Roughly 90 minutes north of Sydney in a fertile narrow valley, this historical town holds many secrets. Bordered by the World Heritage-listed Yengo National Park, Wollombi is both tourist attraction and indigenous sacred ground. Colonial buildings still line the main street. Rock paintings and tribal art still fill the surrounding hills. The creeks are smaller and drier these days, but the name 'meeting place' is still accurate.
Conveniently located about 15 minutes drive south of Cessnock, the town caters well for tourists. I take a little wander down the short main street and easily fill a couple of hours. There are a couple of coffee shops to choose from, offering light meals, teas, and ice-creams, and a well-supplied gift shop bursting with homewares, candles, quirky furniture, clothing, and organic skincare.
After a good browse and a healthy dose of coffee and cake, I'm drawn to the attractive wooden building of the Wollombi Cultural Centre. The Wollombi Valley Arts Council unveiled the new centre early in 2016. Indigenous artworks fill the walls. Beautifully crafted wooden pieces, painted stones, and jewellery made from natural resources are available for sale.
Choosing a necklace and bracelet for myself, I'm served by Phil and Georgie, two of the many artists whose work is on display here. They explain how their art tells the stories of old. Without a written language, the visual record of laws and stories is vital to the indigenous culture. "Rock-art and artefacts is not just about the skill of artwork, but about record-keeping and learning", says Georgie. "Every property in the surrounding hills would contain rock paintings that re-tell and remember events of the past", agrees Phil. "Without them, without a written language, my ancestors' stories would be forgotten", he says. Aunty Clare, Georgie's mother is also one of the most prolific artists in residence. "Everyone calls her Aunty, it's a term of respect, it means 'senior knowledge-holder", says Georgie, "and that's something that we still practise and hold on to in our culture", she says. The nearby sacred Mt Yenga was once the epicentre of indigenous ceremonies and still draws relatives and descendants to the area today to pay respect to its history.
The establishment of the town in the mid-1800's was directly connected to the building of the Great Northern Road, opening up an inland route to north-western N.S.W. Details of the convict-built road is sign-posted around the township. Nine chain-gangs, about 700 convicts, completed the construction of the road between 1826 and 1831.
Down on the main intersection, I pop into Wollombi Tavern for a cool drink. It's a well-known 'watering-hole', and possibly most famous for Dr. Jurd's Jungle juice, an alcoholic beverage developed around 1967. Rumours say the then-owner Mel Jurd tipped all the leftovers from the night before into a single container and resold it to keep his costs down. The concoction was sold and trade-marked 'jungle juice'. On this sunny Sunday afternoon looking out over the green banks of the nearby creek, I'll settle for a lemon squash thanks.
Sipping my icy drink I can hear bell-birds in the distance. I browse some tourist brochures and tick off some things to put in the diary; 'Kurri Kurri Nostalgia Festival' in March, 'A Little Bit of Italy in Broke' in April, the 'Wollombi Wild Ride' in September, and the 'Wollombi Small Farms Fair' in November celebrating what makes Wollombi unique, including a farmer's market and lantern parade. For now, I'll finish my historic walk over at the Endeavour Museum, which has an Open Day on the last Sunday in August as part of the Wollombi Country Fair. It's been a wonderful day wandering around Wollombi.