For more than a century the Grafton to Glen Innes Road remained the main route from the New England Tablelands to the coast until the development of the present Gwydir Highway in the 1960s
The Old Grafton to Glen Innes Road is 180km of good gravel with a stretch of “ black top “ on either end. Pull over anywhere on this historic road and listen to the tinkle of bellbirds and be drawn back in time when this road was traversed by teams of bullocks loaded with red cedar or wool. Listen to the whips cracking and the trudge of expectant miners as they make their way to the goldfields. I half expected a Cobb & Co Coach to trundle by on their fortnightly run to and from the coast.
This is a land of flowing waters, steep escarpments, dry ridges and lush, dark valleys. The Orara, Nymboida, Boyd, Guy Fawkes, Henry and Mann Rivers all cross this historic road before they feed into the Clarence River near Grafton. The scenery along the road is both rugged and breathtaking.
The road opened in 1867 after following the rough, steep and narrow tracks carved out by the bullock drays in the 1840s. The road was hailed as an engineering masterpiece with its steep descents and cuttings running high above the river. With the gold rush in the 1850s towns such as Buccamundi, Dalmorton and Newton Boyd sprung up. Very little remains of these towns today but travelling through these now abandoned sites one gets a feeling for the hustle and bustle that once was.
The road may be explored from either end and leaving from Glen Innes it’s called The Old Glen Innes Road and called The Old Grafton Road if leaving from Grafton. I have driven the road in both directions and really don’t have a preference but my latest trip was from Grafton so will describe the Big River Country from this direction.
Travelling from either direction you will need to turn off the Gwydir Highway. After leaving Grafton a short 10km trip brings you to the well sign posted left hand turn onto the Old Road. The road continues to be sealed and passes tin sheds, farm houses and the occasional abandoned house. After approximately 20km you drop down and cross the low concrete Buccamundi Bridge and here you leave the bitumen.
Buccamundi is only a locality today where a low level concrete bridge spans the Nymboida River. There’s a riverside campsite with flushing toilets and an interpretative sign informing travellers of the area’s history. This is a great spot to spend a few nights or just stop for a cup of tea. Buccamundi was once the stop over for the weary Cobb & Co Coach patrons and loggers. There was a couple of pubs, one on either side of the river, in case of floods, to cater for the weary traveller.
The village is long gone but if you wander down to the concrete bridge and explore the shoreline, remains of the high level bridge washed away in the 1946 flood can be seen. Huge steel pylons filled with concrete are all that is left of this substantial structure. The Boyd River joins the Nymboida a little way upstream and the high level bridge had little chance in the 1946 flood which peaked at 16m. The thinking behind the low concrete bridge is that during a flood the debris would wash over the top. So far so good.
The Nymboida is a popular canoe trip with canoe parties descending the valley from Buccamundi to Jackadgery. There are plenty of rapids for an open canoe and lots of pools by which to camp. Much further up stream, towards Dorrigo Plateau, the river is highly prized by experienced kayakers. Fishing is also popular on the Nymboida River but is banned on the river during August, September and October to enable the endangered Eastern Freshwater Cod to spawn uninterrupted during their breeding season.
Leaving Buccamundi the road climbs up and over a spur through wooded country and the occasional farm. The road can be a little corrugated but suitable for 2WD. Dalmorton is the next stop and holds less than half a dozen shacks and small houses, mostly used for holidays by the families who own them.
Dalmorton is a shadow of its former self. This isolated village was once a thriving, rowdy community of 5000 people and 13 pubs living off the proceeds of a great but brief gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s. The town was frequented by bushrangers, pioneers, gold miners and the like. When the gold ran out so did the people. In the middle of town there is a small building standing on its own, this was the old butcher shop. Wander through and check out the meat hooks that still hang from the ceiling and get a feel for this once busy community.
The Guy Fawkes River National Park Campground is not far out of town on the Chaelundi Road and is in close proximity to the Boyd River which flows beside Dalmorton. This campground is rarely full and has tent, camper trailer and caravan sites. There are picnic tables, barbecue facilities and toilets. Many travellers camp along the Boyd River near the concrete bridge on the Chaelundi Road closer to town.
The Guy Fawkes River State Conservation Area is in town and this historic precinct has been preserved by the National Parks. Here you will find the old Schoolhouse and the Old Police Lockup among other preserved buildings. This is a great place for a break, have a cup of tea use the toilets and begin to explore this historic town. Listen for the bullocky cracking his whip as he urges his team along the dusty road and the galloping hooves of the Cobb & Co horses as they make their way to Grafton with weary passengers and the mail. Another 8km further along the road is the Historic Tunnel and I never tire of visiting and travelling through this amazing feat of engineering.
The Historic Tunnel
The tunnel, made by civilian labour is a unique and photogenic feature. The tunnel has been hand hewn through 20m of solid rock. It’s too narrow for more than one car and a caravan or truck would struggle to fit through as the tunnel is only 3.3m high. Inside the tunnel the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back to the 1800s. The rock shards suggest much hard labour and I couldn’t but think of the horse and carts that passed beneath this stony arch not so long ago. The tunnelling of this outcrop must have been a daunting task without the help of modern day machinery. For me this is one of the highlights of this historic road. Although the road is rather narrow and there is a vertical drop to the river travellers are able to park on the Grafton side of the tunnel, take a few photos and wander through.
As this section of the Old Road is high above the Boyd River it must have been a true feat of engineering to blast out the road along this steep precipice. As quoted in the Town & Country Journal on 26 August 1871.
“Here is found the most arduous and difficult portion of
the way. The cutting for long distances has been blasted
through clay, slate, basalt and very hard greenstone abutting
on the river in an almost vertical manner, so much so that workmen had to be slung
by the waist from the tree above in order to get safely at the face
of the rock.“
After leaving the narrow, scenic cutting the countryside opens up to rolling farmland and cattle graze along the side of the road as we approach the last historic town of Newton Boyd.
Newton Boyd is nothing like it used to be in the days when gold was mined in these parts. Today there is only one house with a number of out-buildings and an impressive World War 1 War Memorial close to the road. Near the memorial is a small shelter painted in rainbow colours and contains honey and jewellery for sale. I would recommend purchasing a pot of honey and placing your money in the “ honesty box “ before you leave.
The War Memorial was significant to the community as it was privately funded and erected on his property by Mr N. A. MacDonald. The memorial records 30 young men leaving Newton Boyd farms to enlist and only 1 returning. It was reported in the Glen Innes Examiner on the 22nd of September 1924:
“ On Thursday, his Excellency, the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Dudley
De Clair, formally opened the Newton Boyd Memorial Hall and unveiled the
Memorial Column erected by Mr N. A. MacDonald, of Broadmeadows Station,
of the district soldiers. The occasion was marked by a sports meeting and a dance
at the hall that night. “
The memorial seems quite out of place and in the middle of nowhere but must have been the focal point of this busy community which was at one time the stop off for the Cobb & Co Coach.
I spent some time contemplating the significance of the memorial for the community and the importance of a visit from the Governor General of New South Wales. The hall is long gone but the War Memorial remains as a testament to another time.
The last leg of the journey takes you past Wytaliba School, across the Mann River and onto the Mann River Nature Reserve. The Mann River Campground and Picnic Area features riverside camping in a beautiful bush setting. The location is suitable for caravans, camper trailers and tents. The campground is temporarily closed due to drainage and earthwork maintenance, facility upgrade and re-vegetation works but should be open in the near future.
From Mann River Nature Reserve the steep sealed road takes you up the range and back to the Gwydir Highway where you can return back to Grafton or continue to Glen Innes.
Take this road to adventure and experience the remoteness, history, rugged scenic beauty and the feeling of stepping back in time. Do the adventure as a day trip travelling the Old Grafton to Glen Innes Road and returning via the Gwydir Highway an approximate round trip of 360km or by camping along the way. I would suggest the latter as you are able to immerse yourself in this beautiful countryside. An alternative is to find accommodation in Grafton or Glenn Ines or both and take your time exploring. Don’t forget when travelling the Gwydir Highway not to miss the World Heritage National Parks of Washpool with its lush rainforests and Gibraltar Range with its spectacular granite outcrops. Enjoy.