Northern New South Wales was a bit of a mystery to me, despite growing up just two hours north of the border, in Queensland. I’d focused my local travel on Queensland’s stunning tropics, the Gold Coast and Brisbane’s islands, only venturing into rival territory to make a flying work visit to Sydney or to spend a weekend in laidback Byron Bay.
Little did I know, Northern NSW is home to one of the most scenic drives in Australia. Waterfall Way is a scenic route that winds through rolling countryside, country towns and ancient rainforests via several jaw-dropping waterfalls. It’s an ideal four-day road trip from Brisbane or Sydney, with the end point of the route, Coffs Harbour, in approximately the middle of the two capitals.
After leaving Brisbane, we made our way through Southern Queensland Country, stopping for country hospitality at a bakery in Warwick followed by a quick visit to wineries and distilleries in the Granite Belt, outside Stanthorpe. Even with several leisurely stops along the way, we easily made it across the border to the historic town of Tenterfield by dusk. Tenterfield’s claim to fame may be the 1980s pop song “The Tenterfield Saddler”, but the town played a much more important role in history. It was in this humble country town that Sir Henry Parkes gave his speech that inspired the movement towards Australia’s federation, which would happen in 1901.
We arrived in the evening and left before lunch the next day, so I spent the morning walking up and down the town’s main street. I started with a flat white in the cafe at the Sir Henry Parkes School of the Arts, where I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the coffee. The halls are lined with portraits of every Australia Prime Minister, and I realised just how many of them I couldn’t recognise – and some, I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of.
The Australian school curriculum doesn’t stress learning names & faces of our leaders like the US school system does. Everyone knows the first Prime Minister and the last few (easy, when they’ve chopped and changed so often in recent years), but in between only the ones who really make a name for themselves get remembered. For example, Gough Whitlam, in the 1970s, who was controversially dismissed by Australia’s Governor-General during the height of Australia’s constitutional crisis, which means he basically was sacked from the top job by the Queen of England. More disturbing still was the case of Harold Holt, who simply vanished after a morning swim in the ocean in the 1960s. We literally lost a Prime Minister. The rest of our leaders? I’d eat my hat if an Australian primary school student could name one of them.
I wasn’t sure whether to be perplexed by my, and presumably most young Australians, gaping knowledge of our own political history, or comforted that I spent most of my schooling learning more about world history and politics. I promptly forgot about this dilemma entirely when I stumbled across a bakery – one of many excellent country bakery stops on the trip.
We weren’t technically on Waterfall Way yet, until we hit our first waterfall in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, two hours outside of Tenterfield. At 290 metres (950 ft), Wollomombi Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in Australia, but the gorge in which it sits is so ridiculously enormous that it is difficult to grasp the scale of the falls. The falls vary between “a trickle and a thunder”, and unfortunately, we were there on a trickle day. From our position at the lookout on the opposite side of the gorge, it really did look like not much more than a trickle, but when I zoomed in with a zoom lens, I could see that the “trickle” was actually pretty powerful as it was!
After the somewhat disappointing “trickle” at Wollomombi Falls, I was thrilled to see powerful, gushing falls at Ebor Falls, 40 km down the road. The falls here are beautiful, but so is the surrounding wilderness, which is part of Guy Fawkes River National Park.
Our next stop, Dorrigo, is exactly what I think of when I picture a rural Australian town. The roads are quiet, wide and dusty. There’s a grand old pub on the largest intersection, with a verandah on the second floor perfect for surveying the town with a beer in hand. The main street was quiet and lined with interesting shops, such as an eclectic antiques store and, my favourite, the Red Dirt Distillery. I chatted to the owner, who makes one of the only Australian potato vodkas, using an unusual local potato variety. We tried the vodka and a few liqueurs, and needless to say, I did not leave empty handed.
Mt Christopherson Retreat
We spent the next couple of nights based at Mt Christopherson Retreat, just outside Dorrigo. It’s a contender for the most peaceful place on Earth in my books, without the pretension or forced relaxation feel of luxury resorts. It’s a simple but very comfortable lodge, with wide verandahs and a view over the treetops. In the evenings, it was quiet, apart from the occasional “moo” from a distant cow. In the mornings, wallabies hopped around the property.
Set in World Heritage Listed Dorrigo National Park, Dangar Falls was my favourite of the trip. Unfortunately, the tiny viewing platform was being taken up by a couple flying a remote control drone most of the time, but I did manage to worm my way in to have a peek and take a few photos.
Bellingen is the mountains’ answer to Byron Bay. Like Byron, this tiny New South Wales town has an irresistible laidback vibe, which is somewhat hampered by the scores of daytrippers rushing to unwind. Unlike Bryon, most of the crowds seemed to be local, since there are no beaches or bars luring international tourists like flies to honey. It was a sweet spot to grab lunch and stretch our legs after the drive to Dorrigo National Park, before heading back to Mt Christopherson.
Crystal Showers Falls
I really wanted to get closer to the waterfalls, but so far on the trip I’d been stuck on viewing platforms on the opposite side of a gorge. This was great for getting a sense of the entire scene and even better for capturing it with a camera, but I wanted to feel the trembling earth under the thunder of the falls and feel the spray on my skin. My wish was granted at Crystal Showers, in Dorrigo National Park.
Naturally, I forgot to charge my camera the night before we visited Crystal Showers, so I was armed with only my iPhone 4. I took a deep breath, and made my mantra “the best camera is the one you have with you,” on the walk to the falls.
The track to the waterfall is a pleasant 2.5 km walk through the cool, fresh rainforest. The air in the rainforest is so fresh that you could bottle it and sell it to China. When I reached the falls, I took the suspension bridge first. Hanging in front of the falls, it’s a great spot to get as close as you can to the facade of the falls, with the added benefit of getting at eye level with the rainforest canopy. Afterwards, I headed down a second track which weaves behind the falls itself. This was the calm place I was looking for.
In the same national park as Crystal Showers is the Dorrigo Skywalk. It wasn’t a waterfall, but it was still one of the highlights of my trip. The wooden skywalk is a 30-metre walkway over the rainforest canopy, with a lookout at the end.
It was our last nature stop on Waterfall Way, and it capped off the trip perfectly. After taking the inland route from Brisbane, we decided to drive to Coffs Harbour on the coast, to take the coastal route for the long drive back to Brisbane. In a few days, I saw more of New South Wales that I’d seen in the previous twenty years. It was a good reminder, not just of Australia’s abundant natural beauty and how many wonderful places get overlooked by major travel media, but of how much beauty and wonder you can squeeze into a few days if you drive in a new direction.