Keith Austin discovers the Manning and Hasting regions are home to unexpected gems.
It's odd how you rarely see koalas in the wild and yet after a quick turn around the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, you would think they were flinging themselves under cars left, right and centre. Or trying to put bushfires out with their faces. Or picking fights with dogs, horses and, believe it or not, cows.
Throw in the bulldozing of koala habitats for more housing and it's a wonder there are any left.
Between 200-300 koalas a year end up at the hospital, built in the grounds of the Macquarie Nature Reserve. Here they are cared for, hand-fed, rehabilitated and given names such as Cloud, Bonny Fire, Perch Miracle and Westhaven Barry - after which they are no doubt clamouring to be sent back to the bush.
According to Destination NSW's holiday planner - the reason we ended up at the hospital in the first place - Port Macquarie has one of the highest urban koala populations in NSW and the state's only koala hospital, where at 3pm you can watch the animals being fed.
We were heading home to Sydney after a bit of a disastrous end to a short break on the mid-north coast (of which more later) when we consulted the planner; how could anyone resist the pull of watching koalas moving, let alone being fed?
Port Macquarie, which at first we had no intention of visiting, was settled in 1821, making it one of the oldest penal settlements outside Sydney. It has a couple of good examples of convict-built buildings in St Thomas's Church and the historical museum, and it also sports the National Trust-classified red mahogany house of surveyor John Flynn.
Built in 1891 for the princely sum of £667, Roto House is one of Port Macquarie's few remaining 19th-century timber buildings. Flynn and his wife had six children, three of whom lived in Roto until 1976. The property now forms part of the Macquarie Nature Reserve, next to the Koala Hospital, and is a bit of a gem.
It will be even more of one when work on a cafe is finished (tenders for a five-year lease were called for just before Christmas) and you can "take tea" or enjoy a cucumber sandwich on the verandah overlooking this bush and parkland oasis in the middle of town.
Roto House itself, gloriously restored since 1980, is a time capsule, with each of its 10 rooms meticulously furnished in the fashions of the day and dotted with old photographs and details of the history of both house and family.
Particularly well done is the dining room where the table sits, laid out, for all the world as if it's waiting for the ladies and gentlemen to make their way in for dinner.
There is also a suggestion, from one of the volunteers we meet, that the house is haunted by a dog of indeterminate origin. A terrier, perhaps? Can it be seen in one of the old pictures? Does it still roam the house looking for its masters?
With any luck it won't cross the short stretch of bushland to harass the koalas; these poor things have already been through enough.
The walk and talk that accompanies the 3pm koala feeding is undertaken by a volunteer and goes from the main "gate" around various compounds where impossibly cute koalas of all shapes and sizes are being fed a low-lactose milk formula from droppers. The hospital, by the way, is open every day of the year and visitors are free to walk around the grounds at any time.
How did we end up here? Well, after staying at Harrington, about 70 kilometres south of Port Macquarie, while working on the NSW Good Pub Food Guide (a dirty job but someone has to do it), we consulted the aforementioned holiday planner and decided to aim for Ellenborough Falls to see Australia's "tallest single-drop waterfall". After that, a circular trip would take us through Wingham, a "historic timber town on the Manning River" where, after parking, a short stroll would take us to 1000-year-old Moreton Bay and strangler figs, which are also home to a "major colony of grey-headed flying fox".
Well, the best-laid plans and all that, and yet sometimes there is a silver lining. The road from Harrington to the falls takes you past Coppernook State Forest, up through Stewarts River and Lorne, winding between the state forests of Comboyne, Upsalls Creek and Kerewong. Just past Kerewong and a few kilometres outside Comboyne, it happened. Suddenly the car began making a bit of a noise. Well, a huge, screeching noise - metal against metal. We stopped, the noise stopped. We started, the noise started.
We looked around: state forest, state forest and yet more bloody state forest but nary a mechanic for love nor money.
There was nothing for it; we limped into Comboyne sounding a little like a tractor dragging a piece of sheet metal over gravel. Nice and quiet, like.
Comboyne's own website says it's a place of "fresh mountain air, green pastures, forests, peace and tranquillity ... a beautiful place of rolling green hills, forests, streams, waterfalls and magnificent open skies. The Comboyne Plateau lies between the valleys of the Manning River to the south and the Hastings River to the north. It is about 60 kilometres south-west of Port Macquarie, 35 west of Kew and 54 north-west of Taree".
The region has been a prime dairy-farming area but more recent additions include growing avocados, macadamias, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables. Go past Comboyne and there is, well, a lot more state forest.
So, it's a lazy Sunday afternoon in a 200-person town that (we discover later) has no pub. And yet Comboyne - motto: "Peace, quiet and fresh mountain air" - is going off like a frog in a sock. There are classic cars tootling around, people everywhere, helicopter rides, raffles, floral exhibitions, art exhibitions, food stalls, bands playing, talent contests, sausage sizzles, cake stalls, you name it. Yup, the annual Comboyne Village Fair is in full swing (entry $10 adults, $8 concession, under 18s free).
Luckily, we have a few hours to kill because the tow truck that will take us to Port Macquarie can't get here for three or more hours. Even luckier still is the discovery of a home-made sign in Hill Street that reads "Heritage Farm Machinery" and points to a plain corrugated iron shed.
To enter this nondescript shed is to enter an Aladdin's Cave of wonder. Opening up like Dr Who's bigger-on-the-inside Tardis, the shed is actually a series of interlocking sheds that display what must be one of the most extensive and amazing one-man collections of historic rural farm equipment in NSW, if not Australia.
There are tractors from 1928 to the mid-1950s, earth movers, chainsaws, farm tools and machinery - all beautifully arranged and restored by local man Alan Latimore.
There's a four-cylinder Ferguson tractor from 1954, another from '57, a 1949 British Turner "Yeoman of England", a Linke Hofmann Busch German tractor from 1950 ("the only one in Australia"). The walls are covered in old advertising signs as well as tools and memorabilia.
A walk around the rest of the complex reveals a cabinet containing old axe heads, a wall festooned with the lovingly displayed spanner collection of the "late Mr Keith Scott", a series of hand-held scythes, a collection of chainsaws, yet more spanners (in ascending order, of course), old car hood ornaments, number plates, a truck and yet more tractors in various states of restoration.
And yet amid all this, one thing stands out - a piece of a tree branch strung up on a wall with a couple of bits of old wire. Latimore is busy with visitors so we ask his son about it. "That," he says, "is part of the branch of the tree that dad and his father were cutting down many years ago when it fell the wrong way and ripped dad's right arm off."
Yes, Alan Latimore, restorer, handyman and collector extraordinaire - the Comboyne Harvester of old tractors - has only one arm.
The garage in Port Macquarie discovered that there was a stone in the brake pad. It cost $85 to "repair". The tow truck cost $400. It fell below the insurance company's excess and we had to stay an extra night in Port Macquarie. But, looking back, it was worth every cent.
Harrington is 338 kilometres north of Sydney (about four hours' drive), and about 30 kilometres north of Taree.
The Koala Hospital, Macquarie Nature Reserve, Lord Street, Port Macquarie, is open from 8am-4.30pm daily, with feeding tours at 3pm; see koalahospital.org.au.
Roto House is open from 10am-4.30pm daily (depending on availability of volunteers). Guided tours available. Gold coin donation welcome; see www.hastings.nsw.gov.au.
The Comboyne Village Fair will be held on September 16; see comboynevillagefair.com. For accommodation and visitor information, see comboyne.org.
Harrigan's Irish Pub, Hunter Valley Gardens, Broke Road, Pokolbin, has studio rooms from $160 a night; see harrigansirishpub.com.au.
The Harrington Hotel, 30 Beach Street, Harrington, has rooms from $55 a night. Its bistro is open for lunch and dinner daily. The pub received a two schooners award in this year's Good Pub Food Guide. Phone 6556 1205; see manningvalley.info.
The Country Comfort Hotel, corner of Buller and Hollingworth streets, Port Macquarie, has rooms from $109 a night. Phone 6583 2955; see countrycomforthotels.com.au.