Driving in the High Country
Let’s take a leisurely scenic drive through the endless attractions of NSW’s New England High Country
With things starting to open up, it’s time to decide where to head first. If you’re looking for a place that has everything from national parks, historic sites and towns, culture and arts, to places to wine and dine and scenic drives, the New England High Country is the place to go.
Located in north-east New South Wales, the New England High Country is extremely easy to get to, with lots to see and do. Numerous roads, including a series of beautiful tourist drives, allow travellers to get in and around the area. Together with a brimming list of must-sees, everything is there for a road trip to remember.
NEW ENGLAND HIGHWAY
The major artery of the New England High Country is the eponymous New England Highway. Stretching 878km from Hexham at Newcastle, the New England Highway ends at Yarraman in Queensland after working its way through some seriously picturesque countryside.
Connecting Uralla, Armidale, Glen Innes and Tenterfield, along with numerous other towns in NSW and Qld, the New England Highway intersects with the Gwydir Highway, Waterfall Way and Oxley Highway to make any part of this area accessible.
Another key road is Thunderbolts Way. This 290km road starts in Gloucester, then heads north to Walcha where it crosses the Oxley Highway. Heading to Uralla, Thunderbolts Way crosses the New England Highway, and continues north, passing through Bundarra before ending at Copes Creek, just outside Inverell.
Named after the notorious bushranger Frederick Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt, Thunderbolts Way rises up to 1,2000m above sea level and meanders through farmland, national parks and towns full of things to see and do.
Waterfall Way is for the nature loving roadtrippers. Working its way through Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, Cathedral Rock National Park, Guy Fawkes National Park and the New England National Park, there is something for anyone who enjoys nature and the outdoors.
Starting in Coffs Harbour and finishing in Armidale, over its 185km course Waterfall Way offers drivers the chance to see some of the most amazing sights and waterfalls in Australia. These include: Ebor Falls, a two tier waterfall found in Guy Fawkes National Park; Wollomombi Falls — one of Australia’s highest waterfalls — in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park; Cathedral Rock in Cathedral Rock National Park; and Point Lookout, surrounded by Gondwana rainforest.
The Gwydir Highway intersects Waterfall Way, and like Waterfall Way encompasses many national parks and nature reserves but takes you through an entirely different part of the high country. Linking Inverell and Glen Innes, the highway also heads through Grafton for NSW’s north coast.
Crossing the Great Dividing Range, the Gwydir Highway includes tight bends and long climbs (which are RV friendly) along with a load of stop-offs in scenic country towns, as well as Washpool National Park and Raspberry Lookout, with a fabulous view across the surrounding gorge country.
The Bruxner Highway winds its way up the Great Dividing Range, starting in the NSW Northern Rivers region at Ballina and heading west through Lismore, Casino, Mummulgum, and Tenterfield, to name a few places, before finishing near Goondiwindi.
Climbing over 800m, the route heads through open farmland, rolling hills, quaint villages and woodland forests. Offering spectacular scenery, you’ll want to slow down and enjoy the drive as you cross the Clarence River and follow the Cataract River and gorge up to Tenterfield.
One of the key towns in the high country, Walcha has something for everyone. For nature lovers it is the best place to access the World Heritage listed Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. The national park is the highest tableland on the Great Dividing Range and is a go-to for daytrippers and hikers.
Destinations within the park include Apsley Falls and Tia Falls. During the Dreamtime, the Rainbow Serpent is said to have created the narrow Apsley Falls. Today various lookouts and walkways allow visitors to enjoy the sight of the Apsley River flowing into the Gorge.
Tia Falls is further east and definitely worth the travel. More open than Apsley Falls, the lookout at Tia Falls offers sweeping views of the rushing water. A multitude of bushwalks surrounding the falls are waiting to be explored.
Back in town, a highlight of Walcha is the Open Air Gallery. Over 50 works by local, national and international artists can be found lining Walcha’s streets, walkways and parks. A recent addition to this is the Sculpture Soundtrail. Through the Soundtrails App, visitors can enjoy an audio tour of the gallery and listen to some of the featured artists. There are also stories of other interesting local identities.
Uralla is a must for foodies and keen historians, who can spend hours in McCrossin’s Mill Museum or following the Heritage Walk around town, while listening to the Uralla Soundtrail. Uralla is a hotspot of distilleries, restaurants, cafés and boutique shopping. Dobson’s Distillery is renowned for their ales but have a variety of beers and spirits on offer that include international award-winning gin and whiskey.
Operating since 1865, and still owned by the same family, Greenhills Orchard offers a year-round farmgate experience for visitors. Throughout the year the orchard offers stone fruits such as cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, as well as multiple varieties of pears and several types of apples.
Other places to check out include: Top Pub, Bottom Pub, Caffe Gusto, Alternate Root, Michael’s Café and others. In Bundarra try the Pink Flamingo Café or the Commercial Hotel, and in Kentucky there is the General Store, Restaurant Pinot on the weekends, or Merilba Cellar Door on Kingstown Road.
Uralla is not short on things for families either. Little and big kids will love Harlow Park Horse Riding, while a visit to the Wooldridge Fossicking Area offers the opportunity to try your hand at something a bit different.
With a Heritage Bus Tour and the Saumarez Homestead, history buffs will love Armidale.
In town, Armidale’s two-and-a-half-hour Heritage Bus Tour takes in historic buildings accompanied with plenty of stories from the tour guide. The tour has four places to disembark: the Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place; the New England Regional Art Museum; the Armidale Railway Museum and Station; and the University of New England and the heritage listed Booloominbah homestead, both of which are the last stops on the tour.
The Saumarez Homestead is the perfect place to revisit the 19th century. The land here was originally worked by Henry Dumaresq, before the White family bought the property in 1874 and built the two-storey, 30-bedroom mansion we see today. Take a guided tour through the house, wander Mary White’s heritage garden or visit the outbuildings that still have 19th century tools and equipment.
Armidale is also popping up on the radar for adrenaline junkies as it is fast becoming a centre for mountain biking. Thanks to the New England Mountain Bikers club, throughout the year Armidale hosts a series of mountain biking events and the surrounding trails have something for novice and experienced bikers alike.
Nature lovers, meanwhile, should head to Dangars Gorge. The starting point for many beautiful walks, the gorge is home to the spectacular 120m Dangars Falls. With steep cliffs on all sides plus the Pinnacles, the area is perfect for picnics and camping. There’s also Petersons Armidale Winery nearby for a wine tasting or to grab something to enjoy while watching the sunset over the gorge.
Glen Innes stands out thanks to a proud Celtic heritage, celebrated with the Australian Standing Stones, which were constructed to acknowledge the contribution of Celtic people to Australian culture. Glen Innes also hosts the annual Australian Celtic Festival recognising different Celtic nations each year (Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland). The four-day festival features close to 200 events.
There’s also a heritage walk through town, and museums include the Land of the Beardies History House Museum and Emmaville Mining Museum. The Land of the Beardies History House Museum has become one of Australia’s great folk museums with collections made up of locally sourced photographs, books and records. Emmaville Mining Museum is the dream of locals Mr and Mrs Jack Curnow, who bequeathed their collection to the community to start the museum, which displays over 4000 mineral and gem specimens. Out the back is Foley’s General Store, a replica blacksmith shop, an old wood-fired bakery, and a machinery shed full of old mining equipment.
Winers and diners have plenty of places to indulge. Glen Gowrie Distillery specialises in a variety of spirits, while Deepwater Brewing is a go-to for beer lovers. Sweet tooths, meanwhile, should check out the Super Strawberry. A strawberry patch and café, it sells strawberries, strawberry and cream milkshakes, jams, sauces, and local produce like olives and honey.
Also known as the Sapphire City, it’s no wonder Inverell has a variety of areas to fossick for sapphires, quartz, crystals and gemstones — Billabong Blue Sapphire and Fossicking Park and Bush Camping, Nullamanna Fossicking Area, Sapphire Fossicking Area, Staggy Creek Fossicking Area, Stannifer Fossicking Area and Wallangra Fossicking Area. Many of these places also offer the chance to camp, bushwalk and bird watch.
Other family friendly activities include a farm stay at Green Valley Farm, and cycleways. Largely offroad, the cycleway links outdoor parks, residential areas and accommodation venues while giving the opportunity to take in Inverell in a different way.
There’s plenty for those looking to get out of town and back into nature, too. Copeton Dam is a hotspot for water sports, with everything from water skiing and wake boarding to sailing, canoeing and swimming available.
Goonoowigal State Conservation Area has kilometres of walking tracks to enjoy. One of the tracks features signs that explain local Aboriginal history, and a Soundtrail, the only of its kind, delves into the Aboriginal history here and the history of what was referred to as an Aboriginal Fringe Camp.
Also known as the Birthplace of the Nation (due to Sir Henry Parkes delivering his renowned Federation Speech in the Banquet Hall at the School of Arts), Tenterfield is enveloped by national parks, scenic drives and history. It was also the birthplace of an Aussie music legend, Peter Allen.
Peter’s grandfather, George Woolnough, was the Tenterfield Saddler for over 50 years until 1960. His generosity, spirit, and place in the heart of the town were immortalised in Peter’s song, Tenterfield Saddler. Today, the saddlery houses memorabilia and leather goods and is run by volunteers who are as interested in having a chat as George was back in the day.
A visit to Tenterfield isn’t complete without experiencing Bald Rock National Park, home to the largest granite monolith in the southern hemisphere. Only 29km north of Tenterfield, Bald Rock towers 260m above the surrounding bushland at 1300m above sea level, offering climbers incredible 360-degree views. At the base, a large picnic area is perfect for a barbecue or picnic, and there are plenty of walking trails and a bush camp to enjoy.
If you’re looking to get offroad, Tourist Drive 9 is a popular route. Taking about an hour, the roads are mostly unsealed, but in good condition, and form a loop from Tenterfield up through the range overlooking the town and surrounding region. When you reach the Mt Mackenzie lookout, you can take in Tenterfield in all its glory. Equipped with a barbecue and picnic area, as well as seating and a toilet, the lookout is a great spot to gather with friends, enjoy a cuppa and take in the view.
Check out the New England High Country website to find even more to see and do: newenglandhighcountry.com.au