Christmas Day came and went with little fuss; a suitable blend of English traditions (think paper hats, Christmas pudding and rubbish TV) and Australian holiday (cue swimming pools, prawns and rubbish TV). And the next day like millions across both hemispheres, I hit the road to expand my horizons, meet up with others, and curse at the appalling driving ubiquitous across the highways and byways of the land.
My destination was Brisbane and a tad beyond. In the first of three undeniably thrilling instalments I shall take you with me on the journey north. I had determined to go inland, avoiding the ludicrous middle and outer lane hogging of the Sydney motorways and the family-fuelled people carrier congestion of the coast. Yes, I would mostly miss the beautiful cooling ocean but there is a lot to see in the interior of Australia, believe it or not…
Boxing Day mash up
Setting out, the tones of Jim Maxwell narrating the Boxing Day test helped me along familiar ground to Goulburn and then round the back of the Blue Mountains via Taralga and Oberon. I’m not quite sure when the familiar becomes, well, exotic, but I had never been to Hartley before and I wasn’t expecting to see emus along the roadside. Attempting to quell this confronting change, I popped in for some afternoon tea in the cutesy national trust cafe. Devonshire scones with clearly non-Devonshire cream. Sigh. When will they learn?!
The journey proceeded through Lithgow and alongside the expansive Capertree Valley, where my first lookout stop offered a surprising reveal of a sweeping landscape. From here, the final sandstone ridges of the Blue Mountains stand bastion over a green carpet of eucalyptus, and – closer to the road – the occasional green taming of human activity. Apparently the Capertree Canyon is the second biggest in the world after that gargantuan gorge called The Grand Canyon. Which clearly makes it the largest in the southern hemisphere. However, despite this billing, for me, it was a detour too far.
With the day drawing to a conclusion I had to make haste to my first camp spot, passing through a seemingly deserted Mudgee, and hitting the gravel roads into Goulburn River National Park. Here I surprised myself at how efficiently I made camp, setting up gear which had not seen the light of day for a few years. Yes, the swag was back and loving its natural environment.
With all this travel and excitement it was easy to forget that it was Christmas time and today was Boxing Day. It certainly didn’t feel like a typical Boxing Day, but I paid a little homage to tradition by boiling up and coarsely mashing some potatoes and carrot, serving it with some ham, and adding a few pickled onions and a pile of Branston. This camp stove and esky creation was a perfect amalgamation of English traditions and Australian summer holiday, a supremely satisfying garnish to this first day.
To England, my New England
The next morning dawned sunny and warm, a hot day ahead to progress north into New England. At some point – Merriwa I think – I rejoined a road I had once been on, and the New England Highway steadily progressed towards Tamworth. Some may disagree, but I find this route north to Brisbane more scenic, more interesting than the Pacific Highway, which follows the coast but sufficiently distant from it to rarely glimpse the gorgeousness of Pacific Ocean.
Here, the landscape is rolling and golden and covered in a warming glow. Sun-baked fields and picket-fenced horse studs line the highway, frequently terminating at abrupt rises in the land and wilderness once more. A steady stream of small towns gladly interrupt the journey, adding the interest of random claims to fame, elegant facades, and Driver Revivers. And road signs proclaim only 700kms to Brisbane. I could be there in a tick.
But obviously I stop and detour and make inevitable visits to big things like a giant golden guitar in Tamworth. It’s my third time here but I still cannot resist the allure of such a curious, iconic Australian landmark. The car and I refuel, we park up and make lunch of ham sandwiches and crisps. And, comfortably gathering that road trip rhythm, we set off once more, another hundred clicks up the road to Armidale.
From Armidale I find myself heading south and east…not exactly the direction for Brisbane. But just a little way out of town, farmland gives up and a corner of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is accessible. This is gorge country which – after rain – boasts the promise of waterfalls. In the midst of this summer Dangars Falls is absent, but the deep gorge is clearly less fickle and the campground nestled above it is a delight.
After setting up with even more surprising efficiency there are a few hours left in the long summer day for a bit of a walk. It is the perfect time of day and – at what must be approaching 1000 metres in altitude – the temperature is pleasant, the walk shady, and possessing only a couple of manageable inclines to negotiate. The final couple of kilometres weave along a ridge high above the chasms carved by Salisbury Waters, leading to an abrupt halt at McDirtys Lookout. It may sound like it’s named after a slang term for a ubiquitous fast food burger chain, but there are no car parks, no neon signs, no frozen cokes in sight. Just a landscape preserved thanks to its inaccessibility and the wild rivers that made it.
In the Washpool
Day three and already I was making spontaneous changes to my vaguely pre-defined route. Instead of heading up a boring looking road to Glen Innes, the journey took me along a section of the Waterfall Way and then cut across on a quiet, winding road to Grafton.
Along the Waterfall Way I could make a mid-morning stop at Ebor Falls, a site I had previously encountered boasting a couple of quite magnificent waterfalls. Today, they were an inferior imitation of what I remembered, reduced to a trickle and hidden in the shadows from the morning sun. But as road stop rest stops go, there was plenty to savour: a gentle shady walk along the valley rim, pockets of wildflowers and patches of birdlife, the smell of the bush. All under the deepest blue skies.
It is broadly along the latitude of the Waterfall Way that the first of a number of pockets of ancient rainforest appear; clusters which frequently emerge all the way north from here, up to and across the Queensland border. Dorrigo National Park is the first and has much to adore. But having been there and done that, I was keen to make it to a large swathe further north.
From KFC in Grafton, the car headed through patches of woodland and along the picturesque valley of the Mann River. Rugged ranges loomed, neared and eventually required climbing; like so many roads from the coast to the inland, hairpins and lookouts and massive tree ferns clinging to the eastern escarpment. Atop all this a dirt road led off the highway and plunged into the rainforest of Washpool National Park.
The Washpool walk provided nine kilometres to stare up at giant trees and admire the light through the vivid green canopy. Vines and creepers tempted Tarzan escapades. Humidity sapped and a small waterfall offered only gentle relief while also hastening the need to pee. It was an immersive and captivating rainforest experience but – perhaps after another long, hot day – a couple of kilometres too far in my opinion. Still, at least I had sweated out maybe one piece of southern fried chicken.
I felt as though I had earned a beer and decided to take one with me on a brief amble to a lookout near the park entrance. This is the benefit of having everything in the car and, um, the beer would provide hydration if I ended up getting lost or bitten by a snake or something, right? Thankfully the lookout was a mere stroll and the satisfaction of that coldish beer on that bench on those rocks in that peace with that view under early evening skies without the prospect of getting lost and having snakes for company was something to cherish.
While the beer episode is up there, it was just about surpassed by waking the next morning beside Coombadjha Creek. This is why you put up with a little discomfort and a lot of phaff by camping. You feel part of the environment, immersed in the landscape, at one with nature. Even if this means enduring the bittersweet alarm call of shrieking and cackling at four in the morning.
Before breakfast, before packing up, before moving on once more, I could hatch out of the swag and wake up with the world around me. Virtually from my bed a small trail followed the pristine waters of the creek and looped back through a large stand of Coachwood. The sun gradually made its appearance, shafts of light angling through the trees and shimmering through the ferns onto the water. The creek was clear and cool, and after three nights of camping without a shower, it was tempting to bathe. But I really didn’t want to ruin its purity; my mind turned to the allure of the ocean instead.
Return to a civilisation
Without going into lurid detail I did wash each day thanks to boiling water and the use of a bucket, an art mastered in the trip of 2013 with Jill. Simultaneously I could make a cuppa, grill some toast and prepare my morning sink. Sure, it wasn’t exactly luxurious or even two star, but it allowed me some confidence to mingle a little with civilisation each day and order a morning coffee, buy petrol and ice. Which is exactly what I did in Grafton after descending from the hills that morning.
Heat had been building on this trip and by now it really was scorchio. I could resist the ocean no more and joined the masses along the Pacific Highway, turning off towards Yamba. Outside of school holidays I am sure this is an easy-going little coastal town. Today a shady car park was at a premium and the wait for fish and chips was half an hour. But it had several beaches lapped by clear and calm water in which to linger. I finally felt that a layer of inland Australia had been cleansed, only to be replaced by salt, sand and – subsequently – fish and chip grease.
I encountered my first inexplicable traffic jam north of Yamba and speculated that this was being replicated up and down the highway. Still, I only had twenty clicks at a snail’s pace before I could turn off and head to Lismore. Lismore was to herald my proper return to civilisation, something which some people would find surprising in relation to Lismore. But I was to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper shower here, both of which I was quick to enjoy upon arrival. Refreshed and walking Lismore’s unfathomably charming streets, I felt part of normal society again.
Yet after the joy of showering and napping on a double bed and walking a little along the Wilsons River, I felt lost. This habitat, this environment, this standing still in one place felt a little odd. Still with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, I drove out into the lush countryside, through stretched out villages hidden amongst the trees boasting honesty fruit stalls, lefty views, and probable marijuana. To Nightcap National Park, where some falls were missing but where the late sun bathed the forest in gold. Just me and the Subaru, enjoying the last beer from the esky, the final slice of ham. We had come far and – refreshed – we could carry on until the end of days. Or, more likely, until I needed a shower and craved a soft double bed again.