From mountain biking to horse riding, there are plenty of adrenaline-pumping ways to explore New England’s stunning national parks.
WORDS Emma Ryan
Where the fertile high country of the New England Tableland drops away to the coastal flats of the Northern Rivers there exists a paradise for nature lovers and adrenalin junkies alike. Forged from ancient volcanic activity, this slice of the Great Dividing Range offers rugged gorges, vertigo-inspiring waterfalls, World Heritage-protected subtropical rainforest and perennial rivers loaded with fresh water trout. It’s a Gondwana-era paradise whose cool climate gullies are lined with ancient and moss-covered Antarctic beech trees and whose towering escarpments afford breathtaking views across the verdant valleys to the coastal flats far below.
Needless to say, this natural wonderland is a veritable Mecca for those with a penchant for outdoor adventure. Whether your vice is dirt biking, heli-fishing, trekking, four-wheel driving or rock climbing, the revered wilderness of New England’s numerous national parks is calling your name.
Let’s take a look at three of the largest and most exciting national parks, New England, Oxley Wild Rivers and Guy Fawkes.
The region’s namesake national park is also one of her most spectacular and is perfect for people who love hiking. Located 85km east of Armidale via the Waterfall Way, it’s defined by its ancient volcano-formed escarpments that fold away towards the coast. In those deep, shady gullies you’ll discover moist subtropical rainforest that comprise part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Site. Simply put, trekking through New England National Park is like stepping back in time.
The short walk into Weeping Rock, for example, takes you through a verdant mossy paradise with giant, ancient trees and towering ferns that look like something from a Jurassic-era fairytale. Weeping Rock itself is a sheer cliff with water cascading gently and permanently down its moss-covered façade from natural springs high above. In winter, it drips in icicles and is a photographer’s dream amidst the foggy winter wonderland.
The view from Point Lookout is one of the best in the state, which is unsurprising given it’s the highest point north of the Snowy Mountains. On a clear day you can see across the swathes of pristine wilderness all the way to the Pacific Ocean, some 60km away. Pack yourself a powerful set on binoculars and you might even be able to check the surf.
The extensive range of altitude and terrain in New England National Park means a diverse experience for visitors. You can be perched high amongst the snow gums one minute, scaling a rainforest-clad ravine the next and eventually find yourself in the park’s swampy lowlands looking up at all that wilderness.
There are plenty of great treks on offer in New England National Park, from the 2km Eagle’s Nest walking track with its breathtaking views across the gorges to the challenging, three-day New England Wilderness Walk that takes you from the New England Tablelands down to the headwaters of the Bellinger River, a stunning 1000m drop in altitude that isn’t for the faint-hearted.
The largest national park in New England High Country, Oxley Wild Rivers covers an expansive area south east of Armidale and offers plenty for the adventure lover including fishing, horse riding, four-wheel driving, kayaking and hiking.
This is a park that well and truly lives up to its name. There are more than 14 waterfalls that drop into spectacular gorge country and rivers far below. Apsley, Dangars and Wollomombi Falls are not to be missed – the latter falls more than 220m and is the highest waterfall in NSW. The easy Aspley Gorge Rim loop walk offers spectacular views across the dry rainforest country that has earned this park its World Heritage listing.
When it comes to multi-day hikes, you simply cannot go past the Green Gully Track. One of the most acclaimed walks in the country, it’s a five night loop from the top of the escarpment to the valley floor and back again. You’ll make a steep descent through cool climate rainforest and towering gum trees, trek quite literally through a creek for most of an entire day and eventually climb 900m back to the starting point. These obstacles and challenges make this walk a true accomplishment for the experienced hiker. Stunning natural beauty aside, the most unique thing about the Green Gully Track is that you needn’t carry a tent; accommodation is in a series of restored cattlemen’s huts complete with fireplaces, basic kitchens and drinking water. Accommodating up to six, this classic New England adventure is perfect for groups of friends with a taste for the wilder things in life.
Oxley Wild Rivers also offers plenty of opportunities for four-wheel driving, kayaking, camping, canyoning and rock climbing. Just a stone’s throw from Armidale you’ll find the picturesque Gara Gorge where you can fall into step on the Threlfall walking track that closely follows the route of Australia’s first public hydro-electric scheme, dating from 1894. It’ll take you via the Blue Hole picnic area, which is popular with locals for swimming in summer.
Or perhaps you prefer travelling by horse – we can’t say we blame you. This rugged landscape is as much Banjo Patterson country as the Snowy Mountains – indeed he proposed to his soon-to-be wife Alice Walker at Boonoo Boonoo Falls near Tenterfield further north. The Bicentennial National Trail passes through Oxley Wild Rivers and is a popular choice for horse riders, mountain bikers and hikers alike.
Powerful volcanic forces have shaped another of the region’s prominent parks – Guy Fawkes River National Park, halfway between Armidale and Dorrigo. Here you’ll find magnificent old-growth blue gum and tallowwood forests and crystal clear flowing rivers perfect for swimming. There are also fantastic four-wheel driving opportunities, some wonderful walks, excellent riverside camping and even a ghost town to discover!
The region is a unique ecosystem that is now protected thanks to action taken in the early 1990s. Threatened with logging, protesters highlighted that the area was home to the highest density of tree-living mammals in Australia; from greater gliders to ring-tailed possums and a number of forest owl species. Thankfully, the Land and Environment Court agreed and moved to protect this “veritable forest-dependent zoo, probably unparalleled in south-eastern Australia”. If that testament isn’t a reason to pack your hiking boots, your bird watching binoculars and your fly fishing rods, nothing is!
Don’t miss Ebor Falls Lookout at the head of Guy Fawkes River Gorge, where the river plummets off the tablelands. You can walk into the gorge and follow it a short distance upriver, tackle the three-day walk to the north, or, for more experienced bushwalkers, traverse a section of the Bicentennial National Trail between the pastoral properties of Marengo and Broadmeadows.
For those who prefer to travel by four wheels, the Old Glen Innes Road links Glen Innes with Grafton to the east and is a stunning drive through lush green hilly terrain alongside a network of cool flowing creeks and rivers that will beckon your name for a swim in the warmer months. Their gentle rapids make this region a perfect place to explore by kayak, and there are lots of scenic riverside camping areas to facilitate multi-day paddling trips.
This route is also suitable for cyclists, hikers and horse riders, and takes in the impressive Convict Tunnel where the old stock route track road passes through a cliff as well as the fascinating ruins of Dalmorton, a ghost town that serviced the bustling population of several thousand during gold rush days in the late 1800s.
This is bushranger country, and an off-road jaunt off the main track will take you to Captain Thunderbolt’s lookout where he’d spy wealthy travellers’ coaches trundling along the Cobb and Co Coach route. A quick dash down the ravine on horseback and he’d have snagged their bounty before they knew what had happened. Truly wild west country, this remote ancient region is loaded with history both natural and social and has much to offer adventure seeking travellers.