Picking up where we left off last time — just south of Gilgai, a satellite town close to Inverell, NSW — we'd just spent an afternoon with Rob from New England Wood Turning. Believe me, we can still smell the fresh sap, stains and resins that permeated from the shed within which Rob turns his magic. Again, this is a must-visit. Rob is a charm and there is plenty of room to drive in with a full-size caravan. No excuses, travellers.
Our convoy of caravan, camper, and photography car needed to rest after days of pushing the limits of safe driving. After rushing to get from the northern edge of the High Country to its geographical heart, Inverell, we consulted some locals to find a park with sunset views and open pastures. After a glance at the website for their recommendation, Green Valley Farm, I was a little sceptical about serenity — it looked to be a theme park.
Trusting that we hadn't been given a bum steer, we decided to heed the advice.
One reviewer suggested Green Valley Farm has a 'rustic charm', and I wouldn’t disagree. Filled with interesting vintage miscellany from an old plane to a series of bespoke seesaws and other playthings for the kids, we also met with a local family that acted as our talent for the day. The property has plenty of animals, and although it's a bit challenging to see them in cages, the kids were thrilled to feed the miniature horses and other livestock, laughing off the initial fright as water dragons jumped from their sun perches along the banks of the ponds.
As expected from the clear and still night prior, we woke to a brisk morning heavy with fog. The temperature was set to push 30 degrees, though, and this forecast hurried us along to our next stop — Mother of Ducks Lagoon.
As the name suggests, the lagoon is a haven for birdlife, especially waterfowl. Less implied by the name is its sheer size — it is truly massive. 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 as it's worth the early rise.
After coffee, our first stop was the Armidale Aboriginal Cultural Centre. This is one of the rare places in our trip where you'd be better off leaving the trailer at the park as the Centre has no designated RV parking.
Inside we were welcomed by Rose Lovelock, the Centre's Chair who, aside from being a delight, educates people on the significance of the works in the Centre with real passion. As entranced as we were, time was short. Our next stop was luckily nearby.
The New England Regional Art Museum, or NERAM, is only a few hundred metres up the road — meaning you are best to leave the trailer at the park. That said, a day can be made of the Centre and NERAM — both are close to cafes and plenty of areas in which you can relax. Fair warning, NERAM is closed Mondays.
Home to a slew of significant local artworks as well as some national and international works, NERAM is not pigeonholed into one artistic style. The variations are impressive, and kept me interested for hours. Being a Kiwi, the standout to me 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.
Again, it would've been easy to stay for much longer, but we had another historic wonder to view, this one on a larger scale.
Heritage-listed Saumarez Homestead, a grand mansion steeped in history, is run by the National Trust of Australia. There is a wealth of information online about the Federation-Edwardian home and the establishment of its gardens, so I won't delve into it here, but would implore you to take a look. The full 10 hectares can be rented for wedding parties and other large functions. If you do book, there is a flat paddock for RVs but, with a closed gate, turning down farm roads will be challenging for anyone with a twin-axle and no reversing camera. To avoid this perhaps leave your trailer at a park.
With the All Blacks due to play Australia that night and having been promised a front-row seat to the big screen, we swapped the serenity for the buzz of Great Hops Brewing, a modern brewery complete with neon lights and a Texan-style kitchen.
Set amongst the vines on the outskirts of town and designed from the ground up by its owner as a destination brewery, the beers are good with a massive variety to choose from. The real star is the food, though, which we lusted after from the moment we walked in. It was clear the Armidale locals knew this too — every table was full of hungry people digging in. Sharing anecdotes from the trip so far over beers and cheers, our appetite for fantastic food was soon sated. And the All Blacks won.
In terms of accommodation options, like the bulk of the High Country, there are plenty of options. Within Armidale there are plenty of choices, from a well-appointed BIG4 to the more simple but central 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 town's food strip.
Waking to more beautiful birdsong, our next destination had a similar theme to the night before in Petersons Winery. No, none of us were looking for the 'hair of the dog' — the trip had us worn out, so it was a calm end to the previous day.
Petersons was recommended to us for the same reason as elsewhere: real history, a relaxing feel and, typically, RV-friendly parking. Petersons proved an exception to this — we managed to squeeze in, but had it been a busy weekend or pre-COVID I suspect we would've had to park under trees that line the driveway. Again, call ahead if you have a trailer in tow.
The grounds of the winery feature a cellar door, a wedding and functions venue and boutique accommodation, the prettiness of which stood in stark contrast to a flock of motorcyclists that were departing as we entered.
I had 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 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
Following our time in civilisation we were due to head back to the bush with a goal — to find more of the waterfalls littering the Great Dividing Range.
A drive down Waterfall Way, south-east of Armidale, takes you to the impressive Wollomombi Falls. Keep an eye out for the leather-clad rockets — we had plenty roar past us in both directions.
Setting off again after a quick lunch and shoot, we took the long way round to another set of falls in Dangars Gorge, which feeds into the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Both Dangars and Wollomombi have good bush camps onsite as well as tables, toilets, and plenty of parking.
After all the birdsighting at the impressive Mother of Ducks Lagoon, we wanted to try our luck a second time at Dangars. It proved to be another winner for the twitcher among us, with a cracking early fog giving rise to a haven for waterfowl.
As with Mother of Ducks, we hit the road shortly after sunrise to chase a coffee and breakfast — this time in Uralla.
The main road in Uralla is a gem, full of quaint shops and decent eateries. A standout for us was McCrossin's Mill, a gallery featuring a number of works highlighting Captain Thunderbolt's shenanigans and a plethora of artefacts from the town's early years amidst the other artworks. Like most of the people behind the places we visited, the Mill is staffed by welcoming volunteers.
A standout and something different in our travels so far was Sunhill Dairy Goats. It is, as the name implies, a goat dairy, but don't let that put you off — the products the team make are quite interesting and the Sunhill team have a lot of fun. This showed in their enthusiasm to engage while the kids are preoccupied with the non-human kids.
After a while sampling products and filling up a carry bag of soap for home we needed to unwind, so thought to check out the local gin distillery.
Enthusiasm must be infectious in Uralla's local businesses, as the Master Distiller of Dobsons Distillery at Eastview Estate is a real character. Stephen Dobson’s former life in film production quickly struck a chord with our team when we rolled in with cameras in hand, while his gin struck a chord with everybody.
Uralla was a busy stop for us — probably one of the spots we feel we could have done with more time — but one place we really felt we embraced was Walcha, our final stop.
The end of our journey was upon us, but a star was yet to rise. Walcha, a sleepy town nestled in the hills to the south-eastern edge of the Northern Tablelands, felt different from the northern towns.
Set in rolling hills that frame the town, it feels quite cosy in a different way to the flat land found to the north. Its similarities with the rest of the High Country are obvious — it's rife with exploration and pioneering history, and populated by a generous and welcoming community.
We started our days in Walcha at the Pioneer Cottage, a volunteer-run set of buildings that house some of the town's past. Parking is streetside and plentiful. Keep an eye on opening hours as the site is only open weekends or for special occasions.
A short walk from the Cottage, the Apsley River bisects the town. Here the community has created an open-air art space running through the town along the river. It'll give you a few hours of enjoyment, especially when you reach the centerpiece — a metal whale glistening in the sun as it rises from the riverbank.
Opting to stay at Walcha Caravan Park, we found well-sized sites and plenty of birdlife.
As it was the last days of our tour we took the chance to unwind and head to the local pubs, of which the Commercial Hotel was a favourite. On day three we were greeted by — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — what I thought was a local barfly. He turned out to be the publican, having upped and left the 'big smoke' to start a new life. Quizzed as to whether he’d bring some 'big-smoke' ideas to the joint, I was told it took him some months to find and buy the place. He is desperate to preserve his little bit of the New England charm — the charm Walcha and its people brought him.
It took a lot to put this trip together. It happened during the peak of Victoria’s lockdown which meant a 14-day stay in quarantine for our author Tim before he could take on the 12-day journey as well as some big wrangling to arrange the Marvel caravan, Marlin camper, a pair of Isuzus, and the team. It also took a hell of a lot of support from the regions who had invited Caravan World to visit since before the 2019 fires.
A special thanks has to go to Chris and the team from Marvel Caravans on the Sunshine Coast for the loan of the Sea Breeze, to Steven from Marlin Campers for not only the use of his camper but also for his passion to see the NEHC with us; to Isuzu for the loan of the new D-Max and MU-X; to Pete Caddey and the teams behind the scenes at each of the wonderful stops our crew had the pleasure of seeing and to our humble but massively gifted camera operators and good blokes, John and Rich.
If you’re noticing the images feature fewer people than you’d expect and that some of the forests are fire-damaged it’s because the bulk of the NEHC has been savaged three-times over in the last few years. First came the drought that some thought would never end then the devastating fires that caused untold damage and tragically, loss of life, quickly followed by the pandemic.
We managed to make our way there as restrictions were lifting and found a resilient local community only looking forward to the possibility of sharing their space and time with us. None were pessimistic about the coming uptick in local touring but the northern edges of the region would rather not see the borders close ever again!