The North coast of NSW has many diverse and unique areas all linking back to when the east coast volcanoes erupted 30-60 million years ago. If it wasn’t for the major upheaval we wouldn’t have the Great Diving Range holding rainforest pockets, rich soil farmlands and wilderness areas. Luckily, along the north coast region we are able to access the majority of these areas in some way.
One of these areas is Bundjalung NP, just 90mins south of the NSW/QLD border. On paper the park has a wide variety of things to duo and remembering from 20 years ago I thought I’d head back in for a few days. Parks state that it covers 21,000 hectares with a variety of different environments including wetlands, coastal, rainforest and much more.
One significant feature is the Esk River system which apparently is the longest natural coastal river ecosystem on the north coast, say that 10 times. My plan was to start at the Southern end of the park at the coastal community of Iluka and 4wd through the park to the main camping area of Blackrocks, spend a few days here and 4wd out to the north.
That was the plan and by going off current maps it was doable, but, after heading off there highway into Iluka and finding the designated track, I was met with a very locked gate and signage stating No Entry, so while in the area it was decided to explore this coastal area and surrounds.
Iluka is the Yaygir or Bungjalung Aboriginal word for ‘near the sea’, and everything around this quaint coastal community is defined by the sea. The town actually sits at the entrance of the mighty Clarence River that starts hundreds of kilometres inland and has one of the biggest catchments in NSW.
History states that in 1799 Matthew Flinders investigated the river mouth and landed on the Northern side of the Clarence where Iluka is settled today. In his log he wrote that the river mouth was shallow and he believed that the whole river was not worth investigating. Little did he know that he was in the rivers first bay and actually opened up into a mighty river. It wasn’t until 1830 that the first schooner sailed up the Clarence and officially named in 1839 by Governor Gipps.
Over the years Iluka was settled and developed, major break walls were built with a local tramway constructed out to Iluka bluff for the sandstone blocks, hoteliers served the town with around 200 workman employed for the harbour works. After the works were completed in 1890 the town soon declined with only a few staying on to become professional fisherman.
Today Iluka is filled with fisherman and holiday makers who enjoy the simplicity of the area, exploring and working the river. Theres a few little shops, a museum to check out and of course some local seafood by the sea. For the nature buffs there’s the Iluka Nature Reserve and Iluka Bluff which is 136 acres of protected reserve that has a world heritage listing as the largest area of sub-tropical littoral rainforest by the sea in NSW.
It’s a great place to wander through on a hot day, spot the many variety’s of birds and plants that this forest holds. At the end of the walk to the north is Iluka Bluff where man made lookouts on the headlands give uninterrupted 180’ views along the coast and out to sea.
On my way back out to the highway ( due to the 4wd track having a locked gate ) I popped into a couple of the southern Bundjalung local spots, namely Woody Head which is a commercial camping area right on the beach and a couple of day areas where you can explore the coast line on foot. A few years ago it was possible to drive along the beach right up to the Black Rock camping area but unfortunately that’s been closed due to the coffee rock on the beach being to unstable to drive across.
So with these obstacles in the way, the only access point into Bundjalung is to head further north towards Woodburn and head back to the coast along Gap Road. The frustrating part was seeing nearly 40km of thick bush all locked up beside the highway. The road into Blackrocks is a beautiful maintained dirt road which for nearly its entire length of 20km is an easy drive passing through a variety of landscapes from rich farmland, rough sandstone areas, swamps and heathlands.
Rich rainforest pockets surround massive gums that have survived the timber cutters but there are scars from sand mining activities from past times. The run off creeks into the Esk River look dark and gloomy but are actually stained from the heathland, coastal cypress stands and also paper bark forests. These days you have to book online for most National Parks with Bundjalung being no different, so being my first time here I decided to just to head in and check out the quality of the camp sites prior to booking.
The campsite area has to be one of the best along the east coast with massive sites with an element of privacy, fire pits and picnic tables plus a handy clothes line in every site for those beach towels and cozzies. Booking online through the parks website is pretty simple after choosing one of the empty spots. All of the camping spots run parallel to the coastline where the furthest ones are no more than a 3 min walk to the waters edge over the dunes.
Reading the info boards around the larger group areas, Bundjalung is all about nature, Aboriginal heritage and the loads of flora and fauna across the area. With all of the 4wd tracks locked up nearby, its all about throwing the walking shoes on to either to the Emu Loop hike of about 3km or the bigger Jerusalem Hike of nearly 8km or head down to the long stretches of coffee rock lined beach to take all that salt air in. Ironically the Emu Loop walk is named after the endangered coastal Emu’s that may be spotted in the area. I have spotted them in past years but in another NP to the south.
The Jerusalem walk follows the river right to the ocean where’s there’s plenty of spots to dip your feet into the water to cool off. On Both walks check out the coast Banksia, Grevillea and twisted trees lining the river bank. The still water of the Esk river also provides amazing canoeing for the enthusiast in the protected waters. If you're keen an early morning or evening stroll through the heathlands will reveal many delightful sights including rare plants and animals. A total of 205 bird, 30 mammal, 38 reptile and 13 amphibian species have been recorded in the park.
I was surprised to see several ( in fact 3 ) concrete war bunkers right in the heart of the main camping area and apparently they were used significantly in WW11. It's reported that thousands of soldiers used these bunkers to gain skills that they needed to protect Australia in case of invasion. They were part of the nearby RAAF’s bombing and gunnery school that operates still at Evans Head to the north.
This was one of ten schooling areas that were urgently built and established across Australia in 1939. The Evans Head bombing range ( that adjoins Bundjalung in the north ) is still used today by jets operating out of Amberley Airforce Base in QLD.
The park lies within the traditional lands of the Bundjalung Nation which has many significant Aboriginal sites indicating that the area has been used intensely for over 6000 years. Inland tribes would journey to the coast during winter, trading seeds for fish caught by coastal groups. Also recorded in the park are Aboriginal campsites, Middens, and ceremonial grounds. To the north, Goanna Headland is an important mythological site which was the subject of one of the first Aboriginal land claims in NSW.
So would I head back to Bundjalung ?.
Honestly - yes.
After getting my head around no 4wd tracks and the only road in and out is doable in a soft roader, the park is extremely relaxing where getting back to nature has its benefits.