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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

Captain Thunderbolt

AUSTRALIA | Sunday, 22 April 2007 | Views [5243] | Comments [4]

The WorldNomads crew - just some of the folk who make this project happen.

The WorldNomads crew - just some of the folk who make this project happen.

Our tour of duty as Ambassadors for WorldNomads has now reached its climax (sorry, did you miss that)? Back in Stanthorpe, Queensland, it was time to say goodbye to Matt and the boys, before departing on the lengthy drive back to Sydney. I had hoped to take in a passenger to share the fuel costs – but most people seem to be travelling north rather than south. Either that or people just think I look too damn scary.

I really did not plan another blog, but I have a few people to thank and the last one already rambled on far too much. Besides, I was a day ahead of schedule on my trip south, which led me to finding an interesting little route that almost avoided the Pacific Highway altogether.

The 900km journey began by following the New England Highway south. Traffic was light and I could enjoy the rolling green hills, such a contrast to the outback, and rusty autumn colours. At night, now able to sleep on the main lower double bed, a glance at the map revealed an alternative route through the Great Dividing Range. I had time to spare, and the name alone was all it took to reach a decision – I was going to follow Thunderbolts Way.

The backcountry road is named after bushranger Fred Ward, born in the 1830's, more commonly known as Captain Thunderbolt. It runs from Uralla just south of Armidale and sweeps through Walcha, Nowendoc, Barrington, Gloucester and Stroud, connecting with the Pacific Highway north of Raymond Terrace. The attraction is that the narrow, mountainous sections along the way mean the trucks avoid it, as do the grey nomads and their caravans. But for motorists with a little time on their hands, it is a road to savour.

Bushrangers, basically stock rustlers and outlaws, are generally held in high esteem in Australia. The more notorious ones, such as Ned Kelley, are well documented. However, everywhere you go along the coast and inland, from South Australia, through Victoria, New South Wales and into Queensland, there are stories of lesser known outlaws to discover. In the areas where they were notorious, there is usually a route named after them. Once the Great Dividing Range had been conquered, this area became classic settler country. It was and still is some of the country's most productive farmland, and the bushrangers ran riot with rich pickings.

In each little town along the way, it is possible to follow Captain Thunderbolt's story. His list of misdemeanour's is extensive, including 25 mail coach robberies, 16 hotels and stores, 80 horse thefts and one each of toll gate robbery and escape from custody. He was an exceptional horseman, and despite the occasional shoot-out, he never actually killed anyone, preferring to avade capture on horseback. For the full story, you could do worse than pay a visit to this website.

After a great riverside camp and a misty early morning start, still ahead of schedule, I took another detour to Port Stephens. Last time I was here there was a Tornado, and I never had the chance to appreciate the beautiful coastline. Today, the weather was on my side, and despite being autumn I was able to enjoy a swim on several of the numerous sandy beaches. The natural harbour stretches 20km inland and is dotted with many bays and islands, and certainly the water was a bit calmer this time around. It is well known for its abundant Dolphin population; they can be watched from the shore, especially at sunrise or sunset. There is good clean surf worth a ride, and options for fishing everywhere you look. I had every reason to give Nomads or Travellers Auto Barn a call and tell them I had been unavoidably delayed.

I called into Newcastle on the way down, one of Australia's largest coal export ports, carrying with me a last minute hope of getting home by ship. I quickly learned that the port is in chaos at this time, with close to 150 ships waiting offshore and massive delays in loading. Mineral export is such a massive part of the country's economy, droves of journalists had arrived to stir up the story, while politicians passed blame from one to another. Meanwhile, the likes of me, hoping to hitch a ride on a ship, could not get a look in at the busy shipping offices.

And so with just hours to spare, I steered the TAB Ambassador van through central Sydney, along the streets of Woolloomooloo (I'm not kidding either) and into the Travellers Auto Barn depot. Our trip had come to an end.

Like an executive who has just been sacked, I cleared my things from the van and stuffed them into my pack. Back on two legs – something I really actually do not mind at all, but it takes a while to adjust after the independence a camper van affords. To explore a country like Australia, having your own transport really is hard to beat, and a camper offers the most options. For anyone spending a decent amount of time here, buying is always a good option, but when the time comes to sell, it can get tricky. Travellers Auto Barn have, in addition to their traditional rental service, a great initiative where they sell vehicles and offer guaranteed buy-back. The package comes complete with various warranties and the piece of mind in knowing you have a well maintained and roadworthy vehicle. The big attraction is that if you have the chance to sell your wheels for a higher price, there is nothing in the contract to stop you doing so. Certainly from our point of view, the guys have been a pleasure to deal with, and the van has coped with every substantial thing we threw at it. From dusty farm roads to extreme outback temperatures, the Ambassador van sailed on without complaint.

I had a day or two to kill around Sydney, so I chose to stay at The Original Backpackers Lodge on Victoria Street, Kings Cross. The beautiful victorian building caught my eye last time and I was happy to find a spare bed for a couple of nights. I was not disappointed – the rooms are palatial in size and some have a balcony overlooking the street. The leafy streets around Kings Cross could easily be compared with parts of spring time London, especially with names like Victoria or Bayswater; except there are not enough Australians around for this to be London!

The row of Victorian buildings that make up Victoria Street are lucky to be there at all. During the 1980's, a time when planners had no shame at all, there was a drive to level the lot and replace them with the usual concrete boxes. Locals rallied together and were successful in saving them; though the council went ahead and built high-rises behind and in front, ruining the stunning harbour views. Today, the friendly Original Backpackers Lodge is expanding to meet the demand from a new style of traveller – known as Flashpackers! These thirty something professional folk have more money in their pocket and demand en suite rooms and more facilities. I suppose travel is a continually evolving activity and there does seem to be more of either the very young or the thirty plus age group. Hang on a minute! I'm thirty something (lower end, I hasten to add) – why don't I have more money in my pocket?


Reaching Sydney signaled the end of my time as a WorldNomads Ambassador. This has been an unexpected and unplanned-for adventure, which is also the culmination of a two year personal journey. I'm going home, and despite the odd day when I wonder if I will ever get travelling out of my system, I am excited about that. If anyone is interested enough to read about my trip through Europe, Siberia, Mongolia, China and beyond, check out my personal website, The Wander Years.

The WorldNomads team have been great to deal with, and I wish them every success over the next two years with this project. It really does seem to be a genuine attempt to try something new and interact with their customers. Anyone can do this – and I encourage you to keep following the project throughout, and if you are visiting Australia, why not apply?

I would like also to thank Matt – great travel buddy, patient, good driver (for a Kiwi) and always up for an adventure. I don't think we ever mentioned it, but we had some interesting conversations while driving. I am a little hard of hearing in one ear, a result of doing a lot of shooting and not enough hearing protection, I don't know Matt's excuse. With all the background noise, conversations regularly went as such:

How far to the next town”? “Ay”? “HOW FAR TOO THE NEXT TOWN”? “Take the next right”. “What's that”? “Yup”. “Watch out for that 'Roo”. “Nah, don't need the loo”. “Eh”? “Can you turn that shocking music down”? “It's about 65km”. “cool”. And so on....

Finally, and I really am going now, better pass on best wishes to “The Lost Girls”, a sharp-shooting all-girl threesome from Manhatton. They are the next Ambassadors, and I look forward to following their trip.

My own website - The Wander Years

Tags: ambassador van, on the road



Cool story! Really enjoyed this blog so far. Will you write any more?

  Bri Aug 2, 2007 12:30 AM


nice stories

  matthew Feb 18, 2008 12:15 PM


My 10 year old son needs a map of Thunderbolt's journey. Any idea where I could find one? Hope you can help. Thanks

  Michelle Love Nov 6, 2008 9:58 PM


was captain thunderbolt mean or nice

  arzilarlis Aug 31, 2009 11:46 AM

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