EVER been to Purgatory? Or maybe Hell?
They're very hot, humid, uncomfortable and punishing places, but not in the way you think. Almost certainly no one visits them unless they're curious bushwalkers with a longing for self-inflicted pain.
Purgatory is a remote bush site full of vine-covered rainforest trees east of Bulahdelah, just off the Pacific Highway. Hell is a nearby similar place of torment and misery, entirely in the physical sense, of course.
Both remote bush sites came to mind recently while travelling to the village of Bulahdelah en route to revisit "The Grandis". This 400-year-old forest monarch on the western edge of the Myall Lakes National Park is billed as being the tallest recorded tree in NSW.
Still hidden deep within the forest, but more accessible today, it was already a substantial specimen when explorer Captain James Cook tacked his way up the NSW coast in 1770.
Officially measuring 76 metres tall (250 feet in old money) with a circumference of 8.9 metres, it was saved from the chainsaw by a logging foreman who realised its significance in the 1970s.
This mature, smooth-barked trunked, eye-catching eucalyptus grandis, (more commonly known as a flooded gum) is a rare survivor of its size.
I'm a firm believer in writer Robert Louis Stevenson's adage that it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. In other words, the journey, not the destination, is the adventure.
This revelation came after uncovering a rare photograph of the rotting Wang Wauk State Forest timber train bridge taken in November 1979, when hopes were high it could be restored as a relic for bushwalkers to admire on a bush rail trail. Sadly, it wasn't. The single trestle bridge also seems to have been the last one.
Bulahdelah was once incredibly busy in the steam era. Logging began in the Bulahdelah forests as early as the 1820s, then more seriously from 1890. Yet, it's an industry in the background today.
Bullock teams were used initially, probing into the dense green wilderness, snagging felled logs from normally inaccessible gullies. Then came horse-drawn trolleys on tramlines, and finally out of distant forests came timber-laden carriages on rails, hauled by small steam locomotives.
The forests surrounding Bulahdelah township once supported several tramways, the longest one stretched 30 kilometres, from Mayers Point, on Myall Lake where timber droghers (punts) waited for their cargoes, to Horses Creek on what is now part of the Wang Wauk State Forest.
The remarkable entrepreneur Allen Taylor bought the timber line (with horses), converting it to steel rails with five small locos, although one, the "Wootton", weighed 40 tons. The line operated from 1906 until 1944. Glimpses of the old, historic line with its moss-covered rotting sleepers, rusting spikes and iron bolts remain but much has been swallowed by bush.
Millions of super feet of timber of all varieties were extracted from the bush. Worm-resistant turpentine timber from here was used to construct Melbourne wharves. Other timbers provided decking for Sydney's harbour bridge and timber sleepers for the rail line crossing the Nullabor. There were Aussie markets for all the timber ranging from blue gum, grey gum, tallow wood, iron wood, spotted gum, to brush box and red mahogany.
It is claimed there were once 40 sawmills working in the greater Bulahdelah area.
Today, to remind us of past glory days, there's the Wootton Historical Railway Walk, 20 kilometres north of Bulahdelah, along Wootton Way. One huge, curving timber trestle bridge around here, now just a memory, stretched almost 300 metres above a creek bed.
While little remains, this six-kilometre rail trail is a rewarding walk for many, trekking through rainforest gullies, seeing flooded gum regrowth and what's left of the old trestle bridge.
The Bulahdelah town itself on the Crawford River. The name, in Aboriginal dialect, is supposed to mean "meeting of the waters". In the mid 1860s, the river town had two spellings: Bulladilla to the natives and Bullah-deelah by the river punt operators.
The last time I stayed here must be two decades ago. There have been changes. The biggest to me was that a giant log on public display has vanished. It stood in a carpark alongside the iconic Plough Inn where inside old-fashioned, two-handled bush saws still hang over the main bar.
The 10.9-metre log was erected to represent the vast wealth brought out of nearby forests for more than 100 years. There was enough timber in this one exhibit, donated by sawmiller Royce Dorney of Newells Creek, to build three houses.
Times change: the 38-ton brush box, hardwood relic with a girth of six metres is gone.
The Grandis is a living memory of days past about a 20-minute drive north of Bulahdelah via the winding, steep and hazardous Stoney Creek Road. Wise travellers would avoid this dirt road in wet weather. Once there, a viewing platform has been provided for people to marvel at what surprising lofty giants can spring up from fertile soil in wet forests.
To vary the return journey, go uphill from the site to join The Lakes Way.
What about Purgatory, still hidden in bush east of Bulahdelah? According to Hunter "lost railway" researcher Ian McNeil, the unknown Purgatory was an area with a large sawmill on the Crawford River. It boasted a short-lived tramway using a Sydney steam tram motor. But the company involved overextended itself and went bankrupt within 18 months.
One side of the Crawford River was called Purgatory and the other side Hell with the undergrowth so thick it's a real struggle to get through. "Leech heaven it was. I've done a little bit of field work up there and it's not one of my favourite areas," McNeil said.