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Touring in the New England High Country

In the New England High Country region of NSW, something very special is going on.

With winter behind us, now’s the time for riding. And now’s the ideal time for riding in the New England High Country region.

I’m sure I’m already preaching to the converted with some of you, but if you’re not familiar with this area in the northern-central part of New South Wales, it’s heaven on earth for motorcyclists.

But what makes the New England High Country even better for those of us on two wheels is that a group of regional councils are running an ongoing campaign to actively encourage and welcome motorcyclists into the region.

That encouragement has taken on many forms, most recently with a touring map of the region, created exclusively for motorcyclists.

I recently spent time with Katrina George of the Armidale Regional Council, who explained how this initiative came about, what makes it special and why it’s so crucial for a region suffering under years of drought.

The Magnificent Six

All councils and governing bodies in rural districts face the same issue of how to bring revenue into the region and support their local communities. The New England High Country (NEHC) is no different, trying various initiatives over the years.

Comprising six regional councils, the NEHC encompasses the towns of Walcha, Uralla, Armidale, Glen Innes, Inverell and Tenterfield. All have their attractions and merits, as the NEHC is an aesthetically stunning area, especially in autumn and spring.

While these regional towns welcome visitors, the lack of a specific motorcycle-friendly initiative was the ‘eureka moment’ the NEHC hit upon three years ago.

“Really, there was nowhere in New South Wales that was actively targeting motorbikes,” Katrina explained. “As a regional group, we looked at our assets and one of the strongest assets we had were the most amazing roads.”

Even if you know the region only vaguely, you’ll probably know great riding roads in the NEHC like the New England Highway and Thunderbolt’s Way, but there are plenty more; roads that are mainly the preserve of locals but would have motorcyclists salivating if they knew about them.

But just how good are the NEHC roads? I’ll let Katrina explain with an example that really says it all… “We had a gentleman from overseas, who’d hired a bike and spent his time just crossing every road in the region to the coast. He did them all – he was crossing the range over and over and over again, just to keep experiencing our roads!”

My Favourite Corner

Three years ago, the NEHC motorcycle-friendly initiative launched a website extolling the virtues of the region and enrolling media partners to ride the NEHC and share those experiences with their audience.

“A website called ‘My Favourite Corner’ (www.myfavouritecorner.com.au) was the start of it,” Katrina explained. “BMW came up and created beautiful videos and imagery of all three types of motorbike scenarios in the region – dirt bikes, road bikes and big cruisers.”

The point about dirt bikes is worth expanding on, as while the tarmac roads in the NEHC are sensational, there’s just as much to interest adventure tourers and trail bike riders, with plenty of dirt tracks to explore.

If the mooted introduction of recreational registration for NSW goes ahead, it’ll make it even easier to ride the trails of the region’s National Parks.

It’s also worth noting that My Favourite Corner isn’t just about roads. It also refers to coffee shops and places to eat, pubs, distilleries, boutiques, places to stay and other attractions – your “favourite corner” of the NEHC region – so there’s much more on the website than just riding information.

Expand and Explore

With the website set up, supported by BMW and media partners, the My Favourite Corner campaign went up a gear as more riders found out about the region.  

“We were doing famils (motorcycle familiarisation rides), we were doing monthly competitions on My Favourite Corner and then the launch of the Hema map, which was wonderful.”

That map, ‘New England High Country NSW – Motorcycle Touring Map’, was created by HEMA in collaboration with BMW Motorrrad. The map is available to purchase from the myfavouritecorner.com.au website.

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. Dirt bike trails are identified, too, which has been a popular addition.

“That’s one of the main reasons why we put this map together,” Katrina explained. “The big roads are easy to find. But we got involved with motorcycle groups and asked where their favourite rides were – the little hidden ones! – and all of those are on the map, too.”

Launched on the steps of Parliament House in Sydney last year, with the state tourism minister and other guests in attendance, the new Motorcycle Touring Map was put to the test with another BMW famil ride that departed Sydney for several days in the NEHC. I was involved in this and got to experience the region, the attractions and people first hand.

Meeting the mayors of each town we stopped at, I can attest to Katrina’s statement that the region is just busting to welcome motorcyclists, whether individually, in groups, or clubs on tour.

Motorcycling events are encouraged in the NEHC, too, as evidenced by the first ever Freak Show Festival of Motorcycles and National HOG Rally, which will be held in Walcha this November (see separate article in this issue).

“That’s going to be a really big one,” Katrina enthused. “Accommodation’s quite heavily booked, even through to Armidale. Moteliers have gotten together and they’re putting on buses to take people to Walcha, so they’re getting involved.”

Other examples of this support include motels adding bike washing stations and even simple, little things like using stronger coathooks and sturdier hangers to hold heavy motorcycle jackets.

Success on Two Wheels

The My Favourite Corner campaign has been paying off since its launch, with noticeably more motorcycles in the region, but the NEHC will welcome more with open arms, especially as the drought continues to bite.

“Everyone talks about how many motorcycles we now see coming into our area. The motels are talking about how many motorcyclists they’ve got staying and even the councillors say ‘this is a great campaign’.

“Whether they’re just coming up on a day trip from the coast, or they’re here for two or three days, what motorcyclists bring to the area is fabulous,” Katrina said. “Whatever town they go to, they’re going to have a coffee, they’re going to stay a night, they’re going to spend money. So to have visitors coming in is invaluable.”

This time of year – spring – is the ideal time to explore the region. I did my ride in late spring and the weather was near-perfect. Summer’s great, too, as Katrina explained: “Because we don’t have the heat and humidity that you get on the coast, it’s a lovely place to ride in summer.”

As well as the great riding roads, great country pubs, cafes and eateries, there’s some great scenery between towns, including waterfalls, national parks and gorge country. There are a lot of historical attractions, too, and modern attractions like microbreweries and boutique distilleries that are opening up in the region.

In my exploration of the New England High Country, I only scratched the surface, but what I saw and experienced convinced me to go back. Take a ride out there yourself and I think you’ll agree.

8 Best Motorcycle Trips in New England

Exploring the picturesque New England High Country is a task best achieved on two wheels. Here are the eight best rides in the region, their basic route and what makes them special.

  1. Thunderbolt’s Way

Entering New England from the south at Walcha, Thunderbolt’s Way tops this list for its wide-open vistas of rolling farmland and its tight bends across the Great Dividing Range. It passes from the Mid-North Coast hinterland at Gloucester through the delightful towns of Walcha and Uralla before continuing on to Inverell.

  1. Waterfall Way

There is no euphemism in the name of this road: travel on it and you will see waterfalls… Many waterfalls. You’ll also cross the Great Dividing Range from Coffs Harbour to Armidale; a mountain pass with thrilling hairpin bends and long, steep hills. Stop at the many lookouts to enjoy incredible views over the gorges to the coastal flats beyond.

  1. Gwydir Highway

Stretching from Grafton on the coast to Glen Innes, followed by Inverell in New England, the Gwydir Highway crosses the Great Dividing Range and offers tight bends and long climbs. Highlights include Washpool National Park and Raspberry Lookout, which has extensive views across the gorge country.

  1. Old Glen Innes Road

For those with a taste for gravel, the Old Glen Innes Road is an unsealed alternative to the Gwydir Highway. Turn off the main drag just west of Grafton and follow the Boyd River through picturesque cattle country. You’ll pass a ghost town, a convict-carved tunnel through a cliff and the old hideout of an infamous bushranger.

  1. Oxley Highway

Yet another windy, mountainous route into New England from the coast, the Oxley Highway starts in Port Macquarie, runs through to Walcha and on to Tamworth. It’s a fairly quiet stretch of road that tightens as it dips in and out of gullies before climbing steadily across the Divide through tall timber forests.

  1. Bruxner Highway

A more obscure route from the coast to New England, the Bruxner Highway runs from the Northern Rivers region to Tenterfield, close to the Queensland border. The best part is the 130km between Casino and Tenterfield where the road crosses the mountains.

  1. Tourist Drive 19

A peaceful country meander that is light on adrenalin but high on New England charm, Tourist Drive 19 is an easy day trip between Armidale and Uralla. It takes in the breathtaking Dangars Gorge, Petersons Winery, the historic Deargee Woolshed and the picture-perfect Gostwyck Chapel.

  1. Mount Mackenzie Drive

A shorty but a goodie! The Mount Mackenzie Drive leads you from Tenterfield up the mountain that presides over the town to the west. The drive is a loop that takes in rocky farmland dotted with iconic granite boulders. At the top you’ll enjoy incredible views over the town, across the Queensland border and to the Great Dividing Range beyond.

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Phil Suriano

Phil Suriano