The rail line running from Casino to Murwillumbah passes through many small rural former station sites. One of these is Naughtons Gap, to the north-east of Casino. A platform that closed in 1975, it was located a stone’s throw from one of the line’s more interesting features, a now-abandoned 265-metre railway tunnel that had struck my attention a while back. Opened in 1903, it was used for just over a century before the line was closed in 2004.
Naughtons Gap is a district not far from Casino, and accessible from Lismore by taking the Kyogle road and turning left at Bentley. The sign for the tunnel is Stones Road on the right. A reminder that the turnover is getting closer is a property fence on the right bizarrely decorated with dozens of hubcaps.
With the drought conditions, the country is dry, and the grass a yellowish tan colour. Off to the right, a property track leads off to an old unpainted wooden house that looks distinctly uninhabited. Having negligently omitted to both gauge the distance along the road to aim for, and to record relevant landmarks, we follow it to the end, aware of the rail route running off to the right. Turning around, we stop at a vantage point that demands some photography.
The road bends around to a spot that looks promising, and we get out to explore.
Climbing over a fence, a track leads down an embankment to the line. From there, the tunnel entrance is a distance away on the right, the direction that we follow. Some of the wooden sleepers are already starting to disintegrate.
Closer-to, the profile of the tunnel is oddly egg-shaped rather than circular, and the space appears to be too small to fit a train. Grass is growing near the mouth. From the limited amount of information available online about the tunnel, I was prepared for thick vegetation, and spookiness.
Tunnels are archetypal places that can be associated with primal fears. In this case, it is the darkness that is the source of terror, with the light at the end its opposite polarity. Between planning the trip and embarking on it, I had a dream in which the bus on which I was travelling quickly passed the tunnel I was hunting, and I had to retrace my steps. Dreams can sometimes prefigure real events.
Inside the tunnel mouth, as the vegetation quickly peters out to nothing, our footfalls make a strange metallic echo. A few steps further on, this sound disappears as fast as it began. There is a reassurance in having another person around, both of us shining torches into the dark void.
I find myself wondering whether, if the wind approached the tunnel at just the right angle and speed, it could be played like a giant didgeridoo.
Graffiti murals line the inside walls for a few dozen metres.
My brain tries to make sense of a pile of cans by turning them into the leftovers of a party or rave, before they take shape as empty spray cans. From the mouth, with light coming from behind, the darkness ahead looks absolute, but continuing further, a source of faint light becomes visible ahead in the distance from where the tunnel curves around to the left.
We pass a Kilroy drawn on the side in chalk. My companion unwisely touches the wall, which has a layer of weird mouldy stuff. Further on, a vague sound begins, and takes shape as a faint tinkling. Drips from the roof are descending onto the line from a crack, an odd occurrence given the dry conditions. The walls have some old and damaged fluorescent tube fittings. Other equipment installed along here turns out under torchlight to be small round lights.
Another sound ahead, this time a faint high-pitched squeaking, is found to be hundreds of tiny brown bats in a colony, clustered tightly together on the tunnel side in furry groups. Piles of fine white stuff coating the rails and sleepers are probably bat guano.
The light at the end gets brighter as we round the corner and are greeted by the tunnel exit, graffiti, a little detritus, and a chemical or dead animal smell that grows stronger as the mouth of the tunnel arrives. Vegetation on the line beyond is of a far more heavy-duty calibre than the grass that greeted us at the other end, with some lantana to contend with. A short distance beyond, out of view, is the former site of Naughton’s Gap platform.
We willingly get away from the odour, and retrace our steps back through the darkness that feels less of a mystery the second time around.