Debbie Neilson-Hunter sets off on the Rainforest Way - seven touring routes that link NSW and Queensland.
The roller-coaster of hills flanking the strip of coastline that connects the Northern Rivers region of NSW with Queensland is one of the most scenic sections of the Pacific Highway. But a distant glimpse is probably as much as many travellers have enjoyed. The holiday road more commonly ends at the Gold Coast or Byron Bay's famous beaches less than an hour's drive away.
If, however, these seaside haunts have begun to lose their appeal, swap the blue horizon for green. Along Australia's newest touring route, every shade is represented: the dark army greens of 14 World Heritage-listed national parks and the lime-coloured fields where cedar forests were logged and replaced by dairy pasture, and the chance of a "greener" life here.
The Rainforest Way was conceived in 1994 as a regional and state tourism initiative involving the NSW and Queensland governments and private operators but it wasn't funded until 2005. It comprises seven distinct touring routes that loop away and link up with each other from a series of major roads connecting the two states.
While each can generally be completed in a day or a half-day, set aside at least a long weekend. It won't be easy to pass through many of the country towns and villages between Casino and Lismore in NSW and Beaudesert and Nerang in Queensland without stopping to browse in antique shops and art galleries or accept some country hospitality.
As well as beef and dairy farms, the roadsides are dotted with boutique farming enterprises such as banana plantations, pecan and macadamia nut farms, citrus orchards, olive groves and the Madura tea and coffee plantations near Murwillumbah and Eltham. Visitors are encouraged to drop in to buy and sample the goods. If you're stretched for time, the menu at the Utopia Cafe restaurant, on the main street of Bangalow, a five-minute drive from the centre of Byron Bay, is a worthy substitute as a regional tasting plate.
We stop here while we wait for a break in the rain for some mountain biking in the famed Nightcap National Park - one of the Rainforest Way's standout attractions - and part of the scenic Minyon Falls link road.
The weather prevents us from following our Mountain Bike Tours guide, Braden Currie, through the muddy tangle of fire trails that twists over the densely forested hills of the national park like a local hippie's dreadlocks. So we drive to the park, then stroll a few metres to a platform to view the park's waterfall. The downpour enhances its wild spray, cascading like a bridal veil to the valley floor 100 metres below. Looping off the Primary Eastern Route, between Lismore and Nimbin, the Minyon Falls link road covers three sections of Nightcap National Park, including the western side, where you can walk to the historic Protester Falls, the site of the state's first successful anti-logging protest, in 1979. There is a brace of scenic villages in the region to explore: Bexhill, the Channon, the site of a hugely popular craft market on the second Sunday of each month, and Nimbin.
University students staged a Woodstock-inspired Aquarius Festival in the dairy town in 1973, changing Nimbin's fate forever. Highlights of the town's main street include the Hemp Embassy and shop, selling hemp products and art in the heritage "tomato sauce" building, the Artists' Gallery and the Nimbin Museum, which recounts the history of the village in psychedelic style. On the town's fringe, the Nimbin Candle Factory has demonstrations on the production of its smokeless, non-toxic and colourful creations. The Rainbow Power Company (1 Alternative Way, on the site of the original Aquarius Festival) builds sustainable energy sources and Djanbung Gardens, established in 1994 a kilometre from the town's centre on the site of an old cow pasture, is a dedicated permaculture education centre where people can learn techniques of sustainable, eco-friendly living and housing.
North-west of Nimbin and Nightcap is the Border Ranges National Park, where travellers can walk to the western edge of one of the world's largest calderas. We reach the park's famed Pinnacle Lookout as a heavy fog lifts, revealing the most unexpected and dramatic view of Mount Warning's spire and the ancient volcanic basin that forms the Tweed Valley. The short stroll to the lookout is one of numerous easy and challenging scenic walks in the park.
Accessible from the towns of Kyogle and Murwillumbah along the Rainforest Way's Tweed Range Scenic Drive, the 44-kilometre stretch of all-weather gravel road that crosses the national park, also passes an ancient Antarctic beech forest, thought to date from the time when Australia was part of the supercontinent Gondwana.
The Border Ranges National Park can also be experienced from Lions Road, named after the local Lions clubs that campaigned for a road along the same route as the interstate railway line in 1971. Join the road via Kyogle along the scenic Summerland Way, part of the main route that connects Beaudesert in Queensland and Grafton in NSW.
A highlight of the Lions Road track is the Border Loop, an ingenious spiral railroad that enables trains to cross the steep Border Ranges.
Along its length, Lions Road offers stunning views of Mount Lindesay, winding through tranquil farmland, passing over single-lane bridges, under railways and running along creeks flanked by picnic tables, where your roadside purchases can best be savoured.
Debbie Neilson-Hunter travelled courtesy of Northern Rivers Tourism.
Fly to Lismore, Ballina or Gold Coast airports.
Follow the Rainforest Way's tree symbols. Maps are available from tourist information centres or download from rainforestway.com.au. As well as the Minyon Falls, Lions Road and Tweed Range Scenic drives, there are four other trails on the Rainforest Way: Mallanganee and Richmond Range (pick up from Casino via Mallanganee, Tabulam, Bonalbo and Toonumbar National Park to Woodenbong); Tamborine Circuit (north from Nerang); Main Range (leaves from Beaudesert in Queensland via Boonah to Woodenbong in NSW); and the Mount Warning View Circuit (from Nimbin, pick up along the primary route to Murwillumbah).
Calurla Chalets has two self-contained one-bedroom chalets and a two-bedroom cottage on 24 hectares near the Border Ranges National Park. Chalets from $280 for two weekend nights for a couple; cottage from $320 for two weekend nights. Phone 6689 7297, see calurla.com.au.
Cougal Park B&B near Kyogle has bed and breakfast from $150 a double (or $230 with dinner). Phone 6636 6213, see cougalpark.com.
Toonumbar Waters Retreat, 30 kilometres west of Kyogle beside the dammed Iron Pot Creek, is a budget getaway for families and large groups, accommodating up to 54 people in bunk-style and self-contained accommodation. There are tennis courts, barbecues and outdoor activities include bushwalking, boating and fishing. Camping is also permitted. Bunk rooms from $33 a night; two flats sleeping five to seven people each from $165; the four-bedroom cottages from $220 a night. Phone 6633 9140, see toonumbarwatersretreat.com.au.
Dairy Flat Farm Holidays has cottages and houses sleeping two to 11 people. Rates from $110 a night. Phone (07) 5539 5923, see dairyflatfarmholidays.com.au.
Byron at Byron Resort and Spa has 92 self-contained suites set in a private rainforest. There's a gym, pool, spa and restaurant. Rates from $385 for a one-bedroom suite. Phone 1300 554 362, see thebyronatbyron.com.au.
For mid-range budgets, the 4½ star Ramada Hotel and Suites at Ballina is close to the beach and within easy reach of the hinterland and rainforests. The hotel has 115 rooms with kitchen facilities, a heated pool, children's pool, sun deck, three restaurants and bar. Rates from $155 a night for a hotel spa room. Phone 1800 826 181, see ramadaballinabyron.com.au.
Things to do
Mountain Bike Tours arranges cycling trips to the coast and rainforest for all skill levels. A half-day tour costs $59, full day from $99. Longer weekend escapes, including meals, accommodation and day-spa visits, are available. Phone 0429 122 504, see mountainbiketours.com.au.
The annual Lismore Lantern Parade and fireworks display will light up the city on June 26. See lanternparade.com.