Retracing the Great North Road
NSW: Wisemans Ferry and the Wilderness Beyond
June 2017 and March 2018
Weíre heading into the land of ďThe Secret RiverĒ Ė if youíre familiar with the highly acclaimed novel of that name by Australian author Kate Grenville. You might have caught up with the story through the stage play or TV mini-series adapted from the novel.
Itís a land of motorcycling thatís both exciting and visually stunning; as well as a land rich in historic landmarks, notably linked to World Heritage listed remnants of convict-built structures: The Convict Trail.
You have likely read about the great motorcycling roads through the Hawkesbury-Hunter Ranges, with the Putty Road and the Wisemans Ferry/Wollombi Road high on the list. This story includes the latter but also encompasses alternative and complementary routes through the ranges and beyond; and highlights the unique attractions that can be enjoyed along the way.
The Great North Road
Once the Sydney colony spread to the Hunter area (centred on Newcastle) north of Sydney, it became incumbent to have road access there. With the early expansion of the colony into the food bowl of the Hawkesbury area and the subsequent need for better transport to it, this area became the inevitable transit for the link between Sydney and the Hunter. Thus was devised the concept of the Great North Road.
Most of the Sydney end of the road has been lost to city development but thereís still a stretch at its original start in Five Dock that preserves the name. Itís more readily identifiable from Baulkham Hills to Wisemans Ferry but is called the Old Northern Road. Motorcycling Nirvana kicks in with a vengeance soon after the Old Northern Road absorbs Wisemans Ferry Road for the last 10km to the Hawkesbury.
At the time the original road was being planned, there was already a ferry service across the Hawkesbury River on the holdings of Solomon Wiseman that catered to the needs of the many settlers across the Hawkesbury and along its tributary Macdonald River. It was obvious that the Hawkesbury would be crossed at this point, thus locking in Wisemans Ferry as a lasting part of the history of the road. The daunting challenge was to breach the forbidding escarpment north of the river drenched in cliffs and crags for miles into the wilderness.
A route pretty much headlong into the escarpment was surveyed and given approval. Curiously, it seemed to ignore the many informal tracks that the Aboriginal inhabitants and early colonial settlers had been using to traverse the ranges.
The most spectacular Ė and World Heritage Listed Ė part of the Great North Road is along the section from close to where Wisemans Ferry drops you on the northern bank of the Hawkesbury River. Unfortunately, you canít ride this section (except on a bicycle) but an easy stroll a kilometre or so up Devines Hill Ascent from where you can park the bike is a fascinating treat that transports you back to the harshness of convict road gangs and the remarkable feats of engineering and construction that delivered the Great North Road.
This is the highlight of the Convict Trail. It features an array of convict built remains, such as stone retaining walls, cuttings, culverts, buttresses and stone cut drains. Itís an hour (or more if you have the time and enthusiasm) that will be well rewarded.
There are also impressive structures, including bridges, at several other places along the Great North Road beyond Devines Hill Ascent all the way to Bucketty and onto Wollombi and beyond.
But letís go back a few steps and approach the village of Wisemans Ferry on the currently-called Old Northern Road. It identifies itself as such from around Baulkham Hills but you probably wonít feel the history of it until you get closer to Wisemans Ferry when the road climbs to the top of a high ridge where, from Hawkins Lookout, you get a broad overview of the valley below in which the village of Wisemans Ferry is nestled. The sweeping turn of the Hawkesbury River is spectacular, the Webbs Creek Ferry (an alternative to Wisemans Ferry) and Webbs Creek itself can be clearly seen as can the Macdonald River flowing into the Hawkesbury. Itís a view worth a stop to take in the ambit of the Secret River and its surrounds.
From here the road winds sharply and steeply into the village of Wisemans Ferry whose first sight is the old 1826 Wisemans Inn which started life as the mansion of Solomon Wiseman. It stills exhibits much of its old structures and charm. It was Solomon Wiseman who inspired Kate Grenville to write The Secret River, which turns a lot on his role in local happenings, including the construction of his mansion, and the family turmoils involved. Wisemanís grave stands today in the Wisemans Ferry cemetery. The book, of course, is fictional so Wiseman is never mentioned by name; nor is there historical evidence that a lot in the novel ever took place in the settings of the book.
The Secret River
Without reading too much into the name, there is a bit of mystique about the Hawkesbury River with its mouth tucked away almost secretly in the upper reaches of Broken Bay and the initial unregulated settlements that soon developed along both it and the even more potentially secret Macdonald River secreted well into rough country stretching far north of the Hawkesbury. Itís along the Macdonald that one of the motorcycle rides from Wisemans Ferry takes shape.
A key feature of the story in the novel is the relationship between the local indigenous inhabitants and the newcomers. While the grimmer aspects depicted in the denouement of the story have been criticised for having no historical basis relating to the area, as a work of fiction I guess itís fair game to create events or transpose them from other settings. Putting that issue aside, there are known indigenous groups whose identities are preserved in names of the national parks within the ranges. There are also archaeological sites that preserve aspects of their lives, traditions and culture. These, of course, are highly regarded parts of the history of the area.
Leaving Wisemans Ferry
If you take Wisemans Ferry across the Hawkesbury, you have a choice of turning left or right. Iíve done both Ė on different trips. On the first trip I had planned to go left but wet weather and intelligence from a local resident warned of a treacherous climb on an extremely slippery gravel road from St Albans to Bucketty. So it was a right turn on that ride.
The right turn takes you on an adrenalin-filled, bitumen joyride the Ďlong way roundí to Bucketty and Wollombi (more on that later).
A left turn takes you to St Albans on a 20 km half bitumen and half well-packed (and seemingly porous) road base of some sort. That sets you up for the 38 km gravel road from St Albans to Bucketty.
If St Albans is your choice of destination, there is another option: you can take Webbs Creek Ferry across the Hawkesbury from the village of Wisemans Ferry and have a bitumen road all the way to St Albans.
Wollombi the Long Way Round
This road begins at the Wisemans Ferry exit and reidentifies itself as Wisemans Ferry Road. It starts with a picturesque ride along the northern banks of the Hawkesbury River for some 26 km staying pretty much on the same ridge line but sweeping with the river bends.
After another 11 km or so alongside Mangrove Creek, the road climbs into rougher country and swaps between different ridge lines making for varying experiences of turns and climbs. There are a few stretches of more civilised life but lots more rugged-country riding with mostly flowing curves before getting to Bucketty some 80 km from where you left the ferry. Somewhere along here Wisemans Ferry Road abandons you and puts you onto George Downes Drive.
Bucketty is where you meet up again with the Great North Road coming in on your left as the last part of the gravel road from St Albans. Even if youíre not gravel-inclined, itís worth a turn into, if only for a few metres to stop and have a look at the Bucketty Precinct convict structures that are at the intersection but viewable from the side road. They include sandstone walling, drains, and culverts.
If youíre a bit more adventurous, you have only about 7 km along the gravel to the unique St Albans Road Ramp on both sides of the road, with lots of convict vestiges all along the way. Then itís only a couple kilometres more to Mt Manning where the Great North Road emerges onto the St Albans/Bucketty Road.
The next stage from Bucketty to Wollombi is a 25 km ride through an interesting mix of hilly, rugged country and smooth turning through open farm country. And thereís plenty to see and enjoy.
Along this stretch youíll encounter a few culverts and bridges that are part of the Convict Trail as well as places to drop in for a look or a refreshment, such as the Great Northern Trading Post at Laguna: ďtruly an eclectic, unique place to have a drink, a fabulous meal and listen to live music;Ē and Mulla Villa with its convict era links and buildings (and good coffee and scones).
Wollombi itself is loaded with history and worth a look around before venturing further.
Itís here that the Great North Road splits. One branch goes straight ahead to Broke. The other turns right to head towards Maitland. Both branches have more relics from the convict era. If you go right and want to stay the course (i.e. stick to the original Great North Road route), youíll need to turn off the main road as you come out of Cessnock and veer left onto Old Maitland Road, but thereís gravel afoot. If youíre over convict-built culverts, stick to the bitumen.
St Albans and its gravel road to Bucketty had been my original plan on the first trip, so it was something I was looking forward to.
The pre-ordained route was Wisemans Ferry rather than Webbs Creek Ferry.
Turning left off the ferry takes you first across Thomas James Bridge. You donít see much from the road so itís easy to overlook. But the bridge built in 1830 is the oldest in-use bridge on mainland Australia (the only one older is in Tassie). Itís supported by 6-metre-high stone abutments quarried from the surrounding hill side. Itís quite a sight to look under the bridge.
Just past the bridge is the Great North Road Heritage area. I leisurely walked this section on the previous visit while basically killing time at Wisemans Ferry in unkind weather. It was undoubtedly a special experience which I could easily have been tempted to repeat had it not been for shortage of time, needing to get to Mudgee that night. But donít miss it.
The next 20km was an easy and pleasant cruise including 10 km of gravel to the tiny village of St Albans. The road leaves the Hawkesbury River soon after passing the Great North Road gate and follows the tributary Macdonald River up what locals from soon after the first colonial settlers called the Forgotten Valley (a lamentation over lack of government attention and services).
St Albanís most historic landmark is the old Settlers Arms Inn built in 1836; but the Forgotten Valley started to house colonial settlers in the form of escapees and emancipated convicts within a year or so of the first fleetís arrival.
Coffee and cake at the Settlers Arms seemed a good enough pretext to tarry there long enough to imbibe the ambience before setting out on the 38 km of gravel to Bucketty.
The road turned out to be a stark contrast to the local reports on the first trip. Maybe itís very susceptible to wet weather, possibly reflecting a combination of surface, climbs and lots of turns. The report I had got previously was that a 4x4 had trouble on the slippery surface. So be warned if itís wet.
On my second trip I couldnít have asked for a better road. The surface was mostly smooth, with only a few short sections mildly corrugated (despite being told in St Albans that the road was badly corrugated in parts). While there were climbs and several tight turns, none were what Iíd call switchbacks as such. Overall, the ride was a very pleasant, unhurried, photo-filled jaunt.
It began by staying with the Macdonald River well into its Forgotten Valley before parting company and starting to gradually take up altitude and wooded surrounds. The road gently wound its way, quite curvy but not demanding, as it headed up to higher plateaus of grazing land. All very idyllic.
Along the way well into rugged country, I encountered an unexpected and enchanting highlight: a veritable chorus of bellbirds. I had been initially concerned my bike had developed a mysterious squeak until I stopped to take photos of a spectacular overhanging. The ringing of bellbirds was almost deafening; but delightfully so. Many of you Ė like the author Ė will undoubtedly recall the rote learning endured at school about ďthe notes of the bell-birdsÖ.running and ringing.Ē
About 9 km short of Bucketty the Great North Road, having continued beyond Devines Hill Ascent, emerges from the right to join the St Albans/Bucketty Road. At this point the Great North Road is accessible by vehicles from the St Albans/Bucketty Road. About 2 km back down the Great North Road from here is the convict-built Circuit Flat Bridge. I would have liked to visit it but the road (more a 4x4 track) looked a bit challenging and I was riding solo so I resisted the temptation. But it would make an interesting side trip.
If time had been on my side, I could have taken the walking track from the nearby expansive Mogo Creek Campground. It looked a great place to camp: lots of flat grassy space, BBQ places and toilets; and accessible from Bucketty on only 10 km of gravel.
By joining up with the Great North Road for the last 9 km from Mt Manning to Bucketty, the Convict Trail resumes; and convict structures abound. Coming down from the high point of Mt Manning with a drastic drop-off on the left, you cross the St Albans Road Ramp Ė a very substantial and high support for the road on both sides to get it across a large depression. Then it was on to the Bucketty Precinct.
From there, it was up to Wollombi as described above.
A Few Options
The combination of the left and right turns after exiting Wisemans Ferry on the north side of the Hawkesbury can be turned into a neat loop, with Bucketty serving as the northern fulcrum.
A nightís stay at Wisemans Inn would add a lot of feel for the history of the place and allow a more leisurely and rewarding encounter with the Convict Trail. I spent three nights there on my first trip. If youíre not into gravel, staying a night would also give you the opportunity to ride to St Albans on the bitumen from Webbs Creek Ferry. Next day you could ride to Bucketty and beyond on the bitumen.
Thereís a loop begging to be done by going to Bucketty (either via the left or tight turns from the ferry) and proceeding beyond Bucketty to Broke and across to the Putty Road for the return sector of the loop.
My choice on the most recent visit was St Albans, Bucketty, Broke, the Golden Highway; and then back through the Bylong Valley to Mudgee before taking in the newly fully sealed Bathurst to Crookwell road.
If youíre stirred even a bit by the history, youíd benefit from delving into the work of the Convict Trail Project. They have an informative website with brochures and maps called: Convict Trail Ė Caring for the Great North Road. The URL is www.greatnorthroad.com.au
And what of the Great North Road itself?
Before it was finished it had already started to drift into decay. It was long and hard-going, with inadequate feed for horses and bullocks; and badly maintained. Alternative routes previously used through the most difficult parts up that forbidding escarpment north of the Hawkesbury were soon preferred. Then the coup de grace came with the introduction and attraction Ė pretty much coinciding with decline in the use of the Great North Road Ė of steam ship travel between Sydney and Newcastle. The Great North Road became an item of history almost as soon as it was completed.
Hopefully, a Helful Map
Here is a photo album of the rides around Wisemans Ferry and the Convict Trail. There's a lot of photos that I couldn't fit onto the page, so please take a look.
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 Just to keep you alert, Wisemans Ferry (and there is no apostrophe) can refer to either the village or one of the two Hawkesbury River ferry crossings from the village.
 From the poem ďBellbirdsĒ by Henry Kendall.