Adventure Touring in the New England High Country
NSW’s New England High Country region may just be the paradise for adventure tourers.
Photos: Matt Williams Photography, Phil Suriano
With some of us fortunate enough to be either coming out of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, or avoiding them entirely (Hello, Queensland!), now’s the time to enjoy newfound freedoms and clear the head with a nice long ride. For riders in NSW, now’s also the ideal time for riding in the New England High Country region, as we’ve left the worst of winter behind us and are yet to experience another hot summer – that sweet spot of near-perfect riding conditions.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to ride the New England High Country (NEHC) as a guest of the Armidale Regional Council for their ‘My Favourite Corner’ campaign that encourages motorcyclists to explore and enjoy the region while also supporting local businesses. It was a ride I thoroughly enjoyed and one that made me determined to return when schedules permitted.
Of course, COVID knocked most people’s schedules into a cocked hat, so my planned return to the NEHC was only completed recently.
Between last year and this year, I’ve put a fair few miles on my BMW R1200 GSA, so for this ride, I was looking to avoid the tarmac and spend more time on dirt and gravel roads. With my trusty NEHC Motorcycle Touring map from HEMA Maps (produced exclusively for motorcyclists and created in conjunction with BMW Motorrad Australia), my mate Doug (on a BMW R1250 GSA) and I departed Sydney on a four-day adventure looking for new roads and new challenges.
Days of Heaven
I’m sure I’m already preaching to the converted with some of you, but if you’re not familiar with the New England High Country, in the north-central part of New South Wales, it’s heaven on earth for motorcyclists.
Roads like Thunderbolt’s Way, Old Glen Innes Road and Waterfall Way are justly famous amongst motorcyclists. And, as good as the roads are, the scenery is equally spectacular.
When I did my trip last year, the NEHC was suffering under years of intense drought. On returning to the great riding roads around Walcha, Glen Innes, Grafton and Armidale this time, I was pleased to see a lot more ‘green’, but the region could still do with a drink.
For the first leg of our journey, we rode north up the coast, heading inland after Newcastle, but staying on tarmac, to arrive at Gloucester for our first overnight stay. A little over three hours north of Sydney, this charming little country town sits in a valley bordered by the ‘Bucketts’ mountains that form the eastern edge of the Barrington Tops National Park.
From Gloucester, there’s a dirt road heading west across Barrington Tops that takes you to Scone, and while that was tempting, our route was north.
Refreshed, refuelled and fed, we remounted for day two and headed north-west on Thunderbolt’s Way to Walcha. I already knew about this great riding road, but it was a new experience for my BMW R1250 GSA-mounted mate Doug.
With its elevation changes, gentle bends and minimal traffic, Thunderbolt’s Way is a great road to ride at any time. And being fully sealed, it’s a nice introduction for touring beginners, too.
As good as Thunderbolt’s Way is, we had some more challenging roads in mind, so after a leisurely two-hour cruise to Walcha, we consulted the trusty HEMA NEHC Motorcycle Touring map for the next leg to Armidale.
From Walcha, we headed east before turning north, travelling on unsealed roads to Uralla, which appropriately is the home of Ural Australia. We could have taken the New England Highway to Armidale, but headed east again, on a dog leg route through Gostwyck and Dangarsleigh that’s known as ‘Tourist Drive 19’ on the HEMA map and has a decent stretch of unsealed roads.
Taking both the gravel road options on the route to Armidale added around 40km to the journey, but they were great sections and a good test of Doug’s growing abilities with gravel road riding. Great scenery, too.
Just for Riders
After Armidale, we sought more dirt and found it on the HEMA map in a route that ran roughly parallel to the New England Highway, heading north to Glen Innes. The dirt roads here were virtually deserted, with beef cattle farmland either side and the hills and escarpments of the Guy Fawkes River National Park further to the east.
Drive this route, or ride it on a tarmac tourer or sports bike, and you’d probably hate it. But my BMW R1200 GSA was made for terrain like this and ate it up. Obviously, the same goes for Doug’s R1250 GSA – the newer version of what I was riding.
Recent rain in the area meant the roads weren’t dustbowls, which added to the experience for both of us. This dirt-only detour added approximately another hour to the run from Armidale to Glen Innes, but if you want a relaxing dirt ride that’ll blow out the cobwebs, it’s extra time well spent. I highly recommend it.
Like most towns in the NEHC, Glen Innes has bags of charm, as well as local attractions and lots of accommodation options. We stayed at the Great Central Hotel, currently run by Tommy and Julie Hills, but with a history dating back to the 1870s. This award-winning hotel has 13 rooms, a great pub and great food, but most importantly for us, it had secure undercover storage for bikes.
Starting day three heading east out of Glen Innes on the Gwydir Highway towards Grafton, we detoured onto the Old Glen Innes Road. Many riders will have heard of this historic road that cuts through national parks and more cattle country – it’s the stretch we were looking forward to the most on this trip.
Dirt for almost its entire length, it’s hard to believe that this narrow and tricky one-lane track was the only road link between New England towns and the NSW coast for close to a century from the 1840s.
The HEMA NEHC Motorcycle Touring map recommends the Old Glen Innes Road as one of the great routes of the region – and it wasn’t wrong. The conditions were ideal and the road itself was in good order (for adventure tourers), making it ideal for newcomers like Doug. That being said, I enjoyed it and found it challenging in some sections, too.
Some great sights along the way included Tommy’s Rock lookout, the “convict tunnel” and the ghost town of Dalmorton that’s slowly being reclaimed by nature. There are a couple of camping sites along the Old Glen Innes Road, too (which the map identifies, along with petrol stations, caravan parks, picnic spots and scenic points), so options are there to relax and extend the ride.
The Old Glen Innes Road takes you to the outskirts of Grafton before rejoining the Gwydir Highway. From there, it’s an easy run on tarmac into the town.
If you’re heading to Grafton in late spring, you’ll likely witness a sea of purple as the town’s Jacaranda trees are in bloom. The Jacaranda Festival is held annually at the end of October to celebrate this unique element of the town.
After a lunch stop at Grafton, Doug and I parted ways as he was bound for Noosa, aiming to get into Queensland before they closed the borders. I headed south, but stuck to the hinterland on a route that took me to Hernani. It was a town and a route I was unfamiliar with, but the HEMA map highlighted it and it looked like a relaxing tarmac stretch of around 90 minutes after our dirt escapades.
Passing through little Clarence Valley townships like Coutts Crossing and Dundarrabin, there was only the larger town of Nymboida to break up a stretch of road that can be handled at a decent pace for most of its 100km length.
Less than 10km south of Hernani, I reached Waterfall Way, which is another of the NEHC’s recommended riding roads. I was only riding a section of it, but ride its entire length (like I did last year) and you’ll encounter some of the most stunning scenery in all of New South Wales.
The spectacular Wollomombi Falls were about 55km from the turnoff south of Hernani, with Ebor Falls nearer at 15km away, but these were both to the west and my journey was taking me east on Waterfall Way, toward Dorrigo and Bellingen on the Northern Tablelands, then on to Urunga on the coast for a final run down the Pacific Highway back to Sydney.
I wasn’t looking for waterfalls, but if I was, I could have stopped in Dorrigo to check out the Dangar Falls that are just north of the town.
The rainforest around the Dorrigo National Park was incredibly peaceful, which may sound weird when you’re cranking a big BMW boxer twin through the bends, but there was a definite vibe of relaxation in this area. I suppose it’s the dramatic change of scenery – from bush to rainforest – that grabs your attention.
Riding mates have enthused about this part of the NEHC, with one pointing out the stretch from Dorrigo to Coramba – Eastern Dorrigo Way – as his favourite. Looking on the HEMA map, that road looked particularly tasty to me, so it’s been marked on the ‘to do’ list for a future trip!
Heading out of the hinterland and into Urunga on the Coffs Coast, I journeyed down to Port Macquarie for my final overnight stop.
Starting day four, it’s fair to say I was a little crestfallen, not just for the fact that the ride was coming to an end but also for leaving the New England High Country.
It was only four days, but it’s a trip I could have happily extended into a week-long exploration of the region – maybe even longer.
That’ll have to wait for another time, but in anticipation, I’ve already marked a few shorter routes on the HEMA NEHC map that I plan to tackle on overnighters.
My next ride in the New England High Country can’t come quick enough.
Riding in NSW under COVID-19
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, health advice and travel restrictions are changing regularly, but at time of writing, recreational riding within NSW – like Doug and I did – was still OK.
Cross-border travel from Victoria has been subject to strict rules since July. Travel from Queensland into NSW is unrestricted, but travellers coming from a ‘COVID-19 hotspot’ in NSW will be turned back at the QLD border. SA and the NT have compulsory 14-day self-quarantine rules in place for interstate arrivals, with penalties for breaking isolation periods and providing false information.
Riders travelling within NSW must still follow health advice concerning social distancing, hand hygiene and limits on public gatherings. And, of course, if you’re showing any symptoms of COVID-19, get yourself tested and self-isolate until you get the results. For the latest COVID-19 rules in NSW, go to: nsw.gov.au/covid-19
About the HEHC and My Favourite Corner
The New England High Country (NEHC) comprises six regional councils and encompasses the towns of Walcha, Uralla, Armidale (the region’s capital), Glen Innes, Inverell and Tenterfield. All have their attractions and merits, as the NEHC is a stunning part of NSW, especially in autumn and spring.
While all these towns welcome tourists, the lack of a motorcycle-friendly initiative was the ‘eureka moment’ the NEHC hit upon as a way to boost visitor numbers.
To promote the virtues of the region to motorcyclists, the ‘My Favourite Corner’ campaign was launched in 2016, supported by a dedicated website –myfavouritecorner.com.au . Boosted by media exposure, the campaign grew legs when BMW and HEMA Maps came on board, the latter launching their ‘New England High Country NSW – Motorcycle Touring Map’ in 2018.
The map features the Top 8 Rides in the NEHC, with full terrain and road maps, as well as essential info on fuel availability and camping facilities for each ride. Less familiar routes and dirt bike trails are identified, too, which has been a popular feature.
Based on my recent experience, there are plenty of dirt tracks to explore in the NEHC, and if recreational registration for NSW goes ahead, it’ll make it possible to ride trails in the region’s National Parks.
My Favourite Corner isn’t just about roads, either. It also covers coffee shops and places to eat, accommodation, pubs, distilleries, boutiques and other attractions – much more than just riding information.
HEMA’s ‘New England High Country NSW – Motorcycle Touring Map’ that I used to plan this journey is available to purchase from the myfavouritecorner.com.au website.