This article was published in issue #156, Oct-Nov 2020. Get it here.
Words: Roderick Eime. Images: Roderick Eime, Ed Krause.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that when we go riding into the countryside, the last thing we want to do is chug down a bland stripe of bitumen dodging lane wanderers and getting blown sideways by barreling B-doubles.
Many of us with the grey evidence of years will recall the Old Hume Highway (OHH) with a mixture of vague nostalgia and pure disgust. When I started solo interstate drives in my little Ford Escort back in the early ‘80s, battling the Hume was not something to look forward to. Narrow, twisty and in shamefully decrepit condition, I still shiver at the memory of several close calls.
In August 2013, the $250m Holbrook bypass signalled the final act of duplication and now we have the dubious pleasure of driving or riding from Sydney to Melbourne without having to bother any of those poor people in Holbrook, Yass, Gundagai or Albury.
Without denying the convenience and safety of the slick new bitumen, it has removed the arousal of discovery one usually seeks on a leisurely road trip. But fear not, there is hope.
Retracing the Hume
“Anyone who has driven the old Hume, meandering
from town to town, cruising down their main
streets, winding around hills, ducking under and
over railway lines will know its glorious secret – it
was never a highway except in name. Rather, it
linked inland cities, towns, villages, hamlets and
dots on maps – for the early roads went not where
they should, but only where they could.”
– Peter FitzSimons 2013
Even though it seems like it’s been there forever, the Hume Highway has only officially existed since it was officially named in 1928, just two years after the USA’s own Route 66, although the Hume didn’t get its ‘31’ guernsey until numbering began in the 1950s.
Prior to its modern life as the Hume Highway, a hotch-potch of roads, tracks and trails existed between Sydney and Melbourne, beginning with those carved out by the namesake explorer, Parramatta-born Hamilton Hume and his English sidekick, Bill Hovell. The two didn’t get on that well but still managed to stick it out from Sydney to Port Phillip and back in 1824.
Things picked up rapidly after H&H returned with the news of favourable pastures to the southwest which spurred on road-building big time, driven by then Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who was keen to kick the colony along. The ‘Great South Road’ (GSR) was born and gradually evolved into a more-or-less continuous set of thoroughfares that joined Sydney to Melbourne after it was proclaimed in 1835.
Goldrushes in the 1850s and the rise of coach travel like that of Cobb & Co, further underscored the need for better roads even though this development was delayed by the more comfortable rail, and later air, options.
Inns, hotels, stables and service depots popped up along the route and many of these fascinating old staging posts can still be seen on the backroads where the early Hume and Great South Roads once wound through the bush. Remote roads also spurned a new industry: bushranging.
The great challenge now is to ride as much of the old routes and as little of the bland motorway as possible, visiting the little hamlets and rural centres which once rumbled to the sounds of 18-wheelers and the shrill whistle of air brakes all through the night.
Here are some clues derived from our recent explorations:
The Gnarly Razorback
On the way to the NSW Southern Highlands, you can explore the old route through Narellan, Camden and Picton, picking up portions of old Route 31 as well as The Great South Road.
Heading south, kiss the motorway goodbye at Casula and head along the Camden Valley Way and head through Narellan into Camden. Out of Camden, pick either the Old Hume Highway which retraces the route past the historic truckers blockade of 1979, or venture a click to the west to the convict-built Old Razorback Road which was itself bypassed in the 1930s. Now that’s a wild ride!
It’s easy to linger here in the region roughly bounded by Robertson, Moss Vale, Bowral and Berrima, with its wineries, gourmet produce and lovely riding roads. Every June is the Pie Festival but that shouldn’t be your excuse to only visit once per year.
Continue out through Bargo and Yanderra and stay on the Old Hume Highway to Mittagong. The Old South Road is a great bypass that will take you through Moss Vale to Sutton Forest if you’d rather keep going, or swing west at Alpine and roll through to Berrima on the OHH. Be sure to visit the brand new bikers’ cafe, Schmokin’, right on the Old Hume Highway.
Best Pie (IMHO): DeliLicious, Bundanoon
Stay: Jellore Cottage Berrima.
Go Go Goulburn
If you don’t mind a bit of dirt, follow Canyonleigh Road out through Brayton and Towrang along the old GSR and dawdle into Goulburn where a bonanza of bypassed attractions await. Check in to the visitor centre near the train station to see what’s open. But note the Railway Heritage Centre and old brewery are closed. Boo!
Gunning for Gunning
At Breadalbane ditch the freeway and head along the OHH through Cullerin to Gunning where an ever older route will take you through Ben Hall territory via Mutmutbilly. Settled in 1821, Gunning was already happening when H&H set off south.
Visit: The Picture House Gallery and Bookshop owned by actor Max Cullen
There are lots of old segments of the highway running parallel to the motorway that can be explored but do so carefully as many segments are now divided by gates and grids. The route through Manton along Yass Valley Way will see you safely into Yass (bypassed in 1994)
Jump for Jugiong
After a glance at the rusting relics at Robinson’s of Bookham, make a point of stopping in at Jugiong, one of the smaller towns bypassed in 1995 but refusing to lay down and die. The Sir George Hotel and Long Track Pantry are highlights of any Hume journey and are enormously popular with trailer-toting nomads and day-trippers alike.
Pat the Dog at Gundagai
A gorgeous old main street with true country charm, Gundagai was bypassed back in 1977 when the big Sheahan Bridge relieved the poor old wooden viaduct that carried everything for 80 years prior. If you rode a motorcycle across that bridge back in the day, take a bow.
If you head out of Gundagai, through Tumblong and detour via Mundarlo (Junee turnoff) you’ll get a taste of how folks travelled way back in the day. It’s mostly unsealed. When you cross the Sturt Highway, you’ll find the excellent Borambola Winery.
Holbrook was the last town to be bypassed in 2013 but retains certain notoriety for having an Oberon-class submarine and museum smack in the middle of town.
Visit: Lady Gail’s Bookshop in the main street.
All Stop Albury
We finish our NSW sector at the twin towns of Albury-Wodonga where there is plenty to see and do.
Stay: Waverley BNB (secure garage) || Mantra Albury (underground parking)
- Small group, guided bike tours are being organised by Ride The World Motorcycle Tours
- NSW Roads and Maritime have detailed history and self-ride route guides
- Destination and venue details can be found at www.australia.com
The writer received assistance from Tourism Australia