Must Ride Roads: The Oxley Highway by Phil Hall

The Oxley Highway is a road every Australian motorcyclist should ride once in their life. Gingers Creek.
The Oxley Highway is a road every Australian motorcyclist should ride once in their life. A group of bikes stopped at Gingers Creek.

I must start with a disclaimer here. Unlike some motorcyclists whose riding exploits have taken them far and wide over this wonderful country, my touring riding has been pretty much restricted to the East Coast of Australia.

Much as I would love to have ventured farther afield, time, work commitments and budget have militated against wider exploration. I must also confess that, while I love the challenge of exploring new roads and regions, I do tend to be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to revisiting my favourite parts of the country while on two wheels.

So, probably like most riders, I have my dream list of great roads and my practical list. The network of mountain and coastal roads on the Illawarra coast, due to its proximity, gets ridden most and, as the radius out from here grows, the number of times that my favourites are visited reduces in number.

I hope to get up to Queensland again next year and explore the Gold Coast hinterland where I have found some real gems over the years, but you can’t just jump on the bike and go and be back for dinner.

So the subject of this instalment of my irregular Great Roads series is the Oxley Highway. The bare facts of it are impressive alone. Situated on the mid-north coast of NSW, the highway begins at Port Macquarie which is reason enough to explore it just by itself and finishes at the little town of Nevertire, some 650kms to the west.

While it goes by other names along its route, the Oxley remains an impressive piece of road, almost rivalling the amazing Warrego Highway in Queensland that begins at Ipswich and ends at Charleville, some 705kms west.

However, like most roads, not all of it is interesting or worthy of note, although it must be said that it is a fascinating trip should you choose to take it. My experience with the Oxley has seen me cover the road from its beginning as far west as Armidale and there is plenty to recommend it.

It includes some delightful coastal plain scenery, a classic mountain climb – but more on that later, high country farmland views and some lovely towns, while providing a spectacular change of vegetation.

Along the flat between Port Mac and the foot of the mountain are Wauchope a classic NSW country town, and Long Flat, a little town that seems to have been almost entirely untouched by progress.

Oh and by the way, if you are passing through Wauchope in the morning, breakfast at the Fuzzy Ducks Cafe in the main street is cheap, cheerful and filling. The Long Flat Pub is also legendary among the motorcycling community but beware of the little set of twisties just east of the town, they have been known to catch out the careless.

the-oxley-highway-45km-twisties-sign
One of the most iconic photos commonly seen from the Oxley – the 45km of twisties road sign.

After Long Flat, the road winds along through cattle country until it reaches one of the most photographed signs in NSW. While the signs indicates that 45km of winding road is ahead, the interesting part of the road is quite a deal longer.

If it’s twisties you want, then you don’t have long to wait. The road climbs suddenly, clinging to the edge of the escarpment through many twists and turns. A word of caution – actually the first of several – is required here. The very sudden change from open road touring to challenging corners can catch out the unwary so make sure that you and the bike have switched into performance mode rather than cruising mode before you get too fancy.

I saw a lovely Aprilia RSV1000 go from polished to badly scuffed when the rider passed me than failed to make the next tight right-hander.

While concentrating on getting the best out of your bike and yourself, it is easy to overlook the sudden change in vegetation, from flat farming land to thick forests of eucalypt and rain forest conditions once you get deep into the ride. It’s quite spectacular.

Once the first rush of the climb is over the road just keeps on giving. For those of us used to Macquarie Pass or the Black Spur, we are used to the fun being over almost as soon as its starts. Such is not the case here. 10kms in and you’re just getting warmed up.

The first time you ride the mountain you are concentrating fiercely, as it just keeps coming at you with no respite. And, when you think that it must surely give you a break soon, you come across a sign down in the valley that tells you that you’re not even half way through yet!

Nevertheless, it starts to become apparent that the road does have a certain logic to it. While every corner is different, there appears a certain predictability that allows you to start planning a little further ahead.

A tight right-hander will usually be followed by a similarly challenging left-hander. Soon you find that, rather than treating each corner as a separate entity, you are stringing them together in groups and the road starts to flow.

There are advisory speed signs throughout the run (the posted speed limit is 80km/h) and they are pretty consistent and accurate based on what the average car would be doing. To each his own, but, as my advice always is, don’t try to do all the corners at double the posted advisory because there are just enough corners on the road that can punish you for your impertinence to make a little bit of caution advisable.

There are few thrills greater than conquering a challenging set of corners and the Oxley provides you with a few hundred on which to hone your skills. The mountain section has huge elevation changes as you climb through cuttings and dive down through gorges only to climb again up the other side.

The road surface at the present time is the best that I have ever seen it and I have been driving/riding the road for over 30 years. Long sections have been hot-mixed in the last couple of years so you can pitch the bike in and be confident that it will stick.

Many of the pot-holed sections (the road suffers from the two worst enemies of roads, heavy rainfall and logging trucks) have been repaired and it is easier to enjoy the Oxley at the moment than it has been for years.

A large proportion of the corners are blind, so care needs to be taken bearing in mind the mention above of logging trucks as well as tourist traffic that is present on the road at any time. Forestry is still taking place deep into the valleys, but the cedar that was one of the main reasons why the road was built is long gone, of course.

Don’t assume that you are going to have the road to yourself, although if you’re lucky enough to do a week-day run, your chances of that are higher. It is also sad to say that other motorcyclists can often be a hazard as well, as the road gets more than its fair share of riders whose ambitions exceed their abilities.

In connection with blind corners, if you are a “hang off the bike till you’re hardly on it at all” rider, be aware that while your bike may still be on your side of the road, parts of your body could  be on the other side of the centre line. Worth thinking about.

If you are a “point and squirt” rider, you will love the Oxley. With time and practice you could make it “flow” but it’s a Marquez-type road rather than a Lorenzo-type one.

Heading east to west you are also mostly climbing so gravity is usually working for you and most riders I know prefer riding uphill rather than down.

The first time that I rode the road I distinctly remember seeing the sign saying that there was still a lot more road left and thinking, “I wonder if I can hang on for that long.” The actuality of what I was doing started to intrude into the anticipation of riding more than 50kms of twisties in the one hit.

However, like every good road, every time you ride it, you polish the job a bit more and you get to the end, not being relieved that you have got there, but being amazed that it’s over so quickly and wondering whether you do it again.

Fortunately, about half way up the mountain (because you are really climbing the Great Dividing Range so it’s no quick squirt to the top) there is the strategically placed Gingers Creek Cafe. Great food, great coffee and great atmosphere in the motorcycle-friendly venue. A word of warning, though, it is closed on Tuesdays!

the-oxley-highway-scenery-grazing-land with mountains in background
The Oxley provides some amazing scenery, although extra concentration is needed for traversing some technical sections of the highway.

It doesn’t take long before the road beckons though and it’s back on the bike and into the bends again. Then, just as you think it will never end, it does. In the space of just a few corners, the rain forest disappears and you break out onto the mountain plain, cattle country and nary a tree to be seen.

Now, unless you are passing through (Walcha is the next town, a wonderful, arty town well worth visiting) you’ll turn around and head back down the mountain again. And it is here that it can go pear-shaped very quickly. Remember those wonderful uphill corners that you enjoyed so much just a little while ago?

Well, they are now tight downhill corners, placing a premium on braking skill and bike placement. There are several closing radius downhill corners that are particularly tricky and have brought many riders to ruin.

The advisory sighs mean a great deal more when you are heading west to east. If you’re like mem you may think that you’ve wrung yourself and the bike out pretty much getting there and you’ll take it a bit easier heading back down. However, if you are like me, you will find that that resolve lasts about half a dozen corners before you’re back into your version of attack mode for the run back down the mountain!

The ride back down the mountain is completely different which is the reason why most riders visiting the area leave themselves a day to play on the Oxley, squeezing in several laps of the road before time, light, energy and talent are completely and utterly depleted.

A couple of other issues. Mobile phone reception is flaky at best so make sure that you tell someone where you’re going and how long you intend to be away. Medical help in an emergency is also affected by the relative remoteness of the area.

We had to pillion a fellow rider with a broken wrist from half way up the mountain back to Port Macquarie Hospital, not a great way to finish off a ride. Make sure your bike is up to the trip, too. I recall my brother running it a bit too close on an old tyre and getting to the western end with a rear that needed to be nursed a little.

The Oxley is definitely a must ride road and having ridden it once, you will certainly be back for more.

Unfortunately the fun police are hoping to drop the speed limit from 100km/h to 80km/h in many section of this great road. There is a Save the Oxley Ride this Saturday, November 5th. Destination Gingers Creek Roadhouse.

There will be 2 meeting points

  • 1. At Andrew’s Park on Cameron Street in Wauchope. Assembling at 9am in the carpark for a 10am departure.
  • 2. Beside the Walcha Oval in Pakington St Walcha, behind the Royal Café. Assembling at 9am for a 10am departure.

Both groups should arrive at Gingers Creek Roadhouse at approximately 11:30 am