Tenterfield, 20 kilometres from the Queensland border in the New England Tablelands, NSW, is well known for its history, songs by Peter Allen and the surrounding stunning National Parks. A great way to explore this area is to 'get a feel' for its local history with a walk around town, locating the old stone buildings that have been up for over 100 years.
The first known European to pass through the Tenterfield area was Allan Cunningham during his 1827 investigation of the Darling Downs. White settlers soon followed, arriving in the late 1830s to begin grazing operations in the fertile land. But the fortunes of the town were boosted when gold was discovered in the district in 1858 in areas that included the Rocky River, Morgans and Ropers Gully nearby Drake and on the Timbara Plateau.
In the following years, Tenterfield developed with a bank, Anglican church, flour-mill, school, blacksmiths shop and other significant buildings. By 1879, 1500 people called Tenterfield home, and in these years a police station, jail and courthouse were erected. Then the bushrangers came. In 1868 Captain Thunderbolt (aka Frederick Ward) made an appearance around Tenterfield and called the surrounding hills his home where today you can still explore the caves where he (supposedly) hid.
Today Tenterfield is located in an area primarily devoted to sheep and cattle grazing, though timber, mixed farming and tourism provide other local industries and is home to over 4000 people.
The Rocky River trip starts just south of the heart of town as you wander down the aptly named Scrub Road then onto Billirimba Road. Keep an eye out for abandoned farms and transport machinery as they sit quietly in the paddocks from days gone by. With long, straight tree-lined sections of dirt, you can gaze across the paddocks with views towards the mountains in the distance – views to die for in every direction.
With Quilgeran Pinnacle to your right and Black Mountain to your left you feel pretty small as you follow the road as it snakes through the terrain. Soon you pass through the locality of Steinbrook, not much anymore, just a big kink in the road with several 90-degree corners and the old hall.
From here on you pass through private stations, breeding primarily cattle in the valleys. Old sheds, massive trees, and cattle yards - everything seems to look old and plenty of opportunities for photo stops. 35km along, Billirimba Road winds its way down to the Timbarra River and the intersection of Upper Rocky River Road to your right. It might have only taken an hour to get this far but if you’re looking for one of the best camping options around, head up here to your right for 3km to Wunglebung Station.
Camping at Wunglebung is by appointment only and when the owners Katrina and Stu meet you at their ‘office’ you can see why they keep it so private. The property’s driveway crosses the Timbarra River and once you cross the other side it’s a beautiful place. Campsites are limited along the Timbara to keep the place private, clean and manageable.
After you're shown to your exclusive camp the rest is up to you whether you want to relax, kayak (these are supplied) or explore the hills. Kat is happy to give you a rundown on the history of the station, advice on the drive up the valley or heads up on the 4wd tracks in the hills. This 2000 acre working cattle station has a serene feel to it and that’s the way they want it kept. There’s no hooning, no mad scrabbling off-roading, shooting, motorbikes or quads: it’s a peaceful place.
It’s a bit hard to relax when you can swim, kayak or go platypus stalking. Then there’s wandering around the old yards, relics and remains of the original homestead. Wunglebung is a photographer’s paradise. The kids will love the unique showers in horse floats and the tin dunnys on the property.
4wd exploring is possible up the valley towards Washpool NP. Easy station roads that lead you for an hour up into the gorge country, crossing the upper reaches of the Timbarra River into more densly-timbered areas and then eventually to a gate where the Bicentennial trail continues south. If you’re keen for a little more, Kat or Stu can point you into the hills where you can tackle Billyrimba Trail in the nearby NP.
Billyrimba is suited to high-clearance 4wds as it twists and winds its way to nearly 700 meters above sea level. Midway along there is a handful of mines and some mining gear from the bygone days and the views from here are to die for. Looking across to the far plateaus, down into the valleys trying to work out what and where things are - it’s pretty spectacular.
When you've had enough or it’s time to leave Wunglebung, head back to Rocky River Rd and swing right towards Drake (53km away). There’s a single lane, low-level bridge that crosses the headwaters of a little waterway (one of many that flow down from the range above you) that was once the centre of a major gold mine debacle. The mine was developed in the late 1990's but after six months it was shut down due to the risk of pollution into the Clarence River system (the largest system after the Darling River system).
The Rocky River road narrows down as it passes between huge boulders that line the road. 100 years ago this was the main thoroughfare between Tenterfield and Drake then onto Grafton. The road workers simply could not move these granite boulders that in some case are as large as a bus so they simply built the road around them.
As the road follows the Timbarra river, the drop-offs are steep where you can see massive pools of water and where the rocks get moved after every big flood, there’s pockets of dry rainforest, old sheds in the hills and then around the next corner acres of tree felled paddocks where the cattle roam freely across and along the road. After a while farmhouses are roadside so look out for dogs that may run out, and drive slowly as it keeps the dust down.
An added bonus when travelling here is the amount of birdlife you can see beside the river – from shags, kingfishers and the common old crow it’s good fun for the kids to play a spot the bird game.
The roads out here are typical of the old Cobb & Co run roads. They rise, fall then twist their way over the terrain – this was to keep the stagecoach fairly level and flat for those on board.
There are areas along here beside the river where camping is not allowed and these are sign-posted for all to see, but at the 25 km mark a huge grassed area with tracks leading down to the Timbarra are welcoming sites either for camping or just a cuppa.
Stopping under the old Casuarina Trees is pretty special here as the water flows past. Don't forget to throw a rod in and either team it up with some old meat for a chance to snag a freshwater Yabby or a Fork Tail Catfish for a feed.
There are no toilets here and no bins. Night time brings out owls, little squeaking bats, frogs start croaking and if you sit still long enough and scan the grounds with a torch you may see possums.
If you are a keen punter and the weather is right, swimming in the Timbarra River is pure bliss where clean fresh water that has filtered through granite particles leaves you feeling relaxed and clean. Whether you’re staying for an hour or a night, have a scout around for any rubbish that may have been left behind, this keeps the area pristine and makes for a happy landowner.
There is nothing too difficult about this road provided you’re in a proper 4wd. But for added safety, why not choose 4wd high. This will give you some added traction as these granite-based roads can be slippery and the road surface can catch you out if find yourself trying to avoid another 4wd that suddenly appears.
Soon the cleared country farmlands turn to a thicker growth as you veer away from the river and into the hills. Tall timber sections covered with vines and small farms lead the way, and the elevation soon rises, this is where the road changes into Long Gully Road and from dirt to tar. It gets steep as it enters Girard State Forest and the terrain gets a bit more serious as you climb to near 1000 metres above sea level in a few kilometres.
Being on the southern side of this range, the rainforest is stunning and is generally a bit cooler than the flats below. With tall cool-climate ferns, long-trunked Bangalow palms and coachwood trees, it’s a totally different ecosystem to what you have just left behind. Even the wildlife changes and you hear the sounds of whip-birds, frisky paddy melon wallabies and even shy lyrebirds that may dart across the road.
You know when you’re getting to the top as there are large stands of scrubby timber - iron bark, black butt and scribbly gum plus dozens of grass-trees that seem to dance in the wind as you zoom past.
Girard State Forest soon gives way to farms and dodgy looking houses and eventually you'll come to the Bruxner Highway which runs between the coast and back up to the tablelands past Tenterfield.