There are a few very good reasons for exploring the country on a route along an old railway line. The best one is that they are generally nice and level. The old train lines tended to go around or through hills not over them.
In the case of the new Northern Rivers Rail Trail, it’s a maximum of 4.5 per cent with short sections on to bypass bridges briefly rising to 15 per cent.
Another reason is that alongside development of rail trails, came businesses ready to hire electric bikes, which makes the long distances manageable for even the laziest of cyclists (I’m thinking of myself here). With battery power, what could be a daunting distance and test of endurance becomes an easy and fun adventure.
And then there are the ever-changing landscapes and old stations to be found along the way, all with signboards offering stories and photos from rail’s golden past.
When my 50-something niece suggested I join her to cycle 48km from Crabbes Creek to Murwillumbah and back, I had to question my fitness, but she assured me she hadn’t been on a bike for years and was fearful of being a bit wobbly herself.
And I had the benefit of having sampled my first rail trail a year earlier, 42km from Tumbarumba to Rosewood in the Riverina Highlands of NSW, also on an e-bike. It passed through subalpine country and farmland and was dotted with historic stations, making it a remarkable ride through the region’s history as well as its countryside.
To be offered something similar so close to home was irresistible. The trail, so new that trees planted to screen private properties are still saplings, will ultimately be extended to link the Tweed Valley with Byron Shire, Lismore and Casino.
We set out from the beautiful northern NSW beach of Cabarita on a pleasant autumn day for the short drive to Mooball (pronounced Mow-bil), a little farming community with its original 1930s pub and cafes providing a good starting point.
Murwillumbah is the official trail head but bikes can be hired at both ends, so we elected to minimise the drive and start at Mooball. This meant we would have to head 3km back to the end of the trail at Crabbes Creek if we wanted to complete the full trip.
Alas, by the time we got back from Murwillumbah, good intentions of adding this extra 6km to the journey had disappeared into the afternoon breeze.
There are eight stops along the way, and being on the railway line, arrival is always in the middle of a village that’s waiting to be explored.
The trail has 6km of sealed asphalt, and the rest is solid compacted gravel so the journey is smooth as it winds through fields, native bushland, paddocks full of cows and even a shady rainforest canopy.
On this Tweed section, there are 26 bridges – cross 16 of them and enjoy picturesque views of the other 10 as you cycle past – and two tunnels.
The Burringbar Range tunnel, which connects the villages of Stokers Siding and Burringbar, opened in 1894, and closed in 2004. At about 524m long it is by far the longest of nine railway tunnels on the Casino-Murwillumbah line – its nearest rival is 265m.
It’s also the biggest challenge and arguably most thrilling part of the ride. At 7m high and 3.7m wide it is now home to microbats and glow worms. Although there is unquestionably a light at the end of the tunnel, dense blackness closes in and with only a small bike lamp to light the way, visitors are advised to bring a torch.
It’s also a good idea to ensure the light is facing down and directly in front as in the darkness it’s all too easy to slam into the tunnel wall, a hazard I personally tested.
It wasn’t just me either. Others we passed also commented on how disorienting it could be. As a result, there was little time or will to look for the wildlife within.
First stop is the pretty village of Burringbar, just over 2km from Mooball. Burringbar is thought to mean the place of non-returning fighting boomerang in the local Bundjalung dialect.
The first building erected by John Ewing in 1888 became an overnight stop for Cobb and Co coaches bringing mail and supplies from Murwillumbah and Brunswick Heads.
It’s another 10km to Stokers Siding Station, which was known as Dunbible Siding when the railway was built in 1894. It was renamed in 1903, after local landholder Joseph Stokers and was one of the first stations with a raised platform. Trains continued to travel through without stopping after it closed in 1974.
The railway serviced the area’s cane and dairy farms, transporting cream to the Norco Butter Factory in Murwillumbah and cane to the sugar mill in Condong.
Next stop is Dunbible where dairy, pig and cattle farmers once welcomed the trains. Cream no longer had to be loaded up on horses for the long journey to the factory.
About 2km short of Murwillumbah, there is a shelter and bike stop. A steep stairway leads up to the Tweed River Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre perched dramatically on the hill above the trail. Wollumbin (Mount Warning) rises on the horizon.
Finally, we pull into Murwillumbah which became the major centre of the Tweed when the railway line to Lismore opened. Visitors now admire its art deco architecture, vibrant arts community, cafes and restaurants, but it remains a centre for dairying, sugar and banana farms.
We had covered the 20.85km with lots of stops, in less than two hours, so the four-hour bike hire was never going to be a problem. But of course, you don’t have to hire an e-bike.
The trail is well suited to all types of mobility devices, including shank’s pony, or bring your own pedal power.
I took the easy way and can heartily recommend the ride. Try to avoid weekends when, I was told, the route becomes very busy.