High, wet and wild

On wing, bike and foot, Daniel Scott explores the beauty of the World Heritage rainforest in Dorrigo National Park.

'Perfect day for flying," purrs pilot Tracy Conry into our headphones, as we hover above the jumble of mountains that rears up behind the Coffs Harbour coast.

Until now, the three passengers in the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter have been strangely mute – a mix of flying nerves and awe perhaps – as we left the coastal plain behind and powered towards Dorrigo National Park on a cloudless morning.

Now Conry's comment prompts a flurry of questions. "Where's Russell Crowe's place?""Is Jack Thompson's land near here?"

Show modern man an ancient landform and an environment so special it is included, as part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, on the World Heritage List, and all he can think about is celebrities. Still, with my queries patiently answered and after the location of Crowe's personal cricket pitch is pinpointed, we can finally concentrate on the dramatic landscape below.

Ahead of us, the escarpment sweeps up in knuckle-like ridges, dissecting and counterpointing each other, and is capped by a wave of rounded and conical peaks. With the whole range covered in thick forest it looks like a huddle of giant green sheep clinging to the mountainside.

Behind the hills, the huge Dorrigo plateau stretches west and beneath them is a series of fertile vales. This region has some of Australia's most chocolatey soil and it's not just Coffs' bananas that flourish here. Until about 18 million years ago, the enormous Ebor-Dorrigo volcano dominated this landscape, its basaltic lava flows covering the plateau and heavy weathering over millions of years gradually shaping the sharply indented escarpment. Even seen from above, it is hard to imagine the power of that volcano, which rose to 2000 metres and spanned 45 kilometres in diameter.

We are now directly above the hills, flying towards a large "V" on the fringe of the escarpment. "If you're scared of heights," Conry warns as we go over the edge, "don't look down."

Two seconds later, I'm staring into a gaping ravine and my stomach is doing what it did when I met my first girlfriend. Beneath us, the Gleniffer Falls plummet down a crevice in the sheer cliff, still raging after the recent rain. We swing out over the thickly vegetated valley known as Promised Land and turn back to cross the falls once more, the mid-morning sun illuminating the ridge tops. It's like a scene from Kakadu, not the Mid North Coast of NSW.

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In these straitened times, a scenic helicopter ride might seem an extravagance. Even so, I've driven past these ranges countless times on the Pacific Highway without ever realising how magnificent they are and this morning's half-hour hinterland ride has given us a thrilling picture of them.

Having seen the 11,732-hectare Dorrigo National Park from high above, we land in a paddock just behind the park's rainforest centre at the top of the escarpment, so we can walk among the trees.

First, though, there is one more vertiginous view to take in, from the adjacent 21-metre-high skywalk, which reaches 75 metres from the cliff-side over the forest canopy. At the end of the wooden platform we look back across the Bellinger Valley towards the coast, with the lumpy McGrath's Hump in the foreground and, on this clear day, the Solitary Islands easily discernible in the distance.

Our short pre-lunch amble follows three delightfully named paths – the Lyrebird Link, Wonga Walk and Satinbird Stroll – and takes in a panoply of subtropical plants and trees. With more than 120 bird species recorded in the park, including eastern yellow robins and purple-breasted wompoo fruit doves, the walk is also accompanied by flashes of colour and a vibrant soundtrack of warbles and whistles. The Gumbaynggirr people refer to this area as "the road home, the spirit place" and feel "a connection with the creator" here.

Back at the rainforest centre, excellent interpretive displays provide background on the Gondwana forests, which extend along the east coast's Great Dividing Range.

But the best surprise is the Canopy Cafe, a top-quality eatery in a national park, with a sunny terrace and an accent on organic, locally grown food. There's Dorrigo wood-fired bread, chunky chips made from famous Dorrigo potatoes – the product of that luscious soil – and free-range "eggs from altitude" on the menu.

Chef Wolfgang Zichy has had the confidence to add dishes such as beef cheeks, from a local organic cattle farm.

After ascending the mountain in such spectacular fashion, there is really only one way down: by motorcycle. I am not normally a fan of big bikes, partly because it looks too easy to fall off them. But there's a reassuring maturity about the guys from Motorcycle Holidays Australia that helps me sideline my caution.

Well, almost. After rugging up in leathers, helmet and thick gloves, I climb on the back of Richard Oxland's BMW and for the next hour do not release my vice-like grip on the metal plates on either side of my tense buttocks.

"Just lean with me on the corners and you'll be fine," Oxland assures, firing the engine with a lion-like roar. As we fly over the Dorrigo Plateau, the wind rushes into my helmet, robbing me of my breath and sending a chill along my spine. I'm just getting used to it all when we reach the top of Waterfall Way, a road that coils down the mountainside towards Bellingen like a deranged snake.

"Oh, shit," I mutter through chattering teeth as Oxland takes the first of what seems about a hundred hairpin bends.

Improbably, I start enjoying the ride as we zip past white-water falls and sunlit glades and gather speed to 100km/h where the road straightens. By the time we reach the valley floor I'm ready to declare this section of Waterfall Way one of the state's most exciting drives. I prise myself from the back of the bike when we arrive at Sawtell, on the Coffs coast, and employ all my remaining strength to pat Oxland gratefully on the back.

After a day of adventure and exhilarating vistas we've earned a more gentle evening. We're spoilt for choice on the tree-lined main street of Sawtell. We amble between three eateries for a progressive meal, starting at the rustic Barrels Global Bistro for entree, moving to Taste for a refined main course and ending at the relaxed Fig restaurant for dessert.

Cowboy-like, I hobble back to my Sawtell bed and breakfast, and reflect on the good judgment of Jack, Russell and the other personalities with homes in the Coffs hinterland.

There can't be many places along the coast where you can hitch a ride on a helicopter and a motorbike, take a skywalk above a World Heritage rainforest and still find four good restaurants in which to indulge your inner celebrity.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Coffs Coast Marketing and the Mid-North Coast Regional Tourism Organisation.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The drive from Sydney to Coffs Harbour takes about seven hours. Virgin Blue flies from Sydney to Coffs Harbour from $100 one-way.

Touring there

A 30-minute Hinterland Experience tour with Precision Helicopters costs from $150 a person. The tour departs from Coffs Harbour airport. Phone 6652 9988, see precisionhelicopters.com.au.

Motorcycle Holidays Australia has half-day hinterland tours from Coffs Harbour from $150 a person, including rider. Phone 6656 2341, see motorcycleholidays.com.au.

Eating there

The Canopy Cafe, Rainforest Centre, Dome Road, Dorrigo. Open daily 9am-5pm. Phone 6657 1541.

Barrels Global Bistro, 21 First Avenue, Sawtell. Surf-inspired tapas bar. Open Wed-Sun from 5pm. Phone 6658 8255.

Taste Restaurant, 11 First Avenue, Sawtell. Dinner Wed-Sat from 6pm, weekend breakfast from 8am. Phone 6658 3583.

Fig Restaurant, corner First Avenue and Boronia Street, Sawtell. Modern Australian Tues-Sun from 5pm. Phone 6658 3638.

Staying there

Lombok on Waterfall is luxurious Balinese-style accommodation right on the winding Waterfall Way at Thora. Phone 6655 8642.

Creekside Inn B&B, 59 Boronia Street, Sawtell. Phone 6658 9099, see creeksideinn.com.au.

Further Information

Dorrigo National Park Rainforest Centre, Dome Road, Dorrigo. Phone 6657 2309 or see www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkHome.aspx?id=N0011.

Waterfall Way Visitor Centre, 29-31 Hyde Street, Bellingen. Phone 6655 1522.

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