FIRST GLOW OF SUNSHINE
Exploring beautiful Wollumbin country on Rainforest Way
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TRINA MORRIS, ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY JON LATOMI AND SIRRAH LORE
The dramatic peak of Wollumbin towers over ‘green cauldron’ country of NSW’s northern rivers at a spectacular altitude of 1156 metres. The prominent granite tor is the place in Australia to be kissed by the first rays of sunshine each day. For this, the mountain holds great significance for many Australians.
For the First Nation custodians of Wollumbin country, the Bundjalung people, the mountain and the surrounding caldera are sacred, and have been central to their spiritual force and cultural identity for over thirty millennia. These traditional owners refer to Wollumbin – which means ‘Cloud Catcher’ in their language – as the beating heart of their land, since the sun is a source of energy and life. The mountain’s cloak of lush rainforests once provided them with vital sustenance and shelter, and its sacred waters were – and still are – the lifeblood of their country.
The Tweed caldera, with the Wollumbin plug as its core, is an ancient shield-rim volcano – the largest in the world, no less! James Cook mapped it as ‘Mt Warning’ in 1770, and since then, the summit trek has become a treasured memory for those who have undertaken the tortuous six-hour climb to greet the sun. Given its sacred significance to the Bundjalung people, of whom only initiated elders are permitted to approach the summit, it is disrespectful to their culture to climb the mountain, so our visit was focused on enjoying the region from far below that awesome peak.
Including some extremely rare, grand old relics of ‘Nothofagus moorei’ – Antarctic Beech. These stupendous dinosaur-trees ruled in an age before eucalypts dominated our landscape and the few that remain are now protected by World Heritage declarations.
Rivers flow from Wollumbin’s mountainsides to nourish the surrounding land: many waterfalls tumble from great heights into refreshing rock pools, and run through fertile farmlands that thrive on the area’s rich volcanic soil.
Incredibly, this internationally significant and environmentally pristine natural treasure lies within an hour’s drive of the Gold Coast glitz and hype. You’d never know, as you stroll along the beautiful walking paths around the mountain’s base. These trails are accessed from lovely camping grounds and nearby caravan parks, making an exploration of the southernmost section of The Rainforest Way an easy journey of discovery – of nature, early settler history and contemporary hospitality.
Although it’s one of Australia’s classic drives, The Rainforest Way is often avoided by RVers – perhaps because it looks impossibly curvaceous on our maps. But don’t let this little vixen of a drive turn you off! We hauled our big rig over it without a problem, and enjoyed the journey immensely.
Having described the QLD section of the Rainforest Way in the last issue of CM, we now delve into the mysteries and rewards of the southern leg of this special journey – from the QLD/NSW border to Kyogle, through NSW’s gorgeous Northern Rivers region.
SPRINGBROOK TO CHILLINGHAM
The twisted, humpy road from Springbrook NP to Chillingham accurately reflects the fact that it crosses the last-made and most controversial state border on this continent. History buffs might well like to investigate the chronicles of this convoluted and difficult-to-describe wriggly line that appears on every map of Australia, showing the dividing ranges. The quid pro quo required makes for some interesting reading!
Along with its topographical contrariness, the eastern end of the QLD/NSW border also holds great significance to our nation – not just in the ongoing battle between those who either hate or love daylight saving, but – more positively – because of its reputation for absolutely stunning, lush-green scenery, contained within a series of magnificent protected reserves.
The first village on our route, just 10 minutes south of the border, is Chillingham – a quaint little hamlet tucked into the hills beside the Rous River. It seems as though time forgot this delightful place. Historic buildings and neat streets are surrounded by rainforest and banana… orchards? (What do you call a paddock full of banana trees? We posed this question to the owners of Chillingham’s famous Banana Cabana fruit stall. Anne laughed and said: ‘A common question! It’s called a banana patch!”) Ahhh, and I forgot to ask: are they banana trees or banana palms?
Anne and her husband, Buck, grow more than just tropical fruit: they have one of Australia’s premier bush tucker farms, specialising in Native Finger Lime, Yuzu fruit, Buddha Hand, Lemon Myrtle Curry Leaf, Kaffir Lime Leaf, and some exotic Asian delights. Visitors are urged to try the house specialty – chocolate-dipped frozen bananas (yum)… but are warned to watch out for the Yowie droppings (dried banana chips)!
Chillingham’s Old Butcher’s Shop Pottery Gallery has a beautiful range of ceramic craftsmanship on show. The talented potter had absconded back to his studio when we visited, but his proud dad was a wealth of information on the local area. I just had to buy something, so, one stunning tortoise and three gorgeous frogs later, each complete with a unique glaze, our grandchildren’s Christmas pressies were all lovingly wrapped up (literally) by this sweet old man.
COUNTRY CHARM IN TYALGUM
A beautiful fifteen-minute side-trip to the west is the fabulous little village of Tyalgum, a must-visit hot spot just off the Rainforest Way. (By the way, to sound like a local in Tyalgum, drop the ‘y’ and say ‘Talgum’). This gorgeous boutique village just oozes country charm and scenic beauty. Only thirty minutes from Murwillumbah, and an hour from the Byron-Tweed coast, it has blossomed into a very popular day-tripper’s destination-village. It offers great eateries, trendy boutiques, craft and jewellery outlets, second-hand books, vintage shops and superb ‘yesteryear’ artisan studios.
Tyalgum is internationally famous for its annual Festival of Music. Classical music, no less! It all began in 1991 when two visiting violin maestros accidentally discovered the acoustic brilliance of the 1908 Tyalgum Literary Institute. Now recognised as one of Australia’s premier classical festivals, the Tyalgum event is unique in providing audiences with worldclass performances by international virtuoso musicians, in a tiny village atmosphere surrounded by unparalleled scenic beauty.
Be sure to visit the hugely popular hub of Tyalgum: Flutterbies Cafe, housed in the old 1927 bakery. Haniel’s team serves elegant High Tea, breakfast and lunch daily – with a genuine smile and traditional country hospitality. If boutique tea and world class cup cakes are not your style, try some classy French champagne with lunch, or a legendary Flutterbies slice with a “Double or Nothing” coffee brew, made from beans roasted in-house.
Another absolutely wonderful feature of Tyalgum is ‘The Garden of Light’ tour, run in association with Flutterbies Cafe. We chose the Adagio Tour, which gave us a champagne lunch at the café followed by a five-minute bus ride to a stunning 25 acre property at the foot of Wollumbin (Mt Warning). The Garden’s fertile, organic hills have been painstakingly crafted over fifteen years to create a heavenly experience for young and old.
The orchard, vegetable and herb plots are tended by local children who are educated at the property as an extension of their traditional schooling. The children help develop and maintain the gardens, built a magnificent tree house beside the creek, and care daily for a menagerie of interesting old animals that are living out their retirement on the property. What an education!
If you happen to be in the area late in the month, beat a path to the Tyalgum Village Markets on the 4th Saturday of each month. The unique stalls are inspired by a French provincial theme and feature handmade artisan and craft products such as beautiful porcelain, lace, lavender, soaps, fine scarves, provincial lamps and vintage goods.
MURWILLUMBAH TO UKI
From Tyalgum, it is a short hop over the hills to Murwillumbah, either by backtracking through Chillingham, or via Tyalgum and Kyogle roads. Surrounded by no less than five World Heritage-listed national parks, as well as highly productive sugar cane and dairy farms, Murwillumbah is the agricultural service centre and commercial capital of the region. It certainly offers all the facilities we nomadic travellers need to restock and recharge after our treks through the hinterland wilderness.
Murwillumbah is a lovely town, sitting contentedly beside the Tweed River, with beautiful parks and gardens for urbangreen respite… or even a spot of fishing! It also has a good choice of caravan parks if it’s time to pull up for the night.
The town’s art deco architecture, bustling CBD, magnificently renovated museum and absolutely amazing regional gallery provide visitors with a much-needed cultural fix after ‘all that nature stuff’! Be sure to visit.
When it’s time to head off down the Rainforest Way to Uki, don’t! Instead, take a brief detour south on a lovely 8 km drive to experience yet another sweet little Tweed town – Stokers Siding. Pottery lovers will slaver over the ceramics gallery and if you love a Kombi van, don’t miss the famous Stoker Siding Garage. It is home to a VW specialist workshop, but with all the hippies living in the region, it is a veritable Kombi museum! The Stokers Siding Village markets are on the 3rd Saturday of each month, just in case you need another gift or two.
The road west leads you back to the Rainforest Way and historic Uki – which should be pronounced ‘Ook-eye’, not ‘YOU-key’. Just in case you missed all the other markets in the region, the Uki Buttery Bazaar markets are on every 3rd Sunday, and this is a beauty.
Why am I telling you about all these markets, I hear you ask? Well, because the Tweed Valley is home to many alternative lifestyle people, who place a huge emphasis on natural living, organic production and crafting everything by hand, so the stalls at the village markets throughout the entire region are brimming with magnificent treats and priceless artistry, unequalled anywhere. You simply can’t visit the Tweed without doing the market crawl!
NIMBIN, COUNTERCULTURE CAPITAL OF AUSTRALIA
If the little villages around Murwillumbah are dubbed ‘alternative’ and ‘artistic’, the quirky village of Nimbin can only be described as the ‘counter-culture’ capital of Australia! It has maintained its fringe status since the 1970s, when hippies floated in from everywhere for the famous Aquarius Festival and, well, they never went home! Since then, Nimbin has been a cradle of psychedelic characters living natural lives of purist self-sufficiency, in and around a zany town filled with love, love, love! A visit to this place is a must, to experience great murals and shop-front facades, unbelievably ‘real’ food, permaculture perfection and unique people living a lifestyle you may have thought was exclusive to vintage movies about rainbow communes.
Nimbin is set in a stunning location. Get a feel for the might of past volcanic activity – and Indigenous spirituality – at Nimbin Rocks, and then walk to lovely Protester Falls. Take an early drive east to Nightcap National Park and see Minyon Falls at its majestic best under morning sunshine. The cascade is a fabulous sight, a shimmering veil of over 100 metres, falling from the rim of the caldera to the valley below. On the way back, enjoy the artisan village of ‘The Channon’ and enjoy a spot of opera in the park should you be there in July. Oh, and if you haven’t done enough shopping this trip, The Channon markets – with a 30 year-old custom of “make it, bake it or grow it” – are held on the 2nd Sunday of each month. It’s absolutely massive with 250 stalls, buskers and fantastic food on offer.
WADEVILLE AND KYOGLE
For our exploration of the northern rivers, we stayed at a fantastic farm-stay style of campground called Wadeville Woolies, between Murwillumbah and Kyogle. It came complete with a general store, big grassy sites, and a family preparing a Thai feast for the traditional Friday night banquet. It was here I met a bloody big Hereford bull called Chainsaw, but he was actually just a great big sook!
Wadeville Woolies was the perfect base for us to stay while we explored the region, because they allow guests to leave wellbehaved dogs secured at RV sites while away visiting the multitude of National Parks. This is a welcome service for those of us who travel with pets and love National Parks. It’s also very close to fabulous Hanging Rock waterhole – a refreshing place to swim or just sit and watch the wildlife come and go.
Last, but not least, we arrive in lovely Kyogle. Ray and I adore art deco architecture and Kyogle has lots of it! After two big fires in the late 1920s, the main street was rebuilt with fourteen art deco stunners. They can be studied on a self-guided tour, aided by a descriptive brochure available from the visitor centre.
For a fantastic day trip from Kyogle, railway buffs simply must do the Border Loop drive, from which train spotters can witness something really special at the Border Loop picnic area. We timed our visit perfectly and watched a long train using an engineering feat of the Depression years, 400 m below us. In order to gain altitude to cross the escarpment, the train performed a complete spiral loop: it disappeared into a curved 1600 m tunnel, reappeared and crept around the side of the mountain, disappeared through another tunnel, then reappeared and crossed over the top of itself! Ray said it resembled a confused millipede that had spent too much time at the Nimbin Madi Grass Festival!
Travelling the one hundred and ten kilometres from Chillingham through Murwillumbah to Kyogle has never seemed so long… but for all the right reasons! This fabulous journey on the southern section of the Rainforest Way is one of Australia’s most beautiful classic drives, and it’s bursting with wondrous places, produce and people, and markets.