Nowra to Bemboka: Horse riders traverse forgotten tracks

Most of us drive through it enroute to our favourite holiday haunts on the south coast, an occasional glance out the window our only interaction with the vast swathes of heavily forested national parks that stretch along the escarpment country from Nowra in the north to Bemboka in the south.

Traversing the Corn Trail, an historic South Coast track that has been maintained by horse riders and national park staff. Picture: Julia Short

Traversing the Corn Trail, an historic South Coast track that has been maintained by horse riders and national park staff. Picture: Julia Short

A decision by the NSW government in 1999 to declare many parts of these national parks "wilderness", meant that unless you were prepared to strap on the walking boots and embark on multi-day hikes, much of the country was inaccessible.

An unintended consequence of this dramatic expansion of wilderness meant that many traditional, heritage and recreational bridle tracks, especially in the Monga and Deua national parks, were suddenly off limits to non-walkers, including horse riders.

Among these were the spectacular Shoebridge Track, a purpose-built route for pack horses dating back to the gold rush days connecting Nelligen to Araluen, and the WD Tarlinton Track, an ancient Aboriginal path pioneered by William Tarlinton in 1829 to move stock from the tablelands on the upper Shoalhaven River to the coast.

 A camp site half way along the WD Tarlinton Track. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

A camp site half way along the WD Tarlinton Track. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

"At the time of the changes, the government didn't have any real knowledge that these bridle tracks even existed," says Peter Smith, a spokesperson for Access for All, a community group of 400 horse riders and other interested parties, who for the last two decades argued for authorities to reinstate responsible public access along these tracks.

A couple of months ago, their wish came true. Following a two-year trial that showed no environmental damage caused by horse riding on these specific tracks, management plans of some of these national parks were changed to reinstate access along the tracks.

Peter, who is known to readers of this column through his encyclopaedic account of the area's most notorious bushrangers in The Clarke Gang Outlawed, Outcast and Forgotten: The worst and most troublesome bushrangers of all time (Rosenberg, 2015) is "ecstatic" that these traditional tracks are open once again to future generations of horse riders.

Bella Hart and Michael O'Brien enter a forest of tree ferns on a fire trail linking bridle trails on their 200km horse trek from Nelligen to Bemboka. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

Bella Hart and Michael O'Brien enter a forest of tree ferns on a fire trail linking bridle trails on their 200km horse trek from Nelligen to Bemboka. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

"It's great to see history being kept alive," says Peter, explaining in the 1800s, these tracks were the lifeblood of a number of towns along the coastal escarpment strip between Canberra and the coast. "These bridle tracks were hand-cut into the bush in order to transport goods to communities in the 1800s."

Transporting goods into the Araluen Valley during the mid-1800s gold rush was especially challenging during wet weather when access from Moruya was flooded. In fact, when the Deua River was running high, due to the steep gradient of the alternate track into Araluen (from Braidwood) essential goods had to be precariously lowered down into the valley on wooden sledges. Really!

"The sledges carried about half a tonne and although dragged by horse, were steadied by hand-held ropes as they were lowered to the bottom of the mountain," explains Peter. "It was a one-way trip as no horse could draw the slide back up the mountain, so once down the bottom, the slide became firewood."

View from the Shoebridge Track near Araluen. Picture: Julia Short

View from the Shoebridge Track near Araluen. Picture: Julia Short

In an attempt to improve supply into Araluen, Thomas Shoebridge, an enterprising store owner in lower Araluen, funded an all-weather pack track to allow goods to be transported from Nelligen. The government later pitched in to improve the track, even building "passing bays" every 300 or 400 hundred metres.

Despite the considerable cost (Shoebridge ended up going broke and had to sell his store) and effort put into its construction, following an upgrade in the road from Braidwood and the construction in 1870 of a dray road from Moruya, the Shoebridge Track became virtually obsolete.

According to Peter, "While it continued to be used for people travelling into Araluen from Nelligen and for occasional stock improvements, it was no longer a critical supply route, and used occasionally by adventurous locals to keep them open."

To celebrate the recent decision of re-opening the tracks to horse riders, Michael O'Brien and his wife Melissa of Nelligen recently led a 10-day horse trek, 200km along a number of tracks including the Shoebridge and WD Tarlinton tracks.

The spectacular rocky ridges of Wadbilliga National Park as viewed from the WD Tarlinton Track. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

The spectacular rocky ridges of Wadbilliga National Park as viewed from the WD Tarlinton Track. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

"It was amazing to ride through the country again, although we were closed-in for much of the time, occasionally it would open up to amazing views of steep country in the remote Deua National Park," reports Michael. "Because we rode up and down the escarpment, the vegetation was changing all the time, simply stunning, the timber, the tall trees."

"Going around the side of the hill where the tracks were benched was easy, but in other parts, the tracks had become overgrown and we needed to follow the blazes on the trees," says Michael, who while he has "ridden a lot around the east coast of Australia", reveals "the country along the Shoebridge [Track] was up there with the best".

But it wasn't just the scenery that impressed Michael, who rates as a trek highlight camping at an area on the WD Tarlinton Track, which according to local folklore was a bush hideout of the Clarke brothers.

"It's not a cave like many would imagine, rather a good little flat area where apparently they were holed-up with their stolen stock," says Michael.

Bella Hart and her packhorse on the ride from Nelligen to Bemboka. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

Bella Hart and her packhorse on the ride from Nelligen to Bemboka. Picture: Melissa O'Brien

Michael is confident that the re-opening of the tracks to occasional horse treks won't lead to any environmental damage.

"There are, of course, provisions in place to protect the surrounding environment including that horses can't deviate off the tracks into the bush and that treks are subject to limitations like maximum numbers of horses and riders," he explains.

"Further, it's unlikely the tracks are going to be over-run with riders as you need local knowledge, and lots of it", says Michael. "In the ten days of our ride we never saw another rider."

This story No longer off-limits, riders traverse the region's forgotten tracks first appeared on Bega District News.

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