Cliffhanger ... the Weddin Mountains provided sanctuary for Ben Hall. Photo: Ben Stubbs
Ben Stubbs hunts for the buried loot from a daring highway robbery by bushranger Ben Hall.
I am on a treasure hunt. I search the ravines and deserted trails of the Weddin Mountains on a crisp and cloudless day, armed with a map given to me by the four white-haired ladies at the Grenfell tourist office. There is not another hunter in sight and I wonder if the bushranger, Ben Hall, did indeed bury his treasure among the red rocks and wattle forests of this 8361-hectare national park.
It is said that Ben Hall was a better bushranger than Ned Kelly. If it weren't for the latter's notorious last stand and memorable armour, many locals around the central west of NSW say that Hall's escapades would be better known.
In the most daring of his estimated 610 robberies, Hall and seven of his bushranging brethren held up a coach loaded with gold outside Eugowra in 1862. They came away with 2719 ounces of gold and £3700 in cash, worth more than $1 million by today's standards. At the time, this was the greatest robbery in Australian history. The loot was never recovered and, when Hall was killed in a shoot-out three years later, it was rumoured he had buried the gold in the Weddin Mountains, outside Grenfell.
Trekking up through the gorges of the Weddin Mountains with a like-minded friend, we set off from Hall's campground, at the entrance to Basin Gully. We begin the walk through tangles of native flowers that are bunched across the track. The overgrown plant life here looks new and among the bright green shoots of regrowth sprouting from the gum trees I hop over limbs showing the blackened scars of a recent bushfire.
We are walking towards the Eualdrie Trig lookout and will take in Ben Hall's Cave along the way. It is an 11-kilometre afternoon investigation that will give us a good view across the tops of peaks that stretch 19 kilometres through the national park.
The Weddin Mountains sit like a high-top bread loaf on the plains, 400 metres above the flat patches of canola and wheat of the farms near Forbes and Young.
The cold wind moans through the trees, the last kick of winter before bushfire season begins. We take the hint and get moving, charting a course up through the stony creek beds, following the strategically placed reflectors that indicate the path to the plateau, where the scorched boulders sit like cracked marbles on the cliffs.
The apparent absence of life here is eerie - for such a lush and flourishing national park the hills are quiet except for the muffled hop of a wallaby and the flap of a bronze-winged pigeon above the white gums.
Lost in thought, I break the silence and bounce off a fallen acacia tree that snaps like a fractured limb under my weight. My walking partner shakes his head at my clumsiness and continues strolling along like Bush Tucker Man, scanning for flowering hardenbergias, edible ants and echidna nests along the way.
Growing up in the area, he has an insider's knowledge of the national park. As we walk he points out the caves above us and xanthorrhoea trees that are used to make Aboriginal fire sticks. I'm told that the Weddin Mountains are part of Wiradjuri country and the name means ''The Waiting Place''.
It is impossible to search all the gullies and hiding spots along the track and next time we agree to bring a metal detector along, not a bad idea considering all the illegal activity that used to occur in the area.
In the 1860s these ranges were notorious as a bushranger hangout. During the gold boom in nearby Forbes and Young, bushrangers and general scallywags hid in the hills and wait until wagons loaded with gold rolled by.
Using a much less labour-intensive method than the exhausted miners, they would jump down from their hiding spots and hold up the wagons, relieving the prospectors of their newly found riches, before retreating back into the caves of the Weddin Mountains.
We arrive at Ben Hall's Cave and discover it to be a rusty-coloured grotto sandwiched underneath the rocks. Standing on the ledge above the cave I look out across the thin layer of bush to the fluorescent yellow canola fields and the treeless farms beyond. It is easy to understand why Hall chose this cave as one of his notable lookouts; there are no obstructions for kilometres in any direction, so they could have spotted the clouds of dust kicked up by the police horses long before they arrived in the mountains searching for the bushrangers and their bounty.
We continue trekking throughout the afternoon up the gradual incline that is shaded by ironbarks and acacias. As we crest a rise in the track we spot a competitor tramping through the bush. We approach to see if he has any gold dust on his fingers, though the binoculars around his neck give him away as a bird watcher. The Weddin Mountains are well known for their bird life, most notably the peregrine falcons that nest along the cliffs below the Eualdrie Trig.
The cliffs on top of the Weddin Mountains are terracotta red. We hop from the rocks at the Eualdrie Trig station down on to the boulders hanging over the ledge to get a closer look at the falcons. Along the cliff face are the white streaks of peregrine droppings staining the red rocks. We notice the nests that jut out from the ledges, though there are no falcons to be seen.
The country out here is dense and isolated; as we scramble back along the path, the only other living thing we encounter is a goanna sunning itself on a clump of moss.
Hall may very well have buried his gold in these hills but, among the trees, caves and aftermath of bushfires, we agree that anyone who finds it up here will probably deserve it.
The red and craggy Weddin Mountains provide beautiful juxtaposition to the hot and treeless farming plains below us and although our pockets are full of nothing more than muesli bars as we retreat to the car, we are content to have tramped a little of Hall's territory.
We trek back down through the ravine, scaling the boulders in the fading light past the shadows of Ben Hall's Cave and Basin Gully, leaving the mystery of where his gold is hidden unsolved.
Ben Stubbs travelled with assistance from Tourism NSW.
The Weddin Mountains are about 10 kilometres from the town of Grenfell, which is a 4½-hour drive along the Great Western Highway from Sydney.
It is possible to camp at Ben Hall's camping ground, which has toilet and cooking facilities. See www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.