BAILING ON BULAHDELAH

I’ve done so many memorable trips around the country over my years with 4WD Action, mostly for epic reasons such as new tracks, wild locations, gnarly obstacles and of course, getting to share it all with good mates. However this trip I will long remember for a totally new and altogether horrid reason; having to bail on the entire production and rush home to defend my property from the threat of bushfire.

The history of the region makes Bulahdelah a magnet for 4WDers with loads of tough tracks you’ve never heard of.

Bulahdelah’s main street has about 300 cafes which was perfect at 7am given my odd love affair of chilli pies and black coffee for breakfast! You can tell the men in the group by the breakfast they have I reckon, and nothing screams man like dribbling molten chilli pie down your chin then chasing it with scalding hot black coffee. Or I could just be a tad weird….

Now whilst I’d never wheeled directly behind the little town before, I’d certainly heard of it and knew it came with an impressive reputation for tough, tight tracks in some bloody steep country. When old mate Warren rolled up in his trade mark understated Patrol on 35’s grinning with that knowing look on his face I figured I was about to be thrown into the deep end of the Bulahdelah pool. At least I wasn’t going in alone; Shauno was keen as mustard to throw the 79 into some tough stuff and Nick from Black Series was frothing at the prospect of continuing the camper testing on some quality Bulahdelah juice.

Now a little known fact about the region is that it has hosted (if you can call it such a thing) Australia’s most destructive tornado, back in 1970! Amazingly the damage caused stretched over 20 km’s through the state forest right near the township and was estimated to have destroyed (and I mean blown apart) over 1 million trees. Have a read of that again because it’s bloody impressive.

Driving through the exact location on the way to the start of our first section of tracks, zero evidence remained of what was literally a bomb strike on the area….it got me thinking about track closures. A tornado destroys 22kms of vegetation and over a million trees, and nature just keeps on ticking. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a 4WD track cause that much damage but heck, what do I know.

I consider the stretch of dirt from about Bulahdelah right up past Coffs to be what I loosely term “locals only” country. See you could poke about and explore all through that region for decades and only scratch the surface. The difference having local knowledge makes just cannot be understated in these places. Case in point, the first track Warren was keen to show us I would challenge anyone to find even with directions! It was that hidden I thought he was having us on, but nope.

From around the 1880’s onwards through to around the mid-1900s the region was heavily involved in mining of alunite which, as you can imagine, meant the mountain behind town was  a maze of access tracks to cart ore back and forth, not to mention exploration and survey lines that lead nowhere. Today this means that as 4WDers, the old mountain is paradise with more tracks than you can poke a stick at, ranging from beginner to white knuckle seat stainers! Like I said though, finding them is half the challenge.

Now I know many of you (and heck all of us on the crew too at one point or another) wonder what the heck we are doing with a camper on some of the tracks we tackle. Good call. Think of it this way; testing has to be done on tracks and conditions well above what the average person would ever consider doing. If a product can perform well at levels beyond expectation then it will sail through normal use. Makes sense when you look at it like that. Well trust me, that tight, rutted and steep track on day one tested the heck out of all of us, trailer included.

I’m a recent convert to the concept of a low as possible center of gravity and as much down travel as possible on 4WDs for tough driving. Yeah, that’s at odds with the normal sky high lift mentality but for me at least, it just feels so much more stable and capable when your guts are close to the ground rather than teetering over every side angle or rut. Combine this with modern traction control like in my D-MAX and I’m beginning to have a long close look at modern versus old ways of tackling 4WD modification.

Like so much of that mid north coast range country, rainfall events can be varied and often scattered yet a dust dry track can still turn to slop at any time of year thanks to a combination of clay soils and often thick impenetrable canopies stopping evaporation. 

The forecast was for rain in the coming days but with the sun beating down none of us (except Warren) expected to encounter that type of mud on day one. What I really liked was the simple fact that there weren’t any options; either get through that long and difficult section of mud and ruts or, turn tail and head back down the hill. True point to point 4WDing; committing with limited choices.

Not turning back also put us in a good spot to head into camp that night as well; Strike A Light campground is not actually managed as a designated campsite by NSW Forests but given the location, it couldn‘t have served us better. The area is huge, grassy and shaded. It struck me once again as a locals only location; your chances of stumbling onto this site are almost nil. Firewood is plentiful and the river down from camp flows all year. In case you can’t tell, I liked the spot; a lot!

Now believe it or not, there have only been a handful of times that nights in camp have been truly rained out; yeah I know, you‘d think it would happen more but we seem to be blessed. That said, we came damn close that first night. The heavens opened and if it weren’t for the camper awning I’m guessing we would have been relocated to sitting alone under each of our awnings, rather than enjoying beers and laughs together. Turned out to be a flaming wet night but good fun none the less.

That following morning I woke to the pleasant sound of rain on canvas and poked my head out from inside my swag to be greeted with some pretty grim conditions. We’d received a solid dumping of rain through the night and it looked to have set in for the day as well. Not much of an issue for the most part, except that track was a steep, rutted river exit that was a challenge in the dry.

From the get go it was obvious that this section of track hadn‘t been driven in a long time. The start wasn’t just overgrown; there were actually shrubs in the wheel ruts! As we cleared a path I kept thinking of just what it must have been like back in the late 1800’s, clearing these tracks for the first time. It was a different age back then and whether we acknowledge it or not, we owe those old timers a debt of gratitude for all that they did; especially cutting the tracks we all enjoy today. They could have done a better job on this one though!

As we battled in the mud and rain to get shoes back on the 79, that same feeling arose of knowing this was nothing, not even worthy of a mention compared to what must have gone into cutting the track in the first place. That said, those 79’s are damn heavy beasts; perhaps it’s time yours went on a diet Shauno! Given the top heavy nature, I gotta say it was a ballsy drive from Shaun to get past that exit without putting the big girl on her side; it looked bloody sketchy on a couple of occasions. He loves that rig, I think if it were to have a lie down I’d just have to turn and walk away cos it wouldn‘t be pretty to watch!

What happens in mere minutes on your TV screen doesn‘t translate the same in reality and after most of the arvo spent battling the conditions both up, then down that incline, with little to no breaks in the weather, we made the call to head back to camp early with one thing firmly on our minds; fire. Given the weather, gathering a solid mass of cooking coals was going to take time and planning.

We divided and conquered with Warren and I grabbing chainsaws and a sneaky beer (heck why not; I’d kinda knocked off for the day!) while Shauno put on his chef’s hat. Despite the weather I have to say that was one of the more entertaining evenings we‘ve had, probably got a lot to do with the number of ally cans we consumed while standing around that cranking fire; regardless, a bloody good time was had by all.

I have to say a huge thanks to whoever came up with the idea of making swags out of canvas because waking once again to a dry bed but a very wet swag meant leaks would have been a disaster! I was a little earlier rising than the others (must have been something to do with Shaun’s cooking) so wanted to grab a quick snap of the old bridge over the creek. I reckon I’ve got a library of several hundred snaps I’ve gathered from right around the country of just stuff that’s taken my eye. You all know my passion for photography and having a record of where I’ve been and the things we‘ve seen over the years is invaluable to me.

Oh and back to the legend who invented canvas; any chance you can now make a quick dry version? Cos packing away a wet swag sucks! My secret when your swag is utterly soaked is to take the bedding out and squish it all down behind the front seat. That way if you do get some soakage through the stitching (which all swags will do to some degree) it won’t pull through into your dry stuff.

Now bare in mind, we’d been out of mobile range for days now, something I love. So after punting around in the mud and emerging back out on the main access track leading up high onto the upper reaches of the mountain, reception hooked back in and my phone went crazy. Several missed calls and a dozen texts; all saying the same thing. Check out the fire situation back home!

It’s a heck of a feeling knowing there’s something going down at home and being so far away. Soon as I filled the lads in, they were insistent that I bail there and then and get on a plane. Timed well, I’d be home in mere hours. I didn‘t need to be told twice. The lads were only going to hit a couple more tracks, I wasn‘t missing much. I reckon I set a new speed record heading south!

In the end, my property was 100% safe but for a solid coating of ash and soot, others were so much less fortunate. It was a sobering reminder of how easily things can turn south. A quick call back to the lads filled them in on the news and they all cracked a beer for me. Bummed to have not been sharing one with them but sometimes you just have to make a call and do what you feel is for the best.

I reckon I’ve got some unfinished business at Bulahdelah, and the place does a mean chilli pie to boot! Might catch you on the mountain sometime soon hey.