Heading north of Sydney…

The Old Coach Road –  Wiseman’s Ferry, St Albans, Bucketty, Wollombi, Paynes Crossing & Broke…

The countdown to heading off couldn’t come soon enough for us.

We had spent 10 glorious days at the Northern Beaches in Sydney with our beautiful family and extended family, welcomed our gorgeous little grandson into the world and it was now time to farewell everyone and hit the road again so leaving Mona Vale we detoured to Dee Why to say farewell to our son, daughter in law and grandchildren.

For those that don’t know; Mona Vale is a suburb in northern Sydney. It is 28 kilometres north of the Sydney central business district and part of the Northern Beaches region as is Dee Why and they both have beautiful beaches and park areas.

We were so excited to be heading to Cape York  but to get there we first had to travel the east coast over familiar territory we had already travelled on our journey home last trip.

It would have been easy to put the brain on auto pilot and travel north along the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway, but for this trip we decided to tackle our first dirt road on the longer, slower and far more interesting track that follows part of the pathway of the pioneer settlers through the Hawkesbury and Macdonald River Valleys to Bucketty, then on to Wollombi and Payne’s Crossing to Broke in the Hunter Valley.

The Great North Road is a 240 kilometre convict built masterpiece constructed between 1826 and 1836 to provide an overland route from Sydney to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. Much of the original convict built road remains in use today, although a lot of the original surface is well buried beneath bitumen.  Convict built remains, such as stone retaining walls, pick dressed cuttings, culverts, bridges and stone cut drains, can be seen when driving along the road, or when walking in Dharug and Yengo National Parks.

Today we were heading to Wiseman’s Ferry where we would cross the Hawkesbury by ferry then follow the Old Northern Road. Leaving Dee Why we followed Mona Vale Road to Pymble where we turned off onto the North Turramurra link road to St Ives then following the very windy Galston Road we headed through  Marramarra National Park. This park has to be one of the Hawkesbury’s best-kept secrets with canoeing, kayaking, swimming, cycling, bushwalking, birdwatching and apparently a great campground on Marramarra Creek near Hornsby.

It reminded us a bit of  St Mary’s Pass back home only it had some very tight hairpin bends that you wouldn’t want to meet another car on.  There were no trucks or buses allowed on this road and I could understand why… although we did meet a smaller truck making its way up and wondered how it would negotiate the bends we had had so much trouble getting around. The Great Northern Walk passes through this National Park also.

Exiting the windy road we stopped at Hornsby  to grab a bite to eat before continuing our journey along the Old Northern Road through Glenorie, with its orchards, market gardens and roadside stalls,  Forest Glen, Maroota to Wisemans Ferry.

Wiseman’s Ferry is a teeny, tiny village perched on the banks of the mighty Hawkesbury River and surrounded by national park. The settlement gets it’s name from one Solomon Wiseman, an ex-convict who, in 1827, organised the first river crossing by ferry, and his service still runs today… and no visit to Wiseman’s Ferry counts without a visit to Wisemans Inn. Built in 1827, this sandstone retreat was once Solomon Wiseman’s stately home.

Dharug National Park is located on the north of the Hawkesbury River opposite Wisemans Ferry, adjacent to Yengo National Park and contains a substantial section of the historic Old Great North Road Convict Trail, the original convict road connecting Sydney and Newcastle.

Wisemans Ferry is only a short 5 kilometres from the centre of Sydney but to visit there you would think it was kilometres from anywhere. Here a ferry crosses the Hawkesbury River connecting the old Great North Road. This  free ferry crossing is the oldest ferry crossing still in operation in Australia and until the opening of the Peats Ferry Bridge across the Hawkesbury River at Brooklyn, Wisemans Ferry was one of the main road routes north out of Sydney.

The crossing is 366 metres in length and takes approximately 4 minutes and operates on demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and there is a second ferry available, which is used when it is very busy, particularly weekends and when the other ferry is being serviced.

When the pioneer Europeans settlers forged their way north from the town of Sydney in the early 19th century, they followed the Hawkesbury River to a sweeping bend on the Hawkesbury River where in 1817, Solomon Wiseman had settled and established a punt ferry across the river. From there they climbed Devines Hill and continued north to Newcastle. Stone culverts and buttresses built by convicts in the 1830s along this historic pathway have long been abandoned by the majority of northbound travellers, but they remain to delight those who take this less travelled road.

Exiting the ferry on the other side of the Hawkesbury we made our way to the historic village of St Albans. St Albans was established in the 1820s at the highest point up the Macdonald Valley that could be reached by shallow drafted boats (hence Wharf Road) but its days as a port ended in the 1860s when sandbars were deposited by floods. The old St. Albans cemetery, battered by two centuries of flooding, contains the graves of six First Fleeters and the Settlers Arms Inn, first licensed in 1836, is a must stop for a look or a drink or lunch.

Following the Settlers Road we followed the Macdonald River through what the locals call Forgotten Valley passing  two old slab cottages that are of a style common in the Hawkesbury Valley in the early 1800s.

Continuing on we came to St Albans Common (an area subject to closure after rain), then after passing this waterbird haven, which was a expanse of river, lake and valleys the scenery began to change as we climbed through tall blue gums forests,  past Perrys Crossing and Mogo Creek, though the scenic Macdonald Valley then the very pretty Yengo National Park evenutally winding our way towards the historic village of Bucketty.

The road was a bit bumpy in parts and with daylight hours waning and the blinding sun now low in the sky  we were on constant lookout for kangaroos (and apparently koalas) making it a rather dubious trip, although a very beautiful trip . Luckily we only passed one motorbike heading in the other direction along this 56 kilometre stretch of dirt road.

Bucketty is made up of a series of small acreages, mostly in a bushland setting where a few houses could be seen from the road and the only indication there were more hidden from view was the quaint rows of letterboxes that lined the verge as we travelled along.

From Bucketty our route took us north along the Great North Road with more examples of convict work along the way between Bucketty and Laguna.

Yallambie was a little further north from Bucketty on our map although it didn’t really exist… except on the map! Some of these towns are so small you blink and drive right past them. However,  there was a turnoff to  Watagans National Park and to Cooranbong.

The next real settlement along the road was Laguna (which incidently wasn’t even on our map), and because it was a little way off the road we wizzed right past it… apparently there is a good cafe here if you feel like a rest break… but don’t miss the turnoff like we did!

Still on the original Great North Road we followed the meandering Wollombi Brook north to the charming little historic village of Wollombi with its tavern, general store and ‘antique shop’ and free camp.  The village of Wollombi was built where the Great North Road split with one branch going north and the other east.

Wollombi is an Aboriginal word for ‘meeting place’. The north and south arms of Wollombi Brook converge here. There area has a rich Aboriginal history, and was the meeting place for several tribes.

Wollombi Valley was first settled by Europeans shortly before the Great North Road was built. Four men, Andrew Murray, John Blaxland, Richard Wiseman and James Milson all found ways to drive cattle up to this area during a drought in the early 1820s and they established properties up the valleys branching from the brook –  Wollombi Brook, Murrays Run, Milsons Arm and Blaxlands Arm that are all local names that are still in use today.

As it was getting rather late in the day we really needed to set up camp somewhere and  it had well and truely gone over our 4 o’clock deadline so we pulled in at Wollombi Tavern and made our way to the free camp ground. This was a beautiful grassed campground with toilets available 24/7 but it was packed with a caravan group when we arrived and feeling a bit out of place in our rooftop tent we decided to move on to Broke.
 We had camped at MacNamara Campground at Broke on our way to Sydney so we knew exactly where we were going a as we travelled on we followed the very pretty Wollombi Brook that meandered through attractive fertile valleys, framed by steepsided wooded hills. We were in farming and  ‘bed and breakfast’ country now and after passing through Paynes Crossing it wasn’t long before the Hunter Valley vineyards begin to dominate the valley landscape… we were back in wine country too!
Some early buildings remained along this road including the house built in the 1840s by former convict Edward Payne at Paynes Crossing and I have to say the historic buildings and little hamlets around Wollombi and Broke were well worth a look especially along Milbrodale Road which leads 14 kilometres deep down into the valleys west of Wollombi Road, east of the Putty Road. The scenery is incredible there with lots of little log huts that seem to have been forgotten by time!

Watching the sun go down when you are camping is one of the simple pleasures in life however as we drove along and the sun dipped we knew we wouldn’t arrive at our next camp before dark and continuing on we finally arrived at Broke. It had been a long day when we were greeted by the metal town sign announcing we had arrived at our destination… so we found an empty site.

Struggling to see what each other was doing we finally found our head lights and set about setting up camp and soon the darkness was brought to life with bright lights that lit up our campsite… and we settled in for the night!

A word of advice… avoid arriving at camp after dark! And while this is one of our golden rules it is tough to do sometimes  and always try to stay away from crowded campsites too… and this is not always possible either!IMG_1514
There was a time when we camped in the middle of nowhere on one of our previous trips where we locked ourselves in the car because I was sure there was a murderer outside… and I was too scared to go out and pee.
Well it was another night like that although I didn’t feel like there was a murderer outside, just a very noisy group of campers…so it was a VERY long night.

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