The New England Highway (15) runs 914km from Brisbane to Sydney and provides an alternative to the heavy traffic and roadwork snarl-ups of Highway 1 along the East Coast. The New England region doesn't have precise boundaries: its eastern edge is roughly 60km from the coast, and it largely consists of the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, a plateau about 800-1,000 metres above sea level with higher peaks dotted about. The Tablelands are part of the Great Dividing Range and extend from the Queensland border to the Moonbi Range north of Tamworth.
The region's altitude, climate, volcanic rocks and soils give it a distinctive look: granite outcrops, lush pasture (for sheep, cattle and horses) and rich cropland. There are many national parks – especially where rivers have cut down through the eastern edge of the Tablelands, forming gorges – and pleasant towns whose public buildings often reflect former wealth created by mining or logging.
We set off from Brisbane one fine, hot and sunny Thursday morning. We took the Ipswich Road and soon turned off on to the Cunningham Highway. It was a perfect day, which meant I wanted to retrace a few steps of our Mt Cordeaux walk (see Great Granite, October 2010) for the view from the Fassifern Valley Lookout, previously shrouded in a mist of driving rain. We were seriously delayed on the ascent to Cunninghams Gap by extensive roadwork to repair water damage from last summer's Great Rains, but we made my detour anyway. Little did I know then that this was the first of many big views on this trip. And we may have got our first view of Mt Warning, to the southeast, but we didn't realise it at the time.
Then we put our foot down, soon joining the New England Highway north of Warwick. It should have taken just over an hour to reach the New South Wales border from there, but in fact it was more like two and a half, because we made another detour at Girraween National Park, to check out how one of our favourite accommodations from last year, Girraween Environmental Lodge, had fared during the January floods. The answer was, not well. Although GEL is open for business, extensive repairs to tracks reduced to corrugated water channels are ongoing.
Twenty minutes on lay the state border town of Wallangarra, Queensland... or Jennings, New South Wales.
The granite outcrops of the Girraween area continued, littering golden grassland, itself an extension of the Darling Downs landscape of southern Queensland.
Then there was Tenterfield, which developed because of its position on the original Sydney to Brisbane route and its consequent role in the foundation of the federation of Australian colonies. Today Tenterfield is important for beef cattle, merino wool and timber from nearby state forests. These include the Forest Land State Forest, which seems more than a little tautological.
Next up was Glen Innes, a town with a massive Celtic heritage reflected in some of its many churches and the Australian Standing Stones (inspired by the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands off Scotland's northeastern tip), unique in the southern hemisphere and a tribute to the town's Scottish pioneers. The place has a distinctly Scottish Presbyterian feel to it. Its early prosperity was based on tin mining: there are still gem fields down the road, and cattle and sheep are big business. My friend spotted this: in a land where roads often have multiple names or numbers, the simplicity of this sign appealed.
South of Glen Innes the landscape changed. The leaves on many trees were turning – it gets cold here – and there were rather incongruous rows of yellowing poplars. Sheep almost disappeared from view against their pale pastures. We were staying the night in Armidale, 100km or so south of Glen Innes and roughly midway between Brisbane and Sydney. At an altitude of nearly 1,000 metres, it felt decidedly chilly after Brisbane's above-average temperatures of late. The New England moniker, incidentally, derives from this region's four distinct seasons.
Our accommodation was just outside town – Petersons Armidale (as opposed to Hunter Valley) Winery. The original homestead (1911) has been restored with an English country house in mind. The grounds were lovely, although rather disarmingly like home, with a London Plane tree and yellow crocuses (surely the wrong time of year?). Not so English were the pesky mosquitos that feasted on my legs as I enjoyed the gardens in the golden early-evening light.
A reasonably priced dinner gave us the opportunity to sample a not-half-bad Petersons Armidale Cab Sav (the winery is a cool-climate-wine award winner). Breakfast was very enjoyable, too, in the sun-blazed conservatory.
Armidale is a city – with two cathedrals and the University of New England – but feels like a county town. It is an administrative and retail centre but principally a centre for livestock (beef cattle and high-quality wool) and wine production. It is also one of five test sites blazing the way for the rollout of the government's controversial national broadband network. The town's wealth was originally based on gold-mining at Hillgrove, 40km east, in the 1850s, and many fine buildings remain from that era (below: the Imperial Hotel and Armidale Land & Property Management Authority).
Armidale has three local newspapers no less, perhaps vying for sensational headlines.
The landscape south of Armidale is not particularly pleasing. From Uralla to Walcha and beyond to Nowendoc is relentless cattle country – an endless bland plain with no settlement, no mobile phone coverage and an interminable, straight-as-a-die, ever-so-bumpy road. East of Walcha, however, is the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. I like the name and the area is reputed to be very beautiful, but, alas, our itinerary precluded a visit on either our journey south to the Hunter or on the way back.
Twenty kilometres or so northeast of Tamworth, the Moonbi Range is the southerly limit of the Northern Tablelands, and the New England Highway descends dramatically and steeply, affording great views to southerly blue ridges (top and below). There was a lookout but not of the standard we Queenslanders have been led to expect: a granite and concrete graffitied perch accessed by a grim metal staircase.
Just before Tamworth, we were tempted off route by a tourist drive. Leaving the New England Highway at Nemingha, we headed off along the Tamworth-Nundle road following the Peel River and the Dungowan Valley. Very pleasing to the eye were fertile river-flat croplands and gently rolling pastures: many delights included goats for sale and the red-rock Chaffey Dam.
While my friend fossicked for rock samples, I was entertained by artwork by the children of Dungowan School and the dam's 'Morning-glory' spillway tower, the like of which I'd never seen before. Water is released from the reservoir via an 8m-wide, 10m-tall egg-shaped funnel.
Nundle is a delightful overgrown crossroads where we turned right. It has broad avenues, historic buildings, a nice relaxed feel to it, and we should have stopped for that coffee. From the 1850s to the 1880s there were several gold rushes in them thar hills, and prospectors included many Chinese pioneers. Fossickers are still very welcome here and about.
A bit further on, we turned into the Wallabadah-Nundle Road. We were pleased to see the following sign: my friend because it lessened the risk to our lovely car, which was about to endure many more kilometres of gravel road than the tourist drive information sign had indicated, and me because at last I could photograph a place-name with far too many 'o's (see My kind of place name, December 2010).
The road was wiggly and dashed on the map. We slowly up-and-downed hills and saw little life save birds in what felt like wonderfully isolated country. More blue-ridged mountains ahead. By now we were well and truly out of New England. We rejoined the New England Highway just short of Wallabadah and the Hunter was ahead of us over the horizon.