na­tion for a day drive, River­side is a place that will en­sure you throw a tent in the camper to en­able an overnight stay on your next trip. Leav­ing Rive­side it is worth a stop at Budds Mare camp­ground lo­cated on a high ridge near the Park en­trance. The three camp­sites here are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble with a camper, and a nearby look­out has com­mand­ing views over the rugged ranges to the east. NSW’S Sur­veyor Gen­eral, John Ox­ley, stood here in 1818 dur­ing his ef­forts to find a path across the ranges to the coast be­yond. Tak­ing in that same view to­day it is easy to see Ox­ley’s prob­lem, as the deep val­leys that criss­cross the area largely run north south, pre­sent­ing a seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier to any east­erly route. Ox­ley even­tu­ally crossed the Great Di­vid­ing Range at Ap­s­ley Falls be­fore fol­low­ing the Hast­ings River to the coast at what is present-day Port Mac­quarie. An­other restricted ac­cess site is Youdales Hut, some 75km south-east of Ap­s­ley Falls. Half the jour­ney is on bi­tu­men, with the bal­ance on good gravel forest tracks which slowly de­grade the deeper you travel into the forest. Like River­side, the fi­nal few kilo­me­tres into Youdales in­volved a very steep drop of about 800m down a nar­row track. Youdales Hut was built in the early 1900s and re­stored af­ter ly­ing aban­doned

for many years. Set in a large, grassy clear­ing with an ad­join­ing grassed and shady camp­ing area, the hut backs onto a shal­low river with wa­ter that is as clear as glass.

Youdales won the lease of the land here in a lottery; al­though, con­sid­er­ing the re­mote­ness and dif­fi­culty of ac­cess in a time be­fore roads were cut into the val­ley, you would have to won­der if it was first prize. Youdales was cer­tainly a man with a long-term view. To over­come the prob­lem of ter­mites eat­ing his stock­yard tim­bers, he planted gum trees as liv­ing posts – a plan that would have taken years to re­alise.

The road back to Ap­s­ley Falls passed Tia Falls, which had enough wa­ter flow­ing over its huge drop to paint a pic­ture of how im­pres­sive it would be when in flood. As well as the deep gorge cut by the river, a nearby look­out also has even more spec­tac­u­lar views over the rugged, forest-clad ranges to the east. Wollomombi Falls, just east of Ar­mi­dale, like nearby Dan­gers Falls was also dry. How­ever, both lo­ca­tions, as well as still be­ing scenic, had sto­ries to tell.

A sign at Dan­gers Falls ex­plains how large num­bers of eels can some­times be seen in the pool at the bot­tom of the falls. Grow­ing to two me­tres, these eels breed in the Coral Sea off the Queens­land coast, from where the young eels then make the ar­du­ous 1500km jour­ney back to the head­wa­ters of this river – in the process some­how scal­ing the 120m-high wa­ter­fall.

Wollomombi Falls, with a to­tal drop of 230m, was for some time con­sid­ered to be the tallest wa­ter­fall in Aus­tralia, but it has now been rel­e­gated to sec­ond or third tallest (de­pend­ing on what ref­er­ence ma­te­rial you read). The Wollomombi camp­ground, like Ap­s­ley, was per­fectly main­tained if some­what busier. The quiet af­ter­noon was filled by the sound of cam­pers cut­ting the al­ready split eu­ca­lypt fire­wood into kin­dling. De­spite be­ing dry, the tim­ber just wouldn’t burn un­less split into small pieces, and we won­dered if Parks soaks the wood in fire re­tar­dant to make it last longer.

On the topic of fire­wood, one of the res­i­dent grey no­mads re­lated the tale of see­ing some­one, os­ten­si­bly an­other camper, pull in with a trailer cov­ered with a tarp only to leave a short while later. They sub­se­quently found the camp­ground’s wood sup­ply had dis­ap­peared – un­doubt­edly in the cam­pers’ trailer.

East of Wollomombi, on the road to Dor­rigo, is the pic­turesque Ebor Falls, which had a good flow of wa­ter fall­ing over two sub­stan­tial drops. Fusspots, a cafe in the ad­join­ing town­ship of Ebor, is a great place to take a break (its ham­burg­ers and Devon­shire Tea are es­pe­cially rec­om­mended). Nearby Point Look­out at 1540m is one of the high­est van­tage points in the New Eng­land area, with spec­tac­u­lar panoramic views to the east. How­ever, this is one of the wettest ar­eas in NSW and on any­thing other than a bright, cloud­less day ex­pect the look­out to be shrouded in thick fog. Our visit was no ex­cep­tion, with misty rain and vis­i­bil­ity down to less than 100m.

Judg­ing by the lichen and mosses cov­er­ing pretty much every­thing, a clear day at Point Look­out is prob­a­bly a


rar­ity. The one com­pen­sa­tion in the event of a fruit­less drive to Point Look­out is that the road passes a fish farm where you can buy mouth-wa­ter­ing smoked trout.

Our fi­nal stop was Ge­orges Junc­tion, named be­cause it is on the junc­tion of the Ge­orges Creek and the Ma­cleay River. Ac­cess to the Junc­tion ne­ces­si­tated an­other 800m drop off a high ridge by way of a good all-weather gravel road. De­spite pro­tect­ing our brakes as much as pos­si­ble dur­ing the de­scent, the ex­tra weight of a camper be­hind us re­sulted in a def­i­nite smell of cook­ing brake pads by the time we reached the bot­tom. Be sure to use lower gears.

Pre-trip re­search in­di­cated there was an in­ter­est­ing 4x4-only track that fol­lowed the Ma­cleay River south from the camp­ground. How­ever, ac­cess was barred by a closed gate em­bla­zoned with a “No En­try” sign. It seems the lease­holder has had a gut­ful of peo­ple do­ing the wrong thing. With 4x4s, trail bikes and dogs chas­ing his cat­tle, bro­ken glass and other rub­bish ly­ing around, and be­ing reg­u­larly asked to re­cover bogged ve­hi­cles, who could blame him for shut­ting down ac­cess? Cer­tainly not us.

While ‘fer­als’ only con­sti­tute a small per­cent­age of the camp­ing/4x4 com­mu­nity, the im­pact of their thought­less ac­tions af­fects us all. No doubt on their next visit said fer­als will be com­plain­ing bit­terly about the in­jus­tice of be­ing de­nied ac­cess. Will they com­pre­hend the rea­sons be­hind the clo­sure? I’d say the an­swer to that is, prob­a­bly not.

From Ge­orges Junc­tion there is a choice of ei­ther driv­ing out to the coast at Kempsey or tak­ing a 4x4 dry-weather-only track over the top of the range via Kemps Pin­na­cle. The pre­vi­ous night had seen a thun­der­storm that would have done Noah proud, but as the morn­ing started bright and clear, we de­cided to chance the track.

Reached from the small town of Bell­brook, what started as a good gravel road quickly be­came a nar­row, wind­ing track with nu­mer­ous blind cor­ners. A some­what slow yet in­ter­est­ing drive was made more in­ter­est­ing by a sur­prise visit from a two-me­tre carpet python dur­ing a lunch stop.

Camp that night was at Bushy Moun­tain Camp­site on a high ridge in the rain­for­est. With a camp­fire burn­ing and a red wine (or three) be­hind us, we re­laxed af­ter a long day be­fore a tick­ling sen­sa­tion sud­denly alerted us that we both had sev­eral leeches dining on our legs. The joys of the rain­for­est! A sprin­kle of salt solved the im­me­di­ate prob­lem, but we kept a close watch on the ground around us af­ter that and agreed this was def­i­nitely not a place to throw down the swag.

Head­ing south, the drought-stricken plains of cen­tral NSW were a stark con­trast to the rain­forests and rivers we had left be­hind. With nu­mer­ous other na­tional parks in the New Eng­land Table­land, a re­turn visit is on the cards when the area’s wa­ter­falls are in full flow.

Lucky lottery Youdales Hut (pic­tured) was re­stored in the 1990s, some 90 years af­ter it was built. The lease of the land on which it stands was orig­i­nally won in a lottery.

Trav­el­ling down into the pic­turesque Ge­orges Creek val­ley.

The Guy Fawkes River plunges 100m over two sec­tions at Ebor Falls. The look­out plat­forms of­fer in­cred­i­ble views of the up­per and lower falls. Pic­ture per­fect

Cross­ing a small, at ul­tra-clear stream Youdales Hut.

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