The Jerrawangala Wrangler

WRITTEN BY: Brendan Batty

PHOTOS BY: Mark Watson

You may never have heard of this NSW South Coast gem, but it has adventure aplenty in store…

Australia has some iconic off-road destinations, the sort of places we’ve all heard of and dream of conquering one day: the Victorian High Country, the Simpson Desert, Cape York’s Old Telegraph Track or maybe Fraser Island. Then there are places like Jerrawangala, which almost no-one has heard of and even fewer are sure of the pronunciation of (FYI, the locals clip the vowel sounds, so it’s Jerra-wngla, rather than Jerra-wan-gala). 

Parts state forest, crown land and national park (the borders of which seem so obscure that even the local National Parks officer we spoke to seemed unsure of where their jurisdiction ended), it takes in the narrow strip of bushland between the Princes Highway and Braidwood Road south of Nowra. An extensive network of fire roads, powerline tracks, old logging trails and babbling brooks criss-crosses the bushland as it climbs the escarpment. So, all in all, it’s the perfect place to explore in a D-MAX itching for some close-to-home adventure. It’s 4WDing that’s as challenging as you’re willing to make it, but close enough to Nowra that you can indulge in a decent café brekky beforehand or hearty pub feed after. 

Caffeinated and hollandaised, we pointed the D-MAX to Wandean Road, Wandandian on the Princes Highway edge of the bush. It’s not long before bitumen becomes gravel and gravel makes way for dirt. There’s a bit of early excitement crossing Gnatilia Creek—not because it’s deep or challenging, but because creek crossings signify that passage from the civilised to the wild. Around about here’s a good place to drop some air from your tyres to soften the ride on the increasingly bumpy roads and gain some soon-needed traction.

Wandean Road is the main passage between the Princes Highway and Braidwood Road, and somewhat of a shortcut for the locals who don’t want to drive back into Nowra to head that way. It’s a beautiful route, especially now as nature slowly repairs the intense damage caused by the Black Summer blazes. On a hot, sunny day the new growth is intensely green and the cicadas so loud you have to speak up to be heard. If you’re lucky, you might spot threatened gang-gang cockatoos (they’re the grey ones with pink heads, but aren’t galahs), lyrebirds or water dragons sunning themselves by a creek. Take your time and soak it all in before diverting off the road for some more demanding tracks. 

Because of the fire damage and a couple of large east coast lows that followed, a lot of the tracks in this area are damaged and many are still closed for repair, so come with an open itinerary. Or follow ours, except for maybe one metre of it. You’ll see why. Partway along Wandean Road, we met Perch Hole Road, which is a generous description for this neglected bush track that winds down to Wandandian Creek. Presumably, it’s a good place to catch Australian Bass, which is reasonably common in the freshwater creeks and rivers in the area. For us, we’d hoped it’d be a nice spot for a relaxing morning tea. As ever, it pays not to get too far ahead of yourself.

At the top of the trail, there’s a short and sharp hill-climb that is the perfect place to ease into some real 4WDing. There’s even a U-turn bay at the top. Drop into low-range and scramble up the loose, rocky trail over fun ruts and little rock steps. Try flicking the rear diff locker on to see the difference it makes to traction. There’s more to come, though, so don’t post to Instagram just yet. As Perch Hole Road drops into the valley, the road gets rougher until eventually we stop at rock steps to get out of the car and have a closer look, move some rocks and instruct passengers on the best angles for photos. At one point the road’s been washed down the cutting and rebuilt with rocks—the rutted crossing is so steep the bull bar lightly kissed the ground and the D-MAX balanced on two wheels for a fraction of a second. Whee! 

Further down we skirt giant trees felled by fire, but very quickly the track narrows so much we’re reaching out windows to fend branches away from the D-MAX. At a literal and figurative fork in the road, though, we’re faced with a choice—spend half an hour moving a tree from the track to get to a spot I’ve been told about, or take a smaller track over the creek to explore the other side easily. We should have moved the tree.

Cresting the mound that makes up the bank to the creek, a wheel slips unexpectedly as sand that’s softer than we’d decided while scouting gives way, settling us squarely on the seemingly innocuous tree stump I’d been determined to avoid. Itchingly close the creek, we couldn’t go forward and no amount of low-range and diff-lock took us backwards. Time to break out the shovels, recovery tracks, a high-lift jack and plenty of light-hearted (I hope) blame. For two sweaty, dirty hours we dig dirt, lift wheels and pack rocks, releasing the cement like-grip the stump has on our vehicle, but cementing that camaraderie and mateship that arises from these moments. The cicadas’ roar rolls like applause as we finally extricate our shop-fresh D-MAX from my blunder. 

After finally navigating the ruts, rock steps and gullies back to Wandean Road, the adventure’s not quite over. As we climb the escarpment, the road passes through The Gap and winds through a giant, ancient rockfall. With cliff on one side, steep, temperate rainforest on the other, lyrebirds scratch for a feed in the undergrowth, and occasionally, rock climbers scale the walls above. 

We finished our adventure and trip five clicks down the Braidwood Road at Tianjara Falls, which drop 65m straight down to a shallow rocky pool. A viewing platform edges out over the sheer, perpendicular cliffs and a strategically placed grate offers a view of those same 65m in one frightening direction! As the sun sets over the sprawling Ettrema Wilderness area, it’s the perfect place to wind down after a full day of rough and ready driving and wonder at what else there is to discover. We drove on only two roads for the entire day—but we’ll be back.

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