October Long Weekend 2017, I took an extra day leave on Friday 29th of September to give myself 4 days off to enjoy Australia’s nature and wilderness.
Day 1 - Friday, Left Sydney early but still, one hour lost to Sydney’s morning traffic. Once we are out of Sydney the first destination is Ellenborough Falls in Elands NSW, about 360 Km from Sydney.
Ellenborough Falls, getting here will require driving on some dirt road but only towards the end of the journey. This has got to be one of the tallest waterfalls in this region. The viewing platform is easy to get to. You can also walk to the head of the fall but don’t waste your effort, you can’t really see much at the head of the falls. The bit that is a must do and see is the walk to the foot of the falls. I really like how the track is set up, if you are thin enough to fit on the walking track then you will not have any problems getting down and back up. Top to bottom is about 190 meters in elevation, I think the sign said something about 624 steps. My legs did hurt a bit on this track as I have been smashing them hard for the past few weeks on some solid triathlon training.
Since I know that this is not a place I will be revisiting anytime soon, we did all the walks that are available. We walked back up then looped in the Knoll lookout as well, there you can see the falls in full view from a decent distance.
One waterfall down. Next stop Brushy Mountain Campground at Werrikimbe National Park, 130 Km of driving from Ellenborough Falls. I took Colling Rd, heading East towards Port Macquarie but only about 15 Km into the drive, disaster! We were blocked by bush fire, burning on both sides of the road. I stopped to have a quick chat with the local Rural Fire Service guy there. In his own words, “I can escort you through, but if a tree falls on your car, I’m not responsible.” I said “YEP” without even thinking too much of it. I looked at Lissy, she doesn’t seem terribly impressed about it. Car in 4x4 mode, check. All windows up, check. All air vents shut, check. Engage gear and off we went. I stayed fairly close to the lead car, first section was just smoke but as we continued fire was still burning on side of me.
The heat was intense, I felt the heat on the side of my face as we drove though. It only took about 5 minutes to drive through the burning zone but somehow it felt like a long time. After we made our through safely I stopped to thank the guy who gave me a nod, did a quick u-turn and headed straight back to that fire to join his crew and continue to battle the flames. I have full respect for these guys who risk their lives to make sure others are safe.
The rest of the drive was fire-free and somewhat fun as most of the roads are small with many exciting corners and spectacular views. The pavement ended as we got to Hastings Forest Way, this road is a mix of rough surface and very fine powder soil mixed with gravel, a bit challenging. This harsh terrain resulted in an engine warning light appearing on the dashboard. We arrived at camp around 18:00, the sun was still up so I quickly set up camp before some quick engine diagnostics but I didn’t really see anything wrong with it. A quick dinner and off to sleep for another exciting day.
Day 2 - Nature’s alarm clock, the birds went off as soon as there was a hint of light. The two of us were the only humans for a long, long way. As I was having breakfast I noticed a pair of small birds building their nest on top of a fireplace at the campsite. I ask myself, should I start a fire to let the birds know that building a nest here is a bad idea? Or should I just leave it and hope that by the time someone else comes here the mummy and daddy birds would have already finished raising their chicks and moved out? After breakfast we went for a walk which turned out to be spectacular. The walk started off with low growing shrub followed by a mix of gumtrees and Yucca trees, so many of them and they are so tall. These Yacca trees only grow about 1 cm a year.
The walk then takes us through some thick ferns and tall canopy tree cover. The track ends at Spokes Lookout. From Brushy Mountain campground it’s about 5Km, the national park signs are somewhat inaccurate but not too far off. We looped back the same way, making it a total of 10.5Km.
We had lunch back at the campsite, by now I was wondering why we are still the only two people here in this national park. It is the long weekend and rarely we get exclusivity during public holidays. Seems like I spoke too soon, a red van approaches, looks like a posty van has arrived to deliver me some mail. It was not a postie, in the van was an older man who has converted a red post van to his mobile home. After lunch we drove to Plateau Beach Campground, another campground in the same national park, again empty, not a single person here. We walked the Plateau Beach track. We did the full loop with all the added extras which was only a total of 2.5Km but some sections of it was not easy to walk though, I don’t think anyone has walked here for a long time. I think most people come here with their 4x4 and spend half a day setting up their gear, have a sleep, than spend the next day packing up before going home.
The Plateau Beach Walking track turned out to be another top scorer walk. It offers many unique features from views, diverse flora, two waterfalls and many birds. After the walk we drove back to Brushy Mountain Campground, the car was still showing the engine warning light. I don’t like seeing it but nothing much I can do out here. As we got back to our campsite, the red van man had set up his camper at a good distance from us, the place was still empty and quiet, just the way I like it.
Day 3 - Bird clock went off earlier this time, the birds must have had a GPS clock to know that today is the first day of daylight savings and time moves forward one hour. Today we plan to visit Willi Willi national park, this is the reason that brought us up this way, Willi Willi doesn’t have any campgrounds which is why we stayed in nearby Werrikimbe National Park. After seeing so many good views in the past few days we were in for some more amazing and unique temperate rainforest. The walk at Willi Willi is a bit far from our campground so we got in the car and drove down the way that we came in two days ago, Hastings Forest Way. After about 10 Km we had to stop, the road was blocked with a “road closed sign” no explanation or any notice to go with this sign, just the white and red ribbon and road closed sign in the middle of it. We decided to park the car there and continue on foot.
It only took a few kilometers for us to realise why the road was closed, bushfire! Trees burnt on both sides of the roads, piles of fallen trunks still smouldering. Looking around it appears that the fire must have started after we passed through two days ago. Nothing is burning just charcoal trees, fairly safe.
I checked the map and we still had about 15 Km to go before we would arrive at the walk that we had planned to do. I knew that we didn’t have enough food to get us there and back so we walked back to get the car. We drove past endless blackened trees and just before we get to where we wanted to be, we were stopped by the RFS water tucks, the guys were still controlling the burn. I opened my window to ask about the situation. Long story short, burning situation is critical, they didn’t realise anyone was camping in the National Park as we had got in before the fire started. I didn’t know about the fire as I don’t have mobile coverage in the national park. We were low on petrol and couldn’t get out the long way so we got permission to exit via the burning zone. We quickly turned back to camp to deliver the very import message to the man in the red van; evacuate ASAP. As we drive back to camp, we plan our evacuate routine to make sure we get out of there fast. By the time we got back to camp the smoke had already filled up the area, it wasn’t like this at all this morning, just goes to show how fast fire can move. The man in the red van was nowhere to be seen, I looked around the car for pen and paper to leave a note on his van but before I started to write he showed up. I ran to him and said we were told to GET OUT NOW. I asked him if he saw the road closed sign as he came later but he said he hadn’t. Five minutes later we were packed and gone, the red van man was not as quick at packing up.
Everything loaded in the car, 4x4 engaged, traction control disabled, windows and vents shut, and zoom zoom we went down the hill. The RFS guys passed us going up the mountains, I stopped to tell them that the other man was still on his way out. Once again we drove past some burning sections but got out safely and continued with our quest to Willi Willi NP.
Image above shows two fires, the Red X is where we were caming. I only got this information after we got back to Sydney and looked it up on the internet. Clearly we were blocked in.
We arrived at Wilsons River Nature Reserve in Willi Willi National Park smelling of smoke from head to toe. Strangely, somehow the engine warning light disappeared. I was happy to see that warning light gone, one less thing to worry about on this trip. The valley at Wilson River did have some smoke but not as much, by now we were far away from the fire but fire can still advanced down the mountain and get to us.
We got on with our plan to do two walks there, the Botanic Walk and The Waterfall Walk, more details about the walks here. They were both short walks but a lot to see in this area so we spent a bit of time to enjoy the scenery. With walks completed we had nothing left to do in this area, our original plan was to camp another night before heading home on Monday. Going back to camp at Brushy Mountain or Plateau Beach was not possible as those areas were now cut off by bushfires. I didn’t know of any other campsite as all our backup spots were in the burning zones.
When we got back to the car, the only bridge out was blocked, a water truck was parked on the bridge. At first I was thinking that they blocked the roads again. I walked up to talk to the RFS guy who told me that he will need to park on this bridge to collect water and it will take at least 30 minutes to fill the tank and he also said they have the fire under control but Hastings Forest Way back up to Brushy Mountain is still blocked in both directions but where we are is safe and anything further down the mountain is also safe. When I delivered this news to the wife she was relieved but still didn’t want to stay in this NP.
While we waited for the water truck to collect water we took the opportunity to have lunch, as I was cooking lunch, a big 4x4 with a huge home on wheels rolled past with a cloud of dust. I quickly covered the food. The monster size vehicle stopped at the foot of the bridge, he can’t cross, the water truck was still there filling up, he walked towards me and says “What’s going on, can we pass?” I replied “I’m cooking lunch, the truck is there to collect water, and will move out of the way after the tank is full”. Some moments later, a women and two kids exit the big 4x4, this woman saw me cooking lunch on my tiny portable stove on the ground as I sat on a small arse-pad next to it. She walked back to her giant home-on-wheels towed by the 4x4, unlocks a few clips and a kitchen, sink, running water and a workbench popped out. She looks back at me and sort of gave a look of, ‘check this out’ with an air of superiority. She sees me as primitive caveman cooking on the ground.
With all that kitchen gear she only managed to make a few sandwiches and here on my primitive gas stove, I made fried rice with tuna and peas. As we all waited for the water truck to fill up the man came back to talk to us. I told him that we had planned to stay another night but was not sure where to go now after all this fire. He suggested that we check out a few campsites further down the mountain in a state forest. Neither of us had mobile reception so we were unable to consult our digital maps. He had to go the old way of giving directions, drawing maps on the ground with sticks, who’s primitive now? The water tank filled up, and moved off the bridge, I said thanks and we were on our way. I didn’t have high hopes on locating the campsites but the wife is good at remembering road names and got us there in the end.
The Bluff Campground. We arrived late afternoon and I got my answer as to why we were the only ones camping in previous nights. The road up the mountain was blocked by fire and all the late arrivals were here in the last place that wasn’t on fire, every camp space was occupied. It took me a few moments to realise that I am the only dark skin guy here, everyone was looking at me strange and the first question they asked was “Where are you from?” I had just been replying “Sydney” but only now I understood the question, they weren't asking where I live, they wanted to know where outside of Australia am I from. We had only just escaped the fire threat and now we were confronted with a more sinister one. I knew that we couldn’t stay here with all these 4x4, their popup homes, solar panels and diesel generators.
We found a small spot for our car and just enough space to fit our tent right next to it, the car shielded us from view and we found ourselves a spot with a water view. We had a very brief swim in the Wilson River, which is more of a creek. For dinner we had Pad Thai and creamy pasta from a dried packet, both were not so good but out here in the wilderness it was the best meal.
Day 4 - We got up before everyone in the campground, they all must be recovering from too much alcohol and loud music last night. We packed up and left as we could start to see more smoke rolling down the hills. Our first on the list for today was to get petrol as we were running low from all the moving around and trying to get away from fires for the past few days. First stop is the nearest town, Wauchope. We fill up the car there and stop at a near by park to have breakfast. It was the first running water out of a tap and flush toilets in three days. We set course to Port Macquarie as both of us have not been there before, we have heard so much about this beach town and it hosts one of Australia’s famous annual Ironman events. We left the burning mountains smoking in the rear view mirror and headed east towards the sea. The sky was cloudy the day we arrived at Port Macquarie, we drove past the main town centre and stopped at Oxley Oval off Pacific Drive. We did a quick walk/run around the Coastal Walk, checking out the the local beaches, Tacking Point Lighthouse and also saw some whales in the sea just off the Lighthouse coast.
Knowing that today is the last day of the long weekend and the traffic will be bad, we started our long drive back to Sydney but still we were caught in holiday traffic, a 4 hour drive grew to be 6 hours. Over all, everything went well despite the stuffing around with bushfire and having to make up new plans as we go, a real outdoor adventure.