Published in Great Walks (Australia) magazine, April-May 2011
Gibraltar Range National Park's granite cliffs and rugged trails showcase the best of Gondwana Rainforest country
Bill Mulligan must have been a tough character. Back in the 1920s this grazier and mining engineer spent a lot of his time high in the remote ranges between Glen Innes and Grafton hatching a plan to harness the waters of Dandahra Creek to produce hydro-electricity. His plan was eventually quashed by the government, but not before he had constructed two low concrete weirs to measure water flow on the main branches of the creek. This is rugged, isolated country with severely cold winters, so Mulligan's efforts and perseverance in the absence of any modern machinery or electricity are impressive. The weirs are still in place, although one of them has been breached so the only remaining signs of his handiwork are the concrete foundations on each side of the creek.
Several generations later, the countryside that was Bill Mulligan's stamping ground is now part of Gibraltar Range National Park. The first areas of the National Park were dedicated in 1963, and Gibraltar Range was World Heritage listed in 1986 as part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia.
The remains of one of Bill Mulligan's weirs on Little Dandahra Creek
Forest through the trees
The typical landscapes in the park include dry woodlands and open heathlands, broken by craggy outcrops and huge granite boulders, but pockets of rainforest and wet eucalypt forest add variety and complexity to the local ecosystem. The rushing waters of Little Dandahra Creek and Dandahra Creek cut through the middle of the park before spilling over the escarpment on their way to joining the Mann and eventually the Clarence Rivers.
The main access point and camping area for visitors to the park is Mulligan's Hut, a lovely forested area perched on the western bank of Little Dandahra Creek. A replica of the log hut where Bill Mulligan lived and worked has been built on a grassy flat beside the creek and right alongside one of the old weirs. Mulligan's Hut is the starting point for most of the park's day walks. These range from easy, short strolls through woodland or along Little Dandahra Creek, to more taxing hikes that take in impressive granite outcrops and mountain cascades. For the more intrepid hiker, the 60 km Gibraltar Range-Washpool World Heritage Walk will keep you busy for four or more days – the walk extends to 100 km if you opt to take all of the side tracks to the park's main features of interest.
The first thing most visitors to Mulligan's Hut will do is take the short stroll down to Little Dandahra Creek. This beautiful rocky stream flows strong and clear throughout the year. The best access to Little Dandahra Creek is at Barra Nulla Cascades just 200m downstream of the camping area. The short track through open woodland branches to the left and drops down onto rocky creek banks where there are plenty of places to explore or just sit and take in the mountain atmosphere. The main cascades are out of sight from the end of the track, but are easily accessed by crossing the creek and rockhopping downstream another 100 metres. Here the flow branches into several channels before dropping over a series of beautiful cascades into deep pools that are popular with swimmers in summer.
About one kilometre past the Cascades, the track enters a stand of rainforest and forks again – the left branch descends into drier woodland and eventually to Lyrebird Rock. I was half expecting this smooth granite outcrop perched high above the Little Dandahra Creek Falls to be shaped like a lyrebird, but it isn't. Instead, there were lyrebird scratchings on and around the area, and the occasional cacophony of a lyrebird's call ringing through the forest. An old track continues past Lyrebird Rock and down to the Little Dandahra Creek Falls but this has been closed because of landslips and erosion. The head ranger for the area told me it was planned to eventually construct a new track and viewing area to the falls.
Back at the head of the Lyrebird Rock track, the main trail carries on for several kilometres through rainforest before coming to an abrupt end on the banks of Dandahra Creek at the Murrumbooee Cascades. This is the site of Bill Mulligan's second weir - it is still intact and can be accessed by crossing the creek and rockhopping 50m downstream. The walk to Murrumbooee Cascades is very pleasant, but the opportunities to explore once you arrive are pretty limited. It can be difficult to cross the creek unless you're prepared to get very wet, and the going on the north bank is not easy. But it's certainly worth a visit to get an appreciation of what Mulligan had to contend with to build his weir.
Barra Nulla Cascades
Little Dandahra Creek
Weirs and woodlands
A recently completed circuit track takes in areas to the north of Mulligan's Hut and makes an excellent day walk. Starting at the Hut, the track crosses over Mulligan's weir and rises through woodland and rainforest for one kilometre before coming to a t-junction. To the right, a half hour walk through rainforest will bring you to the edge of a steep escarpment that overlooks the Dandahra Creek gorge and a series of sheer granite columns known as the Needles. The wilderness views from this point are breathtaking, and on a still morning, you can hear the rushing waters in the gorge some 600 vertical metres below. The Needles track is a little steep in places, but is a worthwhile addition to the main circuit.
Returning to the t-junction, the circuit track continues to the north-west rising steadily through rainforest and wet eucalypt forest for several kilometres before reaching the turnoff to the Tree Fern Forest. The main track continues on straight ahead to the Gwydir Highway and eventually into Washpool National Park. Taking the turnoff, the track quickly drops down into an unexpected and magical grove of tree ferns and Sydney bluegums. This is a great spot to sit among the fern fronds and towering white trunks that bring to mind images of goblins and fairies, especially if you can summon the energy to get there early in the day when mist is still hanging among the trees. The scenery quickly changes as you leave the Tree Fern Forest and emerge into an open field of swamp grasses, banksias and grass trees surrounded by a gnarly woodland of New England blackbutt and stringybarks. The track skirts around this heathy swampland and then crosses several rocky ridges before eventually leading back to Little Dandahra Creek and to Mulligan's Hut.
On the Tree Fern Forest circuit
Rock of ages
There are two other short walks near Mulligan's Hut that are well worth investigating. Both are accessed by taking a ten minute drive back along Mulligan's Road from the camping area. Anvil Rock and the Dandahra Crags are rugged granite outcrops that offer views over the typical woodlands and swamplands of the park, and are accessed after easy 30-40 minute walks from the car parks. Only minimal scrambling skills are needed to get up to the view points, but experienced rock climbers will also find plenty of opportunities to test their skills on the surrounding outcrops. The Dandahra Crags track continues on as a circuit around the beautiful Surveyor's Swamp, past other outcrops, and alongside Surveyor's Creek before returning to the car park.
Gibraltar Range National Park is great walking country, with options to suit everyone from the intrepid wilderness walker to families and those who just enjoy a casual stroll through beautiful, wild surroundings. I like to think that Bill Mulligan would be pleased to see people enjoying the rugged country that he called home so many years ago.
The view from Anvil Rock
Looking down on a frosty Surveyor's Swamp from the Dandahra Crags
Mist on the Dandahra Crags
Looking out at a heavy fog from the Crags
NEED TO KNOW
The turnoff to Mulligan's Hut is located on the Gwydir Highway 70 km east of Glen Innes and 87 km west of Grafton. From the turnoff, it's another 9 km along a well made dirt road to the camping area.
Mulligan's Hut camping area has 15 individual sites for tents and caravans up to 6 metres, and a large central area suitable for multi-vehicle and school groups. Facilities include flush toilets, cold showers, gas barbecues, fireplaces and wet weather shelters. Tap water is provided but should be boiled before drinking. Limited firewood is available. Camping and park access fees can be paid at the self-registration booths in the camping area. For more information, visit www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/ or call the National Parks and Wildlife Service at Glen Innes on (02) 6732 5133.
When to go
Winters are typically dry and cold and frosts are common - night temperatures often drop well below zero. Summer days are warm to hot and the nights cool. Most of the rain falls in the summer months. Autumn, winter and early spring offer the best walking conditions but be prepared for the cold.
Cangai 9338-I-N 1:25 000 topographic map. The free brochure at the self-registration booths has adequate maps and good information on the day walks mentioned in this article.
Barra Nulla Cascades
500m return. Allow 20 minutes. Easy grade
3.5 km return. Allow 1.5 hours. Easy grade
6 km return. Allow 2 hours. Easy to medium grade
6 km return. Allow 2 hours. Easy to medium grade.
Tree Fern Forest Circuit
8 km circuit. Allow 3 hours. Medium grade.
4 km return. Allow 1.5 hours. Easy to medium grade.
Dandahra Crags Circuit
6 km circuit. Allow 2 hours. Easy to medium grade.