Deep in a rugged forest, trails with tricky hairpin turns and clear river crossings climb fast to altitudes of up to 1000 metres.
This is Deua National Park – just four hours south of Sydney. Perfect for a weekend getaway, the park boasts some of the region’s most challenging four-wheel drive trails, with some so steep that trailers have been banned.
But first things first: before you hit the dirt – to avoid tackling the steep stuff on an empty stomach – stop in at Braidwood bakery, where you can stock up on fresh bread and indulge in a decent cup of ground coffee. Depending on your timing, you’ll often see other four-wheel drivers doing the same thing, whether in kitted-out Land Rovers or battle-scarred Toyotas.
You then head for Snowball Road, a good spot to air-down the tyres before facing the first real 4x4 test of the trip: the Minuma Range Fire Trail.
The start of this trail has some steep rocky sections, where you’ll probably need low range and a locked diff to avoid losing traction and sliding on an awkward angle on the ascents. If you’re travelling in a convoy, a UHF radio will also come in handy, not just to alert your mates when you become stuck, but also to share a bit of banter before they get you back on the road and moving.
After a couple of kilometres of the track, you’ll reach the really steep stuff, where you’ll see nothing but sky as you move on to the Dampier Trail; a fire trail that gives passengers a great view of the valley below and a good indication of the height you’ve climbed. The trail is also a continuation of Middle Mountain Road, which will eventually link you to the Bendethera Fire Trail.
You’ll probably want to break for smoko before heading on to the popular Bendethera Trail. This track is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Deua NP, with its steep mountain drops and ascents. The hills will challenge many 4x4ers, and they certainly command respect, particularly when wet.
After a couple of kilometres of slow driving, you’ll eventually reach the valley floor that is the magical Bendethera Valley; the perfect place for the first campsite of the weekend.
Expect cold weather up here during the winter, especially at night time, and remember that for every 100 metres you climb, the temperature will fall about one degree. So bring those woolly socks your mother-in-law gave your for Christmas – you might just be glad to have them up here as you knuckle down for the night.
With some luck, it’ll be dry and not too foggy when you wake up the next day. You might even see a mob of kangaroos through the icy mist. After downing coffee and breakfast, discuss the day’s driving ahead, pack your vehicles, and get ready to hit the trails again, with the well-known Merricumbene Fire Trail the first on the list.
On the Merricumbene Trail, you’ll move straight on to famously steep ascents and drops. If you have a fear of heights, the best advice is to not look out your side window. Everyone in your convoy will be in concentration mode, with little conversation over the airwaves and plenty of tight hairpins keeping them on their toes.
This is no time to question the ability of your vehicle’s engine braking. The driving is technical and if the trails are wet, you’ll need to be extra careful, as some of the descents can be quite daunting.
The driving pattern is consistent: as you come to the crest of one hill, you will immediately be presented with an even higher one in front of you. This will be the norm for a couple of hours – up, down, up, down, blue sky, brown dirt, blue sky, brown dirt.
It’s a cracker of a track. The Merricumbene Fire Trail’s highest elevation along its length is 1020m. Its lowest point is 71.7m. To say this 34km trail is mountainous is an understatement. Apparently the total ascent/descent along the length of the Merricumbene Fire Trail is 2142m/1702m. Now that’s a lot of going up and down in one day.
You won’t find flat ground for a while, so the best advice is to pull over for lunch at the base of one of the many hills. By evening you should arrive at the unpredictable Deua River crossing. Before entering the National Park, ask the park ranger about the height of the river, because the river’s depth can change dramatically depending on weather conditions.
At the very least, have a good look to see if the river looks manageable enough for you to get across without any major issues. Once over the river, continue on to the Arulen campsite for the night.
The weekend will be coming to an end, but not before the last of the tracks to be tackled, which will include the Zig Zag and Quart Pot trails. You’ll finish at the Corn Trail, a narrow pack-horse trail once used to bring cattle and gold down from the Tableland.
A couple of days in the Deua NP is a great way to improve your hill-climbing skills, but be prepared as the tracks are not recommended for vehicles lacking low range and decent tyres, simply because the trails are too steep and there are a number of water crossings that can be high after rains.
This elevated wilderness is the perfect destination for a weekend adventure. It guarantees challenging hill driving, river crossings, cracking campsites and spectacular hilltop views that will most definitely make you appreciate the value of owning a 4x4.