An hour is not enough time in a helicopter, to fly over the full range of gorges along Waterfall Way, an area of remarkable natural beauty between Armidale and Dorrigo in the Northern NSW tablelands.
In fact, a full day is not enough time to visit each lookout and check out each incredible view. So why is it I’d never heard of this area before? An area that is arguably equal in beauty to the Blue Mountains, Kings Canyon and the Kimberley Coast, only six hours drive from Sydney.
And the scenery is only one reason to visit this area. There are plenty more. Armidale is an emerging food and wine destination and a country town with lots of stories to tell.
Our exploration of Gorge Country starts in Armidale, and we make our way along Waterfall Way, stopping every now and then to marvel at the view hidden just off the highway.
We stop first at Blue Hole in Gara Gorge, a popular swimming spot and apparently home to a healthy population of platypus. All we find are waterfowl but it’s very pretty none-the-less.
Further along we stop at Metz Gorge before heading over to Wollomombi and Chandler Falls, a gorgeous place to stop for lunch, with views of both waterfalls and the incredibly deep gorges they fall through.
It’s hard to take in the fact that the rolling countryside we’re driving through falls away into these enormous chasms only a few hundred metres from the highway.
While the falls are pretty dry right now in the middle of winter (and in the middle of the longest drought period the locals can ever remember) the sheer heights and depths of these gorges are breathtaking enough.
Our next stop is Cathedral Rock, where we take ourselves on a bushwalk along a circular track to see these unusual rock formations. We’re so high up at this point the air is decidedly cooler and part of the ground is blanketed with snow drifts.
Further along Waterfall Way we come to Ebor Falls, a double storey waterfall that is pumping – even in the middle of winter.
Back along Waterfall Way we turn off at Point Lookout possibly even higher than Cathedral Rock, with snow dusting most surfaces along the walking trail to the actual lookout.
The view here is nothing short of spectacular, my favourite of the trip. Rolling hills and sunlit valleys all the way to the coast. At this point we head back to Armidale driving back towards a spectacular orange and pink country sunset and dinner by the fireplace at our hotel.
The hour-long flight gives us a much better idea of how far reaching this landscape of gorges really is – in fact I wish I’d done the flight first. Viewing the gorges from above I can start to put the odd jigsaw puzzle pieces of views together and work out how everything fits together.
Fleet Helicopters has recently started to acquire a few vintage planes which are now also available for scenic (or thrill) rides.
You can now move through eras in the history of flight with Fleet Warbirds, starting with a Boeing Stearman biplane and progressing through a North American T6 Texan fighter to their latest addition; a Polish fighter jet recently flown by owner Lachie Onslow in the Reno Races where he reached speeds of around 900km per hour.
Our aerial adventures are followed by lunch at Merilba Estate, a sheep station turned winery, restaurant and organic piggery, run by husband and wife team Shaun and Kassy.
It’s one of those entrepreneurial rural establishments that has broadened it’s offering (from wool) to wine producer, cellar door, prize winning small goods producer, caterer and tourist attraction.
Food here is wholesome country fair with an international twist, cooked by Kassy. I started with a slow roasted pork Bo Saam served with Korean dippining sauces and kimchi, followed by ratatouille, while Simon opted for muscles followed by slow cooked pork and duck cassoulet.
On the way out we stopped to visit the Dark English Pigs running around in the paddock with litters of piglets bouncing around after them like puppies.
Bed on our last night here is at Poppies Cottage, a farm stay on the outskirts of Armidale. We’re treated to a home-cooked dinner in our little cabin, well stocked with an eclectic collection of books and DVDs, and a bottle of port for a night cap.
An enormous country breakfast greets us in the morning before we head outside, play with the farm animals for a while and then hit the road.
Our last morning in Armidale is spent exploring the city itself, steeped in history and fascinating tales of patronage and rivalry amongst the landed gentry.
The churches and cathedrals here are impressive, and it’s worth mentioning (purely for novelty reasons) that they have an Organ Crawl here – a guided tour of the city’s ecclesiastical music makers. There are five pipe organs in Armidale within two and a half blocks.
Before heading home, we stop for lunch at, in my opinion, the best café in town; Fresh@110 run by the extremely bubbly Lana who serves up a mean stroganoff and some delicious pastries, friands and muffins.
Where to Stay
Quality Hotel Powerhouse. Marsh St, Armidale. Very centrally located so if you care to wander out for dinner, most of the restaurants in town are within walking distance. Why would you though, when the food and atmosphere here is so good? Grab yourself a seat by the fireplace and nibble on some tapas.
Poppies Cottage Bed & Breakfast Farmstay. A cosy little cottage on the outskirts of town, populated by dogs, cats, geese, chickens and a miniature horse. To the rear of the property there is an extinct volcano which makes for a nice walk in the morning (you’ll be accompanied by a few dogs).