Where can you embark on an adventure that encompasses steep winding roads, magnificent pagoda covered cliffs, glow worm tunnels, abandoned ruins and some of the coolest free campgrounds in NSW? The answer is Newnes.
After the fun-police laid waste to my previous railway article, I set about researching possible ‘legal’ weekend locations to explore and shoot. Ideally a place covered by dark clear skies for some astrophotography. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to have quite adventurous parents who had previously shown me images of these amazing shale mine ruins in close proximity to a campsite surrounded by rather large cliffs. With some further research I came across images of some pretty sweet looking pagodas at the nearby Newnes Plateau area that would be a great subject to shoot at night.
I contacted my mate Tom to put forward the idea but he said there was work to do around the house. I mentioned that he was kidding himself and after some photography inspiration he agreed. We set off early Saturday morning.
The weather forecast was cloudy with a low of 4 degrees and a bright blue moon, not exactly ideal astrophotography conditions let alone camping. Still, we set off trying to decide whether it was feasible to camp at Newnes campground and still see the Plateau at night. It was decided we’d scout out the plateau and surrounding areas first, then wing the camp location later.
Heading up State Mine Gully road we passed a group of 4WD vehicles stopped at an area surrounded by massive pagodas and made a mental note to check it out later. The road was quite bumpy but still relatively accessible to 2WD cars. We spotted a decked out Suzuki Swift and Mazda 3 jumping around the trails, which we thought wouldn’t exactly be a comfortable ride.
In my haste I had set Google Maps GPS to the Newnes Plateau marker and guessed from the topographic earth view that there would be some cliffs there. Unfortunately the marker was nothing but a tight fire trail to a nice patch of nothing which ended up wasting 50min of light.
We turned around to check out the pagodas we passed earlier, but not before stopping to get some shots of the huge open fields cleared of the pines that once stood there. It seems that the area is a haven for the die-hard 4WDers whose vehicles / egos are raised high enough to run over a standing horse. One ‘highly educated’ comedian even pulled up beside us as we were shooting and blubbered “that’s called ‘wood’ ya know?” Tom wanted to punch him.
Stopping at the pagodas was a good idea because it made for some epic views and ideas for shots we could come back to take that night, weather permitting. Two sets of eyes are definitely better than one, as I only just caught a glimpse of an abandoned graffiti covered building as we were driving back towards Lithgow. Turns out that it’s not the only thing there, a large rotting wild pig was festering in the sun alongside an upturned car. We snapped a few shots but had to make an executive decision on where to camp as we were running out of light. We had our heart set on camping at the Newnes campground and getting night shots of the abandoned shale mine under the full moon but damn was it a long drive if it wasn’t any good.
Stuff it, we didn’t have the luxury of multiple nights to risk missing out on something big, so we headed back into Lithgow to fill up and set off to Newnes Campground. The winding drive into the Wolgan Valley turned out to be a reward in itself as it looked spectacular when afternoon light turned the cliffs bright orange.
Coming into the campground we were surprised at the amount of people, considering the cold weather. It didn’t take long before we found a clear spot by the river housing a beat up old wombat sporting numerous battle scars. After woofing down a few camp style burgers, we decided to try and reach the poorly signposted Pagoda Lookout trail before dark, which was was apparently only 3.5km away. Surely we could get some awesome night shots from up there.
During the hour or so walk we passed a few campers, but none had been to, nor seen the trail we were looking for. One guy appeared dressed like he had just ran Pamplona, explaining the path we were looking for was blocked and difficult to make out. Unfortunately it began getting dark real quick and the trail led deeper between the cliffs. Even with a head torch, the path was far less discernable than we would have liked, so we backtracked to camp. It was about at this time I began getting hangry. The idea of shooting from atop a pagoda overlooking the valley was looking less likely and we had no real idea if we were even on the right trail in the first place.
After scoffing down a mountain of pasta we jumped in the car and drove 2 minutes back up the road to the river crossing that led to the abandoned shale mine. The map of the area looked interesting with a ton of buildings and remnants to use as subjects. Unfortunately, mother nature and the back burning were against us as the sky was hazy with cloud and smoke. There wasn’t even a chance to shoot under the full moon as it was covered in the haze. By the time we got back to camp it was getting late and we still had no decent shots.
Out of pure frustration and impulse we unpegged the tent, stuffed it in the back of the car and drove back to Newnes Plateau to camp at Barcoo Swamp Campground so we could get an early start to the glow worm tunnel.
Awaking to a crisp, sundrenched morning the chance of getting some decent shots fired up our cylinders with some positivity. We packed the car and continued down towards the glow worm tunnel. We stopped a couple of times to climb and shoot the multitude of pagodas that line the side of the road. Driving on further we passed through the one way tunnel I’d seen in photos, stopping again to get shots of the car, before arriving at the glow worm carpark.
Turns out we were early enough to be first on the trail which meant the small cave and tunnel were ours alone to shoot for a good hour or so. The peace and quiet didn’t last long before the hordes of monster trucks arrived to check out the area. The tunnel itself looks like something straight from a Tolkein story as it was dark, cold, glowing and damn awesome. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust but once they do the roof and walls light up.
Whilst our plans didn’t exactly map out, we managed to find a really beautiful gem that is totally doable as a Sydney weekend trip. It was a shame the weather wasn’t on our side but I am definitely going to venture back for a thorough look at the ruins and locate the pagoda look out that eluded us.
- Sturdy footwear
- Torch / headlamp with extra batteries
- 4WD or AWD vehicle is preferable but during drier months 2WD is fine
- Warm clothing
- GPS & topographic map if heading off walking trails
- Enough food and water to last. No clean water available at any campsite.
- Fast wide and zoom lenses for astro, night and tunnel shots.
- Sturdy tripod
- Shutter release cable
- 4WD and dirt bike riding
- Rock climbing
- Mountain biking
- Basic to advanced depending on the activities you want to undertake.
- A decent level of fitness and ability to read basic maps will ensure you get the most out of your adventure
How to Get There
From Lithgow city centre head out State Mine Gully Road. It is literally a straight line from the outskirts of Lithgow until the Glow Worm Tunnel which is 47 minutes / 33 km from Lithgow city centre. Drive 2 minutes up State Mine Gully Road and you will find a small spot to pull over on the left where you will find the abandoned building and upturned car.
From the abandoned building drive another 10 minutes past some large cut out caves and you will see a small carpark on the left side of the road. Here you can park and walk to the Lost City which has many awesome Pagodas and a view to Lithgow in the distance. If you continue on another ten minutes you will come across the vast pine plantations, many of which have been cleared.
Further on up the road you will come to a split in the road that is signposted. Turning right you will find Barcoo Swamp Campground. Continue along State Mine Gully Road and you will eventually come to a multitude of pagodas overlooking the valley and a few bushwalking trails. Drive a little further you will find the one-way car tunnel. Carefully follow it through until you hit the carpark for the Glowworm Tunnel. From here it is a short walk with some stairs down to the glowworm tunnel.
Leave Lithgow on the Great Western Highway towards Bathurst. Exit onto the Castlereagh Highway and continue until a right turn onto Wolgan road. Continue along until you come to a steep descent sign. Here you will find the descent into the Wolgan valley which has an amazing view from the top. You can park the car and walk up the dirt road overlooking the valley at the top.
Driving along the road be careful of wildlife, there are literally hundreds of Kangaroos, foxes and many wombats that cross and stand on the side of the road, particularly at dawn and dusk.
You will pass the sign for the Glow Worm Tunnel hike on the right hand side with a little car park on the left. Continue along you will pass the Newnes Pub and a crossing for 4WDs to the other side of the river with the ruins. Eventually you will come to the Newnes Campground. If you drive into the campground and turn right you will find the walking trails to the river, pagoda lookout and ruins.
Between Newnes Campground and the Glowworm tunnel on Newnes Plateau side is around 1 hour 53 min drive.