Outdoors in the peace and pure air heading north from Casino.
Outdoors in the peace and pure air heading north from Casino. Digby Hildreth

Rail trail could have villages steaming on

HAVE you tried eating out on a Saturday night without a reservation in Lismore lately? You'll go hungry. The town is "popping”, one recent visitor remarked - bouncing back after its near-death by drowning following Cyclone Debbie earlier this year.

Now the council has announced plans to revamp the riverbanks, creating a "Southbank” precinct found in cities from London to Brisbane. Proposed amenities include a walking and cycling loop, a repurposed train station and the hot-housing of creative industries, setting up an entertainment and cultural quarter unprecedented on the North Coast. It's music to the ears of proponents of a cycling trail along the railway line from Casino to Murwillumbah, the Northern Rivers Rail Trail Association, who say it would bring tourists and locals alike into the town.

Big skies and panoramic rural views await cyclists between Casino and Lismore.
Big skies and panoramic rural views await cyclists between Casino and Lismore. Digby Hildreth

The other big towns on the route would benefit similarly from the 132km rail trail, its supporters say, including Casino, with the redevelopment of the Old Casino railway station as a start-point for the adventure ahead, celebrating its past as the rail capital of the region and its present as beef capital of Australia.

The businesses in Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah would also benefit, not least the Tweed River Art Gallery, that could be joined to the trail by an added link.

The trail has recently taken giant steps forward, with the association recently crowdfunding $75,000 to develop an engineering plan for the trail, boosted by $100,000 from Richmond and Lismore councils. The State Government has reserved $6.3 million for converting the Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek section of the track.

Places such as the Moo Moo Cafe at Mooball provide distractions along with refreshments.
Places such as the Moo Moo Cafe at Mooball provide distractions along with refreshments. Digby Hildreth

But it is the small hinterland villages that stand to be the biggest winners, attracting scores of the "right kind” of tourist, travellers seeking something beyond the usual urban distractions. The many unique villages contain stories and an easy informality amid birdsong and stunning, diverse scenery, from farmland to forest.

The hidden details of history are quietly thrilling.

Leycester, for instance, was named after the first white man to explore the Casino region, the magnificently monickered Augustus Adolphus Leycester, in 1843. It was once a thriving settlement at the heart of a fertile area, where almost anything would grow. It had a school, post office, tennis courts and dances well into the 20th century.

Like other settlements between Casino and Lismore - Fernside, Bentley, Naughton's Gap - it once had its own railway platform, where trains collected cream for processing in Lismore, and beans, peas, bananas bound for Sydney on ships from Byron Bay.

A more elaborate structure was at Bungabee, where there was a siding for trains to pass, and fettlers' huts for the gangs of single men working on the lines.

Augustus was reportedly a well-educated English gent, respected by all. He and his business partner created the vast Tunstall cattle station, nearly 8000ha, extending to today's Tuncester. They fell out with a sheep grazier next door, Augustus was ruined and decamped to the California goldfields.

The merest peep into the past in such places reveals a treasure trove of material - food for the mind of inquiring tourists; those interested in history and keen to engage with the locals, the topography, indigenous and contemporary culture; people whose leisurely two-wheeled approach would make the ride a richly rewarding experience.

ELEVATED STATE: The proposed trail covers all sorts of ground, but offers a gentle gradient before the descent into (or ascent from) Byron Bay.
ELEVATED STATE: The proposed trail covers all sorts of ground, but offers a gentle gradient before the descent into (or ascent from) Byron Bay. Digby Hildreth

The sensual pleasures are catered for by the villages too - places such as Eltham, with its grand old steel bridge across the Wilsons River, which is already a destination for food lovers, with the Eltham Pantry and a pub offering a peaceful atmosphere and good healthy meals.

Everything from pecans to pork is available on the track through Booyong and Nashua, with one grower there saying the rail trail could motivate them to refurbish their old barn and create a farm shop.

"And the many craftspeople in the area could do so more openly and obviously, and open up little shopfronts,” she said.

The village once had a butcher's shop and general store but now provides a "beautiful landscape, and so quiet”.

Booyong (the ironwood tree) also boasts one of the last stands of Big Scrub rainforest - 16ha of centuries-old canopy, with up to 150 species of plants, including the red cedar that drew thousands of workers to the area, and some of the world's largest giant water gums.

The lush Tweed section of the proposed rail trail promises a variation in the landscape, with the great bent head of Mt Wollumbin beckoning in the distance.

WELCOME: Crabbes Creek hosts regular community meal nights, dances and other 'country' diversions for weary travellers.
WELCOME: Crabbes Creek hosts regular community meal nights, dances and other 'country' diversions for weary travellers. Digby Hildreth

Here the residents of the four main villages - each a day's horse ride apart in the 19th century - present a variation on the theme. As well as a boon to business for the cafe, gallery and antique store owners and accommodation venues, they say the trail would provide much needed connectivity - a safe and leisurely transport corridor between centres from Crabbes Creek to the fine station at Murwillumbah.

One worker at the Crabbes Creek general store (going strong since 1890) said she'd like to be able to cycle to Mooball on a Sunday afternoon, "have a drink and come back safely, which you can't do at the moment”.

In Mooball, another local noted that Crabbes Creek hosted "community meal” events - "wonderful food nights ... how good would cycling there and back be in the summer?”

Burringbar's Eva Heath said "from here to Stokers Siding it's only about 10 or 15km. I'd love to be able to go for a walk there”.

Eva said residents wanted Burringbar to retain its homely feel, but added the trail "would breathe new life into the villages in the region”, and help new ventures such as the Fallen Leaf cafe thrive.

"It will be a winner, and can only add to people's experience of being in the hinterland. It would make Burringbar a new destination. We're tickled.”

Horse-riding is big in the Tweed Valley and Lisa Young at the Stokers Siding Design Studio and others said they'd want the trail to be "inclusive”, accommodating horses and with camping spots.

Lisa Young has Stokers Siding Design Studio, just across the road from the old railway station.
Lisa Young has Stokers Siding Design Studio, just across the road from the old railway station. Digby Hildreth

With that qualification, she said "every village would benefit from it”.

"Each of the villages is unique, and each has an old-fashioned charm. We're quaint, and that's what a lot of people are looking for.

"People come here from Brisbane looking for something organic. Being able to explore the villages in the open air is good for the soul and they come back.”

Hosanna farm stay offers all that is good about country life, and owner Alex Reynolds said a rail trail would bring "heaps of cyclists here with little children, stopping in the villages”.

"I think it's a marvellous idea for families with kids.”

Hosanna offers cabins, "glamping” huts and camp sites and, importantly, animals to feed and milk. It has a huge swimming dam with kayaks. And there's a rail tunnel nearby, with "masses of glow worms”, Alex said.

"It's a wonderful thing that people should have access to.”



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