Old North Road Drive

When travelling from Sydney to the Hunter Valley, it's so easy to put the brain on auto pilot and take the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway (F3). There is a longer (an additional 32 kms), slower, but far more interesting way  it follows the pathway of the pioneer settlers through the Hawkesbury and Macdonald River valleys to Bucketty, then Wollombi and on to Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.

Length: 182.4 km
Suggested return journey: via Sydney-Newcastle Freeway (F3)
Features/attractions: historic villages of the Hawkesbury district, First Fleeter graves
Minimum duration (one way): 3 hours

When the pioneer Europeans settlers forged their way north from the town of Sydney in the early 19th century, they followed the Hawkesbury River to a sweeping bend on the Hawkesbury River where in 1817, Solomon Wiseman had settled and established a punt ferry across the river. From there they climbed Devines Hill and continued north to Newcastle. Stone culverts and buttresses built by convicts in the 1830s along this historic pathway have long been abandoned by the majority of northbound travellers, but they remain to delight those who take this less travelled road.

What You Will See: This drive commences in the semi-rural suburb of Dural in Sydney s north-west, and follows the convict built Old Northern Road to Wisemans Ferry. Along the way is Kenthurst with its shops and galleries; Glenorie (orchards, market gardens and roadside stalls); Cattai National Park with its convict built homestead of a first fleeter; Marramarra National Park (bushwalks, abundant bird life, river and valley views); Tobruk Merino Sheep Station; a number of lookout with sweeping views up and down the Hawkesbury.

Wisemans Ferry

Wisemans Ferry: Located on Laughtondale Gully Road at Wisemans Ferry a small cemetery contains the graves of pioneer settler George Laughton; miller James Singleton and first fleeter Peter Hibbs. Hibbs was a Marine with HMS Sirius and later captained the Norfolk on its voyage when George Bass and Matthew Flinders became the first to circumnavigate Tasmania in 1798 (they named Point Hibbs in his honour). There are some who believe Hibbs visited Australia in 1770 as James Cook's cabin boy aboard HMS Endeavour.

After taking the punt across the river at Wisemans Ferry, Settlers Road heads north past the disused section of the old convict built road across Devines Hill. A walk along the old roadway reveals numerous examples of convict workmanship in the form of drains, walls and giant stone buttresses.

Back on Settlers Road, we follow the Macdonald River through what the locals call Forgotten Valley. At Wrights Creek, on the eastern side of the road, there are two old slab cottages that are of a style common in the Hawkesbury Valley in the early 1800s  blacks swans and other water birds are often seen here.

St Albans: The quaint, historic village of St. Albans was established in the 1820s at the highest point up the Macdonald Valley that could be reached by shallow drafted boats (hence Wharf Road) but its days as a port ended in the 1860s when sandbars were deposited by floods. Settlers Arms Inn, first licensed in 1836, is a great place to stop for a drink or lunch. The old St. Albans cemetery, battered by two centuries of flooding, contains the graves of six First Fleeters.

Bucketty and Laguna: Beyond St. Albans, the scenery changes as the road climbs its way past Perrys Crossing, Fernances and Mogo Creek as it winds its way towards the historic village of Bucketty. Keep a lookout for the signs pointing out the Bucketty Wall at Mt. McQuoid, which is at the intersection of George Downes Drive and the road from St. Albans.

From Bucketty, the route heads north along the Great North Road. Again, there are more examples of convict work along the way more walls at Ramsays Leap and the Murrays Run Culvert between Bucketty and Laguna. Laguna Markets are held on the third Sunday of each month. It features local produce including fresh vegetables, free range eggs, fruit, herbs, plants, flowers, tube stock, olive oil, preserves and lavender products. It also features hand spun wool, beanies, scarves, jewellery, vintage linen, bric-a-brac, second-hand books and much more. Coffee and refreshments are available.

St Michael's Church, Wollombi

Wollombi: Next stop is the very small but picturesque and historic rural village of Wollombi in the lower Hunter Valley. 29 km south-west of Cessnock and 142 km north of Sydney, Wollombi is characterised by 19th-century sandstone buildings and an abundance of timber slab constructed cottages and sheds, all in an idyllic location within a narrow valley junction containing Wollombi Brook and Congewai Creek.

Aboriginal sites: There are a number of historic Aboriginal sites in the countryside along the way, which are thought to have been used as a ceremonial meeting places as people from hundreds of kilometres visited the area and made their way to Mount Yengo a place of great significance throughout the ancient nations of eastern Australia. There are rock engravings, sharpening grooves, hand stencils, tribal markings and other images in caves and outcrops, frequent evidence of camping sites along the Wollombi Brook and its tributary creeks, and two major mapping sites containing many engravings.

Paxton: Continue on Great North Road alongside the north arm of Wollombi Brook past Corrabare State Forest. The village of Paxton developed around the pithead of Stainford Main No 2 Hunter Valley Colliery at the site of an old staging post in the days when Cobb and Co plied the Old North Road. A right turn beyond the Paxton Hotel leads to Ellalong and the Congewai Valley. Beyond Ellalong, the road which skirts the Aberdare State Forest on the loop back to the Wollombi Road presents views across the Ellalong Swamp to the Watagan Mountains.

Greta: The Greta Main Colliery was established around the turn of the century and at its peak employed 165 men and 100 horses. It was named after the very high quality coal seam that stretches from Greta towards Wollombi and was operated on land that was originally a sheep station called Wyalla. The coal was extracted via a tunnel shaft which ran into a labyrinth of workings on the opposite side of Wollombi Road. Great North Road continues north from Paxton to Greta Main, Bellbird and Cessnock in the heart of Hunter Valley wine country.

Sydney  Wisemans Ferry: 70.1 km
Wisemans Ferry  Bucketty: 60.1 km
Bucketty  Cessnock: 52.3 km

Stone buttress, Devines Hill

Peter Hibbs' grave, Laughtondale Cemetery

Convict built culvert, Mt Quoid, near Bucketty

St Albans General Cemetery

Settlers Arms, St Albans

Aboriginal rock art, Yengo National Park

Old Stanford Main No 2 colliery, Paxton

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