Technically, if you travel east from Armidale along the Waterfall Way (in New South Wales), you're still in the Northern Tablelands of New England (see Down New England way, April 2011), for a while at least. But to split progress along this route between two posts would be like cataloguing your photographs in different folders because the trip spans two calendar months.
I could have entitled this post the Waterfall Way, but I didn't see most of the watery splendours that give this route its name, and the two I did see were scarcely worth a mention. With the benefit of hindsight, a couple of days was not enough to appreciate the third most scenic drive in Australia*. When planning any route in this big country, one constraint on what you want to do in the time you've got is that you can't stay in many places for one night only, even midweek. This is an increasing source of frustration for this travel planner. I had to scupper my original plans for the Easter/Anzac Day extended holiday weekend that's coming up because everywhere I enquired for accommodation insisted on four nights minimum. I know everyone wants to cash in on the longer holiday, but some places just don't have enough to offer for five days.
Ideally, in this section of our New South Wales trip, I would have had one night in Dorrigo and one night in Bellingen, but that wasn't possible. The result was that we had to choose between two national parks rather than doing both, hence my lack of waterfalling experience.
Also, it's very easy to underestimate how long a visit/stop-off is going to take from the information you have before you get there. With a walk, for example, allow time to find the start point; the terrain may not be quite what you'd envisaged from the description in 'wonderful walks in such-and-such region'; and the time 'they' tell you it will take may bear only a vague resemblance to reality. When we reached Cathedral Rock National Park, down eight slow kilometres of dirt road, rather than there being a short walk to view from below an impressive gallery of granite domes and outcrops, as I had imagined, we had to walk a three-hour circuit and climb to the top of precariously placed boulders in order to appreciate them fully.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We left Armidale-the-second-time on a grey day, having already spent a not insubstantial part of the morning wandering around the town. We were vaguely tempted by the museum at Hillgrove, but would have preferred to wander around the remains of the old gold mine (ooh no, health and safety) than see a few dusty artefacts removed from the mine and former miners' homes. We drove on.
Cathedral Rock National Park is 70km east of Armidale and 60km west of Dorrigo. It contains the highest point in the Northern Tablelands, Round Mountain (1,586 metres). Having turned off the Waterfall Way, you start walking from the Barokee Camping Area, crossing wetland before rising through sub-alpine woodland. It's a tumbling mishmash of granite outcrops, Eucalypts, Banksias and other flowering plants, and new-to-me ferns (Pouched Coral Fern, below). There were a lot more birds in evidence than we've seen previously on such walks – most of them conspiring to thwart identification. There were no other people around: we were in splendid isolation. The other thing missing was the sun.
Half-way round the Cathedral Rock Track, you take a 400-metre spur to the top of the Rock. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service pamphlet advises that 'agility is required' to attain the rewarding views of the surrounding tablelands. I would suggest a non-too-ample waistline is also required to squeeze through some of the crevices along the way. And tracking skills: the path is not obvious in places and helpful arrows are few and far between.
I recalled a walk we'd done two or three years ago in the remote hills of northern Mallorca in the Mediterranean. We lacked a large-scale-enough map and there was no path as such. The book (of walks in Mallorca) said we should follow the small cairns that had been built along the way. These rocky piles became our point of focus in what was quite demanding terrain and it was always a relief to spot the next one. Mercifully, the sun was out only for part of the way; we walked for longer than expected – about six hours – and were rationing water by the end. At one point, having stressfully negotiated a large, sloping, toe-hold-less rock above a deep-enough-to-worry waterhole, I bounded up a rock-filled gorge, missing a crucial cairn or two in my enthusiasm. We only realised this on reaching a rocky ledge above a precipitous drop. There was no going forward, only back down. I remembered one of many wonderful moments in my favourite film.
Butch Cassidy: All right. I'll jump first.
The Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
The Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What's the matter with you?
The Sundance Kid: I can't swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
Back in Cathedral Rock National Park… I almost reached the top. Unfortunately, a perilous drop to one side put an end to my further advancement. I can merrily scramble up and over rocks but I don't do drops. I clung to a small tree trunk as my friend continued to the very top. He looked out to Round Mountain with its radar station (below) and the mizzle moving in: I saw not quite such a good view and concentrated on photographing pretty rock flowers.
The way down was rather more fraught – and tempers frayed sightly – the rocks now being more slippery as a result of the rain and time running out for the rest of the day's activities.
By the time we were back on the road, the sun had come out, showing off the beautiful country for which the Waterfall Way is famous…
…and highlighting this Red-browed Finch's remarkable colouring by the wayside.
Dorrigo was next up: it's a pleasant town with wide avenues, a war memorial on a roundabout in the middle of town and close by the magnificent Heritage Hotel Motel Dorrigo, dating from 1925, with its high parapet and wrought-iron verandah typical of the era. Tourism has replaced dairying which replaced timber as the town's raison d'être: the Dorrigo National Park has World Heritage rainforest (part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia**), outstanding views, a Skywalk canopy boardwalk, waterfalls and many walking tracks. Time was too short for us to take a look at any of this, and, to be truthful, we'd had enough of leeches for a while.
We made the long descent off the Dorrigo Plateau into the Bellinger River valley, passing the Sherrard and Newell falls by the roadside. You can only stop to view the Newell Falls – and then you wonder why you bothered: the tree ferns were more interesting than the falling water. (My friend is never impressed by waterfalls: he has seen Iguazu Falls on the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border, you see. I have not.) I have, however, seen pictures in the press of the Newell Falls in spate after serious rain, when they are much more imposing, although landslips often render this stretch of the Waterfall Way impassable.
Our destination was Bellingen (the beautiful), 30km along the Waterfall Way from Dorrigo and 17km from Urunga on the coast. I liked the look of the place from the moment we drove into Hyde Street (below).
We were staying a five-minute drive south of town – up through blasts of yellow and serried trunks – at Lily Pily Country House. This was a very welcoming, tranquil place to spend a couple of days. It has an green (eco-tourism) star; a modern design; some stylish, some quirky furniture and decoration; and a very relaxed atmosphere. It's part of a working sheep and poultry farm, and you can roam over some of the 80 acres, listening to Whipbirds, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos, and trying to spot elusive platypuses down by the Kalang River at sundown.
That evening we ate at Lily Pily's affiliated restaurant Avé in Church Street in Bellingen. My friend and I agreed it was the best meal of the trip: inventive cuisine, lofty surroundings (in an old church) and a bottle of Brokenwood Semillon that we'd picked up in the Hunter Valley. Thoroughly enjoyable; and then a comfortable bed with crisp cotton sheets awaiting us in our peaceful hideaway.
Next day was chillin'-in-Bellingen day. After a delicious cooked breakfast on the Lily Pily terrace overlooking lush green (above), distant hills and morning birds, we headed into town and moseyed about all morning. Belllingen is lively yet unhurried, arty, alternative, Byrony: it has architectural gems, galleries, retro coffee shops, a department store from another era, some interesting shops and a river where kids go to swim off the bridge after school on warm days.
Bellingen is as close as you'll ever get to the Promised Land. Cross Lavender's Bridge, turn left into Wheatley Street, then Gleniffer Road, and finally follow the Loop. It's a half-an-hour drive through delightful country and forest, crossing secluded creeks in which you could take a dip if the fancy took you. I was surprised to see people living in the Promised Land, however, and dismayed at the number of Private Property notices. Consequently there were precious few places to stop on the narrow road and admire… the place names as much as anything else.
After a most enjoyable day out and about in Bello, we went home for tea before platypus watch down by the Kalang River. Our luck wasn't in, unfortunately, but it was a beautiful spot to sit still in silence for a while, and watch an Azure Kingfisher.
The following fine morning, after another fortifying Lily Pily breakfast, we moved on from Bello to the north coast of New South Wales.
Here are a few signs from in and around the Promised Land.
* One of the others in the top three has to be the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, and the other may be the Nullabor Plain in WA and SA, but everyone's Great Australian Drives list varies slightly
** These include the most extensive areas – in Queensland and New South Wales – of subtropical rainforest in the world, large areas of warm temperate rainforest and almost all the Antarctic Beech cool temperate rainforest. Few other areas have so many plants and animals that are relatively unchanged from their fossil ancestors, so the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia are significant from the point of view of evolution and conservation. Rainforests cover only 0.3 per cent of Australia but they contain half of all Australian plant families and a third of mammal and bird species