If the assessment of what makes a parcel of land a national park has anything to do with geological history, pretty flora, semi-cuddly fauna, and a record of human habitation going back tens of thousands of years, Barrington Tops National Park takes the cake. That it’s an extinct volcano makes it even more attractive.
The 74,512-hectare park in the hinterland of the New South Wales Barrington Coast is contained within a jagged rectangle bounded by Scone, Muswellbrook, Dungog and Gloucester. Scone is the racehorse breeding capital of the world, Muswellbrook the coal breeding capital. Gloucester is a pleasant little town where you’ll find food, excellent coffee at Roadies Café, and rows of Harley Davidsons parked outside the pub on Sundays when retired accountants gather like lyre birds and twitter about the All Ords.
Down the road is a quiet picnic spot in the lovely Gloucester District Park. Eight months ago, the Gloucester River here was a trickle. Today it’s a torrent. Don’t fall in as you won’t crawl out until six tributaries have had their way and dumped you in the Manning River near Wingham.
Gloucester, closest town to the national park and what most travellers consider the gateway to it, has a population of about 2500. It was surveyed in 1855 and settled in the 1830s when the town was nothing more than a big sheep farm, so the place was established before the Pommie aristocracy ceased their practice of transporting bread thieves to Australia in 1868. Perhaps if they’d given them bread instead of prison, Australia would have been a different place, but that’s another story.
The main industries here are beef and dairy cattle farming, and tourism. From Gloucester you can easily daytrip to any location within the park and be back in time for a chardonnay — I would not be surprised to find many caravanners do this.
Access is possible on the western side from Scone, but that road is gnarly, narrow and steep in parts — definitely not the kind of dirt track up which you’d tow a big caravan. It has no guardrail either, though the same can be said for the roads taking you to Gloucester Tops and Polblue campground.
Access is also possible from the southern side from Dungog, but that deposits you at the bottom of the park and a long way from what most would consider civilised amenities.
STATS AND DETAILS
The park is an alpine plateau in the Mount Royal Range. It carries a listing as part of the Barrington Tops Group World Heritage Site, Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, and of the Barrington Tops and Gloucester Tops Important Bird Area.
The climate is generally temperate in the lower altitudes and subalpine at the highest elevations. The subalpine woodland and marshland remind me of similar subalpine country I’ve seen in Tasmania. At times during winter, my wife and I drive to the higher elevations of the park to remind ourselves what snow looks like. Sometimes we’re reminded that snow closes roads and it’s back to Gloucester for coffee and sticky date pudding.
Rainfall varies from a minimum of 750ml to a maximum of more than 2000ml, double the rainfall of surrounding areas. The plateau is also 10 degrees cooler than everything around it, and the coldest temperature recorded in the park is -17 degrees, so yes, it can be bloody cold up there. All in all, it’s an ideal environment for the ancient Gondwana rainforest.
Should Gondwana be unfamiliar, it is said to have been a northern hemisphere supercontinent about 550 million years ago, comprising, among other places, Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand. About 180 million years ago, it broke up like a crumbling muffin into what we call North America, Europe and Asia. Some experts judge Gondwana to be hypothetical, while others take it as fact.
The remnant Gondwana forest on the New South Wales mid-north coast has been called pristine and ‘as good as it gets’ by people who make a life-long study of these things. Antarctic Beech trees, some thought to live for thousands of years, can be found in several locations within the park. The easiest one for bad knees to reach is a short walk off the main road, opposite the River Walk, before you pull up in the last carpark at Gloucester Tops.
The range of plants and animals benefiting from this moist environment is impressive. The park supports a huge variety of wildlife species including more than 50 mammal, 278 bird, 42 reptile and 18 frog species, and since much of the terrain is steep and inaccessible, over epochs, if not eons, these animals have lived a life interrupted only by volcanic eruption.
In fact, several planes have crashed in this wilderness, including an F111, and some have never been found.
Aboriginal groups thrived in the area for 30,000 years, some establishing a trading route about 100km long through what is now the Hunter Valley to Sydney Harbour. Eight-hundred generations before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, the Wonnarua, Awabakal and Worimi people were taking care of business.
WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO DO
The best source of information about the park is the Gloucester information centre in Denison Street, just around the corner from the sticky date pudding shop. Here, charming, well-informed ladies will smile as they fill your random-access memory with useful data. They have brochures on everything too, and probably know more about the park than National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), but that’s just my opinion.
The park is divided into what NPWS calls precincts. That doesn’t mean much to me, but it’s easy to find your way around once the ladies in Denison Street have given you maps. As always with these things though, tourist maps rarely show critical details so it’s best to consult the locals before setting off. I stayed in the Gloucester Holiday Park where locals and fellow travellers were happy to advise a battered old wanderer like me.
At the northern end of the park is the Polblue camping area and its various accoutrements. In the centre of the park are many more camping spots, some accessible only by walking or 4WD, and towards the south-east, Gloucester Tops.
Polblue is the largest and most popular camping ground, and the highest one in the country to which you can drive. It contains 45 campsites (none marked). When I was there, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions and winter weather, the only customer was holed-up in a small campervan and didn’t look all that happy. Amenities here are good though — community shelter for snowy weather, barbecues, toilets and so on, but bring your own cooking and drinking water, firewood, and fuel stove.
There’s a lot for families at Polblue: bush walking such as mountain biking, four-wheel driving in summer when the tracks are re-opened, plus photographing the wildlife, bird watching and, of course, exaggerating your exploits to anyone who will listen.
This is all well and good, but here’s a thing. As a consequence of the extreme precipitation, the road conditions can vary from one day to the next, to the extent that caravan access may not be advisable or even possible. Half a dozen river causeways run fast and deep on the Gloucester Tops road after heavy rain, so if in doubt, perform a U-turn where possible.
Road signs warn that Barrington Tops Forest Road (also known as the Scone Road) receives little maintenance, and the sign means what it says. The road is sealed from Gloucester to the top of the plateau at Barrington Tops State Forest, and a pleasant country drive it is, but after that it offers surface rock and potholes large enough to swallow an organ grinder. Park signage could be better too — there’s not one signpost telling you how far you are from Polblue.
I don’t like to overstate these things, but since most of the trip to Polblue is uphill, with many tight corners, steep drop-offs and no Armco, make sure to stay on your side of the road. Keep headlights on and switch to 4WD off the bitumen and leave it engaged.
The Polblue end of things gets more airtime than the rest of the park as more travellers go there, but for me, Gloucester Tops is more attractive. The scenery en-route is even more beautiful. The journey begins with a river running next to the road, and cows that must have diff locks graze on vertical hillsides. It’s pastoral, pretty and charming, and I’m always pleased to be there, even in a 20-year-old 4x4 with bits hanging off it.
The only caravan park on the way there is the neat and tidy Gloucester Tops Riverside Caravan Park, but you’ll find a folksy atmosphere, friendly staff, toilets, a laundry, powered sites, permission to build a campfire, and swimming in the adjacent Gloucester River. Not too many would haul a caravan all the way up the mountain to Gloucester Tops proper so this makes an excellent staging point for day-tripping.
BARRINGTON TOPS NATIONAL PARK
P: 1300 072 757
GLOUCESTER VISITOR INFO
27 Denison St, Gloucester NSW 2422
P: (02) 6538 5252
GLOUCESTER HOLIDAY PARK
Denison St, Gloucester NSW 2422
P: (02) 6558 1720
POLBLUE CAMPING AREA
Polblue Camping Area Rd, Moonan Brook NSW 2337
P: (02) 6545 1128
GLOUCESTER TOPS RIVERSIDE CARAVAN PARK
Gloucester River Rd, Invergordon NSW 2422
P: (02) 6558 3155