Our next road trip was in the Australian winter of 2011. With short days, cold weather, and a laptop on hand, the diary stretched into short story writing. I hope you enjoy coming along on the adventure with us……..(Readers currently experiencing the ‘polar vortex’ may find references to cold weather amusing – guess it is all relative!)
Day 2: Thursday 7th July 2011
We have no way of measuring it, but it would not surprise me to learn the temperature dropped to minus 5’c (23’f) overnight, and the winds were still strong and weather squally, but we were warm enough in our bed, especially with electric blankets turned on for the first few minutes. Our motel room faced directly to the main highway and the trucking traffic continued through the night, but we slept okay and the disturbance helped us get up at a reasonable time in the morning – so that we were on the road by 9am. There was a moment during the night when I was fed up with the noise and reached over for my earplugs, only to find that the container I had left beside the bed actually held my mouth mints. The containers were the same size and shape, and I had been too tired to notice the difference when I took them out of my handbag the night before.
Since we no longer needed to go to Bathurst, this time we did take the turn-off to Mudgee, heading in the direction of the Ilford Road. I had travelled this road on at least half a dozen occasions in previous years, and was interested to retrace my steps. The last time though, was nearly forty years before, and I struggled to remember how it looked back then. We passed the Wallerawang Power Station, which I don’t recall at all – although Wikipedia says this thermal coal power station was built in 1957. Nor did I have any memory of the many collieries and coal-related industries scattered amongst the bushland. I wouldn’t say it was built up, but there was certainly more activity than in former times.
Shortly after we passed the turnoff to Portland – which I did remember – as a cement manufacturing town – the mining industry gave way to familiar farmland. It mostly appeared to be cattle grazing, whereas I think of this as sheep country.
At one point I called out to Bill, “My goodness, look, they’re farming kangaroos!” For a moment I thought this could actually be true – there were so many of them in one paddock – until I reminded myself that the fences were too low to keep kangaroos there against their will. Perhaps it is the bad weather that has brought them down from the hills to gather together where the food is easily available, and the wind is not so strong. Who knows? However, so many kangaroos chomping their way through pasture is sure to put them in direct competition with sheep and cattle, and I am guessing who will win that turf battle.
The road wound gently through the ragged landscape, cutting through the Great Dividing Range and displaying unusual rock formations to the right and the left. Every so often a pile of bush-covered rock would form a small hill, in what was otherwise a relatively flat paddock. I checked the map and realised we were approaching the Gardens of Stone National Park, and wondered how it came to be named that, as the landscape was still predominantly bush with rock only scattered randomly amongst it. If we had researched better, we could have turned off and done a driving tour through the area, and then we would have appreciated the majestic rock formations in the park. A discovery for another day. (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/gardens-of-stone-national-park).
We continued on the main road, and came upon the town of Cullen Bullen, with its welcome sign indicating the population was 198 persons. As we slowly cruised through I was interested to note that the cluster of houses were mostly well kept, even though there was little sign of any new building taking place. These were probably the same houses as I had last seen forty years ago.
We drove on to the smaller village of Ben Bullen and I had a laugh to myself – what I remembered as the road passing over a narrow wooden bridge that crossed a small creek, was actually an unmanned road-crossing over a railway line. The impression was the same – a glimpse of two or three houses as the road veered, and then we were out of town already. It is literally a “don’t blink, or you will miss it” township, and I still don’t know how either town got its name.
As we approached Capertee we noticed a small sign advertising it as the largest canyon in the Southern Hemisphere, and that there was a lookout 5klm ahead. When we came upon it, the track was so much hidden in the bush that we had driven well past before we realised we had overshot the lookout. We drove on for another kilometre or two before we found a safe place to turn around. It was worth the effort. There before us stretched a canyon to rival that of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, albeit covered in green bush with rocky outcrops. (I have never seen the Grand Canyon in person, so there is a possibility I am exaggerating). The Capertee Valley stretched before us in all directions, dropping down around 500 metres, looking as if giant meteors had gouged the canyons from the mountain ranges and ridges that surrounded the valley. (photos don’t do it justice in the bad weather conditions). The Wollemi National Park showed green in the distance. This is the place where scientists found an ancient pine only a decade or so ago. The Wollemi Pine is a relic of the prehistoric age. It was thought to be long extinct, known only as a fossil. Now it will be cultivated and continue to be grown.
The sun broke through for a moment and lit up the ochre colours of the exposed rocky crags. The weather has been bitterly cold with rain squalls all morning, so we were fortunate to see it bathed in sunlight. From this lookout we can take only a fleeting glimpse of the canyon, to really enjoy this area you would need to be kitted out ready for hiking and camping. We were told later at the tourist office that there are plans to close even this little lookout, due to the driving danger caused by traffic needing to veer across the road at that particular curve. It is a very little known part of the countryside – New South Wale’s best kept tourism secret.
Back in the car we continued on this scenic drive, through the sweetly named township of Running Stream, and it was nice to see that there are some relatively new houses and tidy looking farm properties. Shortly after, we made the approach into Ilford. The tour guide website describes this as an “unremarkable” village of 238 persons, with the most notable building being the primary school.
That is pretty true, but back when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, I used to come to this place to stay with a couple who ran the property for a “Pitt Street Farmer” – a wealthy professional person who worked and lived in Sydney and kept the farm as a tax diversion / hobby. It was mostly a sheep property then, and the property manager (my friend) lived in a very shabby four roomed house, with the bathroom attached in a lean-to. Meanwhile, the property owner kept a large, modern air-conditioned home that was only occupied when he brought his city friends to come for a visit to the “farm”. Bill and I drove the stretch of road that comprises Ilford twice; until I was sure I remembered the right property. The shabby manager’s house is almost falling down now. The owner’s house is still in good condition, but not as grand as in my memory. There was no sign of anyone in the paddocks or near the houses and sheds. The property seems to have been turned over to beef cattle. If there were any sheep, then they must have been in a back paddock not visible from the road. Curiosity satisfied, we pushed on.
Just after Ilford, we turned off onto another tourist drive that took us through more scenic farmland surrounded by the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, until we came upon the small town of Kandos, population around thirteen hundred. This town began as a private village when a group of investors discovered that its natural minerals could become a cement industry, and they established the town in the art deco era, so many of the buildings have this atmosphere. I imagine the people who live there enjoy their town; it seemed to have all the public buildings and services they could want on a day to day basis, all located in a pretty valley surrounded by mountains. Again, it was raining when we arrived, and so chilly outside the car, so we didn’t stop to walk around. (so no photos – whoops!) Instead we drove on to Rylstone, another small township (around 600 people). Similar to Kandos, but dating back to an earlier time, with many sandstone buildings.
(Kandos cement works is hiding in the general scenery of these photographs)
Our drive continued like this, through one or two small towns, farmlands, mostly cattle, some sheep, not many crops. Then we realised we were passing olive groves and vineyards, so we knew that we were almost at our destination, Mudgee. We arrived just on around midday.
Mudgee is the largest town in this regional area, with a population of around 9,000 people, and one of the oldest settlements west of the Great Dividing Range. The mountain range stretches 3,500 kilometres (2,175 mi) from Queensland to Victoria, and effectively cuts the inland pastoral areas from the coastal areas. Rain bearing clouds from the ocean side drop their load when they reach the mountain heights, so that coastal areas get rain at the expense of the inland areas. The range is significant in Australian European history, as first of all explorers had to find a way to get over the mountains (1813 starting from Sydney), and then settlers and equipment had to follow them. Mudgee claims that it was first settled in 1820, but I think its major development commenced from 1850 when gold was discovered. Many areas in these western regions developed through gold, and it was a significant historical link for many of the townships we saw on our trip last November.
We had something of a surprise at the tourist information office when we couldn’t find any accommodation! Mudgee is a large town with hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, farmstays – any variety of accommodation, and all of it booked – seemingly on account of a soccer tournament in town. The situation was looking very grim, until a helpful tourist officer managed to find us one night’s accommodation at Gulgong, thirty kilometres up the road (about 20 miles).
What a find! The Telegraph Office is brand new accommodation, only opened in late April 2011. It is built by the couple who own and run the Gulgong Post Office, and the husband has a passion for history. He found the plans for a weatherboard cottage that was originally attached to the post office in the 1800’s, and he has built something that is a replica of that, – at least on the outside – on the land that he owns at the back of the post office. The room we have is a two bedroom self-contained cottage. All the fittings are top-quality and the place is extremely tastefully decorated – and all at a very reasonable price.
Gulgong is famous as being the town on the Ten Dollar Note, although that design is not in circulation any more. The town is living history, wall to wall old buildings from the 1800’s. it could be a movie set in a gold rush town. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, talking to locals, and checking out the area.
In the early evening we went for an early dinner at a local pub. It wasn’t hard to find a pub. In a township of six or so streets, there are at least four hotels. The front bar was popular with the local youth. We took shelter in a small dining room at the back. That was also occupied by a couple celebrating their son’s eleventh birthday. His best friend and younger sister completed their group. We soon fell to chatting, our conversation spanning why they had moved to Gulgong, what work he did, the effect the mining employment was having on house and rental prices, and we even strayed into politics. We ended the night joining in singing Happy Birthday for the son. Such is the easy way of mixing in the country.
We can only have one night in this wonderful accommodation, as they are fully booked for the weekend, but we have a bright spot. The helpful lady at the tourist office lives on a fifteen acre property just outside of Gulgong, and she has accommodation available, so we have booked two nights there. That gives us a chance to loiter around this area, and a two night stop is always welcome on a road trip.
Tomorrow: Wandering around the Gulgong and Mudgee area