Castra Road (State Route B15) starts at Ulverstone and winds its way south through picturesque hills and farmland on its way to Nietta, a tiny village located about 44 kilometres south-west of the town of Devonport. Nietta is literally the end of the road. If approached from Devonport via Forth, Castra Road is joined at the village of Sprent. On the way you'll pass some of the prettiest dairy farming country you are ever likely to see.
It has been said of the British that their home is their castle, which might explain the use of the word Castra by the early European settlers for the area they now called home in Tasmania. In the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, the Latin word castrum (plural castra) was a building, or plot of land, used as a fortified military camp. In English, the terms Roman fort, Roman camp and Roman fortress are commonly used for castrum.
The agricultural district of Gawler is situated immediately to the south of Ulverstone. The Gawler area was explored by surveyor Nathaniel Kentish in the early 1840s, who named the river after the second Governor of South Australia, Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler. This name was later given to the whole district.
How Kenitsh came to name it after a South Australian Governor is a story in itself. Surveyor-General Robert Power, who had the responsibility to open roads to every new settlement, hired the 43 year old Nathaniel Lipscomb Kentish when arrived from South Australia in November 1841 looking for a job. Having impressive credentials endorsed by Governor Gawler of South Australia, Power appointed him to his Survey Department on the spot. Kentish had been the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges in charge of constructing part of the Great Western Road over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst in New South Wales, with nearly 1000 convicts under his supervision. He'd then moved to South Australia, but before completing his contract, he had moved on to Tasmania.
It soon became clear to Power why Gawler had sent him packing so quickly, but with such a glowing reference - the egotistical surveyor possessed a personality trait that compelled him to constantly promote himself and his own abilities while at the same time denigrating and belittling the efforts of everyone else. His ability to rub others up the wrong way, particularly his superiors, had resulting in him being dismissed time and time again from nearly all his previous employment.
Once suspects Kentish had no idea why he'd been shown the door so quickly and yet had been given such glowing credentials. Whether or not he knew, he seemed eternally grateful for the favour, reflected in the fact he named one of the first rivers he came across after his beloved former employer.
A glimpse into the early days of farming in and around the North West hinterland was presented in a series published in the North West Post in July and August 1906 and entitled "Round the Farms". These extracts not only illustrate the wealth of material to be found in the small local newspapers of the past, but shed light on the life and times of Gawler's farming pioneer families.
"The next estate [on the Lower Gawler Road] is occupied and owned by Mr B. Counsel, a son of Gawler's pioneer. In this place is centred much of the district's history. Mr L. Counsel, sen., brought his family from Piper's River, some distance out of Launceston, in 1860, and lived for a few weeks a mile or two up the old Gawler road, then removing to the present property, which was originally bought by Mr c. M'Arthur from Brown and Kennedy, in the fifties, Mr Counsel, sen., purchasing 488 acres from the first-named gentleman. The land was thickly timbered with dogwood and sassafras, and covered with dense scrub. Of roads there were none, just paling tracks, which, as a rule, only misled the wayfarers."
"Taking the year 1865 as a guide and going back to the Gawler-Ulverstone boundary, Mr W. Mason, father of the present owner, had an extensive estate. He did not reside on the property, but lived at Longford, and let the farms to tenants.The late James Elliott rented ground, where Mr Henslow now lives, in 1852, and was one of the first four Leven settlers. He planted a willow tree on the grassy flat 53 years ago, and the tree is still to be seen. This ground was owned by the late Alex Clerke."
"Going round the next bend of the [Old Gawler] road, the many homesteads owned and occupied by the McCulloch family are to be seen, forming a community and a village almost of their own. They are the descendants of Gawlers's first pioneer, the late James M'Culloch, who brought six sons with him from Ayrshire, Scotland, and forced his way into the dense, almost impenetrable bush, buying 500 acres of land from the Government under the pre-emptive right system, and thus settling there in the year 1859." Editor's note: that system gave the first settler the first option to purchase a property they settled on and developed.
"The original 500 acres were cut up and divided among the patriach's sons, the estate stretching right from the Gawler River to Abbotsham. It consists of rich river flats and the well-known chocolate soil. Neat hawthorn hedges enclose many of the paddocks, but the former estate has been greatly added to by purchase until now it forms one of the largest and best properties on the North West Coast Mr Hugh M'Culloch's property is at the foot of the hill, joining which is the private burying ground of the clan M'Culloch."
McCulloch family cemetery
"In the early days, the roads were so bad that they were forced to use portion of their estate for a cemetery. The land originally taken t.p is all occupied by the first applicants or their sons, and "Edinburgh", as the place is called is peopled exclusively by the M'Culloch's". The cemetery is at 556 Top Gawler Road, Gawler."
In 1939 the old Barrington Presbyterian church (opened in 1893) was removed to the Gawler Road cemetery where it was rededicated as the ‘McCulloch Memorial Church’. Local people, mostly members of the McCulloch family moved the church in sections and reconstructed the building on the new site. Services at the church, also known as the Gawler Road church, were regularly held serving Presbyterians of the Abbotsham and the Upper Gawler area. The church is no longer on the site.
North Motton is a village and dairy farming district on the Preston Road about 10 kilometres south of Ulverstone. Land in the area was occupied by William Motton in 1854, after whom the area is named. In 1865 a handful of Primitive Methodist families settled in the North Motton district including Nathan and Sarah Brothers, John and Ann Eagle, Isaac Brett and the Revell family. North Motton was one of four locations in the greater Ulverstone region where the Primitive Methodist migrants from Scotland settled and built churches; with other churches built at Gravel Hill, Norfolk Creek and Penguin. In 1877 the church was used by the Department of Education for a day school and a Sunday school was also established around this time.
The foundation stones for the new building were laid in December 1902 and the occasion was reported by The North West Post: “Methodism and North Motton have grown up together, the pioneers of this rising and prosperous district having been active adherents of that section of the Christian Church. The rapid growth and expansion of that part of West Devon has caused the old Methodist Church to become uncomfortably small for the ordinary services, and it was decided to build a much larger one on the land adjoining, at an estimated cost of £400. The contract for the erection of the building was let some time ago to Mr Manser for £385, and the work has been pushed on as rapidly as possible”.
Nothing of the church remains apart from a wall which stood in front of the church and the cemetery which contains the headstones of many of the early members of the church. The cemetery also has a headstone in remembrance of Chrissie Venn, a 13-year-old girl whose unsolved murder in 1921 was a sensation at the time. Her ghost is claimed to haunt the area of her murder.
The village of Sprent, on the Castra Road, lies about 12 kilometres south of Ulverstone. It is named after James Sprent, surveyor-general and commissioner of crown lands, who explored and surveyed 205 high points across Tasmania, including Federation Peak, then known as ‘Sprent’s Obelisk’. Sprent was originally known as Eden but the general area was better known as Castra Road.
The Presbyterian church built at Castra Road in the 1880’s was the first Presbyterian churches established in North West Tasmania. In 1884, Reverend Lyle of St Andrew’s Church at Launceston, met with Scottish settlers at Castra Road, Don and Forth with purpose of establishing a new parish to serve the region. In 1885 Reverend Henry Tremlett Hull was appointed as the first minister and work began on building the region's first church.
Upper Castra is a farming district on the Castra Road approximately 20 kilometres south of Ulverstone. There is no village as such, just a number of farm buildings and homes scattered alongside Castra Road and side road leading off it. Upper Castra is bounded on the east by the Wilmot River, to the south by Nietta and to the west by Preston and South Preston.
Upper Castra was once part of a thickly wooded area developed by Colonel Andrew Crawford after he retired from the Indian Army for a soldier settlement, organised jointly with the government in the late 1860's. Back then it had three places of worship, these being Anglican, Methodist and Baptist churches. All of the churches have closed and have been either demolished or removed.
View from Upper Castra towards Lake Barrington, Sheffield and Mt Roland
The North West Post reported in December 1895: “After an absence of some years (writes our travelling representative), I again visited Upper Castra on Tuesday, and was struck with the great progress made on some of the properties. From the Barren Hill as far as Brook's farm the land has been getting opened up but slowly, but just beyond a considerable amount of clearing has been done and near the old homes of the late Messrs. Biddle and Stevens (two of the pioneers of the district), a small church has been erected, and in this is now held a State school, where some thirty boys and girls receive tuition at the hands of Miss Counsel, of Sprent ...”
Spellman Road bridge across the Wilmot River, Upper Castra
In September 1894 the Launceston Examiner’s correspondent for Upper Castra wrote: “I was nearly omitting to say that Upper Castra can now boast of a school-house, if not a schoolmaster. The government, I understand, agreed to provide a teacher if the residents erected a school-room….The Church of England party use the building for the performance of their church services”. Upper Castra was one of several church schools in the North West hinterland where churches were built by the community under the auspices of the Anglican Church and were rented to the Department of Education." The two nearest current primary schools are at Sprent and Wilmot and the nearest high school is Ulverstone High School.
The Castra Falls Circuit gives access to for waterfalls; Castra Falls, Silver Falls, Step Falls, and Secret Place. It is a grade 4 return hike which should take you approximately 2.5hrs to complete. Castra Falls is the second waterfall on the Castra Circuit. The track is commenced as an easy to moderate walk, progressively becoming more difficult the further you walk. It commences a few kilometres down Gaunts Road which is found on the way to Leven Canyon from Ulverstone.
Nietta is a rural community situated approximately 30km south of Ulverstone. The Wilmot River forms most of the eastern boundary, and the River Leven forms much of the western. The B15 route (Castra Road) enters from the north and terminates at Nietta village. The name was used for a Parish from 1886. Nietta is an Aboriginal word meaning “little brother”.
The corridor where the railway once ran, seen from South Preston Road where the line terminated
Settlement of this once densely forested district began in 1886 but it was not until the establishment of a railway line to Ulverstone in 1915 that the area became readily accessible. The branch line serviced the isolated farmers of the area and provided a daily passenger service between Nietta, nearby Preston and Ulverstone. The line was closed in 1955 at a time when road transport was becoming the preferred method of travel. A post office and a State school were opened in 1910 but the school was subject to frequent closure due to the poor condition of the roads. The area was opened up for settlement by returned soldiers after World War I.
Kaydale Lodge Gardens
A visit to Kaydale Lodge Gardens at Nietta is worth including on a trip to the area if you enjoy and appreciate the labours of those blessed with a green thumb. This 2ha garden has been a family obsession for the Crowdens of Nietta since parents Kay and Robert started it in 1979 from a bare paddock around the house Robert built. Using stone from their fields, they built walls and archways while running the cattle and cropping farm, raising their two daughters and establishing a business offering accommodation and meals. A small entry fee applies.
Leven Canyon and Black Bluff from the Cruickshanks Lookout
Leven Canyon is a little-known tourist destination in Tasmania but well worth seeing. To get there, continue through Nietta and follow the signs to Leven Caynon. The canyon is a 250 metre deep ravine that is part of a wildlife corridor from the coast to Cradle Mountain. The Leven River runs through 300-metre limestone cliffs carved through the Loongana Range, down to Bass Strait. The viewing platform at Cruickshanks Lookout offers spectacular views of Black Bluff, the canyon itself and the surrounding areas. Black Bluff, directly opposite Cruickshank Lookout, is the region's first peak each winter to have a covering of snow, due to its exposure to the prevailing westerlies.
Leven Canyon from the Cruickshanks Lookout
The Cruickshanks Lookout viewing platform is only a short walk from the car park and only regular shoes are required. The walk passes through a stunning stand of rainforest, complete with giant eucalypts, colourful fungi furtive wildlife, tree ferns and moss on the rocks, tree stumps and fallen timbers beside the path. A second lookout, called edge, gives a different view of the canyon, and is reached on an optional loop walk. Between the lookouts there’s a steep set of stairs, which can be avoided if you return via the same track. The glade surrounding the car park is perfect for a picnic lunch - there are toilets, barbecue and picnic facilities with disabled access. Bring your own food and drink though, as the are no shops in the area - the last one you will have passed is the general store in Gawler.
Cruickshanks Lookout walking path
For the more adventurous, the Forest Stairs Track leads from Loongana Road all the way down into the canyon itself, almost to water level, to a bridge across the raging waters of the Levin River. Leven Canyon is Tasmania's deepest limestone gulch, with challenging terrain, so this is not a walk for anyone with health issues. The path, though well marked and constructed, is steep and there are 697 steps to negotiate in both directions. Experienced walkers can continue on to Devild Elbow, a challenging walk that is an hour return from the footbridge. The Forest Stairs Track in particular is subject to severe weather conditions all year round, and the weather may change quickly. At times the track can be difficult to navigate, and when covered in snow it may be impassable.
Forest Stairs Track
Enough water runs through the Canyon every day to satisfy the thirst of a major city. About 45,000 - 70,000 kilolitres of water flush through the Canyon daily, equivalent to water consumption for 350,000 people. Those who make it will be interested to know that the Canyon floor footbridge was made locally and components lifted in by helicopter. The Forest Stairs Track forms part of The Penguin Cradle Trail, a bush walking track developed by the North West Walking Club.
Leven River at the canyon floor, Forest Stairs Track
An alternate way back to the coast is through South Preston and Preston, taking Cullins Road after returning through Nietta, then South Preston Road. Preston Falls is a tall and slender 25-metre plunge waterfall located above the Gunns Plains. The waterfall is a short drive from Ulverstone, that is approximately 20 kilometres west of Devonport or 28 kilometres east of Burnie on the Bass Highway.