A RAILWAY EXPEDITION

Since moving to Bangalow a few years ago, my children have wanted to walk the old railway line to Byron Bay. My wife Kaspia and I remembered several journeys we’d taken as teenagers on the legendary ‘surf train’ from Sydney. But the last train ran in 2004 and the rusty tracks now lay quiet. Railway enthusiasts lobbying for it’s return seemed to be losing ground to those who championed a scenic ‘rail trail’. But our children weren’t going to wait for an outcome. Two of them were already walking to school on the tracks and now, Paloma (9), Romeo (7) and Bohème (2) wanted to walk the winding 12 kms all the way to the beach. Kaspia chose to let us go without her, offering instead to play a supporting role as our on-call rescuer in case we got into trouble, and to pick us up at the other end.

On the day we set out I clipped our youngest daughter Bohème into a baby carrier she was almost too big for. Our backpack contained warm clothes, umbrella and sandwiches. Our son Romeo made sure I didn’t forget my ‘Afghan knife’, the one I’d purchased in Jalalabad, it’s blade engraved with an AK47. I’d bought a machete too after hearing pub rumours of thick jungle. Now, with machete strapped to my belt and the children carrying binoculars and homemade slingshots around their necks, we set off on our expedition feeling like real explorers.

DAY 1

Not long after we left home, and just before the old Bangalow railway station, the ballast of a small section of track was mysteriously splashed with multicoloured paint. It was too far from the FJ Reading bridge to have come off a passing paint truck, but I didn’t have another explanation. The children of course were convinced the spot must have been the end of a rainbow. They each picked a ‘rainbow rock’ and slipped it in their pockets as a souvenir.

Some Bangalow residents with homes backing onto the line grew vegetables down to the rails. One pumpkin vine was so vast it had crept onto the tracks, guarded by a large black dog on a chain. As we left Bangalow we entered a forest of young fir trees, a carpet of pine needles underfoot. But soon we got a taste of the trouble to come. Dense lantana, rising up in front of us like a wall. It was time for the machete.

I quickly realised taking along a toddler strapped to the chest while hacking jungle with a machete wasn’t that sensible. Nevertheless we forged on. After each step I hacked, then took another step and hacked again. Surely this wasn’t how it would be the whole way?

The lantana momentarily cleared for a railway bridge which the children crossed with ease, the trunks of adolescent camphor laurel trees growing up through the sleepers.

After passing the blueberry farm, over Bangalow Road and through another short pine forest, the lantana became so heavy again we needed to attack it along the edge of the line. We heard a woman’s voice calling out and came to another bridge, this one smaller. Below was a collection of makeshift dwellings, a bush community of sorts. And there was the owner of the voice, a kindly woman holding an armful of oranges. ‘You must be tired and thirsty,’ she said, throwing up oranges one at a time. But the next person we came across wasn’t so hospitable. A section of track at Coopers Shoot backed onto a property with a lavish mansion. Hearing our approach, a lady in broad-brimmed gardening hat came to the fence, offering nothing but a stern talking to. ‘You heard of snakes? Where you going?’ We told her and she couldn’t believe it. ‘Madness,’ she muttered, walking away.

A hundred metres on we heard a deep rumble, like thunder, coming and going. Was it a storm? No, just the sound of vehicles going over the planks of a tall bridge. Under it Paloma found a bunch of roses. We imagined they’d been tossed from the window of a passing car, an unwanted gift from an unwanted lover perhaps. Nearby we found a white porcelain railway insulator in the long grass. It would make the perfect vase for the flowers Paloma would give to her mother.

After battling lantana for half-a-kilometre through the next section, our 2yo Bohème decided she’d had enough. It was understandable. I was surprised she’d come this far. In a clearing at the edge of the tracks we stumbled on a small marijuana plantation, then some wild strawberries the children helped themselves to. It was now 4pm and I knew we’d barely made it a third of the way. At the next bridge we waited for Kaspia to collect us.

DAY 2

A month went by before we went back, this time without the toddler Bohème. After the arduous first leg, the children needed a little convincing to continue. My oldest daughter, ever the practical girl, asked me why exactly we were doing this in the first place. My answer of ‘just because’ wasn’t adequate. I told her answers can be hard to come by at the outset, because the journey itself provides them.

It was an encouraging start, thanks to whispering heather and spectacular views of rolling hills with an occasional rambling farmhouse. Romeo found a rabbit’s skull on the tracks, and followed a trail of it’s vertebrae until he had the whole skeleton. Paloma collected vintage bottles of blue and green glass, and the children practiced hitting them with rocks from their slingshots.

Judging by the heaps of dried and shredded lantana lying by the tracks, it  seemed this section had been cleared by a farmer using heavy machinery. If only the farmer had done us a favour and cleared it all the way to Byron! We passed under several barbed cattle fences strung directly across the tracks, trying our best to avoid getting snagged. Half a kilometre on and the jungle was back. Out came the machete, hacking as if through the Amazon.

Whenever the lantana cleared of it’s own accord it was usually for a bridge. It seemed to me that it also thinned out whenever the rails were flanked by tall trees. Many outcrops of ‘cats claw’ creepers had twisted their thick tendrils like serpents around old railway signs, bringing them to their knees. We passed a bamboo forest too, it’s slender stems reaching to the sky and rubbing against each other, creating an eerie creaking sound Romeo said sounded like old doors opening and closing. Thankfully, around lunchtime on this second leg we arrived at a break in the jungle as the track passed along a ridge from which we could see all the way to the Byron lighthouse and the ocean twinkling beyond. Here we stopped and ate our sandwiches and watched a pair of majestic hawks hovering motionless on a gentle updraft. What a great railway journey this once had been, and if it ever became a ‘rail trail’ it would surely be a spectacular attraction.

It was a good thing we ate our lunch then as we’d need the energy. The rest of the afternoon was very slow going, some sections so thick with lantana they were simply impenetrable. We slid down the muddy edge of the track and up cuttings to escape the weed. Soon we were covered from head to toe in dirt. Again we received kind hospitality from a local man Sam, his 7yo daughter Ella and their dog Archie. They brought us drinks on a tray and we talked for a while and they wished us well. But not long after we were chased away by another resident who declared us ‘trespassers’ even though we always stayed within three metres of the tracks that were now, I’d been told, public property.

It was starting to get dark and I knew this journey would stretch to the third day. My mobile phone’s navigating system was unreliable, but seemed to suggest we were close to Hayter’s Hill. It looked like there was a considerable distance between us and Bangalow Road where we needed to get to. There was nothing for it but to head in that direction before we lost light. Unfortunately it was a forest of thorny acacia karroo vines and before long all three of us were trapped by the vicious spikes each 2-3 cms long. They stabbed through our clothing and gripped on. For the first time on this mission both the children were genuinely alarmed and uncomfortable. Caught in the clutches of a karroo I made light of them being the ‘thorns of death’ and just another challenge to be expected. But I found the machete of little use. The more we struggled and hacked, the more entangled we became and the more pain we suffered. I knew I had to free myself first before rescuing the others. It wasn’t easy, and it required staying calm and slowly unpicking each thorn from where it was attached. But the moment I’d gotten myself out of the pickle and pulled my daughter free, I was immediately grabbed by another karroo branch and fell back into it. It was like they were reaching out intentionally. This time Paloma had to rescue me from thorns, while taking care not to get snagged again herself. This always happens near the end of a story, I kept telling children, that final plot point where the audience thinks all is lost. Then they reminded me we were a long way from the end of the story, and if this wasn’t the end and the worst of it, then what horrors lay ahead?

DAY 3

It was more than six months before I could talk our children into finishing what we’d started. The benefits of not giving up, of determination and the satisfaction of achievement were not as compelling for them as the promise of a lemonade at The Rails Hotel. If the lemonade was the holy grail that got them out of the house, then so be it. They’d realise the rest in due course.

Reluctant to reach the railway line through the thorns of death again, our access point would be to the immediate east, less than twenty metres from where we’d left off. We’d have to go through private farmlands and decided it was prudent to get permission. I’m not a great fan of ‘permission’, but less a fan of being stopped before setting out. We knocked on the door of the Hayter family’s house. They were most intrigued by our objective and kindly allowed us to walk through their field. It was in this field that we encountered a herd of bulls that followed us down the slope to the tracks, making Paloma and Romeo very nervous we were going to be gorged like matadors. ‘Don’t let them sense your fear,’ I advised, pretty sure there was nothing in that theory at all, not with cows at least. But they followed my instructions and we reached the tracks where the karroo thorns had given way to a picturesque tunnel of ferns, many varieties growing side by side. Some were so tall the children snapped a few off and made fern crowns out of them. The train line then passed along sheer rock face glistening with water from a natural spring. Climbing up this cliff were the grey roots of Mortan Bay fig trees growing at the top. 

As we neared the water towers on the eastern side of Hayters Hill we came across the ruins of another community of fringe dwellers. I held up my hand for a silent approach, like soldiers do, just for fun. Several rusty vans equipped with mattresses spilled their springs and stuffing. There were tables and chairs and and a clothes line with shirts and pants still clipped to it. In the middle of the track was a caravan, it’s windows shattered. It looked like nobody had lived here for a year or more. The children explored and we all imagined what it must have been like to call this place home.

About a hundred meters past the tall bridge where Old Bangalow Road crossed the railway line, Paloma found a gold belt and a beaded butterfly that looked like it had come off a lady’s dress. We speculated how these treasures had ended up here, whether like many of the other strange items such as train carriage seats and mouldy hats had been thrown or lost from the windows in the years the railway operated. I struggled however to come up with an acceptable story for the plastic bottle with a length of garden hose stuck in the side…

The lantana was back now, but this time waste-height and nowhere near as menacing in its density and only for a distance of two or three hundred metres. The children charged ahead of me, pushing through it, crushing it underfoot, leaving me and my trusty machete behind.

After the lantana cleared to a stretch of delicate ferns scattered along the tracks, we ate our sandwiches sitting on the rails and watched a beautiful turtle dove roosting in a tall umbrella tree. From here the track curved around into Lilly Pilly, right alongside the back fences off houses on Cemetery Road. We were close to Byron now. We’d set out at 10am and it was just after 1pm. Although we’d made good time, the classic story structure dictated we’d soon encounter our greatest obstacle yet. In this case I assumed it was the stretch of the thickest lantana we’d come across. But ten minutes after hacking into it we suddenly stopped dead. In a small gap ahead, reclining across the tracks, lay the most enormous diamond python I’d ever seen. It almost resembled an anaconda, it’s body thick as some of the fig roots we’d clambered over, it’s length close to 4 metres! I never imaged these pythons could grow that big. Being surrounded on all sides by dense lantana made a quick escape impossible. And going back wasn’t an option, it was never an option. Why had the python not sensed us coming? Romeo started banging the rails with a stick, but the python didn’t flinch. We stamped our feet and yelled, but nothing woke it. ‘We’ll just have to go around,’ said my daughter, matter-of-factly. So that’s what we did, tip-toe round it ever so quietly. Just as we got level with the python however, it opened a lazy eye and saw us. Then it lifted it’s giant head and swivelled it in our direction. Our hearts raced. Still it made no attempt to move, either toward or away from us. Keeping our nerve we continued creeping slowly past and into the next lantana thicket. When I looked back I saw the python settling his head down on the tracks again to continue it’s siesta.

That python was the gate-keeper of the inner sanctum, and here we now were, having passed the snake challenge and coming out of the last lantana to the railway crossing at The Roadhouse. Over the street we carried on walking up the track, the home stretch, covered in little more than our favourite heather glowing in the afternoon sun. Given the stagnant swamp on either side of the rails here it was easy to understand the notorious mosquito problem in the area.

The first sign of humanity we encountered was through a wire fence at the back of the Byron Gym, a man with muscles and running shorts getting into an orange sports car. A graffiti gallery came next on the back wall of the hardware store. Then an abandoned shopping trolley and some mattresses and lean-tos belonging to the homeless. Finally we found ourselves looking for a way through the fence and onto Johnson Street. Past the old Woolworths we entered an alleyway that became a maze leading to the kitchen of the Avocado Hut. It was the tail end of lunchtime and the cafe was full. Nevertheless we stumbled into the civilised world through the dining crowd and their clean linens. They all stopped to stare at us with our scruffy clothes, slingshots and machetes, covered in jungle grit, heads adorned with fern crowns and faces smudged with mud. What a spectacle it must have been! But we weren’t stopping, not until we reached The Rails Hotel, the Friendly Railway Bar to be exact, for a schooner of Stone & Wood and two glasses of cold lemonade.

Photos and story by Benjamin Gilmour

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