New England, New Adventure

19 October 2010

Are the roads less travelled really the most enjoyable?

The road less travelled, people will often tell you, offers the most potential for excitement, adventure and remarkable discoveries that you will treasure for a lifetime.

 

The people that tell you this obviously haven’t found themselves stuck on a goat track halfway down a mountain with a caravan in tow, or waist deep in mud, or lost hours from anywhere with no food and a partner with a savage case of sugar-low-itis. Or maybe those people have experienced all of that on some bewitching back road, and are simply evil-minded in encouraging others to follow to their doom.

 

By extension, therefore, reading this article and following in my footsteps will settle once and for all that great question: is Sean actually evil? If you enjoy this trip, then I am kind and benevolent. If you don’t, then encouraging you to your impending disaster at least makes me pretty naughty. So let’s find out!

 

The back roads I urge you to follow meander through New England. Called ‘Big Sky Country’ because of the plethora of fantastic views, this part of the country occupies the north-eastern corner of NSW, from Singleton in the south, to the QLD border in the North, as far west as Lightning Ridge, and east until you reach the north and mid-north coastal areas of NSW.

 

I picked just one thread of this scenic tapestry to explore, from Gloucester to Glen Innes. My journey, with family and an unrenovated 1982 Millard pop-top in tow, began with a detour along The Bucketts Way, from Taree. This is undoubtedly what I’d call a popcorn drive – kick back and relax with some popcorn as the scenic movie rolls across the bigscreen windscreen. We also detoured from the detour to explore the town of Wingham and to really enjoy the beautiful cruising on offer.

 

Wingham is a charming town, and its centre is rather uniquely built around a large central green. It immediately creates a strong sense of place and community, and I wonder why more towns and suburbs haven’t adopted this idea?

 

Plan to have at least one meal in Wingham, and make sure it’s at Bent on Food. This multi-award-winning provedore and café is divine. I had a steak sandwich, which could have ended up being something grey and chewy between two bits of soggy bread, but was instead a gastronomic triumph.

 

The Bucketts Way will get you to Gloucester, a place that needs the attention of a separate article, which we bring you in an upcoming issue. From here begins the somewhat ominously named Thunderbolts Way.

 

Thunderbolts Way winds its way past Woko, Barakee and Nowendoc National Parks. The land lies like a doona on a sleeping giant, gradually climbing from its feet in ruffled bumps and folds, up along its sides, then descending from the shoulders. This means there are views around every corner and over every undulation, and they become more impressive the higher you climb.

 

Often you pay the price for views like this with dodgy roads – not so in this case. It’s all dual carriageway, and posed no problems on the hills for our LandCruiser or Mercedes Sprinter motorhome. If you can, plan to do some free camping along the road. We found an idyllic stop along the river’s edge, under the shade of eucalypts and she-oaks. Thunderbolts Way finishes at Walcha, a gateway to the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and World Heritage site.

 

Within the park are spectacular gorges, easy walks, waterfalls, lookouts, picnic spots, fishing, canoeing and bush walking. ‘Riverside’ can be accessed via 4WD, the only spot in Australia where a wilderness area can be accessed by vehicle. Also accessible from Walcha are Carrai, Cottan-bimbang, Werrikimbe, Nowendoc and Mummel Gulf National Parks and nature reserves.

 

Walcha isn’t just a town where you rest between expeditions elsewhere. Its Open Air Gallery is one of the many attractions to keep you there. Nearly 30 large works of art adorn the streetscape, from roundabouts to street corners, from parks to the town’s entrance itself. The town is very pretty and contains many interesting buildings and places to grab a drink or something to eat. We ate at Café Graze, where the food was simply wonderful and the coffee sublime.

 

Between Walcha and Armidale is Uralla, 486km from Brisbane and Sydney alike, on the New England Highway. Here, you can learn about the local aboriginal rock art, the gold fever and infamous bushranger ‘Captain Thunderbolt’. Take the heritage walking tour and view Uralla’s historic buildings and heritage. Some buildings you definitely want to see are: McCrossin’s Mill, a multi-award winning museum; Hassett’s Military Museum, containing displays from World War 1 to the present day; and the New England Brass and Iron Lace Foundry, from 1872.

 

Uralla has plenty of birds, including inland as well as eastern-range species. A purpose-built bird hide at Dangars Lagoon allows for easy viewing. If you’d rather hunt for gold, then apparently there’s still some to be found in the creeks around the town.

Just up the road from Uralla, as you head north on the New England Highway, is the bustling city of Armidale.

 

The gold-boom days of the 1850s saw many grand buildings being erected that still stand today, giving Armidale a very stately colonial feel. For those of you suffering from shopping withdrawal, Armidale will provide you with the fix you crave. In particular, it has a tree-lined mall to stroll along, overlooked by many fine buildings.

 

Armidale boasts a long list of attractions too numerous to mention here. In addition, for nearly every month of the year there is an event or festival worth visiting. Prepare yourself for a longer stay in Armidale – you’ll need it.

 

Armidale doesn’t have the monopoly on retail therapy – nearby Guyra makes sure of that. It is home to a host of specialty stores, boutiques, cafes, galleries and essential services. The town has a proud tin heritage, and local museums celebrating Guyra’s agricultural history.

 

In January each year, Guyra hosts the Lamb and Potato Festival (try saying that out loud without salivating). It’s a 10-day event featuring entertainment, stalls, talent quests and, of course, scrumptious food.

 

The last stop along this strand of the scenic tapestry is Glen Innes. With such a Celtic-sounding name, you’d expect the region to be steeped in Celtic history. Well, you would be correct. The town’s original settlers were mostly Scots, arriving here in 1838.

Conjure a Celtic stereotype and it will doubtless involve a mysterious circle of stones and men with long beards. Glen Innes has them both.

 

The Australian Standing Stones are unique to our half of the globe. For Australia’s 1988 Bicentenary Year, citizens carved 35 massive granite boulders from the bush and arranged them on a hill overlooking the town. A circle of 24 stones represents the 24 hours of the day. Four cardinal stones mark the four points on the compass.

 

Viewed from above, these four stones form the Southern Cross; in conjunction with the 24 stones, they form the Ionic Cross. Seven other stones mark the summer and winter solstices.

 

The Standing Stones are also the focus of the annual Australian Celtic Festival, and winter and summer solstice celebrations. The stones are impressive and beautiful, but perhaps no more so than the naturally occurring stones that thrust out of the countryside. Many of these grand boulders can be found in the grounds of Craigieburn Caravan Park, which encloses 40 acres of heritage- listed land that you can explore.

 

Indeed, the caravan parks are attractions within themselves. Apart from Craigieburn’s stones, you can go fossicking at Glen Rest Tourist Park, where you might find sapphires. And there are numerous other fossicking sites, besides.

 

Now, I mentioned bearded men too, didn’t I? The Land of the Beardies History House exhibits the history of Glen Innes, from pioneering times through to the wars. If you drop into the visitor information centre, you can find out more, as well as get pointers to some of the other attractions – the showgrounds, historic railway station, heritage buildings, scenic drives, museums, rural retreats, pubs, local towns ... just to name a few.

 

One drive you must take is along the Gwydir Highway towards Grafton. This winds through the World Heritage Washpool and Gibraltar Range national parks. There are well-marked picnic spots and lookouts along the way, and short walks to waterfalls and famous features.

 

So, have I deliberately steered you wrong to suffer in my footsteps? Or is this some of the best touring Australia has to offer? There is only one way to find out...

 

GETTING THERE

 

From Sydney, take the F3 Highway to the New England Highway through to Tamworth (415km), then Armidale (525km) and Glen Innes (625km). The Gwydr Highway between Glenn Innes and Grafton goes through the World Heritage-listed Gibraltar Range National Park.

 

WHERE TO STAY

 

Guyra Caravan Park
(the highest in Australia!)
New England Highway.
Ph: (02) 6779 1241.
E: guyra_summit_van_park@hotmail.com

 

Craigieburn Caravan Park
New England Highway, 2km south of Glen Innes.
Ph: (02) 6732 1283.
www.gleninnes.com/craigieburn

 

Uralla Caravan Park
17 Queen St.
Ph: (02) 6778 4763

Walcha Caravan Park
113n Middle Street.
Ph: (02) 6771 2501

 

Gloucester Holiday Park
Denison Street, Gloucester
Ph: (02) 6558 1720

 

VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE

 

Armidale Visitor Information Centre
82 Marsh St, Armidale NSW 2350
Ph: (02) 6772 4655. E: armvisit@bigpond.net.au.
www.armidaletourism.com.au

 

FREE ACTIVITIESS

 

  • World Heritage Way – a spectacular drive out of Glen Innes along the Gwydir Hwy.
  • Australian Standing Stones – see Australia’s own version of Stonehenge. Glen Innes.
  • Armidale City Heritage Tour – a complimentary two-hour tour, (02) 6772 4655 to book.
  • Wollomombi Falls – Australia’s second-highest falls (220m drop) are a daytrip from Armidale.
  • Point Lookout – in New England NP, it stands 1564m tall and offers magnificent views of the escarpment and the surrounding valleys.

 

CHEAP TREATS

 

Fossick Boolabinda, Glen Innes.
$11. Bookings (02) 6732 2215.
Find sapphires and zircons.

 

Fossick at Bullock Mountain Homestead,
Glen Innes. $18. Bookings (02) 6732 1599.

Morning tea at Bent on Food, 95 Isabella Street, Wingham.
Ph: (02) 6557 0727. E: donna.carrier@bigpond.com

 

Land of the Beardies History House, Ferguson St, Glen Innes.
Adults $6, concessions $4.

Sean Cummins
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