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Thunderbolts Way: cycling in land of the bushrangers

Alia Parker's picture
Carson's Lookout, Cycle Traveller Copyright
The ride: Armidale to Dungog, NSW
Distance: 270km
Days: 4
Difficulty: Moderate
Uphill: 131km (49%)
Cumulative elevation gain: 3,577m
Downhill: 138km (51%)
Cumulative elevation drop: 4,606m



In 1863, a rugged horse thief escaped from Sydney's Cockatoo Island prison and made his way north to the New England Plateau. There, at a place called Split Rock, he was fired upon by troopers as he and an accomplice prepared to ambush the mail run. Our horse thief, Frederick Wordsworth Ward, escaped with only a shot to the back of his knee. But it was that shot that would prove crucial to identifying him six and a half years later when he was killed near the very same rock. That rock became known as Thunderbolt's Rock in memory of one of Australia's most notorious and elusive bushrangers -- Captain Thunderbolt.

We're looking up at a bronze statue of Thunderbolt in Uralla, the old gold town come quaint tourist stop just 15km south of Armidale in northern New South Wales. He's mounted on his trusty steed, we're on our bikes. He roamed the wild and beautiful lands of New England, robbing mail coaches, travellers, hotels, stores and stations, and Simon and I about to do the same, minus the pilfering that is.

We're about to start cycling down Thunderbolts Way, a road that largely follows a trail used by the bushranger, who just happened to be Australia's longest wanted bushranger until Malcolm Naden came along. Naden, a not so celebrated man wanted on charges of murder (a crime Thunderbolt kept clear of), uncannily roamed the very same region and, much to the police's embarrassment, lasted almost seven years on the run until being captured in March 2012 -- just two weeks before we start our ride.

Uralla is a beautifully restored town with a few cafes, a pub, a museum, and a lovely little park down by the creek, and it's here we pull up for a rest and a peek about. We've just ridden 15km from Armidale airport along the New England Highway. It's a reasonably busy road, but there's a decent shoulder for the most part as you head to Uralla.

The route we're taking winds about 270km through the highlands of the New England Plateau, dropping off its southern edge into the valley below. It's farmland most of the way, with the region being one of the best in Australia for raising cattle and sheep. We'll also pass through bushland and past the spectacular Carson's Lookout situated on the edge of the plateau before taking a magical downhill run into the noticeably warmer valley below. But don't let the steep descents fool you because there is plenty of climbing along Thunderbolts Way and Day 3 will feel particularly grueling if you haven't been out riding daily.

We've planned the trip over four days, but if you're fit, enjoy distance and climbs, and happy to camp and carry plenty of supplies, you can do it in three as Day 1 and Day 4 are fairly easy and pleasant. Continue reading Day 1: Armidale to Walcha.

​Image: Carson's Lookout on Thunderbolts Way, NSW. Source: Cycle Traveller Copyright.



dabba's picture

I'd recommend leaving the Bucketts Way at Wards River and taking the gravel Johnsons Creek Rd to the east. It rejoins the Bucketts Way at Stroud Rd, but it avoids some of the more bike unfriendly sections of the BW that is seemingly over-run by people intent on passing on crests/blind corners/narrow sections of road.

hey we recently completed a trip from belingen to gloucester thanks to your article cheers
here is the trip

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