The cold was a distant memory. Why? Because I was sailing off a steeply angled erosion jump on a full-sized adventure bike, with another three jumps in view, and what turned out to be around 40 more further up the hill. I was flanked by my riding mates and the hill was steep enough so that using second gear meant we could yell out to each other in jest – “Passing inside!” – “Make room!” – “Watchiiitt!” – and occasionally we could panic.
Just ahead of me was chief navigator Martyn Blake. He had actually never been on this piece of dirt delight but it was rapidly engraving itself into his memory banks. His BMW F700GS was loaded to the hilt with luggage but, with knobbies on, it was tractoring uphill with purpose.
On my right flank was Josh Evans, his F800GS loving the tight turns and demands on line choice. Was it a race? Not quite, but it was getting there when Marty peeled off for some photos to log this road into his records.
The 1200’s sheer grunt made up for its weight disadvantage to Josh’s nimble 800 – as long as I got the thing straight before rolling the throttle on hard. Forgetting that technique led to me taking a soil sample.
Rounding a left-hander in the lead, I heard Josh get on the throttle on the outside line. It was boding well for him to execute a ‘passed you on the outside’ manoeuvre, something I didn’t feel like hearing all about for the next two days, so I got on the throttle too. I shouldn’t have.
Next thing I knew, I was kissing the BMW’s headlight, as my ham-fisted control overwhelmed the available grip and the rear-end swung around to spank my butt. Josh stayed on the outside line to avoid me, and I had picked the thing up and was sitting on it, acting all casual, by the time Marty had put his camera away and joined us.
“Just having a break,” I winked as Marty quizzically surveyed the scarred dirt around me. “Let’s get to the top!”
We were on day three of a three-day adventure ride around the superb New England High Country of NSW and we’d had the time of our lives. We were coming back into the area via Dalmorton and the Old Grafton Road, which meanders along the Boyd and Mann Rivers. With the river on the left, the cattle-infested road is bordered by a rock face – it was hard to know where to look.
Earlier, we had lunched by the Mann River, seduced into a delightful food coma by the sounds of crackling flames and the river bubbling along.
By the time we arrived at the ascent to Tommys Rock, and my ungracious parting from the GS, we already reckoned this area was made for adventure bikes. Once we arrived at the lookout itself, with its views of the Great Dividing Range, we knew it.
The lookout had one viewing area thoroughly fenced off – just below another excellent vantage point utterly free of restraints. We eventually found our way to the very tip of Tommys Rock and it was nothing short of spectacular.
It’s one of those places, magnificent to behold, that simultaneously instils mild fear as you start to explore that uniquely human experience in high places – vertigo, and the urge to leap off something high.
And who is this Tommy bloke? Tommy McPherson, an Aboriginal man, was apparently a skilled stockman not to mention a bushranger, escaped fugitive and gold digger – and a solid judge of top lookouts!
But as impressive as the lookout is, as a rider you’ll be equally excited at the prospect of returning to the Old Grafton Road via those countless erosion mound jumps.
The ride suits all kinds of adventure bikes – the big and medium-sized BMWs loved getting kays under the wheels but were also able to tackle the more challenging areas.
We spent our first night in Armidale, arriving via the magnificent Oxley Highway – one of the best bitumen roads in Australia – and awoke a little surprised to have to wipe snow from our bikes. It turned out to be the coldest week in the region for 20 years but that didn’t worry us – we had heated grips and ’screens, plus snow makes for a better adventure.
We enjoyed some seriously good breakfast fare at the Fresh@110 café on the main street – quality coffee and mushroom-and-egg rolls that were so much better than we expected – then headed for the dirt roads around Wollomombi.
Taking in the historic Walcha Road Hotel, we suddenly realised things were about to get seriously cold, so we piled back to Uralla – on the bitumen, unfortunately –and made it into the warm embrace of our ‘Top Pub’ accommodation just on dark.
Mt Hyland Nature Reserve
At 3am I got my first taste of what was to come – a glance out the window revealed serious sleet getting all cyclonic around the closest streetlight. As I watched, the sleet turned to snow and four hours later, when I looked out again, it was a winter wonderland.
With the roads in and out of Uralla closed but an itinerary to follow and time running out, Marty stepped up with his excellent local knowledge.
“I know how to get to Armidale via some dirt backroads, then under the snowline,” he volunteered. There was no more conversation after that – we just rugged up, turned the heated handgrips to full and followed Marty and aimed north to Armidale. Then we escaped the winter snow and black ice by heading east and off the heights of the Great Divide to Ebor, and at last got back on the dirt to the remarkable Vista Point, in the Mt Hyland Nature Reserve.
This place reminded me of the Victorian High Country – monster views far into the distance from what seemed to be the tallest hill around. We could also make out the scars of dirt roads among those hills, and the itch to get to them was hard to resist.
We owed Martyn and his knowledge a beer or two for getting us there – our entire trip would have been snowed in otherwise, and less memorable and enjoyable!
For those of you afraid to leave the Big City, don’t despair; I had some of the best ever craft beer, coffee and food on this trip – I can still taste the magnificent steak from the first night – and the many pubs and accommodation options mean all budgets are catered for.
As my riding mates and I separated the next day, back to our families and the rat race, we knew we had a few months’ of memories to keep us going.