Further along the road less travelled

It’s good to have a personal hideaway, a place where the likelihood of running into another person is negligibly remote. At some point in the mid-2000s, this was a motivation for thinking about the Yaringully Nature Reserve. Located to the southwest of Coraki, in the sparsely-populated Bungawalbin region, it had piqued my attention ever since I saw a notice at Lismore’s Big Scrub Environment Centre. It was like a byword for falling off the map into an obscure desmesne.

An early attempt to locate it involved stopping at a random house and being regaled with story from a visitor about a close yowie encounter. This led to another contact who invited me to visit intermittent lagoons at the back of her acreage after a period of heavy rain, squelching around in the mud. Directions to Yaringully were sometimes ambiguous, and on one occasion I headed down the wrong dead-end dirt track before eventually tracking down the reserve via trial and error.

Heading south from Tucki on a warm day with blue sky and small fluffy clouds, the route heads downhill down Tuckurimba Road, past the southern portion of the Tucki Tucki Nature Reserve, before descending to the flats. Beyond Coraki, you carry straight on towards Woodburn, passing fields with a few trees dotted around, and the occasional group of cattle.

The first marked turn detours on the right towards Ellangowan and Bora Ridge, and after going straight for a few kilometres, it’s a case of taking the first sealed left turn. This road is Haughwood Road, and until it relocated to Woodburn recently, there was a sign up at the corner indicating that Richmond Valley Radio was broadcasting close nearby. The flatness along this stretch is strangely appealing, an effect that is magnified by a complement of wooded hills in the distance.

After a while, the road turns to dirt, and soon encounters the first of four gates or gate-like structures, in this case blue netting strung across a gateway and a ‘Private’ sign. As owners of the nature reserve, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has an access arrangement with landowners along this road. It’s been a while since I explored in this direction and the netting is unfamiliar, so I check with nearby residents before continuing on.

The road passes an open clear grassy area to the left with one or two small lagoons, and then reaches its last directional ambiguity. The main route swings around to the right where it is blocked off by a chain. Just before this point, off on the left, is Gate 2, which is starting to fall apart at the bottom and shakes as you pull it shut. About a hundred metres further on is Gate 3, which has a badly faded sign attached to the rear that warns about a 1½-year old live firing exercise on the property you are leaving.

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Grass brushes the underside of the car, and in places lantana arches over the road, occasionally knocking the sides. I stop to drag a small tree branch off the track. Moving along in first or second gear, the distance appears to be far longer than the measurement on the odometer. The road grows more wooded, which heralds the approach of Yaringully.

Gate 4 comes into view, heralding the reserve entrance. A sign indicates that in a bid to tackle feral animals, NPWS is deploying surveillance cameras, traps and poison baits, promising a more Orwellian experience than on my last visit. Unauthorised access is also prohibited, but fortunately this had been arranged this with a NPWS official a few days earlier. A few hundred meters further on, at the far boundary of Yaringully, Haughwood Road disappears entirely at a fifth gate with a tea tree plantation on the other side. Before then, a sign appears on the left, next to a gate marking access to the start of the main trail.

Yaringully was named in consultation with the Bundjalung people, and in their language it means ‘eel-tailed catfish’. Former privately-owned grazing land, it has been gazetted as a wildlife refuge since 1993, and was purchased by National Parks in 2003. Sharing similarities with the Bungawalbin National Park to the west, Yaringully is a hotspot for threatened species in the Northern Rivers.

Vegetation communities encountered here include floodplain subtropical rainforest, coastal swamp forests and coastal floodplain wetlands. The nearby Bungawalbin Creek regularly floods, and in the lowest-lying areas detritus can sometimes be seen deposited in trees above head-height. There are several lagoons, of which the two largest are invisible from the trail, and most visitors are oblivious to their existence.

Yaringully is not like a typical rainforest reserve. The bird species are very different, and include the channel-billed cuckoo and spectacled monarch. It is a place where you might turn around and notice that an owl is staring it you from nearby bushes. Or stand still for a minute, and discover that four Goliath stick insects are crawling up your legs. If you look upwards, at the right time of year they can be observed jumping from branch to branch, and even leaping from trees to the ground.

It fulfilled its promise as a place to be in nature alone. On each of my visits, I never encountered another person. One day, I lost a piece of paper, and found it a month later at the point on the track where it had been dropped, dry but with the ink artistically smudged and faded. On another occasion, encountering a thong on the banks of a creek was a little like Robinson Crusoe’s discovery of a footprint on the beach of an island where he had imagined himself to be the only inhabitant. A more likely scenario would have been that it washed up there in a flood.

Yet the park does receive visitors, or has done in the past, evidenced by bent horizontals on the gate that has to be climbed over.

The pedestrian-only Quills Fire Trail loops to the south from the entrance gate, a track lined with immature trees that is wide enough to enable access to NPWS vehicles.

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The trail is a good length, giving you the feeling of having been on a walk without the distance stretching out into a cross-country marathon where it is necessary to rush in order to avoid being overtaken by dusk. Being low-lying and flat, the absence of uphill and downhill stretches is another bonus.

An old house was removed from somewhere in the reserve in 2005, and a few metres down the trail used to be a cleared area off on the right where a concentration of non-native species suggested a former house site. After a small distance the trail forks, and you have to choose between anti-clockwise and clockwise. Today I’m going to go clockwise.

A Meadow Argus butterfly is attracted to long grass in the middle of the track. The trail passes the first of several open gateways, all of which are marked with pink tape. What sounds like a small snake moves away invisibly through dry leaves. It’s tempting to stop and listen to the silence, accompanied only by the sounds of nature, in the form of twittering birdsong from concealed birds and trees making strange creaking noises. Dappled light on the forest floor looks golden.

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After a while, the trees alongside the track start thinning out. Further on, the arrival of understorey plants suggests more frequent flooding, and close by is a wetland area with a pair of frogs calling to one another. Distant traffic sounds carry from the Bungawalbin-Whiporie Road that separates the Yaringully Nature Reserve from the Yaringully State Conservation Area further to the south. Straight ahead, some smoke is visible in the distance just above the tree line, giving the clouds an interesting orange cast.

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In the past, the track crossed an open meadow area, in the middle of which it underwent an abrupt right-angle bend. Vehicles missing this obscure turn would continue straight on for a short distance, creating a cross-roads track arrangement that compounded the directional confusion. When this inevitably happened to me, fortunately I avoided getting lost in the trackless limbo between here and the southern reserve boundary. Today, new growth makes the meadow semi-unrecognisable, and the path bends around in an easy-to-follow arc.

With wetland on one side and a lower-lying lagoon on the other, erected alongside the track is a short length of green netting designed to prevent invasive species from being transported from higher to lower ground in times of flood. Three brown cicada shells are stuck to its side. A little further on, a small circular concrete watering trough provides evidence of the land’s farming past. Not far away are two old and decaying fenceposts, one implanted in the ground and the other lose, linked by a length of ancient rusty barbed wire wound around them.

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Soon bracken starts growing up through the track, indicating the likelihood of acidic soil. This area was once so overgrown with lantana that it was very hard to find your way through, especially after losing all sense of direction. Now it has been removed as result of a weed control project, and all that is left is the dead lantana climbing up the trees on either side. One lantana stem that has been cut across its cross-section is 4-5 centimetres across.

A fenceline here has reverted to a procession of fenceposts, with holes drilled into them for wire, heading off through the trees to a lagoon down the slope on the left. A red-bellied black snake lives near this spot, and sure enough, it appears, moving slowly away into the leaves. A little further on, a metal gate that is starting to go rusty has been rested up against a tree. The trail goes through a short stretch that gets very muddy in rainy periods, but it is presently in a dry cycle and the ground is light-coloured and cracked.

At a spot that I recognise from past visits despite it inevitably being more overgrown, a side track goes off to the left, blocked by a fallen tree that is fortunately easy to climb over. This is the way to Bungawalbin Creek, a waterway that, despite being only a few metres away, is invisible until you are close. Keeping an eye out for possible traps, I reach the bank that has been planted with lomandra to reduce erosion. The creek is about ten metres wide here, and while the water is a disappointing brown, it is still an idyllic spot, on the outside of a bend with good views stretching both upstream and downstream. No thongs are in sight.

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Water drifts lazily from right to left, branches overhang, and dappled ripples from the light reflections make ever-shifting patterns. It has taken a while, but I feel as though I have shed most of my workaday state of mind. Instead, there is a sense of merging in some way with nature, being more expansive and restful, and more curious. Lie on your back, and maybe you will be fortunate enough to see a stick insect engaging in aerial acrobatics.

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