Coast to cascades

Daniel Scott winds through primaeval forests and dramatic gorges on the 191-kilometre Waterfall Way.

I'm all for hugging trees but you haven't lived until you've embraced a boulder that's older than your greatest-grandmother.

This afternoon, as rain sheets across the Cathedral Rock National Park in New England, I'm not so much hugging the huge granite outcrop as spread-eagled across it clinging on for dear life. One slip and I'll be jammed between a rock and a hard place, with limb amputation my only escape.

OK, it's not that bad. For a start, I'm not alone but in the reassuring company of a national park ranger, Tony Prior, who's done this 5.8-kilometre trek up the jumble of tors often. Second, we're just metres away from the top and while the climb has occasionally been tricky, the worst injury I've incurred is a well-overdue exfoliation.

Slithering across the wet surface, I grab a chain bolted into the rock and swing around another boulder, squatting sumo wrestler-like before scuttling towards the peak on hands and knees.

When I reach it, Prior is perched nonchalantly and surveying the vista. From here we're looking into the heart of the gargantuan Ebor volcano, last active 18 million years ago but largely responsible, due to many eruptions and lava flows, for this region's dramatic topography. Even on this cloudy day, the view over the plunging escarpment is worth the ascent. Then Prior goes and ruins it. "We'd best not hang around," he says, gesturing to an approaching thunderstorm, "these granite tors are like magnets to lightning."

My descent to the comparatively safe eucalypt forest below is foolishly fast and, if possible, even less dignified than the climb. But we make it safely to the car.

It's the second afternoon of a three-day drive along the Waterfall Way, which links the mid-north coast with Armidale inland. Cathedral Rock is one of five outstanding national parks along the 191-kilometre route.

Eighteen months ago, I experienced one hair-raisingly winding section of the drive clamped to the back of a motorbike and vowed I'd return to complete the whole trip in a rather safer vehicle.

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I begin my journey at the dozy seaside town of Urunga, south of Coffs Harbour. From here the Waterfall Way wiggles through the Bellinger Valley, then climbs the Great Escarpment and threads across the Dorrigo Plateau and New England Tablelands to Armidale.

Urunga is where two sizeable rivers that I'll encounter along the drive empty into the Tasman Sea. Collecting in a calm, mangrove-fringed lagoon, the Bellinger and Kalang rivers then sweep oceanward and squeeze between headlands in a rush of white water. It's a beguiling sight that can be viewed from a 600-metre boardwalk extending through the estuarine wetlands.

My first day on the road is blazingly hot and not one on which to hurry. So, after a long alfresco lunch in the nearby town of Bellingen, I take a leisurely paddle on the Bellinger River.

Led by Daniel Freuden, a former Sydney teacher who relocated to Bellingen in 1998, the canoe trip is a lovely way to while away the afternoon while exploring the broad river. Putting in behind Freuden's waterside property, we begin by floating between pastures dotted with grazing cows, with a backdrop of "Old Man Dreaming", the gnarly ridge that the Gumbaynggirr people believe protects the Bellinger Valley. Then we drift along a creek overhung by long-limbed trees and finally, with the hard work done, pull up on the bank for a dip.

Throughout our paddle, a theatrical cloudscape has been building, explosions of snow-white cumulus clouds shooting across the blue sky. By the time we're back at base, the heavens open with monsoonal ferocity.

From now on, rain is my constant companion as I explore the five national parks along the Waterfall Way with ranger Prior. Far from spoiling the drive, however, it makes it more atmospheric.

As we leave Bellingen and make the twisting climb towards Dorrigo, the first national park we're visiting, the windscreen wipers are working overtime and waterfalls gush down cliff faces beside the road. Reaching the World Heritage-listed park, we stroll through the dripping, echoing rainforest to a new 50-metre suspension bridge that runs behind Crystal Shower Falls. Usually a lightly flowing cascade, today it's a heavy drape of water, billowing spray all around.

As we continue further inland, crossing some of Australia's richest cattle-grazing country on the Dorrigo Plateau, the velvety green hills glisten in the rain while, to the south, rainforest-clad ranges appear dark blue and purple on this overcast day.

Our next stop is at the enormous 71,000-hectare New England National Park. More than two thirds of it is wilderness, with temperate Antarctic beech woodlands spilling over the edge of the Great Escarpment and subtropical rainforest fanning out through deep valleys. It would require months to explore.

For today, we content ourselves with the view from the 1564-metre-high Point Lookout.

"You can usually see the coast 70 kilometres away," Prior says as clouds and mist swirl around the viewing platform. When a lyrebird begins serenading us, it feels as if we're on the set of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Equally ethereal are the Ebor Falls, in the Guy Fawkes River National Park, where we head next. Halfway along the Waterfall Way, these 115-metre cascades are the region's prettiest, with the Guy Fawkes River dropping down over two columned basalt rock faces, before plunging into a sheer gorge.

It's soon after visiting Ebor that I have my close encounter with the granite tor at the top of Cathedral Rock National Park.

Nothing I've seen so far, however, prepares me for the scale and drama of the Wollomombi Falls, in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, which I visit the next morning. One of Australia's highest sheer-drop falls, Wollomombi plunges 220 metres into a jagged ravine.

When, in 1818, Surveyor General John Oxley stumbled on this spectacular gorge gouged out of the eastern New England Tablelands, he was "lost in astonishment at the sight of this wonderful natural sublimity". It was a sight, he wrote in his journal, "scarcely exceeded in any part of the eastern world."

For me, discovering Wollomombi nearly two centuries later is the final revelation on an extraordinary drive along the Waterfall Way.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Bellingen Shire Tourism, Bellingen Valley Lodge and Bellingen Canoe Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The Waterfall Way links Armidale with the Coffs coast. It is reachable via the Pacific Highway or the New England Highway. Urunga, a coastal starting point, is 500 kilometres or about 6½ hours' drive north of Sydney.

Staying there

Bellingen Valley Lodge is an upmarket motel with wonderful valley views, a restaurant and pool. Double rooms cost $110. 1381 Waterfall Way, Bellingen; phone 6655 1599, see bellingenvalleylodge.com.au.

Petersons Winery and Guesthouse is a great place to unwind at the drive's end. Suites cost from $198. 345 Dangarsleigh Road, Armidale; phone 6772 0422, see petersonsguesthouse.com.au.

Eating there

No.2 Oak Street is an award-winning restaurant in Bellingen. Open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday from 6.30pm. Bookings essential; phone 6655 9000, see no2oakst.com.au.

The Canopy Cafe is an excellent eatery in the rainforest centre in Dorrigo National Park, with an accent on local organic produce. Open daily 9am-5pm. Dome Road, Dorrigo; 6657 1541.

Touring there

Fernmount-based Bellingen Canoe Adventures runs two-hour tours on the Bellinger River. Phone 6655 9955, see canoeadventures.com.au.

Further information

National park information is available at Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, Dome Road, Dorrigo; phone 6657 2309, see environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks.

Waterfall Way Visitor Centre, Hyde Street, Bellingen, has information and a brochure on the route; phone 1800 705 735, see waterfallway.com.

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