The winter sun fell across grazed hills and forested peaks, creating shadows beneath mottled clouds and miles of quiet. I stood and watched the road snake past acacia and stringybark trees, between hills that had witnessed both theft and murder. For this land was once home to 19th-century bushranger Frederick Ward, also known as Captain Thunderbolt. This is Thunderbolts Way.
Thunderbolts Way is a 290-kilometre country road linking Newcastle with Armidale through the Great Dividing Range in NSW. If you’re travelling from Sydney to Brisbane, take the long, pretty way and veer off the coast. Head inland at Raymond Terrace (just past Newcastle) and follow Thunderbolts Way to Armidale before rejoining the coast. By jingo I’ve done some drives and this is one of the nicest.
Although it was named after Captain Thunderbolt, Thunderbolts Way – at least the most scenic part – was built by pioneer Eric Carson. In 1958 Carson and his two sons began work on the the road from Gloucester to Nowendoc. By 1961, Carson had successfully paved a road through some of the state’s most rugged scenery, putting the sheen on the thunderbolt road-trippers love today.
Besides its sweeping good looks, one of the great reasons to follow Thunderbolts Way is that hulking semis and even caravaners avoid it, as sections are just too steep and narrow. So, at times there really is miles of quiet. The towns along the way – such as Gloucester, Nowendoc, Walcha and Uralla – are also alluring little places well worth stopping at. One of the only problems you may have is getting lost for time.
Boarding the thunderbolt at Gloucester, I stopped and sunk my teeth into some inland seafood, soaked up the greenery and continued past the august members of the Great Dividing Range. Gloucester is a superb spot to spy this third-longest land based mountain range in the world, and provides a worthy stop with its handsome cafes (with top views) and weekly farmers market (Saturday).
The drive from here to Nowendoc is perhaps the finest stretch of the bolt, with hills, meadows, forest-clad mountains, a winding path of deciduous trees and the odd church resting on roadside stretches of emerald sward. I stopped frequently on this section, snapping photos and just thinking, watching, listening. Thunderbolts Way was another welcome reminder of what a wonderful country I live in.
Further along, just past the bolt’s zig, lies the Carson Memorial Lookout, offering arguably the grandest view on Thunderbolts Way. It’s little wonder, I thought, that after escaping the confines of Cockatoo Island, Frederick Ward returned to these parts – to wander, to steal, but never to kill. This “gentleman bushranger”, as he became known, was eventually shot and killed at Uralla – the nerve centre of Thunderbolt tourism.
I stayed the night here. It’s a pleasant little town with a plethora of outdoor activities at its disposal.
There’s a nice pub too.