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Winter 2019 - A Base Camp Adventure in Newnes

It’s the winter school holidays. It's freezing and windy and we are due for another adventure. So this time we are exploring the grand Wolgan Valley and heading to historical Newnes in the Wollemi National Park, a location of stunning natural beauty, matched with incredible historical relics. And boy is it windy!



For winter this year I have to fess up a bit… After backpacking every season in 2018, the plan for 2019 was to experience new ways of accessing our adventures: Summer was a kayak trip in Shoalhaven Gorge. Autumn was bike-packing journey through the ACT high country and Winter is…

Car camping!

So I’m going to put a bit of a spin on it and call it a “base camp” adventure. We are driving to the sensational (and free) Newnes campground, setting up a base and exploring for two days from that base. Our first day of exploration will see us hike up into the escarpment to the famous Glow Worm Tunnel – and day two will be spent exploring the vast ruins of the historical Newnes shale oil industry from the beginning of last century, all set in a pristine wilderness area just outside Sydney.

We have our trusty adventuring team back together, with my kids Daisy (9) and Mary (7) our Mountain friend Crazy Chris and his kids Ava (12) and Rory (9).

Did I mention it's windy? There are gusts over 60 km/h and we arrive at a lovely corner of the campground that has a great view and plenty room for our tents... wondering why nobody else has pitched a tent here. As soon as I open the tailgate, a mattress, pillow, water container and doona blow away into the bush. So we decide to set up a little closer to the river in a slightly more sheltered spot.



After setting up camp and a quick lunch we take off back down the road to the track head on the Wolgan Valley Road, the walk is about 9 km return and is easy to navigate - basically stick to the track and follow the signs - but there are some steep sections and technical features, made interesting by the remnants of industry along the way.

In the early 1900’s the track was a railway line to transport shale from the nearby mines. The railway is long gone but the track is still fairly level, with huge drystone walls and other reminders along the way.

Once you ascend to the plateau the views are magnificent.

After 2-3 hours and about 4km of slogging it uphill, the track ends at a rock wall in a leafy gully. A dark chasm, framed by tree ferns is revealed. This is the entrance to the “Glow worm Tunnel”. It’s is also where you are reminded of the much easier walk from the “Glow Worm Carpark” as fresh-faced couples in clean puffer jackets bound up energetically with torches ready to blast.

The tunnel is about 300 metres, and is curved slightly, so when you make it towards the centre you can’t see the entrance any more - this makes it very dark. The glow worms are impossible to see if your eyes are exposed to any light, so it’s best to navigate with as little light as possible, which is a bit hazardous on the rocky and uneven track and there’s the added challenge of a creek running through on the right-hand side - so it’s safer to keep left.

After we find a suitably dark place - allowing a few other walkers to pass with their torches blazing - we sit patiently for a few minutes, it's pitch black and the ghostly voices of the other explorers can be heard echoing around us. Ever so slowly a handful of tiny blue glowing dots begin to emerge in our peripheral vision. Eventually the dots become easier to see and we discover a number of them at waist hight on the far wall, so we stumble blindly through the creek to have a closer look.

The glow-worms aren’t exactly amazing, but we do see a few of them and feel for a moment that the walk was worth it - there’s a feeling that we’ve been rewarded for our patience and endurance. But reality sets in and we realise it’s nearly 3pm, in Winter, in a tunnel in the middle of the bush that took four hours to walk to and we have two hours to get back to our campsite before it gets dark.



The Walk back sees us exhaust our kids and our supply of treats, but is quicker than the walk up. So we make it back to “Base Camp” in time to start a decent fire and re-heat a hearty shepherds pie that Chris prepared earlier. We are all starving and it’s the availability of food like this - and the multiple cold beers (chilled by the winter air) that are some of the best things about camping next to your vehicle. And fortunately the wind has died down.

For sleeping arrangements, the three girls share the Mont Moondance tent with down sleeping bags and extra doonas, I go solo in the macpac minaret and we set up the trusty “bongo van” for Chris and Rory to sleep in.

Once the kids are tucked away Chris and I enjoy a relaxing night under the stars - sitting as close to the fire as possible.



It’s a frosty morning and we wake to the sound of lyrebirds and Currawongs… or maybe Lyrebirds mimicking Currawongs. Chris and Rory are still asleep in the van but the three girls emerge cold from their tent. They were cold, even under all their down layers, but they are excited for the day ahead and take up their positions around the fire for breakfast.

Our adventure today involves exploring the ruins of the old shale oil industrial site. So we cross the river again and follow the signs into an adventure through time, to the mysterious ghost town that awaits.

Apart from some interesting looking coke ovens, we’re not sure what to expect from the shale oil ruins – but we aren’t far into our walk when we discover how immense the ruins are. The place is more like a small city than a factory, with foundations and even near-complete buildings remaining from early last century.

Most of the materials have been recycled and nature has reclaimed a lot of the structures, however you can’t help but imagine the state of the place and the people who worked here – and called it home – a hundred years before. What was once a bustling, dirty wasteland of activity is now a peaceful walk in a national park, giving us a real sense of impermanence.



It’s a long day of exploring and after packing the cars we pop into the Newnes Hotel – a location with its own amazing history of survival – for a soft drink. The hotel is the only intact building left from the old days and it was nearly lost years ago to flooding. The entire hotel was dismantled and re-built on higher ground. It now serves as a place to get supplies, cold drinks and a wealth of history in the area, with a friendly and informative owner. The hotel also hosts cabins and a private campground for a great pet-friendly camping option.


This has been a great adventure, but it's been a cold adventure! The Wolgan Valley and Newnes would be a fantastic location for Spring or Autumn, but it gets very busy during long weekends and summer holidays, an advantage of visiting in Winter. If you have enough warm gear and get nice weather it is definitely worth a visit.

The Glow Worm tunnel is a fun adventure, but don't come expecting to see hundreds of glow worms, they were really hard to find and I expect a lot of people wouldn't see any. But the tunnel and surrounds are worth the trip, even if you don't see the worms.

The Shale Oil ruins are spectacular and provide an excellent opportunity to explore at your own pace and are an immersive snapshot of history.


For information check out the National Parks website

For information about the historical Shale Oil industry in Newnes check out the Wikipedia page

For a great article on the indigenous culture of the area check out the koori curriculum page

The Author acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land featured in this article

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