Alexanders Hut came as a complete surprise.
We had been touring the hills and ranges of southern NSW and had been wandering through the rather disjointed South East Forests National Park where, by more sheer luck than any sort of planning, we stumbled on the old building set in amongst some naturally cleared country on the highest ridges of this part of Great Dividing Range.
A hut had first been built here on these high plains, inland from Tathra on the south coast of NSW, in the 1890s by cattlemen bringing their stock up during the summer for the rich verdant grazing. In 1922 Alexander Robinson took over the grazing lease and continued the tradition of summer grazing and built the slab hut from local timber, hessian and corrugated iron.
Bringing cattle to these leases though and living here was no walk in the park and the easy way we get here today and stay has little to do with the tough life these pioneers had to endure not so long ago. In the tough times, especially during the depression and WW2, rabbits helped sustain the family with, not only as food but also as cash flow brought on by selling the skins, used in the manufacture of the famous Diggers' slouch hat.
Today, the hut, now included in the national park, is surrounded by natural grasslands where roos and wombats are common, while eagles and other birds of prey glide on the thermals overhead. Near the hut is a small camping area and while extremely pleasant in good weather, it can be a bit exposed when the weather turns foul.
Our travels had started a few days earlier when a good friend of mine took us into the little known Pambula Goldfields, just a few kilometres south-west of the coastal holiday town of Pambula. I had no inkling of these south coast gold discoveries until my friend had enlightened us and taken us into them some years back. With any knowledge forgotten on how to get there, I touched base with Ron (can't forget that name) and asked him again to guide us into the old mines.
The area around Pambula had first been settled by Europeans in the 1830s when the Imlay brothers grazed cattle on the river flats, with the town being established in about 1843. By 1856 there were five licensed hotels in the town catering for the thirst of farmers, graziers, loggers, bullock drivers and fisherman.
In 1888 gold was discovered and the resultant flurry of activity created a boom in the town with shafts such as the Victory mine, Top Victory and the Morning Star producing gold that was reported at times to crush at 40 ounces to the ton – a truly incredible amount!
The deepest mine in the area soon reached to a depth of over 300 metres and within months of the discovery there were a number of crushing mills in the vicinity of the workings. Interestingly, only a little alluvial gold was ever won by individual miners working along the nearby creeks, while today, fossickers with metal detectors are having better luck for their trouble. Most of the old gold mine shafts are fenced and all of the old mill sites have fallen into disrepair with most of their equipment plundered or having rusted away.
Still, with a little effort and some local knowledge, you can find a number of ruins dating from those days, including mill sites with what remains of a five-head stamper, a huge flywheel from a steam engine, assorted machinery, dams still holding water, and ovens used in the production of bricks for the many buildings that once graced the field.
From there we headed inland along forestry roads into a section of the South East Forest NP and to the crest of Wolumla Peak. At 776 metres, the peak with its tangle of radio and repeater towers nearby is the highest point for some distance around and offers great views of the surrounding forest and coast.
SWOOPING FROM THE SKY
Descending from our eagle-like eyrie we took the rough and rugged Wolumla Peak Firetrail west off the peak, passing through verdant forest often dripping with ferns and other moisture loving plants. Hitting a major bitumen road we pushed west to wind through the Coolangubra section of the SE Forest NP and over some spectacular peaks along the lesser used and part gravel thoroughfare of Big Jack Mountain Road. From there we got onto a bush route taking the Tantawangalo Mountain Road into the Tantawangalo section of the same sprawling national park.
Once again we had heard vaguely of some camping spots in the northern section of the park but could find little on the parks website, although the Hema map on my iPad at least had them marked. Parks though had closed off a few of the tracks in the immediate vicinity, so our route took us through a variety of different landscapes varying from grassy woodlands, dry forests, tall wet forests and natural grasslands to clear marshy areas around the Nunnock Swamp.
The Nunnock camping area is located on the edge of a grassy clearing and once again it seemed to be rarely used. We picked a spot away from the overhanging branches of the big gum trees that overlooked the camp and settled in for the night. Grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies grazed the grasslands and nearby scrub while later that evening a rarer and little seen greater glider was spotted checking us out from high above our campfire.
A SURPRISE NO MORE
Next day we found Alexanders Hut and, vowing to return and camp there one day in the not too distant future. Afterwards we headed south to the small hamlet of Cathcart to find yet another old historic building I had been searching for.
The building had alluded my searching for hours on the web even though that is where I had first heard about it from a traveller's blog and, while there was a photo, there was no indication of where it was apart from 'southern NSW'. I rang some 4WD mates who lived in the region and knew the area pretty well but all had the same reply: "Never heard of it!" Then I rang the national parks offices til’ I got to the Bombala branch where I was shuffled around for a time before some older guy said he thought the hut was on forestry land and I should ring them. When I did I was put through to the head forester, and bingo, we had the info we needed. The forester explained where it was located, just a few kilometres south of Cathcart, inland from Merimbula on the south coast of NSW.
It was more than just a hut though. Built in 1860 in the USA the building had been prefabricated and then shipped to Australia where it was erected in 1861 on what was then the main coach route from the coastal towns of Eden, Tathra and Merimbula to the once booming but short-lived Kiandra goldfields. In 1860 the high country goldfields had over 10,000 hopeful diggers searching for their fortune and while some lucky ones hit incredible riches, most struggled to survive, especially when the snow and cold descended in winter.
The Woolingubrah Inn, as it was called, takes its names from the Aboriginal word for 'windy place', which is more than appropriate as the inn was located on a exposed ridge of the Big Jack Range, much of which is now included in the Coolangubra State Forest. It is probably the only building of its type still standing in Australia and was restored by NSW Forestry nearly 20 years ago. Consisting of a bar, dining room, kitchen and six bedrooms, we sadly couldn't get into the building as it was locked up – next time I'll ask for a key!
From there we poked our way south through pine tree plantations and then through more natural forest towards Pheasants Peak. Here the Wog Wog Trail, as marked on all the maps but now renamed by Parks as Pheasant Peak Trail, began. And what a trail it is, showing very little use by the amount of timber down and the lack of wheel marks. It was one of the things that continually surprised us with these trails in southern NSW, as we are more used to the well-populated tracks in the Victorian High Country; it came as both a surprise and a delight. A hint here: take a saw or an axe!
This route climbs up on a narrow trail before dodging around and between great castles of boulders that dominate each and every crest til’ finally you get to the sheer rock maze and ramparts of the Pheasant Peak itself. We spent an hour exploring here, some of the more agile in our party making it to the very pinnacle of the rock towers while the rest of us were content to explore the crevices and mini-canyons lower down in the labyrinth.
That evening, after following Wog Way and Wallaby Road we camped beside the Wallagaraugh River at Newtons Crossing close to the junction of tannin-stained Imlay Creek. It's not a bad camp but level ground can be an issue.
A PASSION FOR LIGHTHOUSES
For a change from our forestry rambles we headed for the coast at Green Cape. Most long-term readers of the mag would know I'm a bit of a tragic when it comes to lighthouses and the Green Cape light is grist for the mill. It's set in a dramatic setting surrounded by magical country, while playing testimony to our nations history. Along with that, its a pretty spectacular building, having been built in the early 1880's and in its day was the largest concrete structure in Australia.
Just back a little from the lighthouse you'll find the start of the 'Light to Light' walking trail which can take you 30km to Boyds Tower, but we opted for just the short stroll to the cemetery to the 71 victims of the Ly-ee-Moon tragedy. Wrecked in 1886 this ship was one of many that came to grief along this stretch of nearby coast, the last in 1994 when a fishing vessel was wrecked with the loss of two lives.
That evening we set-up camp at Bittangabee Bay, a spot I hadn't visited for over 30 years. It was as stunning as ever, while the camping area was a little more formal and a lot bigger. Luckily there were only a few other campers in residence and we enjoyed the late afternoon in the protected bay with roos everywhere and that evening around the campfire with possums and bandicoots paying us a visit.
Next day we drove north on roads, that were, at their worst, extremely dusty to Boyds Tower, which stands on Red Point and has a fine view of the surrounding coast. In the 1840s Ben Boyd arrived at Twofold Bay (named by George Bass in 1797) and established his empire of wool, timber and whaling. Building a town called Boydtown in 1846 he built the tower that still bears his name. From here his whaling teams looked for whales which they hunted and processed nearby. By the late 1840s Boyd was broke and he’d done a runner to the USA, leaving behind a legacy that is still remembered and highlighted today.
Later, during the Davidson era of whaling at the beginning of the 20th Century, his men manned the tower and competed with other whaling crews for the rich bounty that continued to swim past. Later, with a pod of killer whales assisting them, the Davidson crews became the only whaling team still operating from the bay. When the leader of the killers, Old Tom, died in the 1930s, the whaling era here came to an end and the last shore-based whaling station in the whole country closed. The story of the unique partnership between men and killer whales is graphically told in the book Killers of Eden, while the Eden museum is one of the best local museums in the country. It displays the skeleton of Old Tom and offers a fine exhibition on whaling and the history of the town and area.
Our last night on the south coast of NSW was spent in Eden but my thoughts continually went back to the delights we had discovered in the verdant hinterland. Will we be back? You better believe it!