CAPITAL GAINS

Convenient 4x4 getaways within cooee of Sydney’s bright city lights.

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER

SHORTER adventures closer to town are becoming more appealing as we keep getting pressed for time, especially for city slickers keen to escape the rat race. Here we reveal five awesome get-aways close to Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, New South Wales.

WILDLIFE

Nearby kangaroos will keep the kids amused at camp, and more than 100 species of birds makes the park ideal for avid birdwatchers. Keep an eye out for snakes and goannas, especially in the warmer months.

DEUA NATIONAL PARK

DEUA National Park is one of NSW’s most popular national parks for good reason. The park is nestled in a rugged, mountainous part of the Great Dividing Range that’s crisscrossed by beautiful mountain rivers, creeks and a network of caves, and it sits midway between the coastal town of Moruya and Canberra. For Canberra residents, the park is a couple of hours’ drive (it’s even closer for those living on the coast). From Sydney, it’s roughly four hours’ drive to the park’s northern boundary via the historic town of Braidwood.

The popularity of the park is due in part to great off-roading, especially the drive to the most popular camping area of the Bendethera Valley. Whether you come in from the coast or the north-western route, the tracks wind up, down and over seriously rugged mountain terrain, with immense trees (and huge tree ferns) towering above.

The trees are sparingly interspersed with clearings that provide views of even more rugged mountains in the distance and – occasionally – glimpses of the valleys below.

Then there are the creek crossings, but be aware of impending bad weather as these waterways rise very quickly after rainfall.

The spacious camping area at ‘Benny’ (as it’s colloquially known) offers a mix of open sites, those closer to the trees, or spots next to a tranquil tributary of the Deua River.

For a three-day adventure driving from Sydney, the quickest way into Deua NP is via a blast down the Hume, then via Goulburn on to the Kings Highway to the village of Braidwood. The park’s north-west boundary is around 30 minutes’ drive south of here, via Cooma Road.

Entering the park here means you can spend the first night at Berlang Campground, which has 10 sites, barbecue facilities and toilets positioned alongside Shoalhaven River. From here, one of the park’s famous attractions, the aptly named Big Hole, can be reached via a left turn (sign-posted Berlang/Big Hole) off Cooma Road. Big Hole is a massive, roofless limestone cave measuring more than 50 metres wide and an estimated 95-100 metres deep. The roughly 3.5km (return) bushwalk from Berlang Campground to Big Hole entails a crossing of the Shoalhaven River (there are stepping stones if the water level is low, but you’ll have to wade through if the water level is high).

Marble Arch, a nearby rock formation accessed via a loosely defined track, is different but just as spectacular as the Big Hole, with an open cavern to explore and a slot canyon nearby. Allow four to five hours (return) for these two attractions, before kicking back on your return to camp by enjoying a few coldies around the campfire as you plan the next day’s drive to the Bendethera Valley campground.

The descent into Bendethera Valley

is preceded by an easy drive from Berlang Campground along Snowball Road, with a short detour to check out Wyanbene Caves before turning on to the Minuma Range Fire Trail. This rugged track leads to the Dampier Fire Trail, the steepest track of the day with a mix of tight hairpins, steep, rocky surfaces and incredible views across the ranges.

This descent takes time and caution, before finishing on the doorstep of the grassy Bendethera Valley campground. Originally Bendethera was a cattle property, often used by stockmen to rest cattle after they’d come down the mountains from Cooma and surrounding townships, before they were moved on to the coastal towns.

Incorporated into the national park, Bendethera is now a massive camping area with no actual sites, so you can camp anywhere from close to the Deua River to beneath the trees bordering the cleared valley. It’s a remote campground with limited facilities (a couple of toilets and barbecues/ fire pits are dotted around the valley), so you’ll need to ensure you’re self-sufficient.

It’s less crowded during autumn, spring and winter, and it can be packed on summer weekends and during the Easter break.

For the return to Sydney you can leave Bendethera and travel northwest via the same fire trail you came down, or you can opt to experience more of the park’s famously steep fire trails. By choosing the latter, you’ll climb the Bendethera Fire Trail up to the junction with Mericumbene Fire Trail, before continuing on this undulating route and (eventually) dropping down 700m, joining the Dry Creek Fire Trail along the way. You’ll then tackle the final crossing of the Deua River, before reaching the comparative smoothness of Araluen Road. From here you can opt to wind back up the mountains to Braidwood (via the awesome Araluen pub), or turn east and head to Moruya and the coast. A quicker and easier way to reach Moruya is following the Bendethera Fire Trail up out of the valley, and then turning right at the Mericumbene/ Bendethera junction and joining Little Sugarloaf Road.

If you’ve got the time, head home via the south coast; if pressed for time, the return up Dampier Fire Trail and then back via Braidwood and Goulburn to the Hume is the go. No matter which way you return home, you’ll be travelling with some cracking memories of this iconic 4x4 destination.

CAVING

Bendethera Valley campground isn’t far from Bendethera Cave, an easily accessed family adventure. At 250m long and 320m wide, and full of caverns containing huge limestone rock formations, this is a must for visitors young and old – just remember to bring decent boots, torches and spare batteries.

DEUA NATIONAL PARK

Grade: Moderately challenging Best time to visit: Spring and autumn. Summer can be busy and hot, with high bushfire danger. Winter is bloody cold, but far less crowded.

More info: Berlang (off Cooma Road) and Deua River (off Araluen Road) campgrounds are $6/adult per night; $3.50/night per child.

Bendethera Valley campground is free. Due to the steep nature of many tracks in Deua NP, camper trailers are prohibited from the following routes: Dampier Mountain Fire Trail, Oulla Creek Fire Trail, Minuma Range Fire Trail, Merricumbene Fire Trail, Mongamula Fire Trail and Dry Creek Trail.

For the latest on track access and other park notices, see: www. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-apark/ parks/deua-national-park

OXLEY WILD RIVERS NP

OUR NORTHERNMOST and most distant (allow around 6.5 hours) destination in this group is one of the state’s largest parks, and it lives up to its ‘wild’ title with a mix of high ridgelines, deep gorges, freeflowing rivers, towering waterfalls and an abundance of native fauna and flora.

Add in fishing, bushwalking, photography, swimming and canoeing opportunities and it’s a no-brainer as a destination. The off-roading ain’t bad, either, with steep, technical low-range-only tracks leading to beautiful campgrounds such as Riverside (located right next to the Aspley River) and Youdales Hut (beside the waters of Kunderang Brook). There are a total of nine campgrounds in the park. Or, for those who don’t want to ‘rough it’ too much for their overnight digs, there is the option to stay at a restored historical homestead inside the park.

Oxley Wild Rivers National Park can be accessed at various points running south from Walcha along the Oxley Highway.

Access is a bit tricky, owing to the park being part of the Kunderang Wilderness Area and thus having no real ‘through’ track. The park comprises two separate sections, which means that, if you’re keen on camping at Riverside (and we’d highly recommend that), you have to do a bit of out-and-back driving on what is one of the park’s steepest tracks – Moona Plains Road. This road tracks east from Walcha and takes you past the Budds Mare campground via a gated access road that crosses private property (hence the gate).

Budds Mare is a great campground, but we recommend dropping into low range to tackle the super-steep 700m descent to Riverside campground. It’s so nice there you won’t want to drive back up the hill.

It may seem a bit rich for National Parks to charge a considerable fee for camping at this site, but when you consider that camping numbers are controlled, there’s a river right beside you that offers fishing, swimming and canoeing, and there are plenty of amenities (toilets, tables, gas and barbecue facilities), it’s a small price to pay. Yep, a full day and night here is a must, with the return up the steep access road the perfect farewell to Riverside and an exhilarating start to your second day in this immense park.

If you didn’t check out the amazing Apsley Falls on the way in, definitely take the short detour on your way out along Moona Road, before cutting through from the falls to the Oxley Highway for a quicker way to the park’s southern access point of Kangaroo Flat Road.

The Tia Falls side-trip walk is a must along the way, offering sweeping views across the falls and the numerous deep gorges. From the Kangaroo Flat Road turn-off, follow this northeast for around 20km before it becomes Mooraback Road and diverts briefly into neighbouring Werrikimbe NP, passing the camping area of the same name. The track soon re-enters Oxley Wild Rivers NP, dropping into another steep descent that takes you way down to the historic site of Youdales Hut and Stockyards.

The access track is steep and low-rangeonly, and there’s a creek crossing (do yourself a favour, check for water levels before tackling this track) before you reach the open areas surrounding the hut. The slab-side hut showcases the perseverance of early settlers as they chased their dreams in this rugged mountainous area.

The hut is well-preserved and it’s worth spending a bit of time checking it out, as well as the nearby stockyards.

Youdales Campground (permit and access key is required – you can only camp in the campground, not in the hut) is near the historic site and, nestled beside the bubbling waters of Kunderang Brook, is another brilliant place to doss down for the night. The campground is located between Kunderang and Werrikimbe wilderness

areas, so there’s plenty of wildlife here – keep an eye out for birds, goannas, wallabies and dingoes. The following morning, it’s worth taking a wander on foot (or on bikes) along the Bicentennial National Trail before driving back up and out of the valley.

Accommodation at Oxley Wild Rivers NP isn’t limited to its nine excellent campgrounds; for larger groups of tourers, the fully restored historic East Kunderang Homestead provides a unique doss-down option. It’s accessible from the park’s eastern side via Kempsey – follow the road all the way to Georges Junction on the border of Cunnawarra NP, and then track south to the locked access gate.

The cedar-slab homestead was restored in 1992 and has five bedrooms (a maximum of 14 guests), lounge and dining room, two bathrooms, kitchen, toilets, barbecue facilities, picnic tables and an awesome large verandah. It’s the perfect weekend escape for extended families, but it ain’t cheap. Rates start at $1200 for a three-night weekend, while a four-night stay during the week is the same price.

However, if you can get the numbers and split costs, it makes for damn cool digs.

Plus, the location is sublime. The Macleay River runs right by, so there’s ample opportunity for fishing, swimming and canoeing, and there are a few walking tracks nearby. Of course, nothing would beat sitting on that huge verandah with a coldie watching the sun go down.

Oxley Wild Rivers NP is probably at the limit of a three-day escape from the city, however, when it offers big mountain scenery, 14 waterfalls, great camping, canoeing, fishing and swimming in the wild rivers, and the chance to check out some Aussie pioneering history, we reckon it’s time well spent.

OXLEY WILD RIVERS NP

Grade: Moderately challenging.

Best time of year: All year, but winter can be chilly.

More info: For the latest on track conditions, camping (and vehicle) fees, access keys (Riverside and Youdales campgrounds are gated) and park notices, see: www. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/ visit-a-park/parks/oxley-wildrivers- national-park For the latest on track access and other park notices, see: www.nationalparks.nsw. gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/ deua-national-park

COOLAH TOPS NP

ONE OF NSW’s lesser-known national parks, Coolah Tops, offers a brilliant long weekend escape for families. About five hours’ drive from Sydney via the town of Coolah, the park is relatively small at slightly more than 12,000 hectares, but it packs in a tonne of attractions for visitors including some of the country’s biggest timber (what’s claimed to be the world’s tallest snow gums), massive grass trees, the largest population of Australia’s biggest possum (the greater glider), beautiful waterfalls, and a number of bushwalking and cycling opportunities.

Coolah Tops NP is a semi-oasis of wild Australia, with the rugged plateau smackbang between the Great Dividing and Warrambungle ranges and surrounded by grazing country. The park is reached by taking Vinegaroy Road from Coolah, then left onto Coolah Creek Road before a final right onto State Forest Road, which takes you to the park’s main entrance.

The tracks in the park are all pretty tame, with the only caveat being they can become quite slippery after rain. There are also numerous side-tracks to explore, which branch off the main Forest Road that transects the park.

Talbragar River Road is one we’d highly recommend. This loop track is reached approximately 11km from the park entrance and is roughly 3km in length, taking you through dense, lush forest to a small carpark. From here you can walk to a lookout that offers a great view over Talbragar Falls.

This track is pretty steep and gets slippery after rain, but it’s a cracking short drive in good conditions. Other waterfalls found inside the park include Rocky Falls, Bald Hill Creek Falls (both of which drop high over the edge of the park’s northern plateau) and Norfolk Falls – the park’s most well-known and one that, with a bit of balance and nerve, you can access at its bottom pool.

A definite highlight of the park is its population of snow gums, with a Snow Gum Loop walk in the eastern section of the park taking visitors through a large population of eucalypts. Owing to the fact the park is subalpine, the snow gums thrive here and reach heights unknown to anywhere else in the state.

The theory is that the park is high enough for the snow gums to grow, but not too high – thus not too exposed to the harsh alpine conditions – to impede their growth. Rather than the stunted, twisted examples synonymous with Australia’s alpine regions, the snow gums here are straight and very tall.

Shepherds Peak Trail, a few kilometres further east from the Snow Gum Loop walk, leads to a lofty viewpoint offering more expansive views back over the Liverpool Ranges east toward the town of Merriwa.

For keen bushwalkers and mountain bikers, there are some great tracks to choose from including Racecourse and Grasstrees Trails (the grass trees are estimated to be more than 400 years old) for walkers, and Mullion and Bundella trails for cyclists. They’re a fantastic way to explore more of the park before heading back to camp, and none of them are particularly arduous, making them ideal for all ages and abilities.

Coolah Tops NP has three campgrounds and one rather unique ‘other’ accommodation option: Brackens Hut.

The three campgrounds – Coxs Creek, The Barracks and The Pines – are free.

Coxs Creek and The Barracks are both located off Pinnacles Road, while The Pines campground is next to Forest Road and is the largest in the park. For those

keen on reliving a bit of history, there’s the option of staying at the restored Brackens Hut, 2km further along Forest Road. The hut is very basic and you need to bring all bedding including mattresses, as well as cooking facilities.

Pinnacle, the main lookout, is accessed via the road of the same name (again, off Forest Road) and is a 5km drive, walk or bike ride from The Barracks campground.

Once you reach the Pinnacle carpark, it’s another 500m walk along a flat track right out to the edge of the plateau. The views here are awesome and, on a clear day, you’ll easily see the rugged ramparts of the Warrumbungles to the northwest.

If you’re a keen birdwatcher, this is the place where you may spot a wedge-tailed eagle searching for its next meal.

Barring the annual Jazz at the Tops music festival in March, Coolah Tops NP is relatively unknown and quiet. However, it packs in plenty for the touring family looking for a place that will keep the entire family well occupied with heaps of activities and points of interest to check out. Do yourself a favour on the way home and allow enough time to stop in for a coldie and lunch at one of Coolah’s awesome pubs – you won’t regret it.

NORFOLK FALLS

THIS writer lived at Coolah as a child for six years and can still remember hanging on for what seemed like grim death to his father’s hand as we slid down the steep slopes surrounding the rock pool to reach the bottom, just so this then-seven-year-old could “have a look for frogs”.

COOLAH TOPS NP

Grade: Easy-moderate Best time of year: All year, although winter is very chilly (temps can reach -10°C).

More info: For the latest on track conditions and park notices, see: www. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visita- park/parks/coolah-topsnational- park

ABERCROMBIE RIVER NP

Best time of year: Spring and autumn. Summer can be very hot and winter very cold.

More info: All campgrounds in the national park are free.

For the latest on park notices and track conditions, including which tracks don’t allow camper trailers, see: www. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visita- park/parks/abercrombieriver- national-park

ABERCROMBIE RIVER NP

THIS relatively new national park in the NSW central tablelands was gazetted in 1995 and features some of the steepest 4x4 tracks in the state, three rivers (keep an eye out for platypus), a mix of mountain gum forests and more open timber, gold rush relics, and fantastic camping options.

The park is about 40km southwest of Oberon, itself around 2.5 hours from Sydney, and the steep tracks and more remote (and scenic) attractions are only accessible via 4x4 vehicles with low-range gearing. The park’s renowned steep tracks can be a bit confronting for some, so if you’re keen to ease your way into it then the western access point on Arkstone Road gives access to the lower sections of the park. If you want to get straight into it, the eastern entry via Felled Timber Road is the go.

We’d opt for the easier loop, which starts low in altitude and, over the course of two days, finishes at the highest point of the park at more than 1000 metres.

Not only does it give you a chance to ease into it, but you get to spend the first night at what we reckon is the park’s best campsite: The Beach. Yep, as the name suggests, you can camp right near the Abercrombie River on a cleared sandy section that’s reached after a steep descent from the Abercrombie Fire Trail.

There are five unmarked sites at the nice, compact campground, and it provides a perfect introduction to the park’s attractions. The campground is basic with drop toilets and fire rings, and you must bring your own water or boil any taken from the river.

However, it’s also comfortable and shady, with plenty to keep you occupied. The water below the campground is usually shallow, but if you walk upstream for 10 minutes you’ll find a deeper waterhole for swimming or fishing, with trout found in this waterway. Exploring the waterway for elusive specks of gold is another way to keep the young’uns busy.

The next day is a big one in regards to the mountainous landscape and the steep tracks you’ll traverse as you loop around the park’s southern border and then start driving north. Rejoining Abercrombie Fire Trail, your first stop is Silent Creek Campground. With eight sites and with its larger expanse of grassy flat areas and plenty of shade-giving trees, it’s the better

option for those travelling in a multivehicle group. It’s also ideal for tourers with camper trailers.

Silent Creek Campground is the perfect place to be based for the two days in the park. Leave the trailer behind to explore some of the steeper sections of the park and, after a big day out and about, the only thing you have to worry about when you return to your already-set-up camp that evening is whether to have a beer first or start cooking dinner. Tough choices, we know.

From Silent Creek, follow Silent Creek Fire Trail. This track is steep, however, and don’t get too distracted by the blue views as your 4x4 aims skyward; if you’re lucky, you may spot some of the park’s resident emus who often use the fire trails to get around the park.

Another reason to keep an eye out is so you don’t miss a great side-trip that follows Middle Fire Trail and then Licking Hole Fire Trail. The oddly named Licking Hole is a flat creek area that contains an old goldminer’s hut and other mining detritus, so it offers a great excuse to get the family out of the 4x4 for a bit of exploring on foot (or for a nice lunch stop). From this site you can continue north and rejoin Silent Creek Fire Trail, before arriving at the junction of this fire trail and the park’s eastern access point on Felled Timber Road.

If you’re up for more of a challenge, backtrack to Middle Fire Trail and then loop northeast to Bald Hill Trail on your right. From here, drive south to the Little Bald Hill Trail turnoff. This fire trail is one of the steepest in the park and, combined with the open mountain gum forests up high, allows for some amazing views over the surrounding landscape, as well as providing access to Little Bald Hill.

It’s high in these sections of the park where you get a true picture of how rugged this country is and gain a new appreciation of the fortune-focused prospectors who lived and dug for the precious yellow metal here.

Continuing north on Little Bald Hill Fire Trail, turn northwest Bald Hill Fire Trail, turn northwest (left) onto another steep track – Brass Walls Fire Trail – and follow this north as it winds in and out of the national park before joining Felled Timber Road near the park’s eastern entrance.

With its mix of pretty riverside campgrounds, incredibly steep tracks, remote location and the fact it’s close to Sydney (and Oberon, a major centre), Abercrombie NP is a near-perfect twoday getaway from the bright lights of the NSW capital. Add in the gold-rush history and the chance to spot some of the less common Aussie fauna, such as emus and platypus, and it’s easy to see why this national park is on the bucket list of many NSW off-roaders.

CHECK TRACKS

Camper trailers aren’t allowed on some of the park’s steeper tracks, including the Bald Hill sections. Your best bet is to check in advance before arriving with your hitched camper trailer.

BARRINGTON TOPS NP AND SURROUNDS

VISITORS to Barrington Tops National Park and neighbouring Chichester State Forest will be spoilt for choice with what is on offer here for the off-road tourer.

Fantastic camping (including some of Australia’s highest-altitude campgrounds), bushwalks, mountain biking, fishing, some of the country’s most spectacular rainforest (including Antarctic beech trees), and vistas from myriad lookouts all mean a long weekend will barely do it justice.

Around four hours’ drive north of Sydney, these destinations are best accessed from the south via the township of Dungog. Chichester State Forest’s eastern (Telegherry) section (it is split by a southern section of Barrington Tops NP) is only around 20km north from Dungog (via Chichester Dam Road, then Wangat Road) and offers four riverside campgrounds.

Be aware that there are numerous causeways in both the Telegherry and western Allyn River sections that can be impassable after heavy rain, so check track conditions before your visit. Each of the campgrounds in the Telegherry section offer direct access to the river of the same name, so bring your canoe and swimmers.

Frying Pan Creek and Coachwood campgrounds are close together and reasonably spacious, so they’re great for larger groups, and Coachwood is right next to the start of a short walk to the Problem Creek Falls. For those wishing to escape the crowds we’d recommend Currawong Camping Area, a remote, 4x4-only campground just north of Telegherry campground accessed via a river crossing that needs to be negotiated.

Once here, you’ll find brilliant swimming and canoeing in the Telegherry River.

The state forest’s western Allyn River is a 40km drive north from the small village of Gresford, 28km west of Dungog, and you’ll need to follow the Allyn River Road to reach the state forest’s southern gateway. Three largish campgrounds are located just inside the state forest – Dobbie Rim, Pademelon and Old Camp – all of which offer spacious sites that are ideal for off-road camper trailers and caravans.

Just north of Old Camp is Ladies Well, a beautiful swimming hole on the Allyn River that’s perfect for families. Continue farther north into the state forest to reach Allyn River Forest Rest Area, a day-use area with direct access to the Allyn River for swimming and canoeing. Farther north along Allyn River Forest Road you’ll find the northernmost campground of White Rock, which also offers direct river access.

It would be easy to spend a few days in Chichester State Forest, but we’d recommend venturing to the lofty mountains above it that comprise Barrington Tops National Park. The World

TWO-WHEELIN’

Base yourself at Junction Pools and set off on a half-day bike adventure retracing the Barrington Trail. The kids can keep an eye out for animals and birdlife along the way.

Heritage-listed national park is best accessed via the town of Gloucester.

There are campgrounds aplenty throughout the park, but the 4x4-only campgrounds are recommended to avoid the crowds.

The Barrington Trail is a seasonal 4x4 track (October-May) that runs south along the plateau from the Barrington Trail picnic area off Forest Road. This 15km route provides access to Little Murray and Junction Pools campgrounds, as well as Mt Barrington Picnic area and two of the park’s bushwalk tracks: Aeroplane Hill and Careys Peak. Little Murray Campground is the launch point for the walk to access Careys Peak Lookout’s epic views, while Junction Pools offers great swimming and trout fishing in the nearby mountain streams. The campground also provides access to the 12km-return Aeroplane Hill Track which passes by Careys Peak Lookout, or you can just sit in camp and watch the local wildlife forage in the sub-alpine grasslands that define this beautiful part of the park.

The bushwalking in Barrington Tops NP is comprehensive and ranges from short walks to lookouts that take in the views of this World Heritage-listed area, through to day walks such as the excellent Gloucester Tops circuit. This half-day walk takes in three separate sights – Gloucester Falls, the River Walking Track, and the Antarctic Beech Forest walking track – that combine to showcase the variety of landscape in the park. All of these walks can be done separately if you have little ones in tow, while overnight routes and multi-day epics that traverse the entire mountain range and then drop down to the lowlands are available for serious walkers.

WATERED DOWN

Fishing for trout and native species is very popular, and canoeing is widely accepted in the national park and surrounds. The Gloucester River Camping Area, on the park’s eastern border, is ideal for canoeing with its direct river access right outside your tent.

BARRINGTON TOPS AND SURROUNDS S

Best time of year: June 1 to September 30.

More info: The majority of the national park’s 4x4 tracks are closed from June 1 to October 1. The same applies for Chichester State Forest. For the latest track conditions and closures, as well as campground fees and park notices, see: www.nationalparks. nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/ barrington-tops-national-park and www.forestrycorporation.com.au/visit/ forests/chichester-telegherry