Hidden Hinterland Delights South East NSW
The south coast of NSW is a busy tourist Mecca, but just a few kilometres inland you'll find verdant bush, rushing mountain streams, near-deserted campsites and some great 4WD touring.
The area around Pambula had first been settled by Europeans in the 1830s when the Imlay brothers grazed cattle on the river flats, with the town being established in about 1843. By 1856 there were five licensed hotels in the town catering for the thirst of farmers, graziers, loggers, bullock drivers and fisherman.
In 1888 gold was discovered and the resultant flurry of activity created a boom in the town with shafts such as the Victory mine, Top Victory and the Morning Star producing gold that was reported at times to crush at 40 ounces to the ton – a truly incredible amount!
The deepest mine in the area soon reached to a depth of over 300 metres and within months of the discovery there were a number of crushing mills in the vicinity of the workings. Interestingly, only a little alluvial gold was ever won by individual miners working along the nearby creeks, while today, fossickers with metal detectors are having better luck for their trouble. Most of the old gold mine shafts are fenced and all of the old mill sites have fallen into disrepair with most of their equipment plundered or having rusted away.
Still, with a little effort and some local knowledge, you can find a number of ruins dating from those days, including mill sites with what remains of a five-head stamper, a huge flywheel from a steam engine, assorted machinery, dams still holding water, and ovens used in the production of bricks for the many buildings that once graced the field.
From there we headed inland along forestry roads into a section of the South East Forest NP and to the crest of Wolumla Peak. At 776 metres, the peak with its tangle of radio and repeater towers nearby is the highest point for some distance around and offers great views of the surrounding forest and coast.
SWOOPING FROM THE SKY
Descending from our eagle-like eyrie we took the rough and rugged Wolumla Peak Firetrail west off the peak, passing through verdant forest often dripping with ferns and other moisture loving plants. Hitting a major bitumen road we pushed west to wind through the Coolangubra section of the SE Forest NP and over some spectacular peaks along the lesser used and part gravel thoroughfare of Big Jack Mountain Road. From there we got onto a bush route taking the Tantawangalo Mountain Road into the Tantawangalo section of the same sprawling national park.
Once again we had heard vaguely of some camping spots in the northern section of the park but could find little on the parks website, although the Hema map on my iPad at least had them marked. Parks though had closed off a few of the tracks in the immediate vicinity, so our route took us through a variety of different landscapes varying from grassy woodlands, dry forests, tall wet forests and natural grasslands to clear marshy areas around the Nunnock Swamp.
The Nunnock camping area is located on the edge of a grassy clearing and once again it seemed to be rarely used. We picked a spot away from the overhanging branches of the big gum trees that overlooked the camp and settled in for the night. Grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies grazed the grasslands and nearby scrub while later that evening a rarer and little seen greater glider was spotted checking us out from high above our campfire.
A SURPRISE NO MORE
Next day we found Alexanders Hut and, vowing to return and camp there one day in the not too distant future. Afterwards we headed south to the small hamlet of Cathcart to find yet another old historic building I had been searching for.
The building had alluded my searching for hours on the web even though that is where I had first heard about it from a traveller's blog and, while there was a photo, there was no indication of where it was apart from 'southern NSW'. I rang some 4WD mates who lived in the region and knew the area pretty well but all had the same reply: "Never heard of it!" Then I rang the national parks offices til’ I got to the Bombala branch where I was shuffled around for a time before some older guy said he thought the hut was on forestry land and I should ring them. When I did I was put through to the head forester, and bingo, we had the info we needed. The forester explained where it was located, just a few kilometres south of Cathcart, inland from Merimbula on the south coast of NSW.
It was more than just a hut though. Built in 1860 in the USA the building had been prefabricated and then shipped to Australia where it was erected in 1861 on what was then the main coach route from the coastal towns of Eden, Tathra and Merimbula to the once booming but short-lived Kiandra goldfields. In 1860 the high country goldfields had over 10,000 hopeful diggers searching for their fortune and while some lucky ones hit incredible riches, most struggled to survive, especially when the snow and cold descended in winter.
The Woolingubrah Inn, as it was called, takes its names from the Aboriginal word for 'windy place', which is more than appropriate as the inn was located on a exposed ridge of the Big Jack Range, much of which is now included in the Coolangubra State Forest. It is probably the only building of its type still standing in Australia and was restored by NSW Forestry nearly 20 years ago. Consisting of a bar, dining room, kitchen and six bedrooms, we sadly couldn't get into the building as it was locked up – next time I'll ask for a key!
From there we poked our way south through pine tree plantations and then through more natural forest towards Pheasants Peak. Here the Wog Wog Trail, as marked on all the maps but now renamed by Parks as Pheasant Peak Trail, began. And what a trail it is, showing very little use by the amount of timber down and the lack of wheel marks. It was one of the things that continually surprised us with these trails in southern NSW, as we are more used to the well-populated tracks in the Victorian High Country; it came as both a surprise and a delight. A hint here: take a saw or an axe!