Trace an original route of the Cobb & Co mail coach, on New South Wales' Old Glen Innes Road.
Glen Innes, in NSW’s northern New England region, is in the middle of cattle country. It’s also the step-off for a terrific heritage adventure along the Old Glen Innes Road, over which Cobb & Co coaches trundled between the tablelands and the coast nearly 150 years ago.
About 30km east of Glen Innes, along the Gwydir Highway, is the turnoff for the Old Glen Innes Road. Taking the turnoff will immediately place you within the Mann River Nature Reserve, which has some terrific riverside camping. The camping areas are ample and feature the basics of picnic tables, fireplaces, firewood and pit dunnies. The cooling Mann River is also nearby, so it’s a great spot to set-up for the night.
Just down the road from the Mann River camping area is Tommys Lookout Fire Trail, a well-maintained track that climbs to more than 1000m altitude within just four kilometres. With switchbacks and erosion mounds it can get pretty hairy trying to see the way up – goodness only knows what drama will ensue if a fellow four-wheel driver comes the other way.
Near the peak of the climb you’ll be required to cross several crests of dry waterfalls; so it’s a good idea to give this route a wide berth if it’s wet. There’s also another section, a little further on, that’ll require low-range to traverse several rock steps. The track does flatten out as you travel further up the ridge and, once at the top, there are myriad choices of informal walking tracks. Being so high, the views over the river gorge below and to the plateaus in the distance are amazing.
The nearby Tommy’s Rock is named after a well-known stockman of this area. Legend has it he was a mischievous yet generous character. He was courteous to ladies and children and was a superb card player, horseman, whip-cracker, boxer, gold fossicker and endurance runner. He was also arrested a number of times, though he escaped and was never convicted. He was eventually shot dead at the old Bald Knob Hotel in 1880.
Continuing on towards Grafton, the countryside is nothing short of spectacular as you drive towards huge mountainous peaks that seem to rise from nowhere. The road snakes along beside the Mann River and there are plenty of spectacular views and photo opportunities along the way. One of the first landmarks that will catch your eye is a 10-foot tall war monument erected by Norman Archibald MacDonald in memory of the diggers who fought in the First World War. There are local names listed for people who gave their life for our country, and it’s a great place to reflect.
Another hard-to-miss historical attraction is the tunnel at the 55km mark. Completed in 1868 and hand-cut through solid rock, it’s 20 metres long, three metres high and four metres wide – just the right size to squeeze an old bullock wagon through. This tunnel is known as an old convict tunnel but it wasn’t cut by convicts, rather by workers on low wages.
As you travel along the road the landscape varies from dense pockets of sub-tropical rainforest to scrappy drawn timber struggling for survival. This is one area where the weather determines what lives and what dies; in summer the heat is stifling, yet in winter the temperature can drop to well below freezing with dustings of snow. Generally the track conditions are pretty good, though very narrow in sections.
Eventually you’ll arrive at a group of old buildings; the historic town of Dalmorton. Sheep and cattle were pushed through this area back in 1840. In 1861 gold was found and by 1871 Dalmorton was declared a goldfield. Several years later there were some 300 residents. A school, several general stores and a reported 13 pubs were built to support the more than 50 registered mines in the area.
The Cobb & Co mail coach ran twice a week between Glen Innes and Grafton carrying supplies, mail and passengers. By the early 1900s, however, the gold was all but gone and the families who had settled in the area battled to make a living. Dalmorton became a ghost town when the highway was built in 1962. Now, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service is preserving and gradually restoring some of the old buildings as part of a history trail, and in the meantime it’s a great spot for the kids to walk amongst the buildings and learn something.
For camping options at Dalmorton, continue up the hill to the designated campground. There are plenty of places for camper trailers and tents and designated areas for day-trippers. Toilets are the basic long-drops and there are fire pits complete with billy hangers and firewood. Several of the campsites have views across the river towards rocky outcrops. Fees are paid into an honesty box and at a modest $5 per adult per night, it’s well worth it.
Closer to Grafton, the track twists its way parallel to the Boyd River and offers great riverside views. For those who’d like a bit more settlers’ history, keep an eye open for the pre-1900 graves to the left.
The country opens out to an increasing number of farms over the last 20km of the Old Glen Innes Road indicating civilisation isn’t far away. And, before too long, you will arrive at a low-level bridge in Buccarumbi where two rivers – the Nymboida and the Boyd – meet. Several higher bridges were built during the past 100 years, but regular flooding washed them away.
More recently, the decision was made to build today’s bridge as a low-level concrete span. This design allows debris to flow over the top and not get caught up around the pylons during times of high water, thus reducing damage. There are quite a few large metal structural pieces from a previous bridge – smashed apart from floods – that can be seen.
After crossing the low-lying Buccarumbi Bridge it’s an easy drive to the black-top of Gwydir Highway; today’s main thoroughfare between Grafton and Glen Innes that bypasses the Old Glen Innes Road.
The Old Glen Innes Road drive packs-in plenty of heritage, history and spectacular scenery along its modest 140km length.
*Originally published in 4X4 Australia magazine.