The mighty Clarence River is some 400km long, but with relatively few crossings. We’ve explored the ferry crossings and bridges on the South Arm on our motorcycles, and enjoyed the loop walk of the old and new bridges at Grafton.
Packing tent and esky in our car, we set out to explore the Clarence River bridges upstream of Grafton. This is Bundjalung Country, they call the river Boorimbah.
Rogan Bridge was opened in 1960 and replaced punts at Mylneford, Whiteman and Seelands. This is a concrete bridge, with a low profile to allow easy passage for flood waters. The river is wide and still tidal at this point.
Just north of Rogan Bridge at Mylneford is First Falls, the navigation limit for large ships in early days, although smaller boats could continue up to the wharf at Copmanhurst.
First Falls was a place where early settlers crossed, but it was a dangerous crossing with some 25 drownings. Those who didn’t survive the crossing were buried at Mylneford Cemetery. A punt operated from at least 1892 which made crossing safer.
We can see no evidence of any rapids on the river today, perhaps the rocks have been blasted away. The Orara River, one of the Clarence’s eight major tributaries, joins just west of Mylneford.
The area of the next crossing is known variously as Winegrove or Apple Tree Flat or Lilydale. There was a ford here from at least the 1840s, to allow wool laden bullock drays to cross to the south side of the river for a shorter trek to South Grafton through Ramornie. Later this crossing served the copper mines at Cangai.
The first bridge was built in 1934 and the new single-lane low concrete bridge in 1996. No longer tidal, the river was still flowing fast here.
There is a camping ground at Lilydale, and a number of campers with caravans and boats where enjoying the river when we passed through. Upstream is the Clarence River Gorge.
Carnham Crossing is a long detour off Clarence Way but well worth the effort, both for the picturesque drive and the single lane bridge across a lovely section of river. The river was fast flowing, and showing signs of the impact of the floods in March 2021.
Carnham has been used for camping and crossing since at least 1878. Today signs indicate that camping is not allowed as the area is a Travelling Stock Route and of high conservation value. The Mann River flows into the Clarence downstream of the Carnham crossing.
Edward Ogilvie and his brother Frederick took up a large area of land on the Clarence in 1840 to create Yulgilbar Station, now owned by the Myer family. Ogilvie also built a castle in the 1860s for his new, much younger and beautiful wife. Unfortunately the castle is not visible from the road, nor open to the public.
The crossing here has long been important: Yulgilbar had pastoral runs on both sides of the Clarence, a packhorse route carried mail across the river up to Tenterfield, and the goldfields of Lionsville and Solferino were to the west.
A bridge was built upstream of the ford in 1926. In 1966 a new bridge was built for logging the Washpool forests. The Yulgilbar bridge is single lane concrete and surprisingly long – some 400m. There is a plaque up on the high ground on the Lionsville side, and a road cutting to excite rock hounds.
The Bandjalung community of Baryugil is on the road to this bridge. Many worked on the local asbestos mine which closed in the late 1970s.
The road continues across the bridge toward Lionsville, Washpool Creek and Ewingar State Forest. We’d love to return to this area to explore some more, but today we’re on a mission to find bridges.
Ernie Baldwin Bridge
This area is also known as Yates Flat. A town called Alice was planned in 1885 but didn’t get built (blame it on the river floods). The wooden bridge was installed in 1931 and with unusual wooden buttresses on the downstream side.
The Clarence River is narrower here but was still flowing well. Some gold panners were trying their luck midstream as we crossed. We continued on Plains Station Road to Frasers Cutting with lovely views of the river, then across the Timbarra River to reach the Bruxner Highway.
Tabulam had a fabulous wooden bridge, built in 1902, the longest single span wooden truss bridge in NSW at 386m. Many of the men who built this five span De Burgh bridge came from a nearby cattle station owned by Sir Harry Chauvel who went on the form the 1st Light Horse Brigade.
Sadly this bridge was demolished in 2021 after the new bridge was opened late 2020. All that remains of the old bridge are four 18m high concrete piers, and a section for the truss structure that will form part of a park.
The $48m new bridge is slick concrete, with two lanes, a pedestrian crossing and street lights. But no soul.
Paddys Flat Bridge
Paddys Flat is north of the Bruxner Highway in hilly broken country. The dirt road passes through subtropical rainforest at Pretty Gully Flora Reserve. Gold seekers worked the creeks here around 1860.
The road descends a pass to the Clarence River, where the Paddys Flat Tank Traps from World War II can be found just before the bridge. These aren’t in as good a condition as the Yooroonah Tank Barrier near Waterfall Way as floods have shifted them.
There are 26 concrete pyramids, linked by steel cable, with additional wooden posts were installed in the river as part of Australia’s defence systems. In case of invasion, they would stop the enemy from advancing on inland routes, or at least slow the tanks down and allow gunners to fire at them.
Paddys Flat Bridge is a single lane wooden bridge. Photos in the camp kitchen at Clarence River Wilderness Lodge tell a great story of how the bridge was washed away in a flood, but quickly repaired. Except the workers weren’t keen on getting wet in the cold Clarence water so didn’t put in the bolts on the underside of the bridge sleepers. Of course a minor flood came, and the sleepers were washed away. This time the bridge wasn’t repaired so quickly and the locals had to “walk the plank” by crossing the bridge on the girders.
There is another bridge north of the Bruxner Highway, Hootens Bridge, but the sun was low, so we were keen to head for our destination for the night, Clarence River Wilderness Lodge.
From high on the hill we can see Tooloom Creek flowing into the Clarence below, and the peaks of south eastern Queensland. Once down on the banks of the Clarence River again, we set up our tent, make a campfire and enjoy a beer beside the river as the sun sets.
We drove up from Grafton to Tabulam following the Clarence Way, but for our return we wanted to loosely follow an old travelling route via Busbys Flat and Whipourie to Lawrence.
Edward Ogilvie from Yulgilbar had invested in a wharf and pub at Lawrence, and there was some rivalry with Grafton as the major river port. Ultimately the 1859 “New Road” up the Clarence Valley through Baryugil to Yates Crossing and Tenterfield prevailed. Later, in 1876, a route from Glen Innes to Grafton ensured Grafton prospered while Lawrence languished.
Packing up our riverside campsite, we drive to Mallanganee Lookout on the Bruxner Highway. The lookout is on a watershed, and offers a view west over the Clarence River catchment, and east over the Richmond Valley toward Mt Warning and the sea. We followed a somewhat overgrown 4WD track staying high on the ridge through Cherry Tree State Forest to Old Lawrence Rd and Busbys Flat, but Deep Creek Rd may be an easier route. From there it’s an easy run to Lawrence, and the highway home.