When it comes to celebrations, the lively mid-north coast town of Bellingen has all bases covered, writes Daniel Scott.
As a tree-changer to the mid-north coast four years ago, I still miss Sydney's diverse culture and population and sophisticated culinary scene. Our life in the country is a trade-off: we lose the culture but gain the space and tranquillity of an unspoilt natural environment.
In Bellingen, however, you can have it all. Almost midway between Sydney and Brisbane, the town has an enviable location, tucked into a valley behind the Coffs Harbour coast beneath the soaring Great Dividing Range, and a vibrant social scene. By day you can trek in the ancient Gondwana rainforest of Dorrigo National Park and by night dine at a choice of cosmopolitan eateries. You can spend a day on a deserted beach at nearby Urunga or kayak along the Bellinger River and then catch a band at the Federal Hotel.
Bellingen's natural assets began attracting people seeking alternative lifestyles in the 1970s. As further waves arrived, it developed into one of the liveliest rural towns in NSW. Now, hardly a month goes by without a music festival or an arts event, attracting top Australian and international talent. Among the best known are the Global Carnival, a celebration of world music, on September 30-October 2, and the Bellingen Jazz and Blues Festival.
On the weekend of April 8-10, the town will add to its cultural mix by launching its inaugural Readers and Writers Festival. "Bellingen is well-versed in music and performing arts events but there's always been a bit of a hole as far as literature goes," the chairman of the festival, Rod Howard, says.
Bellingen's natural surrounds and bohemian vibe have enticed writers for decades. Among those who have lived in the area are Peter Carey, Robert Gray, Colin Thompson and Jack Iggulden. Carey's association with the area stems from a spell in the 1980s living in the nearby Promised Land, in a house now owned by journalist George Negus, during which Carey wrote one novel and came up with the plot for another. The book Oscar and Lucinda, in which a prefabricated glass church is transported overland from 19th-century Sydney to Bellingen, was inspired by the fight to save a local church.
"The area is so deeply a part of who I am that it is a shock to realise the short period of time, three years - the time that it took to write Illywhacker - that I lived near Bellingen," Carey says from New York.
Carey's association with the town led him to become patron of the Readers and Writers Festival. The inaugural festival has attracted an impressive array of Australian talent, including best-selling crime author Michael Robotham, authors Debra Adelaide and Stephen Herrick and emerging voices Jon Bauer, Chris Womersley and Gregory Day.
"We're not trying to compete with the international line-up at the Byron [Bay] Writers Festival," Howard says. "The accent here will be on all aspects of Australian writing."
Organisers have worked to incorporate Bellingen's natural backdrop into the festival. "I'm interested in how we can use the wonderful environment to get the most from a literary festival," the artistic director, John Bennett, says.
During the weekend there will be opportunities to "paddle with a poet" on the Bellinger River, take a bushwalking breakfast in Dorrigo National Park and participate in a "Writing the Environment" session at the park's rainforest centre.
The region's Aboriginal heritage will also figure. At a special event on Friday afternoon at the Stone Circle, at nearby North Farm, author Auntie Bea Ballangarry will discuss Gumbaynggirr spirituality and storytelling. On Sunday morning, in the town centre's Maam Gaduying meeting place, an indigenous writer will receive the Jack Iggulden Award, in memory of the local writer and passionate conservationist, who died last year.
Known to early settlers as Boat Harbour, the town's name was changed in 1870 to Bellingen, derived from Baalijin, the Gumbaynggirr word for "quoll". For much of the 19th century its position at the tidal limit of the Bellinger River made it a centre for the cedar-felling industry.
By the early 20th century both the timber supplies and the indigenous population, stricken with disease, had been virtually wiped out. However, the town continued to thrive on the rich farming lands surrounding it. Grand buildings began springing up around the centre. These included the Federal Hotel (built in 1901), the Hammond and Wheatley Emporium (1902) and the courthouse and police station (1910).
It's these heritage buildings that give Bellingen's broad, tree-lined streets their distinctive rural character. To feel the town's pulse, though, you need to step behind the facades.
Bello, as locals know it, is knick-knack nirvana, a place where you could easily dust off the Christmas gift shopping in a range of eclectic shops. Then, exhausted from retail exploits, step into a historic pub and be uplifted by an a cappella choir. Even Bellingen's eateries are set in historic buildings. I visit two: the Mouza gallery and restaurant, inside the former Bank of NSW building, and the award-winning No.2 Oak Street, in a restored 1910 cottage.
Mouza is owned and run by Avi Shaul, who began his cooking career in a kibbutz in Israel. It features an interesting mix of Mediterranean (including a mezze-style entree platter) and Indian dishes, such as malai kofta potato and cheese balls, and the atmosphere is pleasantly laid-back.
No2 Oak Street is abuzz from the moment I arrive for an early meal to the moment I finish.
As dishes such as Bellinger River oysters with champagne granita and my main of chargrilled spatchcock with prosciutto and five-spice broth come and go, so the sociable hubbub spills on to the restaurant's verandahs.
The Bellingen markets aren't on when I'm in town. On the third Saturday of the month, they lure thousands to Bellingen to buy regional produce and listen to live music. The town's cafes, such as the Black Bear in leafy Church Street, which serves an all-day breakfast, are busy with or without the markets.
Bellingen's location on the Waterfall Way, linking the coast with New England, and its proximity to seven national parks, including three World Heritage areas, makes it a popular base for touring. However, its arts and culinary highlights make it a hard place to leave. Its regular festivals add to its appeal and the inaugural Readers and Writers Festival will be the only annual literary event between Newcastle and Byron Bay.
"We're trying to make this something for the entire mid north coast, a celebration of the region and the creativity it's inspired," Howard says.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Bellingen Shire Council and Tourism Bellinger.
Bellingen is 520 kilometres north of Sydney, just inland from the mid-north coast. It is a 30-minute drive from Coffs Harbour airport, serviced by several daily flights from Sydney on both Qantas and Virgin Blue. CountryLink trains run three times a day from Sydney to nearby Urunga and Coffs Harbour (about 8hr).
- Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival is on April 8-10. Weekend passes cost $110, Saturday $75, Sunday $55; see brwf.com.au.
- Bellingen Global Carnival, September
30-October 2; see globalcarnival.com.
- Bellingen Canoe Adventures has two-hour Bellinger River tours, which cost $25 for adults and $15 for children. Phone 6655 9955, see canoeadventures.com.au.
Bellingen Valley Lodge is an upmarket motel. Double rooms cost $110 a night. At 1381 Waterfall Way; phone 6655 1599, see bellingenvalleylodge.com.au.
Eating and drinking there
- No2 Oak Street serves dinner on Wednesday-Saturday. Entrees cost about $18, mains $42. Bookings essential; phone 6655 9000, see no2oakst.com.au.
- Federal Hotel is a refurbished 1901 pub with a restaurant and live entertainment. At 77 Hyde Street; see federalhotel.com.au.
- Mouza restaurant and gallery is open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday and dinner Wednesday-Saturday. Entrees cost about $15, mains $25. At 58-60 Hyde Street; phone 6655 0055, see mouza.com.au.
- The Black Bear Cafe is a central Bellingen cafe with shaded outdoor tables. At 7F Church Street; phone 6655 1947.
- Bellingen Markets are held on the third Saturday of the month; phone 6655 2151, see bellingenmarkets.com.au.
- For further information, phone 1800 705 735, see bellingermagic.com.