It took thousands of convicts, several route deviations and ten years to complete, opening up
a direct route from Sydney to the Hunter Valley in the early years of the penal colony. But while the Great North Road may have been rendered virtually redundant almost as soon as it was completed in 1836, the 264km long route remains one the greatest feats of engineering in Australia during the 19th century.
Construction of the monumental infrastructure project was started in 1826 by the government of the day, partly in response to a petition from the wealthy settlers of the Hunter Valley who called for an overland route to Sydney to be developed. At that stage, the only way to access the Hunter was via sea, with the land in between the two settlements made up of fearsome sandstone mountains with deep gorges, razorback ridges and towering bluffs.
Convicts working in gangs, and often wearing leg irons, spent the next ten years battling geographic and geological obstacles to construct the road, using only hand tools and gunpowder to cut and blast their way through the rock.
An incredible feat of engineering and skill, the road featured an impressive series of timber and stonework structures including buttresses, culverts, bridges and nine-metre-high retaining walls.
However the route of the Great North Road was subject to much conjecture, and many changes throughout its construction, with several sections abandoned or left unfinished as new administrators with different ideas to their predecessors took control of the project.
The final route begins from what is now the Sydney suburb of Five Dock, crossing the Parramatta River at Abbotsford and passing through Ryde and Dural before reaching the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry, 100km to the north. Winding through the isolated and often rugged country along the edge of Dharug National Park, it continues through Bucketty before dividing at Wollombi, with one branch continuing to Warkworth via Broke while the other travels to Cessnock, Maitland and on to Newcastle.
At the time it was built it was a long and lonely trail, with sections of steep gradients that could be difficult to traverse, and little access to food or water for those travelling with stock. These elements combined to work against the popularity of the road and soon after it was finished in 1836 it fell into disuse, with alternate routes developed to bypass its difficult and dry sections.
The introduction of steamships in Australia in the early 1830s was the final blow for the road, with a regular service developing between Sydney, Newcastle and Morpeth that proved far more efficient and comfortable for passengers and freight travelling to the Hunter.
In the last century, countless alternate land-based routes were developed as modern-day Australia evolved. However, most of the Great North Road remains in use today as part of local road networks or as an alternative, slower paced scenic route between Sydney and the Hunter, although a lot of the original surface is well buried under bitumen.
Relics such as stone retaining walls, wharves, culverts, bridges and buttresses can still be seen along the entire length of the Great North Road – in Sydney suburbs like Epping and Gladesville, at Wisemans Ferry or Wollombi, Bucketty or Broke, or when walking in Dharug and Yengo National Parks.
A 43km-long section that runs from Wisemans Ferry in the south to Mount Manning (near Bucketty) in the north is now referred to as the Old Great North Road because it is the most intact section of the original road that remains undeveloped.
A 7km-long section of the Old Great North Road, which lies within Dharug National Park and is closed to motor vehicle traffic, was included on the World Heritage list in 2010. It sits among 11 places grouped under the banner of the Australian Convict Sites, which attained World Heritage status for being “the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts”.
This section of the road is managed by the New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Service and can be explored on foot, with a 9km loop in Dharug National Park popular with families and history buffs.
Before its World Heritage listing, the communities of Bucketty and Wollombi established the ‘Convict Trail Project’ in 1990 to promote the road as a museum of convict engineering. A website was developed to record the history of the road and its construction, while also helping to promote the various relics and attractions along the route. To find out more about the project visit www.convicttrail.com.au, or log on to the NSW National Parks website to plan your visit to the Old Great North Road – World Heritage walk at www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au