The old abandoned rail tunnel rises from the bush like the gaping mouth of an ancient animal.
Swallowed up by the lantana on both sides, it only appears about ten meters away, after having crisscrossed and crawled through the undergrowth.
As you enter the tunnel, you have the feeling that you have stumbled upon someone’s lair.
And that is exactly what it is.
About 20 yards into the void, someone or some people built what can best be described as a cage, although this is probably more about keeping people outside than keeping them inside. .
Dozens of tree branches were intertwined to form two “walls” about five meters apart, creating an enclosed space.
Inside the cage are mattresses and bedding, an old sofa, empty bottles, plastic bags, and a rug of old wrappers and newspapers.
There is enough room to go around the side of the first wall, carefully step over the goods, and escape through another space on the other side.
A few steps further and here you are on the other side, back in the light …
Fourteen years after the Murwillumbah Line closed, the way has changed.
As the seemingly endless debate over the future of the rail corridor continues to rage, the line itself quietly evolves into a wild and rotten but fascinating place.
Nature has indeed taken hold, the fringes of the local community too.
The trail between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores is so overgrown it took me and my partner five hours to make the trip.
We had to leave the tracks on long stretches because they were too overgrown, finding alternative routes alongside until the brush cleared.
The rails, unsurprisingly, are covered in a deep red rust which in places seems to have eaten away most of the way.
The ties are in various stages of decay, ranging from slightly degraded to a rotten, busted mess.
In a few places they were simply repelled by camphor laurels which managed to make their way through the rocky foundations of the trail.
The railway bridges spanning the Brunswick River and its tributaries are in an equally precarious condition. The ties are particularly rotten here, and in some places completely missing.
With rotten backing timbers, you don’t have to be an engineer to see that they’re not structurally sound.
So what does this mean for the future of the line and the debate between those who want it to be used for its original purpose and those who would prefer a scenic cycle and walking path?
It’s clear, even with a short walk along the track, that reopening the line for heavy rail would require parts of the track to be torn up completely and rebuilt.
Some sections where the rail corridor has been better maintained are obviously in much better condition and would require less work, but in the bushy areas nature seems to have taken over almost entirely.
It would cost tens, if not hundreds of millions, to return all of those stretches to usable railroad tracks, not to mention ongoing maintenance costs.
But it is clear from the experience of other local counties that converting the line to a cycle and walking path would not be cheap either.
Preliminary costs released by the Lismore board recently set a price of $ 15 million to transform the stretch of track from Casino to Lismore into a rail track.
This led Lismore City Councilor Greg Bennett to ask, “Does anyone else think this is absolutely ridiculous?”
“Why would the state government even consider funding this waste of taxpayer dollars?” Asked Cr Bennett.
“Surely $ 15 million would go a long way to restore trains on the Lismore / Casino line.”
Echo I can’t comment on the condition of this particular section of line, but after seeing the condition of the rails between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores, it’s easy to imagine that $ 15 million is swallowed up very quickly.
Nature takes over
And the longer government authorities wait, the more expensive any major project will become, as nature slowly swallows up what’s left of the line.
That said, an ambitious government planning to put trains back on this section of track, or even a pedestrian track, would not have to start from scratch.
The most basic foundations of the rail corridor still appear to be intact.
It is a tribute to the original engineers and workers that there were no mudslides, rock falls or obvious failures of the rail cuts.
The tunnels, too, appear to be completely intact.
Which helps explain why they got so much human attention.
Each of the three tunnels we encountered had obviously been used as a place to sleep, party, and create.
The second tunnel we encountered – a beautiful, cathedral-like structure 100m long – was adorned with a dozen retro works of tunnel art.
The artists had taken advantage of the enormous “canvas” to spray old-fashioned New York subway-style pieces from the 1980s with ornate, garish backgrounds.
The still bright colors suggested some were a little over a year or two old.
Given that the most likely outcome for the line, at least in the short to medium term, is the status quo, it seems likely that people on the outskirts will be allowed to continue their business largely without disruption.
The debate over the future of the track will continue and nature will continue its inevitable course, reclaiming the line and bringing it – sleeper by sleeper – back to earth.