The Old Grafton Road (aka the Old Glen Innes Road if you come from Grafton) wasn’t always a back road; before the Gwydir Highway opened in 1962 it was the only way to get from the mountains to the sea, and it took days – a week if you were travelling by horse. Today it will take about four hours, if you don’t stop for a riverside picnic along the way.
From the Glen Innes end the trip begins in rainforest atop the aptly named Big Hill and winds down to the valley floor in a steep series of switchback turns. At the bottom is the Mann River Nature Reserve, a great place to have a picnic and a swim in one of the large waterholes.This scenic road, which is unsealed most of the way, follows the course of the Mann and Boyd rivers – literally. In many places, the road has been cut into the side of the cliffs that flank the watercourse, and in one spot passes through a 20m hand-hewn tunnel through the rock. Many websites will tell you it was built by convicts. It wasn’t, although the poorly paid contract labourers back in 1867 probably felt like they were working in a chain gang.
Stop and take a look at the memorial at Newtown Boyd – 30 young men from the now-vanished village went off to fight in WWI; only one came home – and wander around the ghost town of Dalmorton, home to 3000 people in the 1890s. Today, the police stables and lock-up, a disintegrating butcher’s shop and cottage, and a few forlorn foundations are all that’s left. This road trip is more than just a pretty day out, it’s a trip back in time.