WHILE Oxley Wild Rivers NP is the largest of five other national parks either adjoining or adjacent to it, there are another 22 national parks and 30 nature reserves in the New England area. Travelling east across the tablelands towards the Great Dividing Range and onto its eastern slopes, annual rainfall rises from 800mm to 2000mm creating a diverse range of forest types from temperate to tropical rainforest. Around Walcha, south of Armidale, it is easy to see how the New England Tableland got its name. Deciduous trees such as elms and poplars paint the rolling green hills with vibrant splashes of yellow and gold in autumn. The area sees most of its rain over summer and autumn, but it remained in the grip of a severe drought at the time of our visit in late April.
The local service station at Walcha, Apsley Motors, is the NSW National Parks agent for permits and keys to some controlled access areas – a system that some of the other states could do well to consider. The entry permits generate additional income for the care and maintenance of sites in question, while allowing Parks to control the number of users.
The key accompanying the permit allows access via locked gates that can only be described as impressive. Heavily built, they make the gates on the seasonally closed tracks of the Victorian High Country look like they were bought on special at Bunnings.
NSW Parks’ care and maintenance of its campgrounds is second to none. The major campgrounds are regularly provided with cut firewood and the facilities regularly cleaned. How often in other parts of Australia have you seen a Park’s employee mowing the grass and tidying up, what are in some instances, very remote campgrounds with a leaf blower?
Surprisingly, with the NSW school holidays being in full swing, we had our first camp at Apsley Falls to ourselves until late in the afternoon, when three or four grey nomads pulled in for an overnight stay. Despite the excellent facilities at Apsley, including flushing toilets, untreated rain water on tap and the aforementioned free firewood, it was very disappointing to see very few campers bothered to pay the self-registration fee of $6 per head.
Care and maintenance (undertaken by NSW Parks) of major campgrounds is impeccable. You might even be lucky enough to find cut firewood already at the grounds.
The drought meant some of the park’s more spectacular waterfalls were not flowing. Apsley Falls was one of these, but the deep gorge with its precipitous walls was still an impressive sight and provided a striking testimony to the power and volume of water that flows down the Apsley River at times. There is an easy walk around part of the gorge rim, with viewing platforms providing spectacular views.
A diverse range of birdlife can be seen around the campground. Scarlet robins were the most striking, with their iridescent red plumage standing out like small beacons as they flitted through the otherwise drab green-grey bush.
The magpies proved to be a lot of fun as they picked over our campsite for crumbs and even ate from our hand (whether invited or not). The group’s alpha male, built like an avian rugby player, would perch on the edge of the table staring fixedly at the food on our plates, and on one occasion deftly removed a sandwich between hand and mouth with a flash of black and white.
Riverside campsite is a permit-only area some 20km from Apsley Falls, but getting there entails a drive back to Walcha to cross the Apsley River. A narrow but well-maintained gravel road runs through dense forest for several kilometres before reaching the locked gate after which it becomes a narrow track (rough in places) that drops very steeply to the valley floor 800m below. With steep pinches, switchbacks and few places to pass with plenty of oncoming traffic, it is easy to see why camper trailers are not permitted. Most of this slow descent was tackled with the auto in low-range first gear, allowing the engine compression rather than our brake pads to fight gravity on the steep track.
Riverside can only be described as one of the nicest campsites you could hope for. With his and hers facilities, gas barbecues, picnic tables and a large mowed grass area protected by heavy bollards, it was perfectly maintained despite its remote location. Hidden behind a line of trees just a few metres from the grassed area is a postcard-perfect stretch of the Apsley River with its inviting crystal-clear water. While a pleasant destination for a day drive, Riverside is a place that will ensure you throw a tent in the camper to enable an overnight stay on your next trip.
Youdales Hut (pictured) was restored in the 1990s, some 90 years after it was built. The lease of the land on which it stands was originally won in a lottery.
Leaving Riveside it is worth a stop at Budds Mare campground located on a high ridge near the Park entrance. The three campsites here are easily accessible with a camper, and a nearby lookout has commanding views over the rugged ranges to the east. NSW’s Surveyor General, John Oxley, stood here in 1818 during his efforts to find a path across the ranges to the coast beyond.
Taking in that same view today it is easy to see Oxley’s problem, as the deep valleys that crisscross the area largely run north south, presenting a seemingly impenetrable barrier to any easterly route. Oxley eventually crossed the Great Dividing Range at Apsley Falls before following the Hastings River to the coast at what is present-day Port Macquarie.
Another restricted access site is Youdales Hut, some 75km south-east of Apsley Falls. Half the journey is on bitumen, with the balance on good gravel forest tracks which slowly degrade the deeper you travel into the forest. Like Riverside, the final few kilometres into Youdales involved a very steep drop of about 800m down a narrow track. Youdales Hut was built in the early 1900s and restored after lying abandoned for many years. Set in a large, grassy clearing with an adjoining grassed and shady camping area, the hut backs onto a shallow river with water that is as clear as glass.
Youdales won the lease of the land here in a lottery; although, considering the remoteness and difficulty of access in a time before roads were cut into the valley, you would have to wonder if it was first prize. Youdales was certainly a man with a long-term view. To overcome the problem of termites eating his stockyard timbers, he planted gum trees as living posts – a plan that would have taken years to realise.
The road back to Apsley Falls passed Tia Falls, which had enough water flowing over its huge drop to paint a picture of how impressive it would be when in flood. As well as the deep gorge cut by the river, a nearby lookout also has even more spectacular views over the rugged, forest-clad ranges to the east. Wollomombi Falls, just east of Armidale, like nearby Dangers Falls was also dry. However, both locations, as well as still being scenic, had stories to tell.
A sign at Dangers Falls explains how large numbers of eels can sometimes be seen in the pool at the bottom of the falls. Growing to two metres, these eels breed in the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast, from where the young eels then make the arduous 1500km journey back to the headwaters of this river – in the process somehow scaling the 120m-high waterfall.
Wollomombi Falls, with a total drop of 230m, was for some time considered to be the tallest waterfall in Australia, but it has now been relegated to second or third tallest (depending on what reference material you read). The Wollomombi campground, like Apsley, was perfectly maintained if somewhat busier. The quiet afternoon was filled by the sound of campers cutting the already split eucalypt firewood into kindling. Despite being dry, the timber just wouldn’t burn unless split into small pieces, and we wondered if Parks soaks the wood in fire retardant to make it last longer.
On the topic of firewood, one of the resident grey nomads related the tale of seeing someone, ostensibly another camper, pull in with a trailer covered with a tarp only to leave a short while later. They subsequently found the campground’s wood supply had disappeared – undoubtedly in the campers’ trailer.
East of Wollomombi, on the road to Dorrigo, is the picturesque Ebor Falls, which had a good flow of water falling over two substantial drops. Fusspots, a cafe in the adjoining township of Ebor, is a great place to take a break (its hamburgers and Devonshire Tea are especially recommended). Nearby Point Lookout at 1540m is one of the highest vantage points in the New England area, with spectacular panoramic views to the east. However, this is one of the wettest areas in NSW and on anything other than a bright, cloudless day expect the lookout to be shrouded in thick fog. Our visit was no exception, with misty rain and visibility down to less than 100m.
The Guy Fawkes River plunges 100m over two sections at Ebor Falls. The lookout platforms offer incredible views of the upper and lower falls.
Judging by the lichen and mosses covering pretty much everything, a clear day at Point Lookout is probably a rarity. The one compensation in the event of a fruitless drive to Point Lookout is that the road passes a fish farm where you can buy mouth-watering smoked trout.
Oxley Wild Rivers NP is located south-east of Armidale in the New England Tableland area of NSW. Armidale is 475km (six hours) north of Sydney and a similar distance from Brisbane.
Autumn and spring have pleasant daytime temperatures and mild nights, whereas summers can be hot. On the other hand, winters are cold and wet given the Tablelands’ 1000m altitude. After a period of rainfall the numerous waterfalls are at their best.
Walcha and Armidale both provide a full range of accommodation and services. Numerous campsites with good facilities are scattered throughout the national parks in the area.
Most access roads are suitable for passenger vehicles, but some locations are closed to anything other than 4x4s. Roads and tracks in the forest can be narrow with blind corners, requiring care in respect of oncoming traffic. The area has many long climbs and descents of up to 1000m. Therefore, anyone towing a camper trailer needs to be careful to avoid brake fade.
It proved difficult to obtain detailed paper maps of the area and the NSW Parks’ maps online are less comprehensive than they could be. A 4x4 GPS is highly recommended.
NSW Parks, Walcha Phone: (02) 6777 4700
Apsley Motors, Walcha (for permits to controlled areas) Phone: (02) 6777 2755
Enjoying the views, especially at Georges Junction (above), is half the fun of touring in this region. On a clear night, the sky puts on a show.
Our final stop was Georges Junction, named because it is on the junction of the Georges Creek and the Macleay River. Access to the Junction necessitated another 800m drop off a high ridge by way of a good all-weather gravel road. Despite protecting our brakes as much as possible during the descent, the extra weight of a camper behind us resulted in a definite smell of cooking brake pads by the time we reached the bottom. Be sure to use lower gears.
Pre-trip research indicated there was an interesting 4x4-only track that followed the Macleay River south from the campground. However, access was barred by a closed gate emblazoned with a “No Entry” sign. It seems the leaseholder has had a gutful of people doing the wrong thing. With 4x4s, trail bikes and dogs chasing his cattle, broken glass and other rubbish lying around, and being regularly asked to recover bogged vehicles, who could blame him for shutting down access? Certainly not us.
While ‘ferals’ only constitute a small percentage of the camping/4x4 community, the impact of their thoughtless actions affects us all. No doubt on their next visit said ferals will be complaining bitterly about the injustice of being denied access. Will they comprehend the reasons behind the closure? I’d say the answer to that is, probably not.
From Georges Junction there is a choice of either driving out to the coast at Kempsey or taking a 4x4 dry-weather-only track over the top of the range via Kemps Pinnacle. The previous night had seen a thunderstorm that would have done Noah proud, but as the morning started bright and clear, we decided to chance the track.
Reached from the small town of Bellbrook, what started as a good gravel road quickly became a narrow, winding track with numerous blind corners. A somewhat slow yet interesting drive was made more interesting by a surprise visit from a two-metre carpet python during a lunch stop.
Camp that night was at Bushy Mountain Campsite on a high ridge in the rainforest. With a campfire burning and a red wine (or three) behind us, we relaxed after a long day before a tickling sensation suddenly alerted us that we both had several leeches dining on our legs. The joys of the rainforest! A sprinkle of salt solved the immediate problem, but we kept a close watch on the ground around us after that and agreed this was definitely not a place to throw down the swag.
Heading south, the drought-stricken plains of central NSW were a stark contrast to the rainforests and rivers we had left behind. With numerous other national parks in the New England Tableland, a return visit is on the cards when the area’s waterfalls are in full flow.