Tenterfield, a small country town of around 4000 people lies some 3 hours south west of Brisbane on the New England Tablelands sitting just below the magic 1000 metres above sea level mark.
With winters that often get below freezing with snow falls, yet the summers can be pretty warm, its one of those small country towns that you really don't think too much of when passing through. Although this quiet country town does hold a significant part in Australia's history that dates back some 180 years. In 1827 settlers were pushing south after exploring the Darling Downs region across the border in QLD, thus leading to settlement and further exploration some 10 years later where Tenterfield sits today.
Tenterfield and its surrounding areas soon became known for its fine class wool with large stations, and with its increasing growth came development with hotels, a police station and a court house. With all this moving forward and development, a link was made to the coast to ship the Tablelands wool and to resupply the tablelands with other goods, it is reported that it could take some 4 months to complete the journey with a large bullock team.
Some 50km away to the east, gold and other minerals were soon found in several areas that included Rocky River, Morgans Gully and the Timbarra Plateau, and with the influx of miners the settlement of Drake was established. Now we all know that with the discovery of any precious metal back in that period, the obvious would soon follow- Bushrangers !!. The most famous bushranger that scouted these areas was Captain Thunderbolt aka Fred Ward. It is reported that he roamed from some 200 km from the south near Uralla to just north of Tenterfield, robbing and hiding from the police throughout this area in and around the huge granite boulders that often have hidden caves and lookouts that gave a vast view over the surrounding area.
The Rocky River trip starts just right in the heart of town as you wander east down the aptly named Scrub Road then into Billirimba Road. Now there is no need to panic as you traverse this tar section for some 5km as the drive out here passes some historic old homes and farms. Keep an eye out for abandon farm and transport implements as they sit quietly in the paddocks. With minimal moisture in the air out here rust seems to stay away leaving metal alone. With long straight tree lined sections of dirt you can gaze across the paddocks with views towards the mountains in the distance, defiantly views to die for. Being out here the best thing to do is to slow down, enjoy the surroundings and switch your lights on.
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 !!. Just out of town the dirt continues as you cross the Cataract River, here you are greeted with stunning views across fertile farmlands, with mountain peaks in the distance- the views are just that good. From here on you pass through a host of private stations, breeding primality cattle but some sheep in these valleys, the station owners like you to stick to the established roads, but there are several pull over spots on higher ground for photos. For 15km you will rise and fall between between 600- 800 metres above sea level passing old farms, used cattle yards and through working stations, give respect to the farmers out here with a friendly wave and slow right down as they don't appreciate the dust and some still muster on horseback- you don't see that everyday away from the outback !!
In just a few kilometres you will drop some 500 metres at where you will hover around the 350 metres above sea level, this is where you know you are getting close to several rivers. At the 40 km mark an intersection will appear with a couple of options. With a right hand turn here along Upper Rocky river Road you can explore other reaches of these valleys and Rocky River. Now the trail here goes for another 30 km with creek crossings into some rugged areas, it does come to a dead end and It is possible to camp along the way but you will need prior permission to do this, unfortunately you need to wander back to this intersection for another adventure decision. Our decision was to go straight on, sign posted towards Drake ( 53km away). This is another area that you should not be tempted to camp as nice as it seems here at this turnoff, although tempting with green grassy sections all the way down to the cooling waters of the river, the farmers just don't appreciate it and there are signs saying just that.
It's around here that phone reception will soon disappear and hopefully the kids will jump off Facebook , stop texting or whatever they do, and wind the windows down to be part of this great adventure with you. With a single lane low level bridge in sight, the head waters of this little waterway is one of many that flows down from the range above you from your left into the Rocky River, and was once the centre of a major gold mine debacle. The Timbarra Gold Mine attracted attention from around the world in the early nineties when it was realised that the risk of pollution towards the Clarence River System could have major impact due to the areas high rainfall. The risk was due to unstable cyanide heaps that could leech into the nearby creeks and rivers, threatening pristine forests, waterway life and local wildlife species. After several overflows from cyanide ponds the mine was finally closed.
Some may find it hard to believe but this road was once the main thorough fare between Tenterfield, Drake then through to Lionsville (now an abandon gold mine settlement) and on towards Grafton some 100 years ago. From the old Cobb and Co Coaches, large bullock teams and even bushrangers they all used this road. Back in the day, road workers (maybe convicts but most likely early settlers) simply could not move these granite boulders that in some case are as large as a double decker bus, you'll even have to sound your horn as you approach some of these rocks as it is a near zig zag around a section here, pretty interesting if towing a camper trailer through here. As the road follows the river keep an eye out for the odd wallaby that needs to be across the other side of the road ( as they do !!) as the undergrowth along here is thick, and defiantly full of nutrients for them. Several farm houses are road side so by keeping an eye out for the local working dog that may shoot out too it will also keep the dust down. An added bonus when travelling here is the amount of birdlife you may see beside the river- from Shags, Kingfishers and the common old crow it is good for the kids for a bit of 'spot the bird' game. The roads out here are typical of the old Cobb & Co run roads, as they rise, fall then twist its way over the terrain- this was to keep the stage coach fairly level, flat and stable for those on board.
There are several areas along here on the right beside the river where camping is not allowed but it is sign posted for all to see, but at the 15km mark a huge grassed area off to your right that has several tracks leading down to some great flat areas are welcoming camp areas. It is a great option to pop across the road to the farmer’s house just to make sure you have the right one, nothing wrong with a bit of common country courtesy. Payment here is generally a box of cans marked only with four x’s!!. There are no facilities here but if you approach the station owner they will guide you in the direction of some great timber that you are welcome to cut up and carry down for a riverside fire. Camping 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 dinner. Being self-sufficient here also means toiletries, taking your rubbish away and to the point of not feeding the wildlife as it does upset their balance in the wild. Night time brings out Owls, the occasional Bat, frogs start crocking and if you sit still long enough and scan the grounds with a torch you may see the occasional possum. If you are a keen punter and the weather is right, swimming in the Rocky River is pure bliss. Clean fresh water that has filtered through granite particles defiantly leaves you feeling relaxed and clean. This is the life!!!
Whether staying for one night or several have a scout around for any rubbish that may have been left behind, this keeps the area pristine and makes for a happy farmer for us to return. As from the previous part of this drive the last section traverses the same roads for several more kilometres, snaking its way along past working stations crossing into new properties, rising and falling with the terrain along beside Rocky River. There is nothing too difficult about this road that a good proper 4wd can undertake, for added safety why not choose 4wd high- this will give you some added traction on these granite based roads that can be slippery and the road surface can catch you out if find yourself trying to avoid an animal that suddenly appears. With several small causeway crossings just be aware of the slippery surface or the water depth, most of the time they should be ok. 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 hobby farms led the way as the elevation will soon rise; this is where the road changes into Long Gully Road.
Here as you enter Girard State Forest the terrain gets a bit more serious and the road rises 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, palms and even the odd coachwood tree is is a totally different eco system to what you have just left behind. Even the wildlife has changed to the sounds of Whip-birds, the odd Paddy Melon wallaby hiding road side to the ever popular Carpet Python snaking its way roadside.
For those who want to explore Girard Forest, keep an eye out for Long Gully Fire Trail on the right. These trails are great to explore the top of the range, passing through large, large stands of scrubby timber that contains Iron Bark, Black butt and a little Scribbly Gum. The trails in here do loop around back to where you start from, so getting lost isn't really a worry OR an option. You will find stands of Grass Trees, old log bridges and several rutty hills where 4wd will be needed. The trails in the Girard State Forest are maintained on a irregular basis so care must be taken, and you may encounter the odd tree that has fallen. Returning back to Long Gully Road it is a matter of swinging right and adjoining the dreaded tar section just down the road, as the houses seem to get closer and closer to each other. Not long the Bruxner Highway greets you and it is here you need to decide whether it is a short dash to your left into the town of Drake for a counter meal, or do you head to your right for a run down towards the coast. Options are great!!