Sealing the Fate of an Iconic Gravel Road

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Kempsey Announcement March 2019 jumping 700x467

The Headline reads ‘Jumping for Joy’. The occasion is an apparent win in securing a $4.5million State grant to seal the ‘worst’ bits of the Kempsey Road in northern New South Wales. The jumpers are the current State member of parliament for the region and his local Council counterparts. You can read all about their victory on the local member’s web site (but read it quick as the next election is in two weeks…). So I am in a protest movement of one. Just me. Possibly. Because, as is the case for every story, there are two sides to this particular situation, I am targeting myself through suggesting what a voice to the contrary might suggest. I’ll probably get run off the road by way of response. I suspect that these joy jumpers don’t even conceive the merest possibility of a dissenting view. 

Map

There’s a good reason to keep outlier positions to yourself: the most obvious being the likelihood to be singled out as a ‘fringe dwelling nutter’. But then again, who’s going to read this post on an obscure cyclist blog. Just by being a cyclist, I am a fringe dweller, hated by caravan drivers, beer fuelled truck drivers and bogan four wheel drivers who really, really, don’t like to share gravel roads with cyclists. But here’s the thing. I don’t like sharing the road with them, either.* 

But there is much more to this and similar stories than might meet the eye. 

On the surface, sealing a road the condition of which has rankled car drivers and caravaners for decades looks like a simple win win. Hence the public claims to fame via the (for the moment) local State member for The Northern Tablelands region, Adam Marshall. Junmping for joy. Indeed. This guy is up for re-election and this photo is all about why he lost my vote. I don’t like the presumption that simple problems are never explored for their more complex dimensions, and as such, are never opened up for public debate. The first I knew of this road sealing caper was the occasion of my most recent ride down that particular road…today.

Let’s air one basic presumption underlying decisions like this. More or better access for car drivers is always good. End of. 

Is it?

In this era of drive-through everything including four wheel drivers running over kids on the beach, isn’t it time to actually question this basic presumption? Are there places that actually deserve the space and relative solitude of access rationed roads?

The Kempsey Road links the coastal city of Kempsey with the urban hub of Armidale in Northern New South Wales. It’s a road of around 160km that is around one third unsealed, where all the unsealed or gravel bits being the most spectacular, scenic, remote and wild places along the route. The 22km gravel stretch between the stunningly idealic family camping hotspot of Georges Junction and the forestry centre at the Styx River is known as the ‘Big Hill’. That hill is an official Hors Categorie or HC hill in cycling terms. It is a wonderful climb; cutting through almost pristine wilderness wth sheer drops off to one side and a windy but relatively constant gradient of around 8 per cent with some 20 per cent bits to keep the KOM record sheet honest. I held that KOM for around five years until a recent crop of adventurers decided to upgrade the challenge (the curse of Strava…). The Big Hill, and most of the rest of the road on either side is trafficked at a pace of around one car per hour or so. If that. Caravan drivers are officially advised to find an alternative route. Trucks are not keen. Urban cars are a dodgy proposition. This is 4WD, adventure motor bike and cyclist territory, It’s all worked well since the days of the horse and cart. 

The unsealed character of the road has defined the identity of the place and the entire route. People seek out the camping at Georges Junction because it is remote. The (Upper Macleay) river is unspoiled. Most of the route is way, way outside of mobile phone range (and texting terrorists). There are no shops, places to buy fuel, or, really, not many signs of humanity at all along the section between Georges Junction and Wollomombi. This road is a facility for escape. 

Ride

The alternative, main route joining the coast with the Northern Tablelands region is further North: the Waterfall Way via Dorrigo. Nice scenery, but infested with caravans and speeding car drivers intent on overtaking everything and anything in their path. The Waterfall Way is a road for motorists who want to get someplace. The Kempsey Road is more about the journey and less about the destination. Where the Kempsey Road is the road of choice for 4WD drivers and adventure bike riders, the Waterfall Way is the route for Hyundai shopping cars and Harley Davidson cruisers. Not that I object to Harley cruisers, given the 2019 Fat Bob in my shed… But these routes are two dimensions apart in terms of character. Let’s just say that one is a poor and scary choice for cyclists and the other is the perfect ride. So perfect is the Kempsey Road, that over 400 cyclists ride it’s entire route every year via the Tour de Rocks charity ride. I am pretty sure there’d be no takers for a similar ride down the Dorrigo route…

Junction

So, in the context of the place as a route of natural distinction for gravel cyclists and wilderness loving 4WD enthusiasts enjoying a caravan/bimbo box free drive, let’s take stock of what it is that road sealing is about to destroy. Yes, the handful of locals living en route will have faster and more secure access to the facilities of civilisation from which they have been less than perfectly connected for so many years, but we can safely assume that traffic on the road is about to go through the roof when, ultimately, the entire road is sealed. While the windy, steep and probably always more remote landscape en route is unlikely to attract the traffic of the more northern Waterfall Way route, it is going to rise by way of outcome. From one vehicle per hour, we are going to approach one per ten minutes or so. I am, of course, guessing here; if you have a better estimate, leave a comment below.  Worse, the caravan set are going to infest this place, along with, god forbid, tourist busses and similar assaults. I’d put money on the remote perfections of the Georges Junction wild camping site being closed to the public even before the tar has dried. That place is a pastoral lease, barely tolerated by the lessee even now. There will be deaths on the hill once its natural gravel speed trap character has been removed under hot mix. Crash barriers and tar are going to encourage speeding and nut job stupidity from inept motorists as never before. The 500 metre sheer drop is going to attract kamikaze mistakes. There’s nothing like a blind hairpin bend and a sheer drop to assert the incompetence of a driver otherwise deluded to be en route to the podium of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. A sealed Big Hill is, most definitely, going to become a hoon road route for motorists who get a thrill from driving or riding too fast. 

Wildlife is going to suffer most. There are lyre birds, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, echidnas all about to meet their demise once the tar is put down. Road kill follows cars wherever they go. Cyclists don’t leave road kill. 

Cyclists become road kill. I can see it now. Guess who is going to go over the cliff first: the bogan tin box driver with dodgy brakes or who considers his car as a penis extension or the cyclist with nowhere to go? Go on. Guess. 

I am pretty certain this road sealing plan will mean the end of the Tour de Rocks annual charity ride. The dangers will rise to a level that the organisers will be unprepared to accept. Millions in cancer charity fund  raising will disappear. 

And how will those locals who have, apparently, lobbied for road sealing for so many years fare? Will they enjoy life on a new highway where once they lived on a remote rural road? Really?

Without a doubt, the Macleay Valley is going to change once its road is sealed. Without a doubt, its current character as a remote, rather wild place with little in the way of casual tourist opportunity or amenity to Point A Point B commutes is going to become something else. Have all these ‘jumping for joy’ road sealing advocates really considered what it is that they have now unleashed? For me, it’s the announcement of the death of a loved one; a favourite place is about to become yet another stage of adulation to the curse of the automobile and the drive-through lifestyle of those who drive them.The world is about to lose a towering iconic ride. I, for one, am not jumping for joy nor will be voting for those who are.   

* Here’s how this post is almost certainly going to be interpreted by road sealing advocates, cyclist haters, the Local Member (if he ever actually reads stuff like this) and the local Council clique (in the unlikely event that they ever read anything at all from local rate payers): ‘cyclist wants Kempsey Road all to himself’. Or ‘selfish cyclist wants to kill progress for his own riding pleasures’ Etc etc etc. One thing is guaranteed, none who end up concluding this will have actually read what I said above. Such is life and the reality of community discourse…

 

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