Earlier this year I spent a few days exploring the Blue Mountains with my friend from Germany, Inga. One particular place we visited was an abandoned oil shale mining town called Newnes, just north of Lithgow on the far western end of the mountains and only accessible via a long & bumpy gravel road. You can read more about Newnes at an article I wrote for WeekendNotes, but altogether it turned out to be a very interesting step backward into regional NSW of yesteryear.
I’d been aware of the existence of a Glow Worm Tunnel not too far from Newnes in the Wollemi National Park and we were hoping to pay it a visit the next day. Although located within a close proximity of the historic town, the road access meant that we would have to travel back to Lithgow before embarking on another 40km of gravel to get there. We would have done it, but by next morning an unfortunate gathering of rain & fog hindered our plans and so we opted to head back to Sydney instead.
Ever since then I’ve been intrigued by this mysterious attraction. I’d read that the tunnel was carved out of the mountain in the first decade of the 1900’s in order to service Newnes by train, but the railway was dismantled and tunnel abandoned upon the ceasing of mining operations in 1932. The damp, dark conditions of the now-deserted passage proved optimal for the colonisation of a glow worm community, and to this day the larvae remain on the rocky walls emitting faint green bioluminescence in the hope of attracting a mate.
Last weekend I embarked once more upon the pleasant autumnal drive along the Great Western Highway to finally witness the glow worm tunnel for myself. After stopping briefly at Lithgow to pick up a torch and some purple carrots to munch on (I’ve never seen purple carrots for sale at any Sydney supermarket!) I continued up through the town and followed the signs to the dirt track that led to the famous tunnel. The initial few kilometres of the trail were quite demanding on my little Hyundai Accent but it soon smoothed out and I found myself sharing the route with scores of motorcyclists out for a Sunday spin.
The drive was simply spectacular. The landscape around me transformed from one of rocky outcrops & gorges, to a semi-open plain and then into dense scrub all within the space of half an hour. The most climactic part of the journey occurred not too far from the carpark where the road led me directly through the first of two tunnels constructed for the railway. It really is something else to drive through the heart of a railway tunnel with no sign of the entrance behind you or the exit in front. It was also quite the challenge to be greeted by a car travelling the opposite direction halfway through the one-lane shaft, leading me to demonstrate some pretty intense reversing skills while navigating my way back to the entrance to allow him to pass.
It took a little under an hour to reach the end of the track, where I parked alongside the 15 or so other cars who had also made the voyage. From there it was an easy but gorgeous bushwalk to the southern opening of the glow worm tunnel that I’d come all this way to see:
The walkway through the tunnel is rugged with small pockets of flowing water weaving its way along the curvature, and without a torch you’d reach pitch blackness within a matter of a few dozen metres. To see the glow worms they say you should find a spot about half-way through, turn your torch off and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for a few minutes. Sure enough, before too long I started to notice the walls flicker with the faint radiance of the so-called “fungus gnat”. It was truly a sight to behold.
After walking the whole 400m through to the other side, I spent a fair amount of time on my return journey in the darkness (albeit the occasional flash of a passing couple’s torch) just taking in the brilliance of the glow worms. The longer I spent hidden away in the shadows the more I noticed the insects all around – on the walls next to me, the ceiling above me, behind me and in front of me, akin to the shimmering constellational paradise of an outback twilight.
This was not the first time I’d witnessed glow worms in a similar habitat – a number of years ago I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the colony residing at Natural Bridge in the Gold Coast hinterland. But there was something even more remarkable about the Newnes glow worm tunnel: I felt enriched by its unique combination of historic human excavation and the natural phenomenon of the fiery insect larvae.
It was well worth the 6-hour return day trip from Sydney. Even if the weather turns out miserable like the fateful day I was there with Inga, do yourself a favour and go anyway!