During last smoke-choked summer, I watched the Facebook feed of the historic Newnes Hotel with horror and fascination as its owner, Thomas Ebersoll, gave a blow-by-blow account of the Gospers Mountain fire approaching his beloved home and business. Miraculously, the hotel was spared by the megablaze that consumed more than 512,000 hectares during its four-month rampage; but Ebersoll's terrifying accounts of watching the flames on the ridge piqued my interest in this curious little ghost town on the edge of the Wollemi National Park. Where the heck is Newnes, I thought - and why have I never paid a visit?
Several months later, as restrictions enforced by another crisis lifted, I decide to hit the road to see the place for myself. An old shale mining settlement, Newnes is located at the furthest extreme of Wolgan Valley, a small valley in the Greater Lithgow region best known as the home of the luxurious Emirates One&Only Resort.
I always thought it curious that the Arab sheikhs chose the outskirts of Lithgow to build one of Australia's most expensive hotels; but as I make the precipitous descent from Lidsdale on Wolgan Pass, I feel like I'm entering a lost world, cloistered from civilisation by the towering sandstone escarpment.
Cut by the meandering Wolgan River, the 26-kilometre valley opens into rolling pasture, gradually diminishing into a narrow crevice as it is engulfed by the heavily forested mountains. During his visit in 1836, Charles Darwin was suitably impressed, describing it as a "grand valley surrounded by cliffs of sandstone ... like a bay with arms"; and as I drive along the deserted road, I feel the embrace of nature, inviting me into the fold.
At the furthest reaches of the valley, as the bitumen becomes gravel and rolling pastures are replaced by a dense canopy of trees, I reach my destination - the Newnes Hotel, a tranquil vestige of civilisation in the middle of nowhere.
Built in 1907, the classic weatherboard structure, fronted by a shady veranda and emerald lawns, is the only remaining building from the former shale-mining township of Newnes, established in the early 20th century to extract shale to produce kerosene. At its peak, the township's population was 800; but today, its only permanent residents are Thomas Ebersoll and his family, who bought the old pub and began renovating in 2001.
Although it no longer operates as a pub, it houses a little museum, information centre and kiosk, providing basic supplies for campers, who can pitch a tent on the river flat near the hotel or in the National Park campground at the end of the road. Over the years, Ebersoll has also built four eco-cabins, providing comfortable, self-contained accommodation for up to nine guests, with the "top of the range", timber-lined Wollemi Cabin boasting an octagonal tower dining room.
I'm travelling solo, however - so my home for the night is the mini-me Colo Cabin, its Rapunzel tower featuring a small study and an observatory bunk bed. There's also a queen-sized bed, a single bunk bed, a dining area and kitchen, plus basic bathroom facilities. It's rustic but comfortable; and with no TV or phone reception, the focus is on the views, the silence and total immersion in nature.
The area abounds in history; and with many of the old shale-mining ruins exposed by the fires, a walk becomes a journey of discovery. Scattered throughout the area are rusted coke ovens and old brick kilns; while the eerie sight of the old school chimneys is a reminder of the town's brief heyday when this bushland was the playground for 728 schoolchildren.
The most popular hike leads to the famed Glow Worm Tunnel, where thousands of glow-worms twinkle like tiny stars on its damp walls. From the trailhead, it's a challenging four-kilometre walk up a steep hill to the old railway embankment leading to the tunnel, a pitch-black, soggy 270-metre cutting through the mountain.
This is spectacular, wild country, a landscape that throws surprises around every turn. Anywhere else in the world, a place as majestic as Wolgan Valley would be a major tourist attraction, visited by selfie-wielding busloads. Instead, chances are you'll be alone on the trails, or nodding politely to the occasional fellow-hiker - the Australian bush at its fascinating best.
Sweet valley highs
Just beyond Wolgan Valley, en route to Mudgee on the Castlereagh Highway, you'll find spectacular unsung Capertee Valley. One of the largest canyons in the world, it is swathed in greenery and centred by the monolithic Pantoneys Crown that rises eerily from the valley floor like a giant spaceship.
Off this road, on a working cattle farm, is Bubbletent Australia. Accessed by 4WD only, three clear bubble domes built on wooden decks with outdoor firepits and wood-fired bathtubs offer mesmerising views of the valley and the night sky in this romantic, off-the-grid escape.
Booked out for months in advance, Bubbletent's eco-friendly glamping concept is the type of escape people are seeking in these challenging times. See bubbletentaustralia.com
While you're here...
...you might also enjoy