Thunderbolts Way is a 290km road linking Gloucester to 16km south of Inverell at Copes Creek. It is very hilly and winding as it passes across the Great Dividing Range. The road was carved by Eric Carson, a Gloucester sawmiller and road builder to bring out the magnificent hardwood from the forests on the Great Divide. He completed the section from Gloucester to Nowendoc in 1961.
The road is named after a local bushranger, Frederick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt, who roamed these parts in the 19th century. Born 1835 in Windsor, he began his working life as a horse breaker and stock hand at the famous Tocal horse stud. He became mixed up in a horse stealing racket and was subsequently charged and found guilty of “receiving” stolen horses. He was sentenced to 10 years hard labour at Sydney’s infamous Cockatoo Island prison. After 4 years he was released on a “ticket of leave” (parole) but was later found guilty of possessing a stolen horse and returned to Cockatoo Island to serve out his remaining 6 years with an additional 3 years for possession. In 1863 Ward and a companion escaped and thus began a 7 year reign as Australia’s longest roaming bushranger. He had a reputation as a “gentleman bushranger” and was eventually shot and killed by an off duty policeman on 25th May 1870 near Uralla NSW.
The drive is scenic to say the least. The hills and winding road make it a favourite with motorcycle riders. By the look of the signage along the way many have come to grief in their recreational pursuit.
The first point of interest along the route is Carson’s Pioneer Lookout, named after the man (and his two sons) that carved this section of road less than 60 years ago. The steep climb up this notorious section is unforgiving and relentless and I honestly think it would be too much for Rhonda to contemplate.
The next major town is Walcha. It was good to revisit this town that I worked in during the late ‘70’s. I worked at a number of small country bank branches whilst on relieving staff. Some of these towns are more memorable than others. After a wander around the small township I drove the 20km along Oxley Highway to Apsley Falls. Although the falls only had a trickle of water flowing (the big rains hadn’t quite made it this far inland – yet!) it was worth the detour. The walk around the top of the cliffs was worth the effort and there are a number of lookouts with differing views.
I overnighted at Uralla where there is plenty to look at including the McCrossin’s Mill Museum. Much of it is Thunderbolt centric as you would imagine, but it also housed a number of other interesting artefacts and information. I especially appreciated the humorous Cricket Bat Display. There is an interesting self guided heritage trail around the town’s 50 plus historical buildings dating back to the 1860’s. I also visited Thunderbolts grave at the pioneer cemetery. The town really plays on the bushranger’s connection with names like “Thunderbolt Inn” and “Bushranger Motor Inn” to name a couple.
Bundarra a little further along Thunderbolts Way was a good place to stop for a late breakfast at a cafe situated on the main road that operates out of a private house. Started a little over 18 months ago they have come up against bushfires, drought and Covid, one after the other. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger so I guess they can now weather any storm! Whilst I never worked at Bundarra I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the old CBC Bank building on the corner. Typical of many of the premises built in the early 1900’s it oozes grandeur and the status that banks held in that period. Sadly the building has been neglected. No more I guess than the neglect that Banks show their customers nowadays.
So Thunderbolts Way came to an end at the small village of Gilgai, just south of Inverell. Travelling this road was fun and fascinating, passing through mountains and onto the plateau of rich farmland. The vegetation was as varied as any road I have travelled thus far. To sit and contemplate life 150 years ago here when inventiveness was paramount in such a wild and untamed land. Where mail coaches were easy pickings, remote farmhouses and drinking houses offered a certain safeness for those wishing to take what wasn’t theirs. Bush ranging was rife during that time. Who knows the psyche behind their thinking. It was certainly a limited career move. Fred Ward lasted the longest of them all. And his was only a short 7 year reign.