Just over the hill heading west from Sydney is the little hamlet of Hartley. Once the judicial centre for the region, only a few sandstone buildings remain. The courthouse, church and a cottage. They are a reminder of our colonial times and the work convicts did in the penal colony. Beside the old service station, a walking track leads to River Lett where water flows over the rocks and a chorus of frogs sing from the undergrowth.
A little further is a road turning to the left that leads to Jenolan Caves and Oberon. The road winds around hillsides and climbs onto the ridgeline, where you find solace in the sound of your engine and warm summer air blowing through the driver's window.
The area west of the Great Dividing Range has been settled for over 150 years with little hamlets dotted along highways and farmhouses in fields. People lived, worked the land and survived with far less luxuries than we have today. The social scene would often revolve around the local hall or church such as the one in Lowther.
People would make the effort to get together to exchange stories of their week, what the weather is doing, how their crops are going, what's the price of hay etc. They appeared to have had more regard for each other than we have today. Scattered along these roads and localities can be found old churches, halls and memorials to the fallen of the first and second world wars. Some have inscriptions of more recent conflicts.
Some memorials are still maintained, others are left as a reminder of a bygone age and the young men that left their farms and family have been forgotten. It may sound morbid, however, it is worth stopping at these memorials, halls and churches to have a look around and get a feel of the history of the area. It gives an indication of the age of the settlement and the population by looking at dates of death and also the rate of decline of the area, again by the dates and how few are inscribed in the later years. The architecture also gives a picture of how prosperous the area has been in its' heyday. Some built-in stone, others built from wrought iron.
Leaves and twigs are thrown in front of me as a cross wind buffers my car on the ridge road and cattle trucks pass with forlorn eyes staring through gaps in the trailers rails as the cattle are transported to the sale yards. It's a hot day and a storm is beginning to brew in the west. Wispy clouds will later give way to dark clouds and with it, cooling rain. With a bit of luck, I might get some reasonable photos of the storm front.
The landscape changes as I follow the dotted lines, from grass fields to pine forests as I near closer to Hampton. In the hamlet, the service station street light remains with its logo of a long-forgotten petrol company. Abandoned, the bowsers remain surrounded by furniture and other odds and ends. It's a reminder that these were once welcome stops for travellers on their way to Jenolan caves or the fossicking fields surrounding Oberon.
On the outskirts of town two wind turbines spin in the breeze. I've never been close to one of these before, they emit a soft low pitched hum as they spin, you can hear it when close to it but not from far away. They also look far better than giant chimneys billowing acrid smoke.
Heading closer to Oberon, road signs caution to be vigilant for logging trucks. These trucks fly past hauling huge piles of pine trunks from the forest to the mill. It's amazing how much turbulence is created when they pass you and you need to keep on your toes. As the sky begins to grey, Oberon comes into view. A small town with a wide main street crowded with cars, a few pubs and coffee shops.
The town has a "Twin Peaks" feel to it – In the mountains, pine trees, timber mill, snow in the winter, great coffee and doughnuts in the café. Just fortunate that they don't have bodies wrapped in plastic in the lake. More known for timbre and trout fishing, those with rocks in their heads can also explore Oberon for gold, sapphires, zircons and smokey quartz.
Heading south through Black Springs, I take a quick respite from the bitumen and head into the pine forest. Gravel roads wide enough for trucks, tracks wide enough for cars and narrower trails run throughout these forests. You could spend a whole day exploring these roads. In the autumn, pine mushrooms flourish on the forest floor and are worth foraging for to bbq with lamb chops over a fire…… if you happen to travel with cooking gear. Back on the bitumen and cruising through Gurnag, bands of rain fall on the horizon. Stopping beside a lollypop lady at roadworks near the Paling Yards bends, a few droplets fall, followed by a wall of rain that passes over us quenching the parched earth and leaving rivers of water flowing along the gravel towards the Abercrombie River at the bottom of the bends.
The original plan was to return via Wombeyan Caves Road, however, the eastern sky is black from the storm, so plan B is taken and takes me through Taralga and into Goulbourn. With a few hours of daylight still left, Bungonia to the northeast beckons a visit. Renowned by adrenaline junkies for caves, bushwalks and climbing and canyons, the roads are in good condition and National Parks have done an excellent job of setting out lookouts and BBQ areas to pull over for a break. From the "Lookdown", one of the lookouts, you can see the contrast of wilderness against industry. Wilderness stretches to the horizon to the south and east. To the north, a mountainside is scarred with an open cut limestone mine. It's well worth the drive here just to go for a walk around.
Just pass Hungry Jacks at Marulan is The Highland Way that ambles through Wingello, Penrose, Bundanoon, Exeter, Sutton Forest, Moss Vale and into Berrima then Mittagong. The Highland Way is a fantastic days' drive just on its own during cooler months and shorter days with plenty of places to stop for a coffee and pie in the picturesque towns. As time goes by, the old gravel roads of our youth are being upgraded to bitumen which isn't such a bad thing. It only means the roads can be enjoyed by a greater variety of travelers. It also enables you to venture further afield to search out and explore other roads that aren't on big maps.
During the summer months, this is a reasonable day's ride, during the cooler months; it would be a great weekend trip with plenty of places camp overnight.
Coming past the Wombeyan Caves Road junction at Mittagong, a flashing road sign warns of the road's closure. Lucky I didn't try to come through. Apparently, the road was closed due to a zombie apocalypse …. go figure.