Don’t let the size, the pace, the obscurity, or the nickname “Forgotten Valley” mislead you. The northwest reaches of the Hawkesbury and Hills shires can be ghostly-quiet, but spread within this tangle of river bends and back roads, deep in a pastoral valley where no highways – and in effect, few travellers go – you’ll find some of Greater Sydney’s best-kept secrets.
Getting down into this mysterious dell doesn’t have to involve the string of dusty, hairpin bends that we chose to take, but if your rig is up for it, the wiggly country drive through Windsor, Wilberforce, Ebenezer and beyond sets the tone nicely for what’s to come. Otherwise, the Old Northern Road offers a sealed, 45-minute approach through the scenic Hills Shire of Sydney’s northwest, before dropping down into the historic village of Wisemans Ferry, gatekeeper of the valley.
Wisemans Ferry is small, with a bowling club, grocer and sprinkle of restaurants and shops, while a golf course takes prime position within the elbow of the river. The Wisemans Inn Hotel, one of the oldest standing buildings in Australia, looms over town from behind a screen of gnarled tree trunks. Built in 1826 from convict-excavated sandstone, the building, which was the original home of pardoned convict and colonist Solomon Wiseman, now serves as a heritage hotel, museum, and watering hole for the occasional throng of weekend motorists.
Apart from the oldest in-use bridge on mainland Australia (a small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it crossing on Wisemans Ferry Road), what’s interesting about a town surrounded almost entirely by water is the absence of hulking concrete structures that generally allow you to get from one side to the other.
Instead, cable ferries cart travellers from bank to bank, and have been doing so in much the same way since early settlement. The punt from Wisemans, which putters to and fro 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the oldest ferry crossing in the country. Waiting around 15 minutes to get across is enough to know the spell of the river, the mountains, the peace and the quiet has already been cast; we’re on country time now, and not going anywhere in a hurry.
Dharug National Park & the Old Great North Road
The Hawkesbury River marks the border of Dharug National Park, whose mountains rise near-vertically only metres from the banks. Thousands of years ago, the Darug people learned to navigate through the fortress of sandstone, and established a sophisticated network of paths that are still walked to this day.
When European colonisers showed up with ambitious plans to expand the road network from Sydney to Newcastle, surveyors relied on Darug elders to show them through the terrain, sometimes at night by the light of burning torches and grass trees. What you’ll find along some of their tracks now are relics of the original 260km-long Great North Road, which required a workforce of more than 500 convicts to build, and 11 years of labour to finish.
Nowadays most of the old cobbled road is obscured under blacktop and suburban traffic, but the heritage-listed portion in Dharug National Park has been restored and preserved as an interactive trail that can be publically travelled by foot or mountain bike.
We laced up our boots and took the 9km circuit from Devine’s Hill and along Finch’s Line; a walk which captures the attitudes, successes and setbacks of the time. Still-working culverts, buttresses and an almighty curved retaining wall speak of the high standards demanded of the craftsmen, but also the gruelling conditions in which they laboured and, as coastal steamers became the preferred form of transport before the road’s completion, the ultimate futility of it all.
The changes imposed on the region back then were pretty drastic, but the stunning natural environment has always been a constant. Perfumed with the nectar of myrtle blossoms, and ablaze with native peas, orchids, flannel flowers and grass trees, Finch’s Line in particular makes for spectacular wildflower viewing – and in turn, carpenter bee and honeyeater spotting! Fabulous Gymea lilies, which grow to almost 4m tall and shoot out great wands of dramatic red flowers, are endemic to the Sydney basin and can be found clustered throughout Dharug National Park in the thousands.
St Albans side trip
It’s well worth making the time to drive about half an hour north to St Albans. The tiny community on the Macdonald River owes its place on the map almost entirely to the Settlers Arms Inn, a Georgian-style sandstone building that has been housing travellers and serving pints non-stop for the best part of 200 years.
The inn remains as popular as ever on a weekend, and is perhaps one of the best convict-built constructions in the area – a couple of old jalopies out front and peacocks on patrol certainly set the scene.
For a time in the early 20th century there was serious talk of destroying all New South Wales convict records, such was the shame felt by a nation that was founded on a ‘solution’ to Britain’s petty crime problems. Some members of the gangs assigned to the construction of Great North Road are recognised in plaques at sites on the walking trail, but a great number of the workers are remembered simply as ‘unknown’.
It seemed fitting then to stop at the St Albans Old General Cemetery – one of many graveyards in the Macdonald Valley which provide insights into the relationships between the pioneers that made a life here. These crumbling records have been instrumental in tracing ancestral lines that might otherwise have been lost in the pages of history, and while there’s a slim chance you’d trace your own family lineage here, it’s bound to ignite curiosity.
Author and descendant of Solomon Wiseman, Kate Grenville, caved to her curiosity in a big way when she wrote The Secret River, a work of historical fiction that resulted from her desire to understand the often horrifying truth behind colonising land used by Aboriginal people, and the book subsequently became her personal gesture of reconciliation. If you were to park your caravan along the Hawkesbury River for a few days of R&R, this would make for some powerful and extremely relevant reading.
Fun on the water
The Hawkesbury River itself attracts all walks of life and adds a completely different layer to the area. Sydney’s wakeboarding and waterskiing community give the place a vibrant energy you’ll only encounter during weekends and summer holidays, while those chasing solitude will find barely a ripple in the surface off-peak and mid-week.
With the confluences of the Macdonald River, Webbs Creek and Colo River nearby, there’s plenty of opportunity to spend the day exploring the catchment’s smaller tributaries by paddle. Along with kayaks and canoes, houseboats and tinnies can also be hired in town. The village grocer supplies bait and tackle so you can try your luck angling for jewfish, mullet and flatties.
Where to camp
For no-frills camping, the Mill Creek Campground is around 6km from Wisemans Ferry and offers massive, grass sites for tents and caravans, shaded by cliffs and eucalypt forest. Listen up for the mimicking calls and rummaging of lyrebirds, but beware the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ ways of the brush turkeys.
There are hybrid toilets and fire pits there, but your own water, firewood and just about everything else needs to be brought in. From the campground there’s a short grass tree bushwalk, and a harder 11km trek if you’re feeling energetic.
If you’re after a more luxurious escape with hot water taps and superb water frontage, there’s also a handful of caravan resorts and RV acreages spread along the riverbanks that are perfect for spending a few days chilling out before heading off into the wide blue yonder.
Webbs Creek accommodation
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