We left off just south of Gilgai, one of the satellite towns surrounding Inverell, NSW. We had just spent an afternoon with Rob from New England Wood Turning and believe me, we can still smell the fresh sap, stains and resins that permeate from the shed Rob turns his magic within. Again, it is a must-visit. Rob is a charm and there is plenty of room to drive in with a full-size caravan and easily turn. No excuses travellers.
Our convoy of caravan, camper and photography car needed a rest after a few days pushing the limits of safe driving. It had been a rush to get from the northern edge of New England High Country to its geographical heart, Inverell, so when we asked the local tourism people where can we find a cabin with sunset and some open pasture, Green Valley Farm was suggested. A quick look online and I was a bit sceptical about the sunsets and serenity I hoped for the crew, the website suggested it was a theme park. Not to worry, we hadn’t been given the bum steer so we went.
One reviewer suggested Green Valley Farm has a ‘rustic charm’ I wouldn’t disagree. The park is filled with interesting vintage bits and bobs from an old plane to a series of bespoke seesaws and other playthings for the kids. Speaking of kids, we meet with a local family that was to act as our talent for the day and they had a blast. Although a bit challenging to see animals in cages, they were thrilled to feed the pigmy horses and other livestock and laughed off the initial fright as water dragons jumped from their sun perches along the banks of the ponds.
We ended our day with a game of cricket on the lawn, even if tired from the previous long days but it was rewarding to watch the kids have fun on the still and crisp dusk.
As expected from how still and clear the night was before, we woke to a brisk morning heavy with fog. It wasn’t to last as the forecast had a hot one coming with temperatures nudging 30 degrees and clear skies so we had to hurry to our next stop, Mother of Ducks Lagoon.
As the name suggests, the lagoon is a haven for birdlife, especially waterfowl. What is not clear from the name is how vast it is. It is truly massive but still, like most of the region, it has excellent ‘van friendly parking. We spent enough time there to watch the fog burn off in spectacular fashion to reveal the scale of the lagoon. If you can, do the same. It is worth the early rise, wait and with Armidale so close, you know you can get a rewarding coffee straight after.
After a brew, our first stop was the Armidale Aboriginal Cultural Centre which opens from 9 am weekdays and 10 am weekends. This is one of the rare places in our trip where you would be better off leaving the trailer at the park as the Centre has no designated RV parking. Once inside, we were met with a warm welcome from Rose Lovelock who it turns out is the Chair at the Centre. Rose was a delight, such a ray of sunshine with a passion for helping people understand the meaning and significance of the works in the Centre. We couldn’t stay all day, but we would have, as our time in Armidale was short and there is plenty to do. Luckily for us, our next stop is a hop, skip and a jump up the road.
The New England Regional Art Museum or NERAM is only a few hundred meters up the road which unfortunately means, you are best to have left the trailer at the park again but then with its proximity to the Centre, make a day of them as both have cafes and plenty of seating to relax at but know that the NERAM is closed Mondays.
NERAM is home to some of the most significant local artworks as well as some national and international works. A standout to me, being a kiwi, was a piece by C. F. Goldie. Painted in 1914, No Koora te Cigaretti stood out to me in my first passing glance of the main hall. Anyone that knows Goldie’s style will know why but there is more to look at and probably the reason I enjoyed the museum so much, it doesn’t feel pigeonholed into one style or artist, the variation is impressive and kept me interested for hours but we didn’t have all day, we had another historic wonder to view but this one on a much larger scale.
Our next stop was at the Heritage Listed Saumarez Homestead, a grand home of some 30 rooms that is steeped in history and now run by the National Trust of Australia. There is a wealth of information online about the Federation-Edwardian home and the establishment of the utterly fantastic gardens by Mary White in later years so I won’t bore you but implore you to take a look at the gardens if in Armidale or if you are planning to reaffirm your vows (or have found new-love) the full 10 hectares can be rented for wedding parties and other large functions. If you do book out the site, there is a flat paddock for RV’s but with the gate closed, turning around down the farm roads will be a challenge for anyone with a twin-axle and no reversing camera so either call ahead or again, leave the trailer at the park.
In a massive change of pace, we swapped the peace and quiet for the hustle and bustle of a modern brewery complete with neon lights and a Texan-style kitchen in Great Hops Brewing.
Welcomed by the youngsters in the group, and I as the All Blacks were due to play Australia that night and I was promised a front-row seat to the big-screen, the Brewery is set among vines on the outskirts of town. Designed from the ground up by its owner as a destination brewery, the beers are modern, good and there is a massive variety to choose from but the real star is the food which we lusted after from the moment we walked in.
It seems the locals of Armidale knew too as every tall table was full of hungry people of all ages digging into burgers, fries and chicken wings. We waited out turn while sharing anecdotes from the trip so far over beers and cheers as the mighty AB’s won again, got our fill of fantastic food and found a great night’s sleep in town at the Armidale Tourist Park.
In terms of accommodation options, like the bulk of New England High Country, there are plenty of options and within Armidale, there are many options from a well-appointed Big4 to the more simple but central council-supported Showgrounds which at $25 per night gets a bit of flak but it is a well-drained, flat and spacious area within walking distance to the towns food strip.
Waking to another beautiful round of birdsong, our next destination had a similar theme to the night before in Petersons Winery. No, none of us was looking for ‘the hair of the dog’; none of us overindulged, the trip had us worn out so it was a fairly calm and early end to the previous day. Petersons was recommended to us for the same reason most of the places we visited were, there is real history on-site, a relaxing feel and, typically, RV friendly parking. With Petersons, the parking is not really RV friendly, we squeezed in but had it been a busy weekend or pre-Covid, I suspect we would have had to calmly back down the driveway and park under the trees that line it. Again, call ahead if you have the trailer in tow.
The grounds feature a cellar door, a wedding and functions venue and boutique accommodation. We came across a flock of motorcyclists no doubt drawn to the region for its famous sweeping bends and rolling roads that were departing as we entered. I have to laugh, it was a hell of a sight seeing a bunch of men, fully clad in leather, helmets in hand or on head checking out from the opulent and classy feeling reception hall. I’m not sure what we saw would be fitting of the image Petersons portrays in its brochures but who am I to judge?
Back to nature
After what felt like days in civilization, we were due to head back to the bush with our goal, more of the waterfalls that litter the great dividing range. A drive down Waterfall Way, to the south-east of Armidale, takes you to Wollomombi Falls, another impressive set of falls. Keep an eye out for the leather-clad rockets though, we had plenty roar past us in both directions.
Parking is no real concern at Wollomombi and there is a well laid out bush-campsite in the park too. We spotted a brand new Marlin Camper, almost identical to the one we were towing, that was out on its maiden voyage. The owners loved theirs for the same simplicity in build and use we did ours. A quick lunch, shoot and we were off again, the long way round to another set of falls in Dangars Gorge and falls that feed into the falls-laden Oxley system. Like Wollomombi, Dangars has a good bush camp on-site as well as tables, toilets and plenty of parking.
After the impressive Mother of Ducks Lagoon, we thought we would try our luck a second time at Dangars Lagoon, just out of Uralla, and wow, another winner for the twitcher among us with a cracking early fog giving rise to a haven for waterfowl even if much smaller in size. Like Mother of Ducks, we hit the road shortly after sunrise to chase a coffee and some breakfast, this time in Uralla.
The main road in Uralla is a gem. It is full of quaint shops and decent eateries. We found ourselves at the aptly named Alternate Route a couple of times for lunches and breakfasts between our wandering. Standouts for us were McCrossions Mill, a gallery that features a number of works highlighting Thunderbolt and his shenanigans. As well as the artwork, there is a plethora of artefacts from the town’s early years, old vehicles, farm equipment and household items litter the buildings. Like most of the people behind the places we visited, the Mill is staffed by volunteers, again, great people all welcoming and up for a chat.
A standout and something very different in our travels so far was Sunhill Dairy Goats and yes, its a goat dairy but don’t let that put you off the products the team make are really quite interesting and people behind them have a lot of fun which shows in their enthusiasm to engage. Also, a heap of fun, especially for kids are the kids. After a while sampling the skincare products and filling up a carry bag of soap for home, we needed to unwind, so we thought we try our hand at the local gin distillery but it turns out enthusiasm is infectious in Uralla local business as the Master Distiller of Dobsons Distillery at Eastview Estate is a real character.
Stephen Dobson’s former life was in film production so he quickly struck a chord with our team when we rolled in cameras in hand and with John and me, his gin was a hit. Both of us left with bottles for home, my pick was the sweet pea gin which changes colour with the addition of tonic water or citrus, a fun party trick but it’s also very refreshing. Uralla was a busy stop for us, probably one of the spots we feel we could have done with more time at but one place we really felt we had the chance to embrace was Walcha, our final stop.
The end of our journey was on us but a star was yet to rise. Walcha, a sleepy little town nestled in the hills to the south-eastern edge of the Northern Tablelands felt very different from the northern towns. Being set in rolling hills, some of which frame the town and make it feel quite cosy and quite different from the flat lands found to the north. Geographical differences aside, the similarities with the rest of New England High Country are obvious, it’s a town steeped in exploration and pioneering history serviced by a generous and welcoming community.
We started out days in Walcha at the Pioneer Cottage, a volunteer run set of buildings that house some of the towns past. Set on the high side of Derby Street near the town centre, parking is street side but plentiful. Keep an eye on opening hours though as the site is only open weekends or for special occasions.
A short walk from the Cottage is the Apsley River which bisects the town. The community has created an open-air art that runs through the town and along the river. Pick up a guide from the local visitors centre or use your smartphone to download details and it’ll give you a few hours of enjoyment, especially when you reach the centerpiece, the metal whale that erupts from the riverbank glistening in the sun.
We stayed at the Walcha Caravan Park, which proudly promotes the motorbike touring the region is known for but also has good size sites and plenty of birdlife. As it was the last days of our tour, we took the chance to unwind, do some washing at the Park’s facilities and frequent the local pubs. A favourite of which was the Commercial Hotel. Interestingly, on day three there, we were greeted by, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, what I thought was a local bar-fly, someone that spends a great deal of time socialising and enjoying the bar’s offers, it turns out it was the publican who had up and left ‘the big smoke’ to take over the pub and start a new life. Quizzed as to whether he’d bring some ‘big-smoke’ ideas and meatilty to the joint, I was told it was perfect as it was and took some months to find and buy such was the charm Walhca and its people bought him he is desperate to preserve his little bit of the New England charm.