Under your own steam

Candice Ward pedals along an old railway line transformed into a picturesque trail.

As I labour uphill on an old mountain bike, its loud whirring tyres warn walkers I'm passing. Compared with the carbon-fibre models that steal past, my mode of transport might as well be a steam train, grinding upward through the eucalypts. Such a sight is easy to imagine on this disused coal railway line stretching from the Newcastle suburb of Adamstown to Jewells in Lake Macquarie, now a top recreational trail.

The Fernleigh Track is among more than 80 deserted train lines in Australia, which have been transformed into safe, leafy paths on which to run, walk, cycle or four-wheel-drive.

Starting in Adamstown, the Fernleigh traverses a surprisingly varied bushland as it wends south, making a day trip that can be as relaxed or heart-pumping as you like. The 24-kilometre return distance provides enough track to keep cyclists busy while its gentle grade promises comfortable riding. Best of all, it's a road off the road.

The hub of this well-used recreational pathway, loved by bikers and hikers, is a two-hour drive from Sydney, or three hours by train, to Adamstown Station, where we start our day-long ride.

At 10am on a Saturday we wheel our bikes off the platform and head 500 metres west to the spot where the Fernleigh Track starts. Passing families and friends, athletes and nature lovers who use this leafy corridor, we cycle through a suburban forest of dry gums, garden flowers and rock walls to the Fernleigh Tunnel.

Along with station platforms and signal boxes, the 181-metre tunnel is an obvious vestige of the trail's rail history. We enter a dim, curving hollow of echoes, seeping water and brickwork built circa 1880. The walls are adorned with vintage details that passengers would surely have missed when hurtling through here on a train.

The scenery changes as we emerge on the other side, shifting gears alongside the mahogany, smooth-barked apple and Sydney peppermint trees of Glenrock State Conservation Area, a 500-hectare expanse that protects the last remnant of coastal temperate rainforest in the Newcastle region.

Hitting the first downhill of the day, we glide along the twin-laned tar out of suburbia and into Lake Macquarie.

Here, waterfalls and bird life are an introduction to Glenrock. Charmed, we secure our bikes at the Flaggy Creek car park and head in on foot.

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Visitors to Glenrock enjoy spectacular ocean views and historical spots that shed light on the area's character. This was the site of Newcastle's first tannery and served variously as a copper smelter, brick works, glass and porcelain factory, orchard, coal mine, gun club, World War II gun emplacement, quarry and banana plantation.

These days, industry has been replaced by the lush Yuelarbah Track, which winds through rainforest and across deeply incised watercourses, through coastal scrub then down to shallow Glenrock Lagoon, which empties into remote Burwood Beach. Here, surfers are only just emerging from their tents pinned high on the hillside.

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, this area has symbolic significance as the possible site of the discovery of coal by Europeans in Australia, a fitting landmark for a port city that has exported more coal than any other in the world. These days, visitors spend less time examining the area's visible coal seams and more time bushwalking. Our side trip takes about 90 minutes.

Back on the bikes, we return to the Fernleigh Track and coast gently towards Whitebridge, a handy suburb in which to stock up on supplies - its shops are visible from the trail.

The next section, completed in November 2009, leads to the coastal town of Redhead. The vegetation changes from twisted scribbly gums to tea-trees and dense coastal scrub and, as we inhale the unmistakable scent of the sea, it seems everyone else is doing the same.

It's not hard to see why so many use the Fernleigh. The president of Newcastle Cycleways Movement, David Bennett, believes it compares with the best tracks he's ridden in Australia. ''With its quality of construction and mild incline, it's a practical route for cyclists,'' he says. ''Bike riders used to share a four-lane highway with cars in this area; now they pedal through bushland and share it with echidnas.''

Bennett says the track was considered a cycle way even before it ceased life as a railway line. ''It's been a passenger line and a coal line. Going back to the late '70s, Newcastle Cycleways Movement became interested in preserving the corridor, earmarking it as a potential cycle way,'' he says. ''I work in a bike shop and often ask a customer where they would like to ride their bike. Probably a third of the replies include the Fernleigh Track.''

It's obvious that the track's use extends beyond mere recreation, as we cruise past students using it as their route home from school. Pulling up at the Redhead Station platform, we alight and retire to a bench made from recycled sleepers. The track stops here and we hunt for our final destination, Redhead Beach. Spotting some monkey-puzzle pines in the distance, we follow our noses.

A stroll down Cowlishaw Street reveals rows of old mining cottages. As recently as 1949 there were only about a hundred houses here, mostly inhabited by Scottish, Welsh and English immigrants extracting a living from coal and rutile. During the same year, a bushfire ignited a mine-powder magazine. These days, despite a larger population, life is much quieter. Only 15 minutes' drive from Newcastle's city centre, it feels miles from the city clamour.

Past the fish-and-chip shop and the inevitably named hairdressing salon, Redheads, lies a lunch stop on Beach Road, a wood-fired pizza joint called, well, the Joint.

No cycling trip would be complete without a coffee, so we grab a takeaway from the Joint and sit on Redhead Beach. This is one of the region's most picturesque beaches, bordered by a towering red cliff, the suburb's namesake.

After a long spell, we retrace our path and arrive back at Adamstown about 3pm.

There's more to look forward to next time we head out on a weekend. Another section of the track was completed in October last year, continuing along the coal line to the adjoining coastal suburb of Jewells. The fifth and final stage of the Fernleigh Track to Belmont is due to be opened next month, extending the track to 15½ kilometres, or 31 kilometres return.

This final $2 million stage, Bennett says, is one of the most exciting. Cyclists will be able to cruise along a 200-metre raised timber boardwalk, designed to preserve Belmont Wetlands, a state-declared wetland zone.

The manager of city projects at Lake Macquarie City Council, Adam Wakeman, who has been instrumental in the design and delivery of the track, says the best is yet to come with the fifth stage. ''Trail users will likely see wildlife endemic to the wetland zone, such as sugar gliders and owls,'' he says.

This is worth waiting for, though already the Fernleigh Track is a perfect day on the pedal.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Take the F3 freeway to Newcastle and park on the corner of Park Avenue and Dibbs Street, Adamstown, from where the Fernleigh Track is visible. By train: take the Newcastle-Central Coast line to Adamstown Station. On top of your own ticket, remember to buy a child's ticket for your bike if travelling during peak hour, otherwise the bike travels free. See cityrail.info.

Cycling there

It's best to bring your own bike as hire options close to the track's start are limited. There is no food for sale on the track, so bring snacks, plenty of water and sunscreen. The track can be accessed from six points; see lakemac.com.au for more information. Download the track map at www.newcastle.nsw.gov.au.

For an alternative cycle trip, head east from Adamstown Station and discover why Lonely Planet rates Newcastle one of its top 10 cities to visit this year. Ride along the city's foreshore boardwalk. Continue east towards Nobby's breakwall, a 1½-kilometre pathway that juts into the ocean, dividing the city's magnificent harbour views from its equally dramatic beachscape.

Rail trails

Across Australia they range from the half-kilometre Meadowbank Railway Bridge in NSW to a gargantuan stretch in South Australia: the Old Ghan Heritage Route, on which 4WD enthusiasts can clock up 1050 kilometres. Another popular track is the Clare Valley Riesling Trail in South Australia, which meanders through Clare Valley wine country. See railtrails.org.au.

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