The old abandoned train tunnel rises out of the bush like the gaping mouth of some ancient animal.
Engulfed by lantana on both sides, it doesn’t come into view until you’re about ten metres away, having hacked and scrambled through the undergrowth.
When you hit the tunnel there’s a strong sense of having stumbled across someone’s lair.
And that’s exactly what it is.
About 20 metres into the void, someone or some people have built what can best be described as a cage, though it’s probably more about keeping people out rather than keeping them in.
Dozens of tree branches have been interlaced to form two ‘walls’ about five metres apart creating an enclosed space.
Inside the cage are mattresses and bedding, an old couch, empty bottles, plastic bags and a carpet of old wrappers and newspaper.
There’s enough room to slip around the side of the first wall, step carefully over the possessions, and escape out through another gap on the other side.
A few steps farther and you’re out the other side, back into the light…
Fourteen years after the closure of the Murwillumbah line, the track has been transformed.
As the seemingly endless debate over the future of the rail corridor continues to rage, the line itself is quietly evolving into a wild and rotting but fascinating place.
Nature has well and truly moved in, and so have the fringes of the local community.
The track between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores is so overgrown it took my companion and myself five hours to make the journey.
We had to leave the rails for large stretches because they were too overgrown, finding alternative routes alongside until the scrub cleared.
The rails, not surprisingly, are covered with deep, red rust that in places seems to have eaten most of the way through.
The sleepers are in various stages of decay, ranging from slightly degraded to a rotten, splintered mess.
In a few places they have been simply shoved aside by camphor laurel trees that have somehow managed to force their way up through the track’s rocky foundations.
The rail bridges spanning the Brunswick River and its tributaries are in a similarly parlous state. The sleepers are particularly rotted here, and are completely missing in some places.
With rotting support timbers, you don’t have to be an engineer to see that they’re not structurally sound.
So what does this mean for the future of the line and the debate between those who want it used for its original purpose and those who would prefer a picturesque bike and walking track?
It’s clear from even a short walk along the track that re-opening the line for heavy rail would require completely tearing up some parts of the track and rebuilding it.
Some stretches where the rail corridor has been better maintained are evidently in much better shape and would require less work, but in the bushy areas nature appears to have taken over almost completely.
Returning all of these stretches to useable rail line would cost tens if not hundreds of millions, not to mention the ongoing cost of maintenance.
But it’s evident from the experience of other local shires that converting the line into a walking and bike track wouldn’t be cheap either.
Preliminary costings released by Lismore Council recently put a $15m price tag on turning the stretch of track from Casino to Lismore into a rail trail.
It led Lismore councillor Greg Bennett to ask, ‘does anyone else think this is absolutely ridiculous?’.
‘Why would the state government even consider funding this waste of taxpayers’ money?’ Cr Bennett asked.
‘Surely $15 million would go a long way to restoring trains to the Lismore/Casino line.’
The Echo can’t comment on the state of that particular stretch of line, but having seen the state of the rails between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores, it is easy to imagine $15m being swallowed up very quickly.
Nature taking over
And the longer the government authorities wait the more expensive any major project will become because nature is slowly gobbling up what’s left of the line.
Having said that, an ambitious government planning to put trains back on this section of track, or indeed a walking track, wouldn’t have to start completely from scratch.
The most basic foundations of the rail corridor appear to still be intact.
It’s a tribute to the original engineers and workers that there have been no major mudslides, rockfalls or obvious failures of the rail cuttings.
The tunnels, too, appear to be completely intact.
Which helps to explain why they have attracted so much human attention.
Each of the three tunnels we encountered had evidently been used as a place to sleep, to party, and to create.
The second tunnel we encountered – a beautiful, 100m-long cathedral-like structure – was adorned with about a dozen pieces of retro tunnel art.
The artists had taken advantage of the huge ‘canvas’ to spray old-school 1980s-style New York subway-style pieces with ornate, garish backgrounds.
The still-vibrant colours suggested some were little more than a year or two old.
Given that the most likely outcome for the line, at least in the short-to-medium term, is the status quo, it seems likely that the fringe dwellers will be allowed to continue their activities largely uninterrupted.
The debate over the future of the track will continue and nature will continue her inevitable course, reclaiming the line and returning it – sleeper by sleeper – back to the earth.