Isolated in the sparsely populated zone south of Casino is Rappville. One of the very few things I know about it is that many years ago the Northern Rivers Echo reported that the tip had a resident emu. Maybe it still does.
To get there from Lismore, you have two choices. The easy option is to cruise down the Bruxner Highway and Summerland Way, while the other is to cut diagonally southwest down dirt tracks and worse, hoping not to get lost as you pass through the districts of Tatham, Red Ridge and Ellangowan.
In late May, we made the trip on a Sunday, with a vague idea of checking out the roots duo Watling and Bates at the Rappville Commercial Hotel. Our navigational aid was the 1985 Casino State Forests map. It was a fine clear day with an almost empty sky.
From the Bruxner Highway, the first Tatham turnoff is marked by a large Moreton Bay fig tree growing through the fence. We stop to check it out.
From here the land turns flat, with Melaleuca trees among the sporadic vegetation remnants. Then comes an area of sugarcane fields, followed by paddocks and trees once again. When it appears, Tatham is no more than a slight increase in the density of houses. As a village, it has since disappeared.
After Tatham, the land gets more forested, with more unusually designed off-grid houses that soon peter out, leaving a stretch of countryside that sees very little traffic.
At Ellangowan Hall, we stop to look round. A willy wagtail and restless flycatcher are busy hunting insects. What stands out is the quiet, interrupted only by golden whistlers rustling in the trees. Ellangowan is the perfect tree change retreat; forested, hidden in the middle of nowhere and lacking the higher rural population densities of the Lismore-Ballina-Byron triangle, while reasonably close to a service centre in the form of Casino.
From here, we follow the Tatham-Myrtle Creek Road, with a view to cutting through the Ellangowan State Forest to the Summerland Way. Once inside the forest, this route passes through a stretch marked on the map as 4WD-only, but which appears to be only a few hundred yards long. Previously I’ve tried this route and turned around to make a wide detour, but today the plan is to try to get through. It’s not a good idea. Going up an abrupt rise, the underside of the low-clearance car brushes the dirt of the road. Skirting around a metre-deep trench close on the right, we stop to check things out.
Ahead the road is dangerously uneven, with an arrangement of humps and channels where we are certain to get stuck. The soil looks poor and sandy, and among the vegetation are a few unhealthy-looking lantana plants that lack flowers. Silence is pervasive, and I feel certain that we could stay here all day without a vehicle coming in either direction.
We safely reverse back to the entrance without incident, turn into a small cleared area where sensible people park before venturing further, and leave. The best detour to the main road is a succession of right hand turns down Mooney’s Lane, Ellangowan Road, Avenue Road, and Main Camp Road. To make a change from flatness, here the land starts undulating. We cut briefly through the far western edge of the Bungawalbin State Forest, are presented with distant views of the Richmond Range off in the distance, and get a glimpse of a fireplace incongruously located in a paddock off to the right.
The last leg west from the Summerland Way involves taking a back road lined with gum trees to Myrtle Creek, once a village and today a district that seems to lack a single dwelling. We cross the North Coast Line railway as it runs north-south between Casino and Grafton and stop to check out the tracks as they vanish out of sight in both directions.
Reaching Rappville at 3.20pm after what seems like an absurdly long time en route, we head for the Commercial Hotel, where Watling and Bates are playing on the spacious back verandah. A large party of visitors from Kingscliff has arrived, and the musicians are extending their set for a further hour, giving us the chance to catch a few numbers.
Describing themselves as Musicians and Purveyors of the Old Time Gothic Hillbilly Honytonk, Kym (on violin), Geoff (on guitar) are joined on bass by Hilton, who I later discover is the elder brother of Jeff the purple Wiggle. Watling and Bates live about a hundred kilometres away at Unumgar near Woodenbong, but consider Rappville to be their local pub, playing there monthly. The air is very clear, with no haze, and the sun slants through trees behind the hotel. It starts getting a bit cooler. The set ends, and we have a brief rave with the musicians.
The publicans are Jayne and her husband Pete, who offers a guided tour of the building. The Commercial Hotel was built in 1911 by settler Henry Valentine Rapp, is the only architecturally significant building within the village proper, and the only business other than Australia Post, with the store having long closed. The idea behind Australia’s Commercial Hotels was that travelling salesmen would book rooms, and locals would visit to make their purchases.
In the hallway is a framed artwork that summarises in neat italic script the history of Rappville up to the early years of the 1900s. The front bar room’s back wall features a couple of antique mirror-frame drink adverts, a brown clock stopped at 9.31, and a small collection of saws and saw blades. In the far corner is a hundred-year-old German piano made by Albert Conrad of Dresden, Germany. About a year ago, the building was thoroughly renovated by its present owners. This involved unbricking the dining room fireplace, where three small skeletons were found. These were later identified as unfortunate possums that had come down the chimney and been unable to get back up again. There are a total of four fireplaces, which were all cleaned at the time by one of the North Coast’s few remaining chimney sweeps. Upstairs, the rooms feature original 1911 horizontal timbers and twelve-foot ceilings. The verandah’s beautiful wrought iron work was imported from West Bromwich, a British town in the Midlands.
The most recent 2007 figure for Rappville’s population is 259. Formerly being a railway stop on the North Coast Line, the station closed some time in the 1970s. However, unlike Lismore, the line still has trains passing through; there are three passenger trains daily, plus goods trains in the night. With the hotel advertising free camping to travellers, hopefully the village might lose a small amount of its sleepiness.
The light is starting to fade and we seize the moment to grab photographic opportunities. Pale smoke rises from a house across the railway tracks, and with no wind, it seems to hang in the air. Not far away is a green-blue coloured wooden former church with a prominent red ‘Village Idiot’ sign outside.
At a glance, it looks a bit like an eccentric quirky emporium, but there is no indication that anything is for sale, and it must be just a residential dwelling. We briefly cruise around and explore in the growing dusk, and then find our way out of the village – after a little trial and error. We’re going to go the easy way back.