We’d been here before - and it wasn’t good. Our previous disaster of an adventure to The Budawangs (or ‘Mudawangs’, as they came to be known) had spat us out with our tails between our legs and a bad taste in our mouth. Like a kite in a hurricane, we had been ill-equipped and unprepared for mother nature in all her savage fury the first time around.
But that was then. Here at Over Yonder HQ we’re nothing if not stubborn - and no line on a map is going to keep us down for long. So, we had decided to return to The Budawangs, better equipped, better supplied, and screaming for vengeance. Still, of the original crew, only one was brave enough (ehm, available) to return.
The other three of us were fresh meat - with only one other Over Yonder adventure between us. That was Summers, who had endured our greatest stitch-up to date, the Fainter Freezer. Toby and I were gravel adventure newbies - guided by the grizzled Over Yonder pack leader himself, Esjay, who rounded out the four.
It started well enough. A comfortable after-work drive south from Sydney to Lake Conjola, ready to roll out on a three day gravel adventure.
The Budawang Range
The Budawangs are a rugged mountain range located within the Budawang and Morton National Park’s in the South Coast region of New South Wales. A spur of the Great Dividing Range, the highest mountain in the range, Mount Budawang, tops out at a surprisingly solid 1,129 metres.
We rolled out of Lake Conjola at a gentlemanly hour, with the escarpment dominating the horizon. It was clear the only way (for the foreseeable future at least) would be up.
After half an hour or so of pedaling, we spotted what would become a recurring theme of the trip – tiny, tiny horses. Happily distracted, we started the Porters Creek Road climb.
Mercifully, the climb was sealed for most of its length, making the 25% pinches and rainforest humidity a little more bearable. An impressive rock formation hung over the road near the top, complemented by a roadside cave. The final, steep gravel section to Pointer Gap lookout rewarded us with sweeping views north to Jervis Bay and south towards Eden.
On top of the range the terrain changed and we entered a section of bushland which intermittently broke into flat, rocky plateaus.
Tianjara (as the area is known) was requisitioned from graziers during World War II to be used as an artillery range. It remained in the hands of Commonwealth from 1942 to the early ‘80s, when the land was returned to the state of NSW and incorporated into the Morton National Park (and later became part of the Budawang Wilderness).
Hiker and biker beware; remnants of those explosive days still remain. In addition to the pockmarks, and otherwise damaged land around you, the area is littered with target debris and unexploded ordnance. Step off the safely-worn trail at your peril.
For the most part, trail conditions remained relatively smooth and enjoyable (though slow-going), save for a few sand pits and loose dirt sections that had been loosened and flattened by recent tractor work. On a later section of mud, Toby recorded the only fall of the weekend, after losing precious traction, while Esjay slashed open his tyre on a rocky fire trail descent.
Five minutes down the road, the bone dry Tianjara Falls somewhat underwhelmed. Save for a discarded typewriter which we could just make out at the bottom of the cliff, there wasn’t all that much to look at – and, more importantly, nowhere to refill our rapidly diminishing water supply.
After a fast descent towards the pub, nudging close to 100 km/h on paved roads, we beat a seemingly-not-so-nasty motorcycle gang from the Southern Highlands of NSW to be first in line at the bar. The mid-ride beers and salty snacks were good. The thinly-veiled threat from one of the displaced-by-lycra bikies that we’d better turn off the main road before they caught us, less so.
A classic roadside Australian pub established in the mid-1800s, the Nerriga Hotel was first known as the Cricketer’s Arms Hotel. Located on the old Wool Road, the small village of Nerriga grew around the pub, following the discovery of gold in the area.
These days the town’s population is less than 50; there are only a few houses left, two churches, a community hall and the pub – which comes complete a giant Ned Kelly sculpture bolted atop a tree stump.
The main stretch of highway between Nerriga and Braidwood was paved in 2010, making Charleys Forest Road the dirty alternative. Not only was it more scenic, but it also fortuitously skirted a large, localised storm. Not so dirty after all.
Passing through a rolling section of cleared forest and green pasture, with Mount Budawang a constant presence on our left side, we zoomed through the village of Mongarlowe (population 117) and were soon back on sealed road, with only one short berg to tackle before the downhill cruise into Braidwood.
First settled by Europeans in the 1820s, Braidwood was the subject of Australia’s first Royal Commission in 1867, concerning the extent to which bushrangers had benefited from police corruption or indifference.
The area was also home to the Clarke brothers, ostensibly “Australia’s deadliest bushrangers”. Responsible for a reported 71 robberies and hold-ups, as well as the death of at least one policeman, brothers Thomas and John were captured during a shoot-out in April 1867 and later hanged in Sydney.
Our lodgings for the evening would be Braidwood’s Royal Mail Hotel. Aside from playing host to the cast and crew of a Ned Kelly film adaptation in 1969 – in which the eponymous bushranger was played by Mick Jagger – the hotel’s main claim to fame is that it is, apparently, haunted.
Grown men have been known to leave during the middle of the night after experiencing a ghostly encounter; with many of these experiences centering around Room 14 – where Toby and Summers would be staying for the night.
However, apart from a truly supernatural-sized chicken parmigiana, our only encounter in the haunted hotel would be with two particularly ‘eager’ hotel guests who shouted their availability down the hallways after what must have been a few too many. To be clear, their calls of ‘come play with us’ were much less The Shining, and much more Joe Dirt than any of us could handle. Either way, the offer was ignored - a ghost would be have been much more interesting.
The biggest of our 3 days in The Budawangs Part II. The most climbing, and the slowest section of ‘gravel’. That said, it was all done in the first third of the ride. The slowest sections being the climb up to Tianjara, and the firetrail headed towards Braidwood Road. From then on, things were a piece of cake.
We rode Giant ToughRoad SLR GX and Giant TCX cyclocross bikes. We kept things pretty close to factory spec, with the exception of some more ‘adventure-friendly’ gearing for those 20%-plus dirt gradients. Most of us ran 1X drivetrains with a 40t chainring up front and 11x40t cassette at the rear. There is no harm in having some decent 40mm rubber too - WTB Nano or Maxxis Ramblers will rarely let you down.
We weren‘t camping on this trip, but still needed to carry a fair bit of kit. Saddle & frame bags by Revelate Designs, Topeak & Ortlieb allowed us to carry plenty of food & water, clothes, spares & camera gear.
We stayed at the Royal Mail Hotel in Braidwood. Aside from being ‘haunted’ the place has everything you need. Big meals & ice cold beers, and of course rooms to sleep.
Food & Water:
The stretch from Lake Conjola through Tianjara, and on to The Nerriga Hotel, was dry for us. We managed on 2x large bottles each - But if you should need it, there is apparently a water tank in the Sassafras Camp Ground soon after you exit the Tianjara Firetrail, a bit further along Braidwood Road.
From Nerriga to Braidwood would be easy on two bottles, but if you ran dry early a stop in Mogarlowe would provide water in an emergency. Top up on food and water at the Nerriga Hotel.
If the weather is warm, carry enough water to comfortably get yourself to Nerriga. You pass through Sassafras, so if you had to you could get it from a house or the campground.
Stay on the firetrail within Tianjara. There is every chance there could be unexploded ordnance (bombs etc) off the trail, considering the military history in the area.
More from The Budawangs Part II
Choose from any of the three days we spent riding, or the Road Book, for all the maps & information you need to get out and explore the area yourself.
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