Destination NSW: Newnes
Newnes is located in the scenic Wolgan Valley, in Wollemi National Park on the western edge of the Blue Mountains just north of Lithgow in NSW.
From Sydney, head across the Blue Mountains to Lithgow, continue west and take the Mudgee exit. The Newnes turn-off is signposted just past the Wallerawang Power Station at Lidsdale.
The first 10km to the bottom of Wolgan Gap is sealed. The road in the valley is unsealed and care is needed, particularly when wet.
Set in a deep, steep sided valley with towering sandstone cliffs, Newnes is a fascinating site. The ruins are all that's left of a large-scale industrial complex that operated between 1906 and 1932, and finally closed down in 1937 when the works were transferred to Glen Davis, on the other side of the mountain to the north of Newnes. It was one of the largest shale oil production schemes in Australia and encompassed mining, processing, distillation and associated manufacturing industries.
When the plant last operated in 1932, products were: 10% motor spirit, 10% kerosene, 20% loss and the remaining unprocessed 60% was sold as gas oil to gas companies. At this stage the plant was incomplete as the company had moved some equipment to Clyde in 1923 and this prevented further processing. Technology used at Newnes was essentially 19th Century and the Newnes plant needed replacing which was one reason for the eventual move to Glen Davis.
The oil-shale rock was converted into oil by "destructive distillation"; the rock being heated until it broke down to form an oily vapour and an ash residue. This was done in a bench of 64 retorts of the Scottish "Pumpherston" type; each retort being a vertical tube, the upper part made of iron, the lower of firebricks. These retorts were intended for continuous operation, being fed from the top, the oil being drawn off from the side and the ash being removed from the bottom. The company had trouble with the Pumpherston retorts; 32 were modified in 1914 with extra offtakes and this design was called the "Fell” retort.
As well as being used on-site, the coke was exported along the railway line to the Hoskins Steelworks and Cobar Smelters in Lithgow. Coal was hand-mined uphill from the ruins immediately behind the coke ovens and mine development spread out to just under the cliff line. When the works first closed in early 1912, the contracts with Hoskins Steelworks and Cobar Smelters were lost. Cobar Smelters moved to Cobar at about this time and coal was then sourced from the Newcastle district.
Newnes township at its peak probably housed around 2000 people. It originally extended up the slope on the hotel side of the river and included the main camping flat. There is very little left at the site as most of the building materials were removed and re-used during and after World War II.
Two brick chimneys are the relics of a schoolhouse built in 1910 (closed in 1940) to cater for the miner's children. Some concrete remains near the road are all that are left of the main group of shops, located along the Wolgan Road in the clearing to the south of the NPWS information bay.
The Newnes railway was constructed in an impressive 18 months by Henry Deane, who overcame such obstacles as 100 to 200m cliffs, tight curves and steep grades. At its height the station consisted of a timber-faced platform constructed in 1907, a ticket office and waiting room and a wooden footbridge for crossing the river which was washed away in 1910. The stations stonework facing was built in the early 1930s to replace the worn-out timber facing. There was also a goods shed and siding. The railway closed in 1932.
With 80 campsites to choose from there’s a lot of space, but keep in mind this is a very popular spot, particularly during holiday periods. The camping area is in the southern section of the park on Wolgan River, en route to the ruins. Bring your drinking water and firewood or gas/fuel stove.
There are also rustic cabins and camping sites at Newnes Hotel Cabins Historic Wilderness Retreat in the Wolgan Valley.
Camping at Newnes is free in the National Parks camping ground, just keep driving to the end of the road. Woodfire barbecue, open fire pits and picnic tables are available within the camping area if you're lucky to secure one for your stay.
You can also camp on the other side of the river; however you can only access this camping area by foot or 4WD across the ford near the Newnes Hotel.
You're probably thinking, I’m in the middle of nowhere what is there to do without phone coverage.
There are many walks that you can do that are close to the camping area. Here are two of my best suggestions:
- The Newnes Industrial Ruins walk is one of the main attractions of Newnes. You won’t forget the eerie experience of walking among ruins that are gradually being reclaimed by nature. Take some water and enjoy a leisurely stroll around the site.
Starting at the Ruins carpark, the walking track zig zags across the large site, which is on a steep slope. The 15m ‘Big Wall’ is a highlight and the unique beehive kilns are the largest of their type in Australia. Keep an eye out for Wedge-Tailed Eagles soaring above.
- In 1906 the Wolgan Valley Railway was built to haul oil shale from the mines at Newnes up to the main railway at Clarence. It was an amazing piece of engineering for its day. It ran over 50km, through two tunnels and dropped almost 700m from the top of the ridge to the Wolgan Valley at a steep gradient. The Glow Worm Tunnel is one of two now abandoned tunnels on this railway. This tunnel curves through almost 180 degrees and consequently it is very dark. In normal weather a small creek flows through it. These conditions are ideal for certain "glow worms" which inhabit the walls and roof of the tunnel.
The walk follows the railway embankment up under the cliffs to the tunnel and returns via the Old Coach Road back into the valley. It can be done at any time of year, although the climb can be fairly hot in summer. Don’t be like my dad and his friends and walk all the way to only remember you didn’t bring a torch. You will need a torch for the tunnel itself as it is completely dark in the middle and will help you navigate your way through the tunnel without getting your feet wet.
You are able to walk right through the tunnel and follow the track in one big loop.
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