“Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”
~ Alice Walker
Heading towards an old ‘convict-built’ tunnel out the back of Grafton, in NSW, I drove straight past the petrol station in town before heading in, foolishly reckoning I could get petrol in Dalmorton. I’m a spontaneous person and typically leave on a whim, discovering things as I go.
‘She’ll be right’, I thought, after I had driven 70 kilometres down Old Glen Innes Road, past dilapidated, abandoned houses. The road had now turned to dust, skirting the primordial-looking Boyd River. There had been no cars in the last hour.
I arrived in Dalmorton on empty, as empty as the town in which we now found ourselves. I was travelling with my four-year-old son, friend and sidekick Olin, aka ‘Dinks’, and it was only as I stepped from the car that I discovered we were in a ghost town. Dalmorton, like many such towns, briefly flourished in the gold rush period during the 1850s and ’60s.
Five thousand folk, many of them rowdy, once swilled their fill in Dalmorton’s 13 pubs, showering the town with wealth they had reaped from the surrounding hills. And as the gold in the hills ran dry, the town was left to wither and wane. Dalmorton certainly has a lost, eerie feel about it, and I half expected to hear the faint twang of a banjo echo across the valley. As I explored further, Dinks clung to my side, a little scared.
Together we wandered through ‘town’, past the old butcher store which still stood, past a jacaranda tree which had outlived its neighbour – a dwelling that now crumbled beside lilac bloom. There were picnic and camping spots and not a soul anywhere. The forested hills looked wild, the river near waterless, yet savage. There was an old tourist map which told me fuel lay 39 kilometres away, back in Nymboida. However, the tunnel lay ahead, a further eight kilometres, I had read. I decided to risk it and go forward.
Luckily my hunches often pay off, as in another four or so kilometres we arrived at the old tunnel, which had been hand-hewn through 20 metres of solid rock. Ostensibly this was done by convicts (as publications suggest), or perhaps just “poorly paid labour”, as the plaque in Dalmorton reveals. It’s an interesting spot, as the tunnel covers the narrow, dirt road on the edge of the Boyd River.
It’s too narrow for more than one car, caravans and/or trucks. Inside, the walls are graffitied, some of it dating to the 1800s. The rock shards suggest much labour. The scenery beyond the tunnel was wild, it looked so free – what I love most about travel. We explored, we sat, we talked and watched. I thought of the horse and carts that passed beneath this stoney arch not so long ago, before deciding to search for fuel.
Rain now steadily fell, Dinks fell asleep and lightning flashed across the sky. I stopped intermittently, trying to capture some of this mood before I continued along the dirt road, now strewn with puddles. Soon I came to the Nymboida turnoff, 13 kilometres to go and I had been below empty for some time. I was a tad concerned but knew we’d get out of it if worse came to worst. The road was winding, steep in sections, the water rose to two feet in dips and I feared my little 1996 Toyota Seca hatchback would get swamped if this rain continued.
We rolled into Nymboida to a closed tavern and no sign of a petrol station. A local told me it had been 20 years since the town had sold fuel. Evidently Dalmorton’s sign was at least 20 years out of date. He then told me the next petrol station was in a town called Coutts Crossing, roughly 20 kilometres away. I told him we mightn’t make it. He said he’d find me on the road if we didn’t.
We rolled steadily on, often in neutral down hills, making it to Coutts Crossing on residue and fumes. I bought Dinks an ice-cream, gave him a high five, filled up and continued home through the rain.
Do explore this country. While I’ve merely been to Copmanhurst – where Australia’s second longest river for white water rafting ends (the Nymboida) – and here, to Dalmorton country, the beauty and wildness of the Grafton area has really surprised me.
Do prepare a little. Not only is there no fuel on Old Glen Innes Road, the road travels in a 244 km loop (I later found out), passing swimming holes, picnic spots, camp grounds with fireplaces and “the remains of an old graveyard, worth a look for history buffs” (major face palm). Great stuff that I’d missed.
I’ll be back…