A wintry weekend getaway, complete with riverside camping, four-wheel driving and palatial limestone caves, just two-hours south of Sydney.
The temperature hovered in the late teens on a bright Sydney Saturday in mid-August. How much colder could it get just two hours south?
As we were only headed out of town for an overnighter, Paul and I packed the modest space in the back of our Zook with bedding from home and an air mattress. No compact, high-tech camping gear needed, we thought. Why compromise on comfort, when space (even in the Jimny) wasn’t going to be an issue on such a short trip?
Yet, as that godforsaken hour before dawn crept around the next day, we were layered with every piece of clothing we’d packed and shivering miserably, counting the minutes until first light.
As it turned out, the temperature can drop significantly compared to Sydney in the Highlands. A blow-up mattress and cheap doona just didn’t cut it with frost forming and puddles freezing outside.
Many Sydney-siders looking to escape the concrete jungle for a weekend routinely hop on the Great Western Motorway towards the Blue Mountains, but the villages, forests and parklands of the Southern Highlands offer an equally rewarding getaway.
Setting off at sunrise, we drove the 110km south of our Maroubra home to arrive in the historic town of Bowral by 8am for coffee and pastries, before taking the Wombeyan Caves Road, through the lower part of the Nattai and Blue Mountains national parks, west out of Mittagong.
This road is unsealed, narrow and winding and can be rutted, so we engaged all four wheels – but really only because we could. We were joined by regular cars that managed fine, although the road isn’t recommended for caravans. Signs also suggest sounding your horn at blind corners to warn oncoming traffic, which is wise as the road is barely wide enough for two, with a sheer drop over the side.
At 45km, having crossed the Wollondilly River at Goodmans Ford, we turned off the track where we spotted a sign for Wollondilly River Station, hoping to secure a campsite for the night, before our planned visit to the Wombeyan caves. We arrived at the front reception desk – a table under a bush shelter constructed out of corrugated iron and local timber – where we paid our $10 each to the owner (since 1968) Brian Casburn, who diligently recorded our names in his notebook. His wife, Ina, then showed us to our campsite by the river. She pointed out our private fire pit and said we could buy a bag of firewood when we returned later that afternoon. Perfect.
The caves are a further 15km along the Wombeyan Caves Rd, at the southern extremity of the Blue Mountains NP. The area was buzzing with tourists when we arrived, including dozens of families camping at the cave site (Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve) itself. There are five caves to visit – the Fig Tree, Wollondilly, Junction, Kooringa and Mulwaree. Only the Fig Tree cave is self-guided, the rest require you to join tour, which is well worth it for the insight provided and the chance to have the guide switch off the lights so you can marvel at the impenetrable darkness (if not the silence, at least not on a Saturday with young children who are scared of the dark).
We chose the 1.5 hour Wollondilly Cave tour and gazed, awe-struck, at the ancient stalactites and stalagmites – we also learned about helictites, limestone that, counter-intuitively, seems to have formed sideways (think of helicopter blades).
We were back at Wollondilly River Station by late afternoon, in time to build a fire before dark, and subsequently let its warmth lull us into a false sense of security before turning in for the night.
We rose very early, bleary eyed and poorly slept, and strolled alongside the glassy river as the sun rose higher in the sky, melting the blanket of frost and restoring sensation to our fingertips.
On the way home, we veered off into Nattai NP for some more four-wheel driving, and lunch. By the time we were back in Sydney, we’d prepared a mental shopping list for our next trip; it included sleeping bags rated for alpine conditions and thermal sleeping mats, so that next time the cold wouldn’t detract from experiencing all the NSW Southern Highlands has to offer – at any time of year.
The Wombeyan Caves Road can be accessed from Mittagong or Berrima, 120km south of Sydney, or 77km from Wollongong, on the coast.
Wollondilly River Station; toilets, firewood; $10 per adult per night ($4 for school-aged children); phone 02 4888 9207.
Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve; toilets, amenities block, firewood, communal kitchen, barbecues; $12 per adult per night, or $30 per night for families; phone 02 4843 5976.
MAPS AND CONTACTS
South East New South Wales, Hema Regional Map (1:385,000).
Southern Highlands Visitors Information Centre, Mittagong; phone 1300 657 559 or visit southern-highlands.com.au.