Sometimes it’s the hidden away destinations that leave you awe-inspired and wondering why you haven't been there before. Kwiambal ( Kigh-am-bal ) is pretty secluded up in the northern area of NSW – the aboriginal people of nearby Ashford once called this area home as it has plenty of food, water and shelter. White man’s history goes back to the turn of the century when tobacco was grown at nearby Ashford. Nowadays all that remains are falling down tobacco sheds – that’s if you’re lucky enough to find one. Local identity Captain Thunderbolt reportedly visited this area back in 1867 looking for his fortune from others.
Getting to Kwiambal is like an adventure in itself. We started at the quiet town of Ashford in northern NSW. Not much happens here, but take a drive around the street and see the old buildings that must have so much to tell. Some are closed like the old theatre and Ashford motors, but others are still open like the chemist that also sells souvenir tea towels - this is country life at its best.
Heading out of Ashford we soon hit the signs towards Kwiambal NP, 17km to the north. Sandy Creek Road was just that, a white sandy road base against the stark timbered bush areas and several large farms. It’s been dry out here, and as you cruise along you just shake your head and wonder what would you grow or even do if you farmed here. Even the goats were looking a bit dazed.
We’d been chatting to some locals back in Ashford who told us about some Limestone Caves that have been a real drawcard to the area for years and said we should make the effort to stop.
Finding the caves was pretty easy as they are just inside the Kwiambal’s boundary sign. It’s a short 300-metre walk to the cave entrance and a day picnic area where you'll find toilets, day shelters a few tables and plenty of open paddock area where the kids can let of steam.
Just near the cave entrance, there’s plenty of reading available. It explains the history of the caves which have been a tourist attraction for over 100 years, mining of the bat poo, aka guano, for fertiliser (there was that much guano that a small rail track and trolleys were used to cart it out until it all ended in 1959).
Limestone is generally a ‘soft’ rock, and because of this, fossils were found in and around the caves thus allowing for prehistoric dating. Bones were found from ancestors of the thylacine, kangaroo and a pigmy possum dating back to the Pleistocene Age ( 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago).
Even before entering the caves you can see markings that look like big worms have grooved outlines in the rocks. This is called Rillenkarren, where acid rainwater has run down the hard rocks creating little drains or worm-like channels.
We had expected a five-minute walk into the cave then out again, with good torches, we spent nearly three hours freely exploring the cave system. There are rooms as big as buses; ever-forming stalactites, stalagmites and white crystals; pathways leading to more rooms; little cubby holes and if you stop and listen – you can hear the little bats that were hiding away in the darkness.
It’s estimated that there is nearly 2km of cave system that you can freely explore and another 3km where you need specialised gear to belly-crawl into different chambers. But for the average punter, spending an hour walking around in these magnificent caves is just something else. Just need to be a little cautious though, there are no walking markers inside the caves so you need to remember where you are and it’s pretty bloody dark so a good torch is needed to enjoy the whole experience.
Camp options are an easy and scenic 8km drive further along Limestone Caves Road and left onto Falls Road. Roads out here are pretty easy to drive with a good base, plenty to see with a few shambled houses and yards along the way for photo opportunities. It’s harsh country out here but the spectacle of seeing a few farms that still work the land had us guessing and just how isolated and remote the area was. Most of the vegetation is dominated by the cypress pine and estimates say that Kwiambal contains 15% of the dry rainforest left in NSW.
Lemon Tree Flat Campground
Most people head to Lemon Tree Flat Campground where you can camp without fuss down beside the Severn River. There are no booking sites and with around 10 acres of camping a lot of other campers can fit in so don't expect a sleep-in during holiday or peak time.
If this is your thing, it’s a great base to explore the area. There are NPWS walking tracks up the river to the junction of the Macintyre and Severn and with waterholes along the way it’s a pretty cool way to spend a few hours exploring. Maybe head down on the Dungeon Walk especially after heavy rain where the river water churns around the ancient rocks causing all sorts of noise and swirling action. From camp it’s a 1.5km walk but well worth it. With a pay station, pit toilets, bbqs and a few tables - Lemon Tree campgrounds may appeal to some.
Kookabitta Camping Area
We got a heads-up on a brand new campsite just 4km away called Kookabitta Camping Area. Still located on the Severn River, Kookabitta is more for walk-in campers with tents or swags but also has six bollarded sites for camper trailers.
This is becoming pretty typical in National Parks, but the great thing here is that with only a limited number of trailer sites, it’s deadset peaceful and has all new glam features like gas bbqs, clean toilets, fire pits with their own table and chairs, great river access and did I mention it’s quiet?
You can kayak up and down the river in tranquil pools where kingfishers sit quietly in the river gums watching you go past, wallabies and kangaroos stand up with twitching ears and the ever noisy corellas and galahs can spoil the serenity as they echo down the valley.
At either camp just be wary of wearing those holiday thongs we all seem to wear, this is shoe country as we found out the first five minutes of stopping. The Kwiambal thorn! Bloody sharp, needle-like thorns – they sting like a hypodermic needle and leave you in pain for an hour.
Waterfalls, Walks & Waterholes
Another attraction in Kwiambal is Macintyre Falls and the surrounding walks. From either camp it’s a five-minute drive to the end of Falls Road where you'll find a selection of information boards, bbq shelters and two viewing platforms to the massive granite gorges below with signposted walks.
A popular walk after looking down to the falls is to Macintyre Falls itself down the 600 metre trail that winds its way to the bottom. It’s not till you get down here that you can see and feel the scale of the gorge when you look back up. You can only imagine during peak wet times when Macintyre Falls flows with rage into the pool below what a sight it would be. The massive granite boulders seem to have scars on them from being smashed and pummeled by other rocks as they get pushed and shoved down stream.
The second viewing platform faces downstream and you get a good sense of just how rugged the area is. If you’re fit, you can tackle the track down to The Beach and to Slippery Rock. This walking track is hard and rough where there are short steep sections down to the river below, but it’s worth the effort for the magnitude of the gorge and just seeing what water can do over millions of years. Making the effort in the warmer months can be rewarded with secluded swims in many of the waterholes and by sitting under the cascades. It was pretty special down in the base of the river, clambering over sheets of granite not knowing what’s around the next corner or over the next rock. Even the rock formations seemed to look down at us in a peculiar way, or maybe it was just the heat that was getting to us.
We lost count of the birds, fish, turtles, wallabies we saw and just maybe a platypus on a quiet morning at camp. Kwiambal is an isolated park with minimal facilities but for the more adventurous it’s pretty darn good.