Riding the Rails to Red Rock

by wandering freditor / Aug 17, 2014 / 0 comments

When you ride the rails to Red Rock, it is almost as though you expect the clock to be at High Noon, and Gary Cooper to be waiting as you alight on the long platform at nearby Coff’s Harbour, from the aptly acronym-ed, Xpress Train (XPT). Hardly a bullet train, more a “hold-ster” really, although it was sparsely peopled when I rode it. The 529 km journey to the North coast of New South Wales on the Eastern Australian seaboard takes nearly nine hours to complete. But it provides a glorious view of pasture and timber country, farms carved out of the bush long ago by axe-men and toilers, broad rivers, and millions of trees in the native forests that occupy the land between the coast, with its many deserted beaches, and the ridges of the Great Dividing Range, which follows the Eastern shoreline like a spine.


Riding the Rails to Red Rock, Australia


I have old friends in Red Rock, friends I knew when we were all about Gary’s age, but we have kept in touch and they have visited me on nearly all my postings.

With a timing which would have thrilled Mussolini, we left Sydney’s Central Station on schedule at 0711, the XPT to Casino, a place sounding quaintly ‘Bondian,’ although James would have been quite a sight alighting in an ambling country town in a tux. Indeed, once we left the platforms of Sydney suiters, the dress was a more relaxed “Oz Country,” with not a tie, nor a Thai, to be seen. Well except for the uniforms of the moustachioed Station Masters in their dark blue three piecers, the occasional fob watch on a long chain, rheumy eyes long reddened from coal dust, and that “end of the platform” stare. Sadly too, no longer a flag to send us away, merely an extended arm, nary a whistle nor chug from the engine or the clunk-clunk from the cantankerous carriages, protesting yet again about being dragged away. Modernity perhaps, but less excitement and spectacle.

For the first part of the journey north, Sydney showed us her old tattooed tights, as we travelled further, her more elegant skirts, till eventually after an hour or so, her bush. Lots of ‘London-style” row houses, single and two-storied, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian respectively in style as we travelled further, the honey-coloured tiles of pubs, but with sun-denying awnings and advertising beer on glass panels bedecked with frozen-in-action footballers or cricketers. There were still small corner stores aplenty, albeit faded in glory and sales, awkward to get into little petrol stations, an abundance of churches no doubt yearning for the sizeable congregations of past years, and of course, the ubiquitous, featureless, blocks of red brick flats which made Lego look an attractive alternative. Further out again, turn of the 20th Century “Federation” style homes, with intricate wrought iron “Sydney lace” from verandahs and roof overhangs, showing the presence of greater pre-Depression affluence. But sadly, all the way along the tracks, in both inner and outer Sydney, there is graffiti on every conceivable surface, unintelligible muck, as though human dogs have been leg lifting to mark “their” spot. Alas it is an international disease, nothing clever like Bansky’s social commentary, mindless disfigurement, now simply left there because the cost of cleanup is too great, and the buggers come back again straight away.

Riding the Rails to Red Rock

Riding the Rails to Red Rock

After only twenty minutes, the bush meets you after crossing the Parramatta River, luxury houses and apartments scatted amid the trees, the Australian love affair with having the bush close at hand, sometimes coming to bite them when bush fires come calling. Then through tunnels and high sandstone cuttings down to the wide, picturesque, Hawksbury River with its oyster leases and mudflats and its mantle of skimpy morning fog.

An hour out from Sydney, we travelled through some of its ‘dormitory areas,’ platforms full of distance commuters who wanted nearness to a slightly more affordable sea. Further north came the industrially scattered and eclectic hinterland behind once grimy Newcastle, now considerably cleaner since the closure of the BHP steelworks. After Maitland, like in all good rail stories, we headed for the hills, where the bush and farms began in earnest. Our train was now flat out at its 120 kph, but every few minutes it took us over two minutes to pass serpentine coal trains, off to the port or the power stations. Despite its sophistication, Australia remains in many ways, economically dependent on its quarrying.

It is beyond Dungog that the countryside becomes truly picturesque, particularly the run to Gloucester and the backdrop of the volcanic, greenery-clothed Barrington Tops, plugs like worn molars when millennia ago, they were like the back of a Stegosauraus.

The track follows the Manning River like a sausage casing, showing some wonderful colonial “manor houses” on the proverbial hill, but also the poorer “still occupied” ones as indicated by the car outside the, corrugated roof tumble-downs, with washing on the rotary hoists that are as iconic to Australia, as the old iron Sunshine windmills. Life in the bush has always been hard and despite mod-cons, it still is. Electricity true, but rainwater from tanks, kilometres to travel to shops and doctors, dirt roads, bush fires, “droughts and flooding rains,” and above all, isolation. No wonder bushies speak slowly; they’ve forgotten what conversation sounds like.


Riding the rails to Red Rock, Australia


Riding the rails to Red Rock, Australia


From my train seat I sighed, grateful for its comfort and that I was merely passing through. Past river flats and sandbars, swimming holes, tiny one-room schools, cattle grids and grain silos, bee hives in white boxes beneath the gum trees and always in the company of the bush corridor.  Around lunchtime, I went to the dining car.

Riding the rails in Red Rock, Australia - the bush corridor


Alas, the “dining car” is akin to calling an Essex girl “Princess,” for it is merely a canteen  on wheels that serves food. I must admit, the Devonshire Tea, with drop scones like Mum used to make, was surprisingly good. The hot meals of the day, and their shouted prices, American Style, boom through the train at lunch-time and fifteen minutes later, you collect your fare from an “uber-mutte” in a surgical type cap that makes you think, “if they dress like that, should I eat it?” My roast beef, deep shades of grey, provided slabs of roast disappointment, and the wine, which I think was probably brought in sacks from Uzbekistan, looked bright pee yellow and rather tasted as I imagine Out House wine might taste. I lurched back to my seat while we rolled on the bends, cardboard tray and plastic utensils firmly gripped, one hand, clasping at the seats like an eagle to a crag to keep my balance. Thank goodness so much of the lunch was recyclable!

After lunch, many dozed while I sat and watched the vastness of the countryside flash by, accentuated I suppose, by living on small islands for the last decade. Yet here I was, traveling just over 500 kilometres from Sydney to Coffs and seeing only a tiny fraction of Australia.

I was astounded by the enormous grass sports fields and facilities that seemed to be evident in even pip-squeak towns with no visible means of support or sustenance. I thought back to Bahrain and the skills of people playing on sandy football pitches and a crushed limestone oval where cricket was played, and inwardly marvelled at their zeal for sport in such adverse conditions. Yet here were big swards of green which would have looked like Test match facilities to my friends overseas.

Riding the rails to Red Rock, Australia

Late in the afternoon we rolled into Coffs, once undoubtedly with an attractive Noddy-like post-colonial station, Ladies and Gents waiting rooms with iron fireplaces, Stationmaster’s Quarters, Baggage Room, all metaphorically transported from C19 England, now replaced by functional concrete and blandness. My friends drove me up to an eyrie lookout, high above Coffs, through vast banana plantations and a rain forest of tall timber. Once, all of the region had echoed to the sound of the axe and the sawmills, but now only one large mill remained, conservation and the growth in other building and construction materials having played their hands. Now bananas and blueberries coat the mountainsides and flats. Over 10,000 people live in Coffs and while it has a fishing fleet, diversified light industry, retail and tourist economy, and excellent lifestyle facilities, mention Coffs, and instinctively people say “The Big Banana.” Beside the Pacific Highway, there it rests, selling everything banana-like, the historic for-runner of “big” attractions, be they pineapples, sheep or lobsters!

Riding the rails to Red Rock, Australia

I soon discovered that rest, reclining, and rejuvenation are requisite in Red Rock, mandatory even. It is about forty minutes from Coffs to RR, then past a pub called The Amble Inn, an aboriginal centre displaying art and artefacts and a few kilometres towards the coast, through kangaroo dotted heathland, you are there. RR comprises a gangly collection of small workers cottages, the substantial houses of the retired, holiday cottages, a river-front camping area which is as full as a goog in summer, a small shop, surf life-saving club, bowling green, and tennis court. A large riverfront park with a concrete cricket pitch and boat ramp amid paper bark trees complete the ensemble. Just over 270 residents - and that’s it! But it is also a base for surfing on largely deserted beaches, walking the spectacular coastal trails and those in the National Park and State Forests; peace and solitude under azure blue skies.

There is speculation that RR draws its name from the C19th massacre of members of the Gumbaynnigir aboriginal people who were either shot or leapt to their deaths from a rocky  headland cliff and the sea and Corindi River ran red with blood (There is a plaque on the headland to the tragedy.) A more likely explanation; the rocks are decidedly red! You decide!


Riding the Rails to Red Rock, Australia

Morning comes early in RR and we were up with it, roo poo on the lawn evidence of our nocturnal visitors. All was still, the dew heavy on the ground, the estuary waters burnished, a squadron of pelicans bent in reflection on a river sandbar. We climbed to the top of the headland, deserted golden beaches to the North and South; out there lay South America, its waves now lapping a different  shore. Oh, different at the height of summer of course, then lots of boogie and surf boards, bodysurfers and beach cricket, bikinis and brightly coloured shorts, but now serene and tranquil. Like the Conquistador Cortez looking out on the Pacific Ocean, I stood and stared. All the way to Coffs, the coast was like this. For much of the year, it is the domain of walkers and their dogs, sea-birds, the majestic and fearsome looking sea eagles and smaller kites. And where the rivers run to the interior, a panoply of parrots, kookaburra,s and others less ostentatiously plumed, while in the esturine waters and the sea, fish of all descriptions and taste. Whales came this way annually, to calf in the bays. I tried not to think of sharks and snakes! At night we read, rested, watched a bit of television, and for the first time in decades, I played Scrabble!


deserted golden beach, Red Rock, Australia

Golden beach, Red Rock, Australia


deserted beach, Red Rock, Australia


Deserted beach, Red Rock, Australia


The following day, my friend took me into the State Forest in his 4WD, over rugged forest trails still used by timber concessionaires. Stoney Creek was but five kilometres if we swam the river and walked along the beach, but by road it was a 30 km trek. The whole area is superbly administered by the authorities, aboriginal and others, and the camp-ground, only accessible by 4WD, is beautifully laid out amid stands of gums and Casuarina pines. It is terrain for tents and all facilities are “ecologically compliant.” We only saw two surfers, out on the waves, their tent blending in perfectly with nature.

At a designated spot, we crested a sand dune and drove on the beach, a thrill I had not experienced since I was a pimply Peppinck and my father drove on one in Western Australia in his humpback Standard Vanguard car. My friend had grown up in Saltburn, Yorkshire, a place where an early land speed record had been set on its hard sand beaches, so I felt in good hands.


driving the beach in Red Rock, Australia


Driving the beach in Red Rock, Australia

We crossed a ford and walked a small section of the 65 km “Coastal Trail,” over another rocky headland with tidal pools, and of course there were more lengthy beaches. Living in these parts, one must become blasé about beauty for it is ever present and mostly, natural. We came home and had a good lunch, rested up and read a bit, looked at maps, and then went and played first lawn bowls - much harder than it looks, although my friend is a champion bowler and made it look easy - and a gentle game of tennis to round off an exhausting day. At night we were simply too tired for tennis, but looked at slides of when we too were young. Recall is such an easy thing to enjoy, so cerebrally stimulating, and restful.

We travelled to Woolgoolga, half way to Coffs, its Sikh temples indicative of the large Sikh presence in the region. Again another lengthy, almost deserted beach (well, there were two surfers out riding the curl!). We drove into one part of the town and shared an appropriate Fish&Chips at a  laid-back boardwalk cafe with a townhouse garden, sitting at table under the palms, served by a smiling, friendly, impossibly beautiful waitress, with a motivational tattoo on her under arm. Why would you want to leave here for the big smoke (her wish), you’ve got it all, I thought. But I held my tongue, for I was young once, leaving a city I loved for things hip and starry without fully realising what I had. Life teaches you to appreciate only much later on.

I left Red Rock replete, and grateful for the enjoyment my friends had brought. Somehow the journey back to Sydney seemed to take ever so long.


Red Rock, Australia


Note: the yellow-tinted photos were taken from the train!


Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators


All photos courtesy and copyright Winfred Peppinck