After the amazing thunderstorm that was all around us last night, the skies cleared and temperatures dropped right down (but that was to be expected considering we were at 1,000m above sea level).
We made a decision this morning to just head for Brisbane, rather than re-treading the East coast. I might have been more interested in stopping at the beaches along the way if the weather was better, but it was overcast, and there were storms on the horizon. We followed a fun mountain road towards Grafton – it was one of those roads where you’d struggle to find more than 200m of straight road. It was also one of those roads that I wished I was on a motorbike instead of this boat on wheels… until the rain started, and steadily increased until the looks of joy had been well and truly washed from the faces of the motorcyclists out on a Sunday ride.
Apart from the giant prawn (shrimp, for any Americans) that is now sitting at the edge of the car park of Bunnings, we didn’t really stop or look around Ballina. But, for the first time in a while, we were back on the National Highway #1 (Pacific Motorway). It was odd seeing Brisbane on distance markers, and even odder knowing that it was only a few hours away.
We were well and truly within day-tripping distance from Brisbane, which is why we’ve covered this area many times before. If it was our first time though, I think we’d certainly love the long empty beaches south of Byron Bay. We’d also love them more if we hadn’t seen the beaches in Bay of Fires, or Esperance, or Broome, beaches that raised the bar for all other beaches. Yes, even though I’m hardly a beach person, I’ve become a beach snob.
It was a hot and sticky day, so we were actually looking forward to a quick swim. But, by the time we’d made it to the beach at Ballina, it had become overcast, windy, and cool, and all motivation had been lost… We were tempted to drive through Byron Bay for old times sake, but being a Sunday afternoon, it’d be packed with day-trippers from Brisbane anyway. So, we continued along the motorway to the Gold Coast.
We had one last social visit with yet another Australian/Japanese couple (and their cool little son) down the coast before we made our way back up the familiar stretch of motorway linking the two cities. It was weird being on such a wide and busy motorway after so much time on small and quiet country roads.
After the rubbish pie we had in Dubbo, I was craving a Yatala Pie more than ever. It’s a bit of a bad habit that I generally stop in and grab a pie whenever I drive back from the coast. So, when it turned out that mum had no dinner plans and quite fancied pie herself, we popped in, bought a family size steak and mushroom (complete with a giant container of fresh mashed potato) and a large apple pie (and a jam and cream donut to eat now as it was only $2).
From Yatala Pies it was only thirty short minutes to the end of the journey. Now more than ever the reality that our time on the road had come to an end. It had been an amazing six months, filled with ups and a few downs, but every day a new adventure (apart from the days wasted on a couch in Perth). We’d driven more than 35,000km and seen much more of Australia than the average person gets the chance to. Now it was some time for some well earned rest and relaxation while we get ready for our next adventure.
To Be Continued…
Like I’d wanted yesterday, first thing we did today was head to the Warrumbungle National Park. It was a little backtrack, but nothing substantial (at least that’s what I told Risa, who wasn’t feeling super energetic today, and wasn’t all that excited about some rocky mountains). Our private campsite wasn’t blessed with the luxuries of a bathroom, so we got moving early and had breakfast in the sleepy town of Tooraweenah. I couldn’t believe just how peaceful it was here (other than the chickens/roosters/birds), but I had forgotten that it was before 8AM on a Saturday morning.
The Warrumbungle Ranges really dominate the horizon in this area, and I was loving the drive out to meet them. I was really going in to this park blind – I hadn’t read any information in Lonely Planet, nor seen anything anywhere else. I could see that there were mountains, so I knew there would be walking trails and beautiful lookouts. As we entered the park, I was surprised at how busy the campsites were – it looked like it was school holidays, except there were very few children. The next thing I noticed was how burnt the area looked – there must have been quite a bushfire that passed through here not too long ago.
It wasn’t until we arrived at demountable buildings that are being used as a temporary visitor information centre did we understand more about what was going on. Firstly, turned out there was a concert (Crooked Mountain Concert) going on that weekend, which probably explains why the place was so busy (and why it was so busy last night). Secondly, there had been a large fire that had swept through the area in January, consuming vast swathes of bushland (as well as the original visitor information centre). The concert didn’t affect us, but unfortunately, even though the fires were nearly 10 months ago, the majority of the trails in the national park are still closed…
I was given two options: A full day strenuous trek, or a 15-minute gentle walk to a lookout. Normally I’d have chosen the full day trek, but we were actually wanting to get home tomorrow (and Risa wasn’t feeling very well), so I had to be content with the wheel-chair friendly trail that led to a nice but distant vista of the ranges. This area is all that remains of a rather large volcano, with the rocky outcrops the solid inner cores. I loved their rugged beauty, and can only imagine what the view is like up closer.
A little more driving, quickly passing through Coonabarabran and Gunnedah, we were in Tamworth, which to me is famous for country music. There is a giant golden guitar and a country music museum, but I couldn’t think of anything worse, so we kept on driving…
As we were driving towards Armidale from Tamworth, we drove through a small town called Uralla. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except there was a small picture of a church that I have seen photographed before (here: http://www.australianlight.com.au/galleries/view/15/foggy_gostwyck_sunrise/ ) and I thought at the time that it was exceptionally beautiful. It took us a little bit of searching to find what that church was called, and where it was, but perseverance paid off, and we were on our way to Gostwyck Chapel, 10km east of town. Fortunately the road wasn’t busy, as it was little more than a single bitumen lane. Leading up to the tiny chapel that sits inside what is essentially a traffic island are rows of impressively large trees, making the area feel very stately. It was a pretty church, covered in vibrant green vegetation, but it was nowhere as beautiful as it looked in the photo during autumn when the leaves all turn red. After walking around the small church a few times, we ran out of ideas and continued on our way to Armidale, but instead of returning back the way we came, we continued on through beautiful farmland on the back roads.
We continued driving towards the East Coast, but we didn’t get much past Armidale before we called it a night at the surprising Ebor Falls. I say surprising because we really didn’t expect much, even though we were technically following the ‘Waterfall Way’ (If we’d done our research better, we would have seen quite a few beautiful waterfalls along the way). There wasn’t a great deal of water flowing, but the size and the column-like structure made it look stunning. The information board said this is part of a very long fault line that continues towards Tenterfield. We weren’t technically meant to camp here, but we took a chance and parked in one of the picnic areas. I like to think that we’re rather low impact, taking our rubbish with us and not causing any damage.
Out of nowhere the sky turned a vivid peach colour, which combined with the enormous clouds and smoke from the bushfires was quite a show. Once again, I was wishing that I was in a more photogenic area to really be able to really capture the beauty.
Those big clouds weren’t bluffs, as it started to get dark, we could see the feint glimmer of lightning rumbling through the clouds on the horizon. The lightning was contained within the clouds, so at the time it wasn’t very photogenic. Eventually the storm made its way to us, and now we were really in the midst of an amazing and very active storm – there was constant lightning flashing all around us, though fortunately, most of it was quite some distance away. There was lots of great forks criss-crossing the sky, but with the rain now pouring down outside, I still couldn’t photograph it (so I settled for a couple of quick photos inside the car). It’s been a long time since we really experienced storm season, and we’re starting to enjoy it – it’s the way I remember summertime evenings in South-East Queensland.
We arrived by shore of Macquarie River well after it was dark last night, so it was nice to be able to actually see it this morning. It was a slow start, chatting with fellow Delica lovers. Inevitably, we had a show and tell on the campervan setup of our vans. Theirs is the older (although his is actually newer than mine), smaller, though better off-road L300 model Delica. I was envious of how much space they had in their van, well, it was more like how little ‘stuff’ they had in theirs… I’d love to have a nice clean empty van again…
It was about two-hours drive from our campsite to Dubbo, returning along the same dirt trail we came on last night. As is usually the way, knowing how far we had to go (and being able to see) made the way back feel much quicker than the way there.
We arrived at the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo around lunchtime and it was somehow much hotter than yesterday in the Blue Mountains, but at least it was still that easy to tolerate dry heat that can be escaped in the shade. The last time I visited this zoo we walked around, so that is what I wanted to do today, too. I wouldn’t admit it to Risa, but I was more than a little happy that she refused to walk the 6km circuit (plus all the detours), because it was so damn hot. I thought that it was going to be very difficult to see the animals properly if we drove, but there were parking areas by each enclosure. The twelve year-old me remembered a giant, open zoo where the animals were free to walk around without the restrictions of fences. This was somewhat true, it is a very large and open zoo, but there are most certainly fences and other physical barriers detracting from the experience between you and the animals. I guess if you want the non-zoo experience you’d have to go on a safari in Africa.
The zoo seems to primarily feature African animals, such as the elephant, rhinoceros, zebra, hippopotamus, lion etc, but there are a few Australian, Asian and American animals thrown in, too. Sadly, we weren’t the only creatures feeling lethargic from the heat, most of the animals were at the rear of their enclosures resting in the shade, which as a fee paying tourist is a little frustrating, but as a decent human being it was understandable. It was also our own fault for missing all of the feeding sessions where the animals are coaxed close to the viewing areas in exchange for food.
Oh, and we can’t forget about the primates! They are always my favourite. There were several species, each with their own little island set up with things to play on. I was surprised that the water was enough of barrier to stop them from escaping – in places it would have only been 5m they’d have to cross to freedom.
The ticket is valid for two consecutive days, and it was tempting to stay in the area so we could come early and see the animals in a more active state. It’s certainly not the amazing zoo that I had in my head, but it was still impressive.
I was starving, and as we were on our way out of Dubbo, in a rare moment of weakness, I was suckered by fast-food advertising – this time it was with promises of ‘Australia’s Best Pie’. The list of accolades and trophies this bakery had won were impressive, so we were keen to see how it stood up to our favourite pie shop, Yatala Pies. Firstly, the pie that Risa wanted, Steak and Mushroom, had been sitting in a display cabinet for a while, so it had dried out a little and become hard. Interestingly, they offered this pie to us for free. I bought a works pie (Ned Kelly – steak, egg, bacon, cheese, onion). I don’t think the pies were rubbish, but I can’t understand how it could have won so many awards. Maybe we ordered the wrong pie, maybe it was the wrong time of the day, maybe they’ve changed ownership (and chefs). The pies were OK, but they weren’t much better than the frozen ones you buy from a supermarket and heat up yourself – the steak was mostly mince, and the pastry was bland. At least Risa’s was free… I was now extra annoyed at myself for being suckered in to the marketing, especially since it turned out to be quite difficult to get to the restaurant (due to road works).
We heard that the weather was going to change, and that there were going to be some storms coming for the weekend. It had been a hot and clear day, but as day was coming to an end, we could see dark storm clouds growing large on the horizon. I loved the wide golden plains of recently harvested fields in this area.
As we headed further from Dubbo, I could see what looked like a small lumpy range. I was transfixed on the sight, almost to the point that it was affecting my driving. As we got closer, the range got clearer and I could make out several free standing rocky pillars – I could only guess from the map that it was the Warrumbungle Ranges. Being a sucker for rocky mountains, I knew where I was headed first thing tomorrow morning!
Our friends that we camped with last night recommended a rest area by Hickeys Falls a little past Coonabarabran, so we headed there. We had two pieces of bad luck; the waterfall was nothing more than a wet stain on the side of small cliff feeding a stagnant pond, and the small rest area was full of people. So we drove a little further and camped in a clearing by the side of the road and waited for the storm to engulf us. I kept an eager eye on the radar, watching as the small but intense rain continued on its easterly path towards us. There was a little thunder and lightning, but the rain was little more than a short shower – not the epic down pour that I’d expected.