Up on the NSW north coast, just west of Grafton, is the start of a road where many a fortune was lost and found. It’s known to some as The Old Glen Innes Road. This is not a hard drive by any standard, but great in a soft roader or AWD, with riverside camping, a ghost town, and plenty of history just waiting to be found.
Starting in Grafton – a town known for its yearly Bridge to Bridge Ski Race and Jacaranda Festival – you’ll head west along the Gwydir Highway before hanging a left towards Buccarumbi. This 150km road follows the route of the old Cobb and Co Coach that trundled between the tablelands and Grafton, and was the only connection between countryside and coast until the new highway over the Gibraltar range was built until 1967.
It’s a pleasant ten minute drive on the tar until you hit the dirt. Soon you’ll cross the low lying Buccarumbi Bridge. We always stop here and stretch the legs – you can see remnants of massive steel and concrete bridge supports that have been washed away by floods.
Continuing on, the road follows the Boyd River as it twists its way through the countryside towards Dalmorton, giving you stunning views of the area with rugged mountains as a backdrop. For those keen to set up camp down beside the river, keep an eye out around the 50km mark. There are some fantastic secluded spots amongst the twisted native trees that have been shaped by raging water.
One of our favourite stops is the site of a couple of old graves that date back to the late 1800s. You’ll find them on the way just as you cross the old grid. There isn’t much info on these two random graves, but it’s nice to stop and pay respect to the pioneers who forged a life here.
Dalmorton: from riches to ruins
The first gold was found in these parts around 1861, and by 1871 Dalmorton was declared a goldfield. There were apparently 5000 people living here at the time, with schools, several pubs, shops and 50 gold mines registered. Around the area there are still a few mines to be found, from simple pits to a handful you can walk into.
From the history files it’s reported that some mines were up to 40 meters deep, allowing for massive 10 head stampers to operate. Another not-to-be-missed relic in the area is the old stockman’s hut. It’s a short walk from the Dalmorton campground to see this piece of history preserved in time.
The Cobb and Co Mail Coach used to run from Glenn Innes to Grafton twice a week carrying supplies, mail and passengers between the coast and the tablelands. By the early 1900s gold was running short and families battled to make a living. This area became a ghost town when the new highway was built over the range. National Parks are restoring some of the old buildings here as part of a history trail, and it’s a great spot for the kids to run around and explore.
One of the highlights of exploring the Old Glen Innes Road is the tunnel that has been hand-cut by workers through solid rock. Just the right size to squeeze a bullock wagon through, you’ll find it around 10km on from Dalmorton.
If you are looking for camping options with a few bells and whistles, turn left at Dalmorton and travel up the hill to the campground. National Parks have put in a huge effort to provide facilities that would impress the pickiest campers.
There are plenty of spots for small caravans, camper trailers, tents and even designated spots for daytrippers. Facilities include drop toilets, fire pits and a grassed area for the kids to play. We reckon the better camping sites are further past Dalmorton, where the camping is free with river views, but do be aware you need to be self-sufficient to free camp along here.
Monuments, 4WD tracks and the Mann River
The road continues along the river passing remote farms, where cattle freely wander along the road without a care in the world. At the 100km mark, a 10 foot war monument will catch your eye beside the road. It was erected by Norman Archibald MacDonald in memory of the local men who left the area to fight in the First World War.
The Old Glen Innes Road isn’t a hard one, but if you’re after a little bit of 4WD fun, there is a well-maintained track off to the left at the 118km mark. Tommy’s Lookout Fire Trail will take you up to a thousand metres all within 4km – 4WD is recommended. The views from the top are nothing short of stunning as they sweep across the depths of Mann River gorge below.
Just past the lookout turn off you’ll find more great camping at Mann River Nature Reserve. There’s a well maintained area suitable for all campers with ample space, as well as picnic tables, fire places, pits toilets and the cooling Mann River running nearby.
In the cooler months, the water is bloody freezing but well worth a face slash to wake you up. The kids can play safely in the fresh running water here, as there are many off-shoot pools that are shallow, clean and protected.
The home stretch
The Mann River camping area is where the dirt stops and the tar begins again. As the road winds its way to the top of the range towards Glen Innes, vegetation changes with the cooling temperatures of the tablelands, and you’ll notice tree ferns, grass trees and tall white gums becoming more abundant.
The last choice to make comes when you hit the Gwydir Highway again. Do you turn left and head further west, with Glen Innes and the New England region a mere 35km away? Or do you turn right for the 120km journey back towards the coast, stumbling on another unique destination before hitting the coastal hustle and sea air?
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