May 5, 2011

There's more to northern NSW than Byron Bay


I've always thought it sounded odd to talk about New South Wales's north coast. I mean, it clearly doesn't have one. It has an east coast in the north of the state, but its northern limit is the state boundary with Queensland, not the sea. This may sound pedantic, but it's letting down Australian standards of place naming, which are usually characterised by a high degree of accuracy – as in Conical Mountain, for example, or The Top End. Scotland has a north coast; but England, even way way up in Northumberland, still has an east coast.

We hit North Coast New South Wales about half-way up the Mid-North Coast – at the end of the Waterfall Way just north of Urunga. South of the Mid-North Coast is Central Coast New South Wales, a different region altogether. I'm sure you'll be as relieved as I was to learn that there is nothing south of the Mid-North Coast such as the Southern North Coast, or North Coast South; I'm not sure I could have handled that. There is, however, a Far North Coast, and a Far North Coast Hinterland, both of which we were headed for at the end of our road trip to New South Wales.

On the way to Coff's Harbour, we dipped a toe into Bongil Bongil National Park, partly because I've got a thing for repetitive names, but also because it has 'magnificent unspoilt beaches, coastal rainforest and estuaries full of birdlife' (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service). Unfortunately the walk that included an extra bit to Bongil Beach, which is where I really wanted to go, was going to take us at least half a day – at our painfully slow birdspotting-and-photography rate of progress – so we had to content ourselves with driving to the Bongil Picnic Area from where it was a stone's throw to the beautifully peaceful Bonville Creek. Unfortunately the sun had been up too long for there to be any estuarine birds in evidence, but the reflections were pretty impressive.

I expected Coff's Harbour to be pretty big, and it was, but the harbour manages to retain a small, almost intimate feel.



I even found the concrete blocks of the breakwater connecting Muttonbird Island rather appealing.




Coff's Harbour owes its growth to people from big cities who wished to settle in a small town on a lovely coast. What that's meant, of course, is a large settlement whose population swells to more than 100,000 with summer visitors. Perhaps most of them know that, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), this place has the 'most liveable climate' in Australia. Originally a timber-exporting port, Coff's retains it's original timber jetty (1892), which has been restored and is now the centre of a plan to develop the foreshore. Fortunately, this may be on hold because of the tough economic times. My despair at the prospect of further development of Australia's wonderful east coast arises from many examples of lunacy already witnessed, one of them in Coff's, at the back of Park Beach and spoiling the wonderful mountain backdrop as well as blighting the shore.


I'm often surprised at just how many airports there are along the east coast. Between Sydney and Brisbane, for example, a distance of some 990 kilometres, there are airports at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Coff's Harbour, Ballina and Gold Coast. However, a frustratingly slow drive along the Pacific Highway from Coff's Harbour to not-quite Grafton, less than 80km, made me realise why Australians are bemused about the fact that we like to drive large distances rather than fly. Still, I shouldn't complain about the endless roadwork that held us up; at least they were doing something about the state's crumbling road network. And we were travelling slowly enough to spot place names – Safety Beach, near Woolgoolga – for the list.

We turned off before Grafton on to a minor road, Eight Mile Lane (and then Wooli Road), to Yuraygir National Park and Wooli itself. It's almost 40km back to the coast at this point, but it's well worth a detour, and on the way back you can avoid Grafton and rejoin the Highway much closer to Maclean. Wooli is small and sleepy and feels splendidly isolated. It sits on a long isthmus with a wide river on one side and the Solitary Islands Marine Park on the ocean side. Off the coast of New South Wales temperate southerly waters meet and mingle with tropical waters, increasing biodiversity: the marine park protects about 550 fish species and 90 corals. The 8km beach is dune-backed and deserted and absolutely fabulous. There aren't any surf lifesavers, needless to say, and the beach shelves steeply, so care is needed.



The Yuraygir National Park is home to some of the few remaining Eastern Coastal Emus. These birds used to inhabit this coast from Port Stephens (north of Newcastle) to Tweed Heads, but, alas, no longer. There may be 100 left but they include few breeding pairs, and conservationists fear that the Road Transport Authority's plans for upgrading the Pacific Highway may see this endangered species disappear. We have been to several places where there are similar tales of wildlife woe. Early European settlers must have thought this land was limitless. Woodcutters' notches on tree stumps throughout the eastern forests are a testament to their paths of destruction and an attitude that manifests itself in modern times in vast opencast mines and, lately, the threat to marine parks, farmland and water supplies from what The Wilderness Society* calls the 'gas-grab free-for-all'.

On the lovely drive back to our main route, I noticed some striking blue grass in a creek.

Having dawdled at Wooli, we were thankful that the Highway was practically empty as we sped north, often alongside, and crossing, the broad Lawrence and Richmond rivers. I had intended we would take a look at Ballina, but that will have to wait for another trip. As it was, we weren't in Byron – Ewingsdale, in fact – until nightfall.

I have described Byron Bay before (see Nothing beats Byron, September 2010, and New takes on Byron, November 2010) – probably exhaustively. So after a two-night stay filled with the usual delights – breakfasting at Twisted Sista, shopping, beer o'clock at the Beach Hotel, beaching at Broken Head, and browsing Bangalow's main drag – we moved on. We did do something new, however: we ventured to the Byron Bay Arts and Industry Estate, which is on the way out of town on Ewingsdale Road, for a slightly different retail experience. The Wizard of Auz is a huge mineral and gemstone gallery with more rock samples than you can shake a geological hammer at. My friend rummaged through dusty boxes beneath stacked shelves while I admired a myriad small, polished stones in a hundred different hues in shallow compartmentalised drawers.

The day we left Byron was to have been the day we climbed Mt Warning, but it was wet and unpromising (a grey Belongil Beach, above). Even on lovely mornings, the mountain has a habit of collecting clouds that descend around climbers on the upper reaches, completely obliterating a magnificent view that is only visible from the top, above the forest line. There are countless stories of walkers who climbed for the most part in glorious sunshine, only to be denied in the last few metres. Not for no reason does its Aboriginal name, Wollumbin, mean 'cloud catcher' or 'weather maker'. Mt Warning is the central core of an extinct shield volcano, reputed to be the largest in the southern hemisphere (see more below).

There was another problem: we had learned that the mountain holds great significance for the Bundjalung people. It is a sacred site, and they would prefer other people not to go there. (The peak is the first place on the Australian continent to catch the rays of the rising sun and probably attracts more visitors than it would otherwise.) In Bundjalung mythology the spirits of the mountains were warriors, and Wollumbin was the Warrior Chief. The scars on the mountainside are the warriors' wounds; the thunder and lightning around its stormy summit, the special effects of their battles; and the mountain's outline, as seen from the north, the Warrior Chief's face**. We were not going to climb the mountain.

Instead, we crossed the Pacific Highway just beyond Ewingsdale and followed the Coolamon Scenic Drive to Mullumbimby. The Byron Bay hinterland is lush and pleasing on the eye. The road was empty, with views to the Bay and Cape Byron lighthouse. I thought the demons were taking a few liberties with this Jersey herd.

Mullumbimby in the Brunswick Valley is pleasant enough but nothing to write home about. This is the Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales, and the town is close by lovely national parks and conservation areas with names such as Nightcap, Whian Whian and Goonengerry. It's where you live if you can't afford Byron.

Brunswick Heads is at the other end of the bay that sweeps north from Byron, but is sheltered round the corner at the mouth of the Brunswick River, although there is a surf beach on the south side. It often described as a quiet little seaside village, and it's usually off-route for Byron-obsessives like me, especially as the Pacific Highway has bypassed it since 1998. It doesn't have a big centre but the shops are better than you'd expect for somewhere of that size. I must go back to that shoe shop...

We then headed north up the Pacific Highway for a couple of junctions, turning off on to the Tweed Valley Way, the old Pacific Highway. The weather had improved but you still couldn't see any hilltops. There was no chance of a glimpse of Mt Warning as we came under its auspices. We passed through a little place called Mooball, and now how I wish I'd photographed (I was driving at the time) the black-and-white cow-hide painted lamp posts. There is a rumour, however, that the locals don't pronounce this MOO-ball but Mo-BULL. This would be fairly typical: with much longer, more complicated names, Australians rarely place the emphasis on the syllable you'd expect.

A good name to start practising with is Murwillumbah (emphasis on the 'i'). You may prefer to abbreviate it to M-bah or Murbah. The town lies on the Tweed River, only 13km south of the Queensland border. It was bigger than I was expecting but I kind of liked it. On the main drag there are the usual garish, ugly overhangs that you see in every Aussie high street, but if you look beneath them you may find some gems, such as The Austral Cafe, where we had tea. After a walkabout, we went to find our accommodation, a few kilometres out of town along the Queensland Road (of course).

We were staying at Attunga Park Country Retreat on the way to Nobby's Creek, about 10 minutes away. I'd been told there'd be wonderful mountain views towards Springbrook Plateau, and there were, backlit as the sun appeared late in the day.


That evening, we went back into M-bah to the Riverside Pizza & Thai Cafe, recommended by our hostess, and enjoyed a thai meal. Then back to sleep soundly in the silence. The next morning it was bright and sunny, the Plateau floating in misty whisps.


There wasn't a cloud in the sky; not even over the Cloud Catcher, we hoped, as we scrambled the car since we had no idea where we'd be able to view from. The answer was, further up Nobby's Creek Road. The locals told us you should aim to reach the summit of Mt Warning by 7am to increase the chance of good visibility, which, of course, means starting your climb in the dark. Yet another reason to leave it be.

The sun continued to shine and the mountaintop remained visible as we headed into M-bah for an excellent cooked breakfast at Sugar Beat Bakehouse and Cafe.

Then, we were away back into Queensland along the picturesque Murwillumbah-Nerang road that wends its way through the oh-so-pretty Upper Tweed Valley to what I can only describe as a spectacular border crossing (below but one), and then down into the equally lovely Numinbah Valley.


This is the northern edge of a very good example of a shield volcano caldera and one surrounded by World-Heritage-listed subtropical rainforest. A caldera is a large basin created by the collapse or erosion of a volcanic cone. The Tweed Shield Volcano was formed more than 20 million years ago by successive lava flows. The volcano attracted high coastal rainfall that fed fast-flowing radiating streams that cut gorges and valleys, eroded basalt flows into fertile soils, while more resistant rocks formed stubborn escarpments (as at Springbrook). Many ancient Gondwanan† plant species thrived here. But, as in many regions of this continent, from the early 1800s, loggers rampaged through the forest and the Land Clearance Act (1861) opened up the valleys to settlers and farmers. Efforts are being made these days, however, to encourage revegetation and natural regrowth.

As is my wont as holidays draw to a close, I had plans to delay our return to Brisbane for as long as possible. The first means of doing this was a visit to Natural Bridge, which I had been prevented from seeing last spring by Steven Spielberg (see The Visit, November 2010). This rock arch was formed when a waterfall in Cave Creek undercut a layer of relatively soft rock, forming a cave behind the waterfall. In the meantime, the creek was gouging a pothole above the cave. This eventually broke through the ceiling of the cave, so that the creek now waterfalled into the cave instead, leaving an arch in front of it.




There is a very good walkway around this part of Springbrook National Park so you can see the phenomenon from all angles. You can get right into the cave – and see the Little Bent-wing Bats that roost there. It is also home to a colony of glow worms, which are not in evidence during the day. Neither did we hear or see any of the birdlife that is supposed to hang out around here – Wompoo Fruit-Doves, Green Catbirds or Paradise Riflebirds. But there were a lot of visitors to this popular spot.

Our last detour took us on a long and winding climb up Pine Creek Road, or alternatively Gold Coast-Springbrook Road, on to the Springbrook Plateau. Both Lyre-Bird Ridge Road and Springbrook Road run along the top: there are several lookouts – and the Purlingbrook Falls are worth a gander – but the Best Of All Lookout is, simply, the best, so go there. It's right at the end of Repeater Station Road. There's a couple-of-hundred-metre walk from the car park through forest that includes a remarkable Arctic Beech specimen, but the extraordinary thing is this...



And there's that mountain again, at the centre of things. There really was no following this, so we descended Springbrook Plateau to Mudgeeraba and hit the Pacific Motorway for home.


** source: www.bigvolcano.com.au

† Gondwana was one of two supercontinents that formed between 500 million and 200 million years ago from the earth's original supercontinent, Pangaea. Gondwana included most of the landmasses in today's southern hemisphere

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