Bailed Up in Bushranger Country.

New England Tablelands, New South Wales

Australia’s most beautiful countryside was home to Australia’s most infamous outlaws.

While the America’s Wild West boasted outlaw bad guys such as Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and Jessie James, in Australia Ned Kelly, Captain Starlight and Thunderbolt were the names that our outlaw legends were made of. Like their US counterparts, these ‘bushrangers’ as they became known, were bandits of the Australia bush who harassed the settlers and miners in the late 18th and 19th centuries and whose exploits figure prominently in Australian folk-law. Acting individually or in small bands, these bushrangers specialised in robbing, or “bailing up” stagecoaches, banks and small settlements. From the 1850s until their disappearance around 1880, these bushrangers were, in the main free setters who had run afoul of the law.

One of the most celebrated was Frederick Wordsworth Ward, better known by his self-styled pseudonym, Captain Thunderbolt. An escapee from the notorious Cockatoo Island prison in Sydney Harbour, he developed a reputation as a ‘gentleman bushranger’ and was the longest roaming bushranger in Australian history. His domain, the New England Tablelands of New South Wales…bushranger country.

Welcome to ‘Thunderbolt’ country

If you are travelling from Queensland to New South Wales, there are essentially three main routes you can follow. The first is the Pacific Highway which heads south from Brisbane to Sydney following the Southern Queensland and New South Wales coastlines. The second is the Newell Highway, venturing west through Toowoomba and then south through the central western New South Wales cities of Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst to Sydney. The third is the New England Highway. This highway heads south west from Brisbane over Cunningham’s Gap to Warwick and then south through the New England Tablelands’ city of Armidale to Tamworth, the Hunter Valley and finally into Sydney. In my opinion, this third route is the way to go, featuring some of the most picturesque and highest-in-altitude landscapes in Australia. It is also the most interesting route, taking you through bushranger country where Captain Thunderbolt ranged for over 3 decades.

Dinah and I have travelled from Queensland to New South Wales and return countless times, invariably stopping only for petrol and something to eat along the way. This time, caravan in tow, we decided to explore some of those small towns we had simply driven through in the past on our way to visit our family in Bathurst.

Leaving our home on the Sunshine Coast just north of Brisbane, our first stop was the small town of Tenterfield, just across the Queensland/New South Wales border. Beyond its natural highlands’ beauty and classic colonial architecture, Tenterfield is primarily known for two things; the Tenterfield Saddlery and the Tenterfield Saddler (made famous in the Peter Allen song), and as the hideout of the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.

The birthplace of Australia

An historic town in the rolling New England region, Tenterfield is also home to elegant wineries and superb wilderness. Known as the ‘birthplace of Australia, this is the town where Sir Henry Parks made his famous 1889 speech calling for Australia’s federation. Our accommodation was the Tenterfield Lodge Caravan Park, a little  way from the centre of town. A tourism award winner for ‘Excellence in Accommodation’, this is a great place to stay. Built as a Temperance hotel in 1878, the beautiful heritage-listed Railway Hotel occupies the corner of the park and is the residence of the owners as well as housing the office, dining room and TV room. The caravan sites are roomy, the amenities spotless and the hosts incredibly friendly. It is also the ideal base to explore the town of Tenterfield and the region. Check it out at: www.tenterfieldlodgecaravanpark.com.au.

The best way to see any town or city is to walk it. Stroll the streets of Tenterfield to discover a town of heritage-listed buildings dating back to the 19th century. The self-guided Heritage Walk introduces you to an array of buildings and businesses, including the 1860 Tenterfield Saddlery and the Sir Henry Parks Memorial School of Arts. Tenterfield Railway Station and the Tenterfield Railway Museum just across from the caravan park are also great places to visit.

The outskirts of the town and the Tenterfield region is best explored by car. Driving the tree-lined streets of the town, we discovered any number of beautiful some buildings, some grand, others more like workers cottages, reflecting the diversity of the early settlers of the area. We also discovered what is believed to be the oldest cork tree in Australia, a magnificent specimen in a suburban paddock brought from England by Edward Parker as a seedling and planted in 1861. Today it is a massive and magnificent tree. Well worth discovering.

Thunderbolts Hideout

About 12 kilometres out of Tenterfield on the Mount Lindsay Road, a 300m signposted walk leads to Thunderbolt’s Hideout. The area is densely vegetated, hilly and very rocky with huge boulders strewn everywhere, the obvious result of a tumultuous geological event millions of years ago. The boulders have formed natural caves and in the 1880s, these caves provided an excellent hideout from the troopers and a base for forays into the surrounding districts for Captain Thunderbolt and his gang.

Thunderbolt’s presence and influence was widespread in New South Wales, from the Queensland border region in the north to Singleton and the Hunter Valley in the south.  He was an excellent horseman and was capable of covering significant distances in a day, easily outrunning his would-be captors. On the way back to Tenterfield we stopped at the site of an RAAF aircraft crash. Two Australian pilots lost their lives when their low-level F111 bomber crashed in a paddock alongside the Mt Lindsay Road during night exercises on April 2, 1987. Our son George was in the Australian Air Force for many years, so this was a sobering reminder of the danger our young men and women place themselves in the protection of our country.

On the road again

The epicentre of Thunderbolts domain was a small town of just 2500 people south of Armidale on the New England Highway. Our second stop, Uralla.

We love Uralla. Appropriately located at the intersection of the New England Highway and what is now known as Thunderbolt’s Way, Uralla is a picturesque town in the middle of the New England High Country. Here we found an eclectic mix of gold rush and bushranger history alongside fabulous artisanal food and boutique wineries. We also discovered McCrossin’s Mill Museum, arguably the best country town museum we have ever visited. Housed in an 1870s flower mill which has been faithfully restored, the 3-story mill now houses a multi award- winning museum, gallery and function centre, in the main a showcase of Thunderbolt’s exploits in the New England area depicted through a series of nine incredible paintings by renowned artist Phillip Pomeroy. The paintings depict the events leading up to the fatal events of 25 May 1870 when Constable Alexander Walker brought an end to the reign of the ‘gentleman bushranger’. This is one museum  not to be missed if you are interested in Australian colonial history.

In Uralla we stayed at the Queen Street Caravan Park, an easy walk to the main street of Uralla and super-convenient as a base for exploring the area. Check the park out at: www.visit@uralla.com

Uralla is a fabulous little town steeped in history. Set in rolling green countryside, this is a beautiful place to visit for a day, a week or even longer. It is the heart of the New England and the spiritual home of one of Australia’s most famous, or should we say, infamous bushrangers. Captain Thunderbolt lays at rest in the Uralla Pioneer Cemetery where his headstone has become a popular attraction for visitors. A bronze statue of Thunderbolt astride his horse is the centrepiece of this amazing town on the main New England Highway. So, don’t just drive through Uralla and, for that matter, any of our country towns. Stop and support local business and enterprises on the way and in the process, experience for yourself the real Australia.

And now, the final stage of our trip south on the New England Highway through Tamworth, Gunnedah, Cooma and into Bathurst. But that’s another story!

 Photo Gallery

Main picture: Uralla – Home of Captain Thunderbolt

  • Thunderbolts Hideout – caves 7 kilometres out of Tenterfield on the Mt Lindsay Road
  • Memorial to the tragic 1987 F111 crash on the My Lindsay Road
  • The magnificent ‘Deloraine’ Homestead in Tenterfield
  • The oldest and largest Cork tree in Australia is in Tenterfield
  • The famous Tenterfield Saddler
  • Tenterfield Lodge and Caravan Park – a great place to stay
  • Historic Stannum Home on the New England Highway
  • Monument to Captain Thunderbolt in Uralla
  • Commemorating the Centenary of Thunderbolt: 1870 – 1970
  • The Thunderbolt Collection in Uralla Museum traces the killing of Thunderbolt
  • The ‘Royal Oak Inn’ frequented by Thunderbolt
  • Uralla Museum
  • The Thunderbolt Inn Hotel in Uralla
  • Local Tenterfield cafe with a sense of humour
  • Camping by the river in Uralla