The top end of Yuraygir
After a magical 5 days in Wolli, and with the reopening of key access roads in the northern area of Yuraygir, we back-tracked up the coast to Yamba, from where we wanted to take a closer look at the northern section. Yamba is an attractive holiday resort type place, strategically and attractively located on the river mouth of the mighty Clarence where a fishing and yacht harbour imparts a quasi Mediterranean flair.
This was further enhanced by the enormous breakwater that had been constructed at the turn of the century to safeguard the up-river shipping passage. We decided to take a stroll to the end of the structure which seems much further away once you start hopping across rocks and gravel not to mention stubbing your toes. Having hung out with engineers for a great deal of my professional life, I couldn’t help pondering that the breakwater must have been a pretty curly construction project back in the day. And talking about curly: At the end of the breakwater you get a glimpse of the treacherous conditions that yachties have to deal with. On this particular day it was definitely ‘brown underpants territory’.
Not far up the road is Angourie – a very quiet seaside settlement with little noticeable tourism infrastructure (aside from the typical crop of holiday houses, a café and a surfboard shop), a lovely laid-back vibe and breathtaking natural beauty. It is fringed by a number of beautiful beaches, and has one of the best surf breaks in NSW adjacent to a dramatic, rocky beach that makes a massive granite stonescape including large lagoons which aboriginals had used as fish-traps. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are spring-fed pools flanked by jagged granite walls, mere metres from the crashing ocean. Quite a package!
We heard that the “Blue Pool” started its life as a quarry to provide the copious amounts of granite that was needed for the breakwater. Then one day the bottom of the quarry unexpectedly collapsed whereupon the sizeable hole filled up with spring water. Environmental mitigation by nature, I guess.
Having arrived midweek we practically had the place to ourselves except for the odd contingent of backpackers and scores of local lads who seemed to make a beeline to the pools where they scaled the rock walls to dive into the water from varying heights, up to a spine chilling (and often spine damaging) 20+ metres; the height of the jump possibly being proportionate to the amount of testosterone surging through the jumper’s body. In any event, we scaredy cats didn’t feel the need to boost our adrenaline, and also didn’t think it much of a spectator sport given our wilting nerves. Middle-age also breeds a sense of mortality.
Soon after we retreated, a procession of emergency personnel started arriving to attend to a young diver who hit a rock, didn’t bounce and was air-lifted with severe head injuries. Guess he’s no longer bullet proof.
Two glasses of brandy eventually calmed our nerves …
After a few bike excursions into the wilderness of Yuraygir, we made a move towards Port Macquarie via a detour – the Northern Tablelands Region of the Great Dividing Range where scenic beauty, abundance of wildlife, relative isolation, and scores of National Parks and World Heritage areas lured us.
Outdoor bonanza in the Northern Tablelands
We sure found all of that, and more. Or “less”, as far as temperatures were concerned! The first night in the high country, at Ebor (around 1500 metres elevation) my jaw dropped along with the mercury which dipped well into single digits. For some inexplicable reason we hadn’t quite anticipated that (I blame L’Oreal Excellence). Had we used the cavity beneath our hairdo, we would have pulled our warm duvet from the outside storage box. Alas, I spent the night impersonating a rollmops in the freezer department.
In any case, I was completely flabbergasted by the sub-polar temperatures at this latitude in late summer!
Having narrowly escaped losing our extremities to frostbite, all we could think of was getting back to somewhere more benign. But then we dug out our warm clothes (packed for unforeseen climatic “emergencies”), and once we defrosted, we started falling in love with what lay before us across vast swathes of untouched land, seemingly hundreds of kilometres in either direction: wild rivers, perfectly sculpted rockscapes, dramatic waterfalls, picturesque gorges, virgin forests, and more. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the area around Point Lookout, New England National Park, touched us both deeply. Particularly the ancient Antarctic Beech forest – a precious horticultural remnant of Gondwanaland – left us gobsmacked. They say this area closely resembles what this ancient continent in the late Cretaceous would have looked like. Frankly, to me it looked nothing short of magical and I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if I’d encountered a unicorn, an elf or a faun. In fact, it was a source of disappointment that none showed up!
It was difficult to pick among the many walks on offer. We loved the hiking experience and, on one particularly ambitious day, a gut busting bike ride to the top of Point Lookout followed by a hike along steep gullies and sheer vertical cliff faces with the added excitement of encountering gigantic uprooted trees in the most adventurous of places, courtesy of the recent storms. Incredibly, we never once encountered another person on our walks and barely even saw cars at the rest areas or picnic stops. We seemed to have the vastness all to ourselves, which left us feeling blessed and exposed in equal measure. (Yes, we carry first aid stuff with us.)
Best of all, we had a choice spot to camp, on the banks of the no longer swollen Styx River. Camping ‘in the sticks’ was a real treat and we also had our first few camp fires under starlit skies, which made the experience all the more memorable.
Picturesque country towns, blood suckers and a mini gold rush
Further on, we were impressed with the very attractive country and university town of Armidale which presented itself almost kitsch-perfect in autumn colours, had impeccably groomed public spaces, manicured parks and tastefully preserved heritage buildings on every corner. Seemingly the town’s inhabitants share the council’s zeal for maintenance; front gardens were preened, houses looked perfect and all picket fences were straight and flawlessly painted. It truly was just like that. In a way, we found it oddly perfect … almost a tad too polished for a university town, if you know what I mean.
Another highlight was the area in and around Uralla, a picture-postcard-perfect small country town and home of the locally (in)famous ranger and highwayman, the marvellously named “Captain Thunderbolt”. He may have been a historic figure of dubious repute, but in my books he deserves to win the ‘best name category’. Ned Kelly, eat your heart out!
Near Uralla we headed towards a known fossicking area and bush camped at a ridiculously attractive spot for a few days. We couldn’t help marvelling at the masses of tiny gold flakes that were virtually everywhere in the river and the sand; we practically wiped it off our feet, along with the sand. Clearly, we had to try our hand at extracting the gold … in weird and wonderful ways, including cotton wool buds (I kid you not – the bloke actually perfected it and put me to shame with my kitchen sieve).
We probably made the equivalent of $3.75 between us in an afternoon. When it dawned on us that we weren’t going to get fabulously rich doing this, we sought inspiration in our dwindling wine reserves and dreamed up 1001 ways of extracting the plentiful gold from the river and sands. Needless to say, none of our fanciful ideas stood the test in the sober light of day.
It goes without saying, that during our fossicking we were both utterly absorbed by this activity. After all, we were trying to pick out teeny-weeny particles of gold in perhaps the most onerous way possible, as only rookies might contemplate.
In this setting I was pleased to discover that my peripheral vision was still largely functioning and consequently saw a red-bellied black snake slither past behind me (my training as a parent obviously left me with eyes in the back of my head!). It was barely 50cm away but thankfully didn’t seem to want to make my acquaintance and headed for the water.
Mind you, by now I’m almost (I said “almost”, ok?!) more comfortable with reptiles than the gazillion blood-sucking creatures that we encounter daily – I more closely than the bloke who married his own personal “insect repeller”. Annoyingly, all of these vampires-in-training seem irresistibly drawn to relieving me of my blood reserves, regardless of what deterrent I use. Much to my disgust, I’ve even been closely connected with leeches. These yucky things really are just gross! The worst encounter happened very recently in the middle of the night: I was in bed and half-asleep when I felt something just on the inside of my lower lip (…!). In a basic reflex, my tongue examined it thoroughly without alerting my snoozing brain. Eventually my brain woke up and asked itself what this soft gummy-bear like thing was doing attached to my lip! It probably won’t surprise anybody if I say that this will not be counted among my most favourite Australian wildlife experiences.
Having enjoyed some 10 days hiking, cycling, driving and fossicking in the Northern Tablelands area we made a beeline towards Port Macquarie to refuel, restock and remind ourselves what civilisation is like, before heading back into relative isolation on Good Friday to spend Easter with friends in Comboyne, on yet another mountain.
A not-so-Good Friday
After a busy day in Port Macquarie which was probably even busier than normal given that it was the day before the long Easter break, we looked for a quiet residential neighbourhood to park up for the night.
In the middle of the night I woke up and had a feeling that somebody was interfering with our truck. I looked out the back window and didn’t see much. Then I looked again and it struck me that I really didn’t see much … not much at all … not even our bikes that should have been securely cradled in the bicycle carrier!
That same moment I saw some young bastard ride off on my bike. We immediately raced outside (one of us in a birthday suit!) only to find both bikes gone and no trace of the thieving f*&%#g scum that stole them.
Our hearts sank and we went through the range of emotions that I imagine everybody goes through in this type of scenario. As for me, I was overcome with revenge and just wanted to learn how to make a voodoo doll so that the low-life that violated our space and property experiences a painful and irreparable separation of their reproductive organs.
We filed a police report the next day and subsequently discovered that the bikes weren’t covered by our vehicle insurance (and one day the bloke might even be forgiven for this oversight).
All of that made for a rather Bad Friday and a depressing Easter amid a host of regrets including the decision to buy new good bikes for our trip. Mind you, that same night a travelling pair were robbed at gunpoint at a rest stop not very far from where we were, so I suppose things could have been decidedly worse.
To make up for this crap experience, our friends in Comboyne pulled out all stops to make us welcome. Even their various animals including a menagerie of birds seemed happy to see us and made us love them. We were the lucky recipients of extraordinary hospitality, cooked breakfasts and the best eggs ever, laid by their very happy hens. Our friends showed us their neck of the woods, walked us throughout their substantial and very attractive 50 acre property which includes a large pond and an amazing lookout (cum VIP area) with views into the mountains, the basin below, the bordering shire and national park, and the coast – possibly the best vantage point I’ve ever seen on a private property. They introduced us to half their community and took us to the monthly community wine evening.
Also, their garden offered an unexpected kiwi delight – two trees bountiful with fabulous feijoas, which we hadn’t tasted since 2010. They are in season and grow beautifully in this cooler climate. We gorged ourselves and were given enough to make some jam for our future sensory pleasure.
It was a red ribbon visitor experience, we were loved to bits and all but asked to stay.
Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer and more interesting bunch of people, including various degrees of alternative/sustainable lifestylers who chose the location as a bolthole in case (or indeed when) the shit hits the fan. We met one couple who completely built their poured clay house themselves, utterly on a shoestring budget, completely off grid, with a large productive garden, and on a very large and very remote forest block, accessible only with a very grunty 4WD.
If you’re looking for a country lifestyle, a caring community and relative isolation – the people of Comboyne have done a great job of convincing us that you won’t find better!
Want to see more pictures of Comboyne?
Click on the photo above or on this link – courtesy of our photographic friend.
Weird and wonderful sights