The granite belt in northern NSW is known for its wineries, Celtic culture and cool crisp air. But did you know there’s a great drive where you can explore historical mines, spectacular scenery, checkout local bushranger hide outs along the way, plus great campsites ???
With very cool winters up on the tablelands and stifling summers I decided to explore the region NW of Glen Innes in early spring hoping for a little colour and to miss the extreme temps that frequent this area. Glen Innes is a funky little town with boutique gift shops, great bakeries, heritage listed buildings plus most services that you'd find in larger towns.
There are several tourist drives that run around the town but a great drive is tourist drive number 11, but with a twist. After restocking supplies and fuel at Glen Innes the road north west towards Emmaville is a nice introduction to the areas wonderful grazing land.
It’s a typical English looking area with tree lined wind breaks defining fence lines, sheep filled paddocks with boutique wineries offering tourists wine tastings. The road to Emmaville is tar for it's 40 km length but as it leaves the flat fertile grazing land it will twist and weave its way over the ranges where you might see feral goats, roo’s and deer beside the unfenced road.
Getting closer to Emmaville you will come across the Y waterholes ( yep - that’s their name ! ) that grace both sides of the road. These waterholes are from the nearby Lead mine, now closed. Over time the water has become safe for the birdlife to inhabit its waters and shoreline, from swans, wild ducks, ibis and a host of other birdlife it was a nice change from the dry forests nearby. Further down the road you come into the once booming town of Emmaville. Several places are worth checking out here, the mining museum ( only open mid week ), the Emmaville lookout, the tin church and several old grave yards where head stones date back to the 1800's. There is a general store and fuel if you really need to top up.
Following the tourist drive out of town for just 5 km, a turn off will appear to your left towards Torrington. This is where we leave the tourist drive and the adventure begins. The landscape out here is harsh, scattered dry timber with granite boulders dotting the landscape.
It's pretty easy to miss, but just 6 km along, the road narrows and passes through a gate and across a grid. Not sign posted, this is where you need to turn left to explore the old Ottery mine. The formed track will lead you to an open area where there's plenty of parking.
Adhering to the warning signs at the beginning of the track ( no collecting, licking rocks or going past the fences ) it’s an easy stroll into the old Arsenic Mine and historic Ottery Tin mine site loop walking trail.
The Ottery tin mine was one of the first underground base metal deposits in the area. It was worked from 1882 till around 1905 and produced an estimated 2,500 tonnes of tin concentrate plus 2,004 tonnes of white arsenic. Several attempts to reopen the mine till 1957 with no success and due to an import of cheaper arsenic the mine finally closed.
Exploring the old mine area is great as you can wander around freely where you can see the old relics such as mine buckets, a main shaft that is 80 meters deep, the large chimney flue, cooling chambers, furnaces and so much more.
Interesting to note the white arsenic still leeching out of the workings. Arsenic was used for a variety of purposes at the time from the control of prickly pear and was an important ingredient for many animal health products such as sheep dip.
After the mine closed it was left in a very damaged state with open mine shafts and obviously a few Health risks with open waste dumps. Rehabilitation work was carried out by NSW DPI, where the site was safe to explore from behind fences and is now an important historic site. Ongoing re-hab work will continue over time.
This is a great place to lose an hour or so following the path around the mine, reading the information boards and imagining just how life was out here over 100 years. Back through the gate, the tar winds it's way for around five km onto the dirt for a with an easy 30 km drive towards Torrington.
As you approach the outskirts of Torrington, keep an eye out for Dutchman's road on your left, this will lead you to the Nomads camping and BBQ area. While great for a tent or two this camping area is really designed for more of a stop over than camp, plus if your fit enough you can take the short walking trail to one of Captain Thunderbolts hideouts.
Captain Thunderbolt was known to have roamed the area from Uralla in the south to Tenterfield in the north. Along the path the granite boulders can only be described as huge as they have sat for thousands and thousands of years. The path will soon lead you to formed steps that wind there way through the boulders and soon disappear into the abyss.
As you sneak between the rocks you can see why the bushrangers used to hide in these areas, it would of been a great spot to hide and to find a higher peak to keep an eye out for approaching authorities. The walk leads you through the rocks and eventually ending at a steel ladder that’s near vertical for 10 metres where you can stand safely on a platform giving you 36Ó views to the horizon.
Heading back into Torrington, you’ll find this town is near deserted with only a handful of houses still occupied. Mining activity peaked here around the 1920's when Torrington and nearby villages served about 600 miners.
Torrington was a bustling town with five general stores, a butcher, baker, courthouse, police station, post office, two churches and a hotel.
Now days there are no facilities and no services, but surprisingly there is a limited mobile phone reception if you stand the right way. Leaving Torrington along Silent Grove Road, it’s a short 15 minute drive to a great camp area as you enter Torrington State Conservation area, a sign will point you to the right just 2 km out to Batherarm Camp Grounds.
Great facilities with each camp area having its own pit toilet, tables and a water tank. Watch out for mine shafts and workings as they are everywhere as this section is known as a dedicated fossicking area where you can find several types of crystals, gems and minerals.
There are three camping areas, aptly named one two and three. The first two have easy access but camping area number three is across the creek and you will need four wheel drive, especially if towing a camper trailer. The creek doesn't get a lot of flow but with a bit of traffic it can be a bit rough and bumpy. No bins are provided out here so you will need to carry all rubbish back out, this keeps the vermin away and the camp areas clean.
The geological features and climate patterns are unique to the Torrington Conservation Area and the surrounding tablelands providing habitat for more than 30 species of reptiles and around 13 native frog species.
Leaving camp it is as simple as heading back out to the turn off for a right hand turn back onto Silent Creek Road, where granite cliffs and grunge rock sculptures tower beside the road. It’s hard to believe there was mining activity out here, but this area was known as The Silent Grove Nugget Mine, if you look closely throughout the bush you will see old workings, building foundations, massive open pit mines now filled with mineral rich water.
The landscape opens up giving way to sheep stations then cattle stations where mountain peaks and ranges start to appear, rising to near 1100 metres high. The roads out here are narrow, sketchy and unmaintained as they twist over and down the other side of ranges towards Mole River allowing for stunning views across the area.
With the steep terrain out here the Mole River can at times have some serious flooding, checkout the amount of debris in the trees high above and just how much bend the trees have in them from recent flooding.
An interesting note out here are the low bridges you cross from time to time, this allows the debris to simply flow over the top and not destroy any bridge foundations thus not cutting off the roads. Further 3 km along two options appear, either straight on on the tar to Bruxner highway, or turn right onto Upper Mole River road which I did.
As you keep going through Gunya Station there are some amazing granite outcrops around you, yet it's hard to believe that your at 1000 metre above sea level. But be warned in the winter months it can get a covering of snow so be prepared in the cooler months.
It seems everything blooms out here with plenty of wild goats, wallabies, and roos with Prickly Pear Cactus and Grass-tree's scattered amongst the rocks. A pleasant sight soon emerges and points you towards Tenterfield just 27 km away along the Upper Mole River Road.
It seems out here that there can be surprises just when you least expect them, like popping around another corner to be greeted with stunning views across another valley, or massive rock formations.
The road up Mount Mackenzie at 1300 meters high, gives stunning views over the Tenterfield area and its a great way to end a drive on the Granite Belt in northern NSW.