Photos & story Benjamin Gilmour
Since moving to Bangalow a few years ago, my children have wanted to walk the old railway line to Byron Bay. The last ‘surf train’ ran in 2004, and the rusty tracks have lain quiet since then while railway enthusiasts lobbied for its return, and others championed a scenic ‘rail trail’.
Our children, Paloma (9), Romeo (7) and Bohème (2) weren’t going to wait. My wife, Kaspia, offered to be our on-call rescuer in case we hit trouble, and to pick us up at the other end. I clipped our youngest daughter Bohème into a baby carrier and donned a backpack containing warm clothes, umbrella, sandwiches, binoculars, snake bandages, and a machete. Then we set off, feeling like real explorers.
Day 1: machetes and toddlers
Some Bangalow residents with homes backing onto the line grow vegetables down to the rails. One pumpkin vine was so vast it had crept onto the tracks, guarded by a large black dog on a chain.
As we left Bangalow we entered a forest of young fir trees, a carpet of pine needles underfoot. But soon we got a taste of the trouble to come. Dense lantana rose up in front of us like a wall. It was time for the machete.
I quickly realised taking along a toddler strapped to the chest while hacking jungle style with a machete wasn’t that sensible. Nevertheless, we forged on. After each step I hacked, then took another step and hacked again. Surely this wasn’t how it would be the whole way?
The lantana momentarily cleared for a railway bridge, which the children crossed with ease. After passing the blueberry farm and heading over Bangalow Road, the lantana became so dense again that we needed to attack it along the edge of the line. We heard a woman’s voice calling out and came to another bridge, this one smaller. Below was a collection of makeshift dwellings, a bush community. And there was the owner of the voice, a kindly woman holding an armful of oranges.
‘You must be tired and thirsty,’ she said, throwing up oranges one at a time. But the next person we came across wasn’t so hospitable. A section of track at Coopers Shoot backed onto a fancy property with a lavish mansion. Hearing our approach, a lady in a broad-brimmed gardening hat came to the fence. She offered us nothing but a stern talking to.
‘You heard of snakes? Where you going?’ When we told her, she couldn’t believe it. ‘Madness,’ she muttered, walking away.
A hundred metres on we heard a deep rumble, like thunder, coming and going. Was it a storm? No, just the sound of vehicles going over the planks of a tall bridge. Under it, Paloma found a bunch of roses. We imagined they’d been tossed from the window of a passing car; an unwanted gift from an unwanted lover. Nearby we found a white porcelain railway insulator in the grass: the perfect vase for the flowers Paloma would give to her mother.
After battling lantana for another half a kilometre, two-year old Bohème decided she’d had enough. In a clearing at the edge of the tracks was a small marijuana plantation, then some wild strawberries. It was now 4pm and I knew we’d barely made it a third of the way. At the next bridge we waited for Kaspia to collect us.
Day 2: the point of a journey
A month later we returned, this time without the toddler. When my daughter asked me why exactly we were doing this, I told her she’d realise one day, that answers are not always apparent at the outset – because the journey itself provides them.
It was an encouraging start thanks to heather on the tracks and spectacular views of rolling hills. Romeo found a rabbit’s skull and followed a trail of vertebrae to the rest of the skeleton. Paloma collected vintage bottles.
But a kilometre on and the jungle was back. We hacked through it as if in the Amazon. ‘Cat’s claw’ creepers had twisted their tendrils like serpents around old railway signs, bringing them to their knees. We passed a bamboo forest, its slender stems rubbing against each other with an eerie creaking sound. Thankfully, around lunchtime we arrived at a break in the jungle on a ridge – we could see all the way to Byron and the ocean twinkling beyond. We ate our sandwiches as we watched a pair of hawks on the updraft. What a great railway journey this once had been, and if it ever became a ‘rail trail’ it would make a spectacular attraction.
The rest of the afternoon was slow going. The lantana was so thick in places we slid down the muddy edge of the track to get around it. When it started getting dark I knew there’d be a third day. As we headed up to the road we navigated a forest of thorny acacia karroo vines. All three of us were soon trapped by the vicious thorns, each 2–3cm long. For the first time on the mission my children were genuinely alarmed. The more we struggled the more the karroo dug in. I reminded the children this always happens near the end of a story; the audience thinks all is lost, but it really isn’t. Then they pointed out that we weren’t anywhere near the end yet, and if it wasn’t the end, then what other horrors lay ahead?
Day 3: persuasion
It was more than six months before I could talk our children into finishing what we’d started. And the benefits of not giving up, of determination, but the satisfaction of achievement didn’t compel them as much as the promise of a lemonade at The Rails hotel. So be it. They’d realise the rest in due course.
The next leg took us into a picturesque tunnel of ferns, some so tall the children snapped a few stems off to make fern crowns. As we neared the water towers of Hayters Hill we came across another community of fringe dwellers, this one abandoned. Several rusty station wagons lay open and abandoned. There were tables and chairs and a clothesline. In the middle of the track was an old caravan. The children imagined what it must have been like to call this place home.
About a hundred metres past Old Bangalow Road, Paloma found a gold belt and a beaded butterfly that looked like it had come off a lady’s dress. We speculated how these treasures had ended up here. I struggled to come up with an explanation for a plastic bottle with a length of garden hose in the side.
The track curved around into Lilly Pilly, right alongside the back fences of houses on Cemetery Road. We were close to Byron now. Although we’d made good time, we were yet to meet our greatest obstacle yet. It came in the form of the most enormous diamond python I have ever seen. It was like an anaconda, its body thick as fig roots, length close to four metres! Dense lantana made a quick escape impossible, and going back wasn’t an option – never an option. Romeo started banging the rails, but the python didn’t flinch. We stamped our feet and yelled, but nothing woke it.
‘We’ll just have to go around,’ said my daughter, matter-of-factly. And so we did. Just as we got level with the python, it opened a lazy eye and swivelled its head in our direction. Keeping our nerve, we continued creeping past and into the next thicket. When I looked back I saw the python settling his head down on the tracks again to continue its siesta.
We came out near The Roadhouse. The swamp on either side of the rails here made it easy to understand the mosquito problem in the area. After passing a graffiti gallery on the back wall of the hardware store, we entered an alley maze leading to the kitchen of the Avocado Hut. It was the end of lunch hour and the cafe was full. Nevertheless we stumbled into the civilised world through the diners and their clean linens. They all stared at our scruffy clothes and machetes, muddy faces, and heads adorned with fern crowns. But we weren’t stopping, not until we reached The Rails hotel, the Railway Friendly Bar to be exact, for a schooner of Stone & Wood and two glasses of cold lemonade.
Benjamin Gilmour is a local author, filmmaker and paramedic. A longer version of this story and more pictures can be found on his website.