In praise of the Grey Gum Cafe, Putty Road NSW – With Phil Hall

If you are a motorcyclist on the east coast of Australia, and, more especially, in NSW, you will already know about the Grey Gum Cafe. Situated on the famous Putty Road at almost exactly the half-way point between Windsor and Singleton, the GGC has rapidly achieved iconic status in the minds of motorcyclists, motorists and tourists alike.

Grey Gums Cafe - Image by John Keogh
Grey Gums Cafe – Image by John Keogh

When the owners, John and Kim Grace, first planned the venture, there was very little in the way of catering on the 160kms or so of the road between the two centres mentioned. The servo at Colo Heights provided fuel but little in the way of refreshments (they have since upgraded the catering side of their business) and the next stop was some 100kms further along at the cleverly-named “Halfway House” at the top of Garland Valley. This establishment also served fuel (of sometimes dubious quality) and food (if you didn’t mind the wait). However, almost concurrently with the announcement of John and Kim’s plans to open the GGC, the Halfway House burned down in mysterious circumstances.

John and Kim bought land and submitted plans for a road house about 90kms north of Windsor, as noted, almost exactly half way along the road. All went well until just after the cafe opened when the local council began to make life very difficult for the owners, making extra demands that added conditions to the original plans despite them not being required in the original DA. Specific to this was the demand the owners add a slip lane to allow entry into the premises off the 100km/h main road, a demand that would have added about $250000 to the cost of the development.

Grey Gum Cafe - Helmet Vistor Cleaning Station - Noel taylor from Hills District Ulysses on the left and John Grace on the right
Grey Gum Cafe – Helmet Vistor Cleaning Station – Noel taylor from Hills District Ulysses on the left and John Grace on the right

Now John and Kim are motorcycle people and they had made it clear from the very beginning that it was going to be motorcyclists who would be their major target demographic. When their difficulties with the council became known in motorcycling circles, the troops began to rally around. After the initial feeling of outrage had settled, motorcycling groups started gathering for the battle. The RTA, whose “Stop, Revive, Survive” campaign was well in the minds of John and Kim when the first plan were made, started asking why it was that this valuable road safety initiative looked likely to be scuttled for no good reason.

As the campaign, especially the online, motorcycle-forum based campaign started to gather momentum, support for the GGC became widespread and it eventually resulted in the council dropping their onerous provisions and allowing GGC to proceed unimpeded. It truly was a triumph for people power.

Grey Gum Cafe
Grey Gum Cafe

Since then, the cafe has gone from strength to strength. And it has done so on the back of solid and increasing support from the motorcycle fraternity. Dedicated concrete pads were installed along the front of the property for motorcycles to park. Fire pits also were installed in this vicinity to encourage riders to ride in the colder weather as well as the Spring and Summer seasons. The lawns around the cafe are equipped with gazebos covering the many outdoor tables and the verandah has recently been equipped with plastic blinds to keep out the wind and again encourage all-year riding.

John and Kim have actively encouraged motorcycle club activities as well as special events in support of various charities, like the Black Dog Ride and Parkinsons’s Disease Research.

GGC now has a Free Camping permission from the council which enables travellers to stay for 48 hours onsite free of charge (a small fee needs to be paid to use the showers – these are available for all travellers, not just those who are staying overnight).

Grey Gum Cafe - Pavlova
Grey Gum Cafe – Pavlova

But some strange and unforseen developments have also taken place. It was originally envisaged that the cafe would be mainly patronised on the weekends and this has certainly happened. However, support for the venue is now almost as strong on weekdays as it is on weekends.

It was originally envisaged that GGC would primarily cater to through travellers, providing them with the opportunity to break their journey and refresh before hitting the road again. It was not expected that the cafe would become a destination in its own right but this has happened and now accounts for a big proportion of the cafe’s trade. Sydney riders now ride, either alone or in groups (often) up to the cafe, have a meal and a coffee/tea, then ride back home. Likewise riders also ride in organised or ad-hoc rides from Newcastle and points north to the cafe, “fuelling up” and heading back home again.

As well the cafe has become a “must visit” venue for car clubs who arrive in their dozens for the same purpose and then return home again.

Recently I asked John which group made up the biggest proportion of his clientele. I expected him to say motorcyclists, of course. His answer was a surprise. “German backpackers are flocking here,” he said, “They arrive in Sydney, hire a car or a camper and head up here so that they can see kangaroos in the wild and feed them. Once they’ve done that, they either continue on their journey but mostly they head back to Sydney.”

Grey Gum Cafe
Grey Gum Cafe

So, what is the GGC experience like? At the risk of having this article seem like a paid infomercial (it is neither), the answer is that it’s damn good. I mean, good food, quick and friendly service, good coffee (tea is served in proper china cups with saucers and bread and butter plates no less), and congenial company of like-minded enthusiasts, what’s not to like? And all of this with a fabulous road to ride while getting there and getting home. Yes, the police are very interested in the Putty Road but they have every reason to be given the number of “heroes” doing Valentino Rossi impersonations ( badly most of the time) every weekend. Ride the road safely and you’ll have fun.

GGC has become a huge success through the dedication and hard work of its owners and the faithful support of motorcyclists who love getting there, being there and getting home again.

Grey Gum Cafe - Burger
Grey Gum Cafe – Burger

BUT, there is a problem (as Jeremy Clarkson was fond of saying). GGC’s isolation has recently become an issue, primarily because of the lack of reliable mobile phone coverage in the area. I’ve personally been involved in several incidents where injured motorcyclists could have been assisted sooner if the mobile coverage along the Putty was satisfactory. This all came to a head a couple of months ago where a minor accident right outside the cafe could easily have had much more serious consequences but for Kim’s quick action.

It highlighted how much better help the cafe could be able to provide in circumstances if they had better communication. So, ever pro-active, Kim put out some feelers with the view to securing a satellite phone for the cafe. Initial enquiries were disappointing with the cost appearing to be prohibitive. So Kim started a Tip Jar with a prominent notice attached to the effect that the accumulated money would go towards helping the cafe get a satellite phone.

Money rolled in (motorcyclists are altruistic people) but still not enough. Then, against the run of play, as they say in the classics, Pivotel a satellite phone provider, offered the GGC a brand new phone to be used for emergencies, free of charge! The money already collected can now go towards paying the monthly fee for the phone (for quite a few months into the future) and GGC has reliable communication in the case of an emergency.

Improving safety along the Putty Road is best achieved by means such as this rather than police “blitzes” although I have always favoured prevention rather than cure. And lest someone think that I’m a bit “wet behind the ears” in this matter, I will add that I started DRIVING the Putty in 1970 and RIDING it in 1974 and have done so on a regular basis for all the intervening years so I think I am entitled to comment.

If you are in and around Sydney or Newcastle, you owe it to yourself to do a Putty Run and a stop at the Grey Gum Cafe. You won’t be disappointed.

Grey Gum Cafe
Grey Gum Cafe