A bridle track – and there are or were many in the early days of European settlement in the back blocks of the Australian landscape – refers to the barely passable but essential life-lines to and from fledging villages and remote gold rush sites. Initially, they were pretty much confined to transport by horse (and bridle) but many were amazingly constructed (sometimes, in effect, hewn) through very rough and forbidding country.
There are only a few that retain the simple but history-laden name of Bridle Track. This story is about one of them that, after so many years, still beckons the adventure rider to re-live the challenges of the early gold hunters who swarmed into Hill End and depended on the Bridle Track to get supplies from the regional centre of Bathurst, itself the site of Australia’s first gold discovery and, of course, later the Mount Panorama racing circuit – confined these days to cars but previously home to the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix from the 1940s until the late 1980s.
Hill End is almost lost in a series of folding hills overlooking deep valleys that spill onto the Great Western Plains of central NSW. It was the unavoidable challenge of these valleys that spawned the Bridle Track.
Today Hill End can be accessed by far more benign routes from Mudgee to its north and Bathurst to its south, although the latter option makes for a much longer journey compared to the Bridle Track, which until recent closures was still used by local property owners for quicker access to Bathurst.
A Bit about Hill End
Long before the gold rush in NSW, the indigenous Wiradjuri people roamed the region around Hill End. A good supply of reliable water was available in this region and it was ideal as a campsite for these nomadic people.
The area later became the domain of pastoralists and squatters. This gave way to gold seekers when the town of Hill End was established in July 1851. At that time, the settlement would have been a tent town. At the height of the gold rush era there was a population of about 8,000 people living in Hill End. The Royal Hotel is the sole remaining hotel from the 52 that used to operate in the town. There are still some other impressive gold rush era buildings, but most have evaporated leaving only markers and old photos displayed where they once stood.
But you can still experience something of the halcyon gold mining days by touring the Bald Hill tourist mine (Bald Hill was the original name for Hill End), a short ride from the centre of town.
A Bit about the Bridle Track
The Bridle Track links Hill End with the locality of Duramana about 15 km north of Bathurst. The track itself is 53 km between Duramana and Hill End. Of this, about 22 km at the Duramana end is a narrow bitumen road ambling through a lot of open farm country with glimpses at times of the Macquarie River. The far more exciting part is the slightly more than 30 km of just about every other surface into or out of Hill End (depending on which way you decide to tackle the track), including a few kilometres of cliff-hanging track overlooking the Macquarie River a long way down!
The track has a history of closures due to flooding, washaways, rockfalls and road collapses. In 2010, a large rockfall at Monaghan’s Bluff closed the road again; and it remains “officially” closed although it wasn’t long before bikes were making their way through and now even some more daring 4x4s are doing so (after mysterious goblins seemed to have whittled away the rock blockages). More recently another section was closed due to Howard’s Bridge across Winburndale Rivulet being washed away but it’s since been replaced. The missing bridge didn’t stop some bike enthusiasts once the water levels dropped a little.
I’ve seen the track described as an easy 4x4 road (before the rockfall closure presumably); and my companions didn’t seem too challenged by it and relished the thought of doing it again, although their stories did evolve with the telling. I certainly found it somewhat confronting in several sections and failed to share their enthusiasm for doing it again too soon. I’m confident I’ll relent in due course.
When it’s all said and done, it probably doesn’t matter which way you undertake the ride.
We opted to start in Hill End, having got there via sealed roads from Bathurst through Duramana linking up with the road from Sofala to Hill End (after spending most of the day on gravel roads to get to Bathurst!). That option provided time to absorb something of Hill End and enjoy a night at the Royal Hotel for a fresh start to tackle the track next morning. That worked well. Making Hill End your track-ride destination would no doubt provide a sense of achievement by arriving there. A relevant factor might be that the road out of Hill End starts with a 9 km steep and rough descent. That, of course, would be a steep and rough ascent to end up in Hill End – a preferred option for some. Then there was the seeming advantage that we would be on the inside of the narrow cliff-track around Monaghan’s Bluff; but, as happens, the more inviting line was all too often on the outside!
On the Bridle Track
The introductory (or should that be warning) sign at the start of the track said it all. Certainly left no room for saying we weren’t warned: no guard rail, steep edges, steep inclines etc…and we would not have done it in the wet.
The first 9 km to the Turon River crossing was both steep and winding; and rough, mostly with well-embedded protruding rocks but including washed-away sections and furrows on sharp turns. More experienced colleagues soon overtook me with the later offered explanation that their big bikes needed momentum. For my part I felt I needed first gear and good braking for what seemed to be an unrelenting 9 km of stress on bike and more so on rider. The time estimated by the GPS software of 7 mins for this section was a tad out of line with my pace (and, be assured, with everyone else’s in the group). A lookout vantage point a couple of kilometres into the journey had clearly spelt out the rapidity of descent through heavily timbered and gullied terrain that awaited us.
The Turon River crossing was by way of a dry concrete ford. However, there are lots of clips that show water over the ford so don’t be too complacent if there has been recent rain before you tackle the track.
While we didn’t take advantage of several subsidiary opportunities for more adventurous riding, including unassisted Turon River crossing tracks, these are waiting for those with the time, skills and inclination to revel in them as the Bridle Track stays close to the Turon River for some distance. There are also camping spots along the way that can provide an itinerant base for further exploration.
It’s not too long before the Turon River flows into the larger Macquarie River which the Bridle Track then accompanies for the next 15 km, keeping it still in sight after that for a while before parting company to let it find its own tortuous way to Bathurst. At the early stages of this section, there are more opportunities for camping and testing the Macquarie River without, hopefully, being overly tempted by it.
Over the 10 km or so between the Turon River crossing and the prelude to Monaghan’s Bluff, where the track sharply increases the vertical distance between itself and the river, it manages to vary the riding experience in rapid bursts of sand, deep hard-baked 4x4 mud tracks, termite-type obstructions to mount and cross, as well as continuing rocks and ruts; with the occasional relative relief of vestiges of paper-thin bitumen patches from a long gone era.
Then, with the turn of another blind corner on a narrow road, a vista suddenly opens of a road cut into the cliff, a drop-off to the Macquarie River below and the marvel of a stone retaining wall supporting the road, reminiscent of the convict-built Great North Road near Wiseman’s Ferry in the Hawkesbury region, although looking more like randomly collected rocks than the neatly carved sandstone of the Great North Road (see AM #66, August 2018 p52).
This is the prelude to Monaghan’s Bluff. Unlike Dalmorton Bluff on the old Glenn Innes Grafton Road (see AM #62, April 2018 p96), where the road builders blasted a tunnel through the impeding bluff, the Bridle Track builders continued to cut away at the bluff to create an increasingly narrow passage clinging precariously to the cliff face, with the river below descending into the ever-deepening valley.
It’s not surprising that Monaghan’s Bluff might succumb to the occasional rock slide. There would seem to have been a few over the years but recent attention has been focussed on the 2010 slide that incontrovertibly cut the road. Well, that was until some enterprising adventure motorcyclists with, seemingly, the assistance of self-designated makeshift engineers began clearing a way through. At first it was small bikes only, with the need for panniers to be removed; followed over the years by bigger bikes with panniers off then left on. Finally, after some nine years, the obstacle to 4x4 access disappeared. However, the road at the crest of the bluff is even narrower than the rest since its outer edge has crumbled with erosion and the effects of the rockfall. While there’s still room enough for bikes, I’d be doing some careful measurements before driving it.
The Bridle Track remains officially closed at Monaghan’s Bluff; and there would not seem to be any plans to change that. The closure issue continues to be a political hot potato, with many indications that one day soon the road will open only for them seemingly to be contradicted by references to lack of safety for road workers and their equipment. There are some work-around alternatives, but they are not all that well-received by local property owners either because of continued longer routing to Bathurst or intrusions onto private property by destructive trespassers. Let’s just hope the track stays accessible to at least the responsible adventure motorcyclist.
Back Down to River Level
Monaghan’s Bluff, at its crest, seems to be the “high” point of the track (in various senses). From there for the next 10 km or so, the track descends at a civil rate to run alongside the Macquarie River until the intersection with Box Ridge Road that runs north initially to meet up with the bitumen road back to Bathurst.
The Bridle Track, from this intersection, begins to turn south to meet up with the same bitumen road to Bathurst only further south than where Box Ridge Road meets it.
I mention this aspect for two reasons: first, from this intersection, the Bridle Track, as mentioned earlier on, has a bitumen surface and morphs into a pleasant scenic if still narrow road through more open countryside; secondly, we opted to take the mostly gravel Box Ridge Road that runs partly through more hilly and wooded countryside.
While staying on the Bridle Track would have boosted the boast that we’d done the whole Bridle Track, turning onto the more adventurous Box Ridge Road seemed the appropriate digestif to the top half of the Bridle Track, whether you read that as altitude, compass perspective or riding adventure.
I’m already having thoughts of doing that 9 km ascent into Hill End!