Exploring the Old Great North Road

I’d visited the start and end of this walk many years ago and always thought it would be interesting to see “what’s in the middle”, so I put it on the MSS calendar thinking that only Trish M and Ali M would go with me, but it turned out that others were also keen on a 4 day walk, none of whom hadn’t walked with me before – I was a bit apprehensive, would they enjoy the walk? – after all I wasn’t sure what was in store for us – and would they ever walk with me again?

Starting the walk at Mt Manning (l-r Ali, Trish, Diana dSP, Randa G, Alan C & Omar S).

Diana taking a shot at the beginning of the walk, this time with me in it!

April probably wasn’t the best time of year to go (possibly too hot), but with the recent rains we’d had, at least we were pretty much guaranteed water in what is known as being a dry range.

So, what is the Old Great North Road?  In the 1820s a man named Heneage Finch “traced” the route, I suspect he was given a lot of help by the local Aboriginal Tribes, or he spent an inordinate amount of time tracking his way through impenetrable scrub and just happened upon the Judge Dowling Range (highly unlikely).  In any event, the Old North Road (aka The Great North Road) was completed in 1836 and was constructed using convict labour.  It spanned 264k between Sydney and the settlements of the Hunter Valley, we’d be walking only 35k or so of it.  Up to 720 convicts, some in chains, worked on the Road.

By 1836, as the few remaining convict gangs were completing the last northern sections of the road, it had been almost entirely abandoned as a route to the Hunter Valley.  It had no permanent watercourses (no water for horses), bypassed existing settlements and coastal steamers became the preferred mode of travel.  As a consequence, the 43km section of the road located within and adjacent to Dharug and Yengo National Parks, is the only portion of the Road that remains undeveloped and relatively intact and has been named the Old Great North Road (to distinguish it from the remaining modernised sections).  It is nationally significant and the three remaining bridges (of which we saw 2) are the oldest surviving stone bridges on mainland Australia.

The Road was closed to motor vehicles in December 1992 to halt its rapid deterioration.

The walking was dead easy on the old road and before long we were at our first point of interest, Circuit Flat Bridge, probably constructed in 1831.  It’s lost the original decking but is still substantially intact and is an impressive example of colonial engineering.

In 1998-9 conservation work and erosion control was undertaken. Several sandstone blocks which had been removed by vandals (before the locked gate was installed) were replaced with newly quarried and picked blocks.

Interesting construction with the big blocks stabilising the bridge.

A further 3k down the track we did a side trip to climb Mount Lockyer (on my wish list), which had a convenient old fire trail almost to the top (very easy walking), lovely rock formations at the top with views all the way to Mount Yengo. We had a leisurely lunch at the high point a mere 317m above sea level. (photo:  Diana)

Back on track our next stop was a side trip to see if we could see Mangrove Creek Dam (a storage dam for the Central Coast and now the Hunter Valley). For many years the dam was down around 20% capacity but it certainly looks full now (water is pumped into the dam from both the Hunter Valley and Wyong Creek via a series of pipelines). Diana admiring the view, on the far right you can just see the intake tower.

Back on the track again to our camp for the night Hungry Flat.

Hungry Flat, has lots of grassy campsites, a fire circle that someone had already constructed, and water nearby, we’d seen so much water on the track that we were fairly certain we’d have no trouble finding it, and in actual fact a small creek passed the track about 50m from our campsite.

Plenty of grassy campsites, but quite a few ants nests around, you had to be careful where you put your tent.

Diana and Randa relaxing by the great campfire.

We suspected that there was a waterfall nearby so next morning (in the fog – another sunny day forecast), we headed off track to see what the waterfall had for us.

A bonus waterfall in another side creek, not all that exciting but unexpected (photo: Diana)

On the way to the second waterfall we passed this massive tree-stump, the tree had been logged at some point, I wasn’t aware that they had logged this area.

The gully to the second waterfall, looks very promising, almost canyon-like.

Diana at the waterfall, it was very canyon-like, great photo opportunity.

Trish climbing out of the mini-canyon.

“Historical relics” near our campsite, lots of broken bottles, harking back to when people could drive this Road (and “leave no trace” was never considered).

Back at our campsite and we’ve saddled up for Day 2! Approximately 14k to Frog Hollow where I knew there’d be a 99% chance we’d have a water source, and a good campsite.

A lot of the road was either eroded sandstone, loose rocks or nice flat sandy track (my favourite), there were groves in some of the flat sandstone that intrigued us (some ideas of what they were but inconclusive).

Lovely section of track with loads of Gymea Lilies, almost in flower, made you want to come back to see them in flower, apparently after a fire (and this area was burned in the 2019 fires) they flower prolifically.

Evidence of drilling the rock to make way for the road we saw quite a few of these drill holes.

And lots of rock that we assumed was “picked” away by the convicts.

The vast majority of the Road had these retaining walls along it, but you couldn’t really get a good view of them hence not that many photos.

They varied in size from a few metres to just a course or two of the sandstone blocks.

This section from Hungry Flat to Frog Hollow was about 50% on the western side of the range and was in full sun for a lot of the time, we were all happy when it changed to the eastern side of the range.  We overshot the turnoff to Frog Hollow, the old fire trail that I’d used in the past wasn’t as obvious and the “gate” that I’d warned everyone to look for was laying down in leaf litter.  Only overshot it by a k but at the end of the day none of us were happy about the extra 2 k.

Ali resting now we’re in camp.

In amongst the trees in the “grassy meadow”, was a really hot day so the shade was welcome.

There’s a creek in the distance amongst the trees, and an old dam (not that big), plenty of water close by, the only problem were the mosquitos, they were hungry, and it was really too hot for a big smoky fire so we all ended up going into our tents when the sun went down, an early night.  As expected the many mosquitos, fed the frogs, who fed the red bellied black snakes – one of which Trish and Ali saw – I didn’t go near the creek after that, thank you Alan for getting lots of water.

On the walk out I found this old plow. Frog Hollow is actually shown as an “in-holding” (a farming property inside the national park) on the topo map, it would have been farmed in the old days as the land is fairly flat. Hungry Flat is also shown as an in-holding.

We had an early start for Day 3, hoping to avoid the heat of the day.  My initial thought was to camp at Ten Mile Hollow (a National Park campsite with water and a drop toilet), but I decided that we would walk as far as we could and find a suitable campsite to make Day 4 shorter, so off we headed.

Four k down the road we came to Clare’s Bridge. Constructed between January and September 1830, it’s named after the overseer, Arnold Clare who supervised the party of convicts who built the bridge. It’s the second oldest bridge on the mainland of Australia. The sandstone blocks were quarried from the surrounding hillside.

A bit of background on Arnold Clare, apparently he was convicted at Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 24 April 1826 and was transported to Australia for a term of seven years.  He worked initially in one of the Iron Gangs (those prisoners in irons – probably on Finchs Line) and then transferred to a Road Party when his sentence in irons had expired.  He initially worked to clear the line across the valley and then was promoted to overseer the new bridge party and Simpson named the bridge after him (Clare’s Bridge).

I couldn’t see them but apparently there are large cobblestones underneath the bridge to prevent the foundations of the bridge being undermined during heavy water flows. Whilst the bridge is intact, none of the original decking remains.

Beside the bridge is a very substantial sandstone retaining wall.

These are some of the sandstone blocks on the bridge with the pick marks from when the blocks were formed.

Back on the track and heading for 10 Mile Hollow campsite.

We arrived at the junction of Simpsons Track and the Old North Road and turned onto Simpsons Track.  There’s more of the Old North Road to do, but will leave that for another time.  We arrived at 10 Mile Hollow around 10.30am – too early to set up camp so we decided to continue along Simpsons Track to find a good campsite.

Initially good easy walking on Simpsons Track, but then it started down the edge of a very deep gorge, no-where to put up tents, so we walked, and walked and walked.

We passed a lovely section of creek, good sandy bottom with clear flowing water, it was very inviting as by now we’re all very hot, but too far to scramble down to it … surely there’d be somewhere to swim further on, so we pressed on regardless – and I knew that at least we could swim in Mangrove Creek.  Not this time though, the creek was like chocolate milk from the recent rain, no big surprise there I guess.

The first potential campsite that I really liked didn’t have enough room for tents, and was mosquito infested.  The next one had plenty of room for tents but had other negative qualities not to mention being mosquito infested.  Eventually, very hot and bothered, we came to a grassy field.  We stopped for lunch and looked at our options, the grassy field wasn’t at all appealing, and it too was mosquito infested, so we decided that we would press on for another 5 or 6k to our cars at the end of the trip and cut out Day 4 (and go to Trish’s house and have a swim).  Everyone was feeling really positive with this change of plans, even Randa who was suffering from blisters.

So, we headed off along a nice grassy track.

And then we were stopped by 100s of metres of water where the road should have been (obviously left over flood waters from 2 weeks ago) and it smelled really BAD.

Diana bravely led us into the scrub at the side, looking for dry ground (not much) and was very persistent, eventually Omar and Alan took over from her bashing through the scrub.

Then Ali decided that she’d had enough of bush bashing, so she led us into the water (Alan said it was knee deep but he’s very tall) – she was like a football cheer leader gee-ing us up to make the leap of faith. No-one wanted to think about what was in the water and I have to say they were all very brave – God only knows how I would have reacted had a snake been seen on the water!

Randa and Trish entering the water, someone said they thought it was a k of water, but I suspect it was only 3-400m.

A gate and fence stopped us in our tracks.

Alan helping Randa over the fence, I suspect it was her first experience of scaling a locked gate – hopefully wont be her last. Alan was very helpful helping everyone across with their heavy packs (thanks Alan).

We missed where Simpsons Track went up to higher ground (who knows where that was) and eventually ended up on private property with donkeys, lamas and a cow.  Called out to get permission to cross their field, and eventually Trish went up to knock on a door, but no-one home so we carefully cross the field and got back onto the track.

Finally there was a style (at a locked gate) to negotiate and then we were on the down-hill section of road back to our cars.

Back at the cars around 4pm where we tried to clean up after the flood water (none of us smelled good!)

Some of us drove home, I drove the two drivers to retrieve the cars that had taken us to the start of the walk, and then some of us went back to Trish’s house, by that time it was too cold for a swim so we sat on the deck, drank beers and admired the sunset!

So, Alan, Diana, Randa and Omar survived an Adventure with M.  I have to say it was a great walk, but not all that remarkable up until the flood water we had to walk through.

Thanks everyone for coming on this walk with me, and as always, there’s another one in the works after this trip, so watch this space!  Was it worth it? Definitely, the infrastructure is mostly intact for the section of the walk that we did, very impressive, would highly recommend the walk and fit tiger-walkers could probably walk it in 2 days!

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14 Responses to Exploring the Old Great North Road

  1. John L'Estrange says:

    a grand walk with lots of back information!
    Thank you

  2. Shiva says:

    Wow! A very big trip.

  3. Lindsay Barrett says:

    Hi M,

    Years ago now, BWOC did the OGN Road on mountain bikes (from Mogo Campsite to Wiseman’s Ferry) in a day. Recently, a friend & myself rode/walked up Devine’s Hill with the aim of getting to 10 Mile Hollow, before returning – taking the Finch’s Line back down the hill – thus to our start point. Finch’s Line downhill also involved walking the bikes (even the world’s best couldn’t ride down that goat track)! But, for all that – we didn’t get to 10 Mile Hollow, as the road surface has deteriorated quite substantially from what it used to be. Devine’s Hill however, has been restored (with interpretative markers) – it is quite impressive!

    Great to read of your latest exploits on the old road – it is certainly an interesting Colonial achievement – even if no longer used – but, who knows what the future could hold?

    • marilyn says:

      Yes, I think I was on that trip but turned around because I didn’t like all the rocks (and I’m a crap rider), I’ve got Devine’s Hill on the wish list, but wondered if it was worth doing a Devines Hill > Western Commission track through trip, will take a look at the distances.

  4. Al Caton says:

    Thanks Marilyn for a great trip, a good intro to 4 (3?) day hiking. I’ll pack lighter next time.

  5. Jim says:

    Little bit of history on that walk. Those convicts were braver than any of us as they probably spent months working on that road.

  6. Randa Ghazi says:

    It was such a nice walk. Got to see plenty of rich history, beautiful scenery and a nice group of people. Thankyou for the memories and looking forward to more.

  7. Betty McCleary says:

    Yes,another interesting adventure,loved the history,always amazed at what the early settlers and convicts endured.

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