Burragorang Valley. Wild cattle, cannibal aborigines, convict escapees, the Butcher-Bullock gang, Starlight and his plunder, and the setting for "Terrible Hollow" in Rolf Bolderwood's 19th century classic "Robbery Under Arms".
Burragorang Valley. Land of the basalt capped parish of "The Peaks", abandoned silver mines, thousand foot high fog flooded cliffs that go on for ages on all sides. Gorges that cut so far down into the marine age sandstones, shales, and coal beds that creeks, in places, touch granite bedrock. One secret entrance. In 1796 George Bass took ropes and grappling irons. Attempting to cross the Blue Mountains in 1802, explorer Lt. Francis Barrallier found the secret entrance, but couldn't get out the other side. They made it back starving and barefoot.
The one entrance, down Sheehy's Creek, was cut to a dirt road in 1907, then expanded and sealed sixty years later for coal trucks. Today with the coal trucks gone it is a perfect, windy descent down a cliff side: like Bobin Head but only with no cars and better views. Cyclists may elect to leave grappling irons at home.
To the left of the fire trail, under a thinner patch of gums, a darker shade of green catches your eye. An apple tree! A surprised fox, a patch of jonquil, a line of fallen fence wire, some roofing iron in a gully. Under the leaves is something hard … a shovel? Must have been a farm here once. Did he have a wife, kids? Was he happy in "terrible hollow" beside the Little River? Did he die sad and alone? Did he move back to Sydney and a factory job? Was he Larry Tanny, who arrived in 1816 on the convict ship "Pilot", or someone after?
In a shadow lurks some sort of cast iron machine with one solid wheel.
Hermits. Ghosts. Toombstones. History!
Paranoia! A distant plane engine notches up the pulse rate and blood rushes to the back of the neck. Hmm. . . Are you sure it is a plane? Did it just change gears? Maybe this is not the best time for a ride like this. . .
Now for the long, hot, thousand foot climb from the Bailey's bridge across the Nattai River, not west to the ghost town of Yerranderie, but South West, on another asphalt road with all but a foot on each side of the center-line covered with rotting leaves. Climbing hard with stratifications of sandstone, following the uplift up toward the tablelands of the Southern Highlands.
This is the June long weekend, and Denis, the local Water Board ranger is on the prowl in his Landcruiser for bushwalkers and fishermen whose "unmanaged access" has been officially been linked to "vandalism, arson, and environmental degradation", and for the anti-social, anthrax & ghonnorea & cryptosporidium & faecal coliform & leprosy & hepatitis A, B, & C and-everything-else-in-the-whole-god-damn-book infested cyclists. Scum on two wheels just like you. Soon the fresh looking tracks turn off to the left - a back way to Thirlmere where he lives. This is good news.
Awesome, epic views up the Nattai gorge toward Alum river look more than a bit like the Wolgan. Only on a bike can you get this close to nature, walking uses up too much time looking at the ground, and takes too long to get anywhere interesting. On bike, this is a half day ride, back before the pub shuts. On foot, it would be two full days. A bit of a flat bit now, gears change,- hope it lasts. Down from a massive overhang in the cliff-line and growing in front of you is this galvanised-iron water tank looking thing. In the middle of nowhere, here it is! It's big. Like really big. Must be four, five stories high. Maybe a bit wider than a semi trailer is long, the coal loading bin stands on RSJ columns so the trucks could fill up underneath and take the world's purest coking coal to the Mt. Kembla loader.
This is like being a little kid. How the hell did they make this? You ride your bike between the columns. Brown slime, drips, a fine black powder on all flat surfaces. In the sky a steel structure 30 metres long with walkway and conveyor-belt rollers and tin roof comes horizontally out of the cliff base and ends on the same axis but about five metres above the lip of the bin. See where the conveyor starts - must be where the tunnels are.
Valley colliery no 3 - the mine you saw on the topo you bought a week before because you wondered what the hell was out there to the left of the bottom end of the Sydney Basin. Opened in 1969 out of business by 1972, and the miners took their machines to Brimstone, Oakdale, and Tahmoor. The entrances are filled in with earth behind 2 cm steel plate, so there'll be no playing at Huckleberry Finn today. Apart from the loading bin and conveyor belt, there is not much else but this big concrete pad half the size of a footy field, and a few half-knocked down brick buildings. Roofless offices, and what must have been a shower room for a dozen miners. On a wall there's a small blackboard: nicknames and tonnages for the last week of shifts.
Burragorang Valley. Farming flats flooded by Warragamba Dam, the main storage tank for four million people's water supply. Four times more water than Sydney Harbour. After a long drought you can just make out a fence line in the middle of the lake. Look at any map of the Blue Mountains and you will find its three gnarled toes pointing from Warragamba in Sydney's far west toward Picton, Mittagong, and the Three Sisters.
Like a missile launch site, a Russian submarine base, like your flatmate's diary, this whole place is deliciously out of bounds. Sydney Water have decided to make Bushwalking illegal anywhere within 3km of the the lake's edge, no matter if you're near the water intake at Warragamba, or 50 km away near the Joorilands homestead on the Wollondilly river, or 48 km away at the goal of today's ride. The maximum fine is $10,000. Cyclists and horse-riders have it worse: Sydney Water and the NPWS have in their wisdom jointly declared a massive "outer" exclusion zone of 2,511 square km just for them.
The cooler feeling of a winter's afternoon hits you in the chest at 3:00. Time to go home. Its downhill all the way back to the Bailey's bridge. Going faster, the rocks, sticks, and wet corners work the brakes hard. Glide round a corner and there are grey 'roos. Big bastards. Then a landcruiser trying to ram you. Shit. Denis the Menace! And his mate. And a long and complicated discussion ensues. You find out later that you are not legally obliged to give him my details, just obliged to tell no lies. In any case, it was stupid to admit to seeing the "Entry Prohibited" sign. Damn. Damn it! Should have waited until 5:00.
Adrenalin makes the ride back up Sheehy's Creek Rd easy. Two coal truck drivers at the pub say "Denis! He did what? I used to drive that route!" The manager gives you your second beer for free.
And six months later, a summons for trespass. The wife hits the roof. The solicitor says "Hmmm. I've never seen anything like this before. Did you drink all the water or something?" No conviction is recorded. Three redneck 16 year olds from the school you teach at are fined $300 a pop for riding motorcross bikes down the same road. They grin stupidly at you across the courtroom. Hero status? Another gets $50 for fishing from the bridge. Seems Dennis had a big weekend.
Was it worth it? Would it be worth a critical mass style ride to protest this ridiculous ban on cycling in state recreation area? Is it worth protesting so called environmental legislation that bans cycling on an asphalt road in State Recreation Area, but allows coal mining, escorted landcruiser tours, and 4WD bus tours?
You can bet your flatmate's diary on it!