Wauchope lies west of Port MacQuarrie, and is another pretty little country town. It didn’t take long to have a bit of a look round the suburbs just off the main drag, before poking the bonnet of the car back to the west and pushing up the range.
The country was green, lush, and covered with cattle, the odd flock of sheep, and several large stands of rainforest. The scenery changed a little as the highway started to get steeper, rocky outcrops lined the highway and were mostly covered with tiny waterfalls which ran under the road. Steep sided valleys dipped away from the range, thickly wooded and obviously quite used to a decent amount of rainfall, a far cry from the brown meadows and low hills of my home region.
A small pub hove into view at Long Flat, and I stopped for a moment and checked my map. I had all afternoon to get to Tamworth, and was unsure how long it would take to get there. I had never driven this way before, so every kilometre was a new sight. The pub looked inviting, but for some reason I hesitated, it looked too inviting. The afternoon sun was making long shadows across the valley below where I sat, and the thought occurred to me, that it would be very easy indeed to have one beer, get chatting to the locals, and before I knew it, I’d be lodging here for the night. Tempting… very tempting.
Instead, I took a long drink of water, and pulled back out onto the road. Months later, I met with some concreters who lived and worked in the area, and when I told them how I didn’t stop at the Long Flat Pub they gave me a bit of a slapping. Apparently it’s one of the friendliest little pubs in the northern NSW area. My loss I suppose, I sincerely hope it’s still in business when I go back.
The scenery continued to amaze me as I climbed higher up the Great Dividing Range. A prettier highway I have yet to travel. In many parts thick canopies of trees completely covered the road, plunging the road into darkness several times. It was exhilerating, and more than once I took the opportunity to bang my head on the steering wheel as punishment for not bringing my motorcycle.
Stopping at a small lookout I took some snaps of the valley below, and while I was there a young couple (the only car I’d seen on the road since Wauchope) pulled up and had a bit of a chat. They were equally wrapped in the scenery, and I took a couple of photos of them standing next to their car. As we were standing admiring the scenery the sound of screaming tyres and a revving engine met our ears. Far below, on the twisting road, a grey Monaro was roaring up the range. We could see it now and then as it took a corner sideways before straightening up and hammering toward the next bend. Not wanting to miss the show we decided to stay and watch it pass by.
As the V8 hit the corner near the lookout, the driver took one look at my white car and light blue shirt and hit the brakes hard. The front end of his car buried into the road as he fought to pull up. I laughed, guessing what he was thinking, and as he realised his mistake, the bloke behind the wheel flicked his middle finger into the air and punched the accelerator. The big car slewed sideways, smoke pouring from the rear wheels, as he disappeared around the corner. We stood laughing for a little while, and the young bloke next to me said, “What I’d give to have my Ninja on this road.” I nodded solemnly, yes, I knew exactly what he meant. I shook his hand, and he told me to visit the Apsley Falls on the other side of the range, promising that it was worth the detour. I said I’d see how I felt when I got there.
Minutes later we went our seperate ways, they were heading down, and I continuing upward. For the next hour or so the only traffic I saw was two motorcycles, road racers, full leathers, heads down, leaning far to the left and right as they sped round the corners as they passed me. I waved, but they were too busy keeping upright, the lucky bastards. Sighing, I did something that I couldn’t do on my motorcycle, had a drink of water, flicked on radio national, and started munching on another apple.
The history show was on, a documentary about the early cemeteries of Sydney. It was surprisingly good, and left me in a thoughtful frame of mind as I continued to wind further up the range. Several times I found myself slowing to a crawl, admiring the scenery, the water falls, and the plunging cliff faces. It was nearly four by the time I saw the Apsley Falls gates. I pulled in for a look. The water I had been downing needed to be urgently drained from my bladder.
Pulling up in a carpark I dashed into some nearby shrubs, and as there were no cars to be seen I knew that I had the place all to myself. But as I burst through the bushes, I was stunned to bump into a couple of tents, and an elderly woman who took one look at my pained expression and my hands grappling at my fly and jumped to a horrible conclusion. Gabbling my apologies, I staggered away, and found a more isolated place to let nature take its’ course.
Minutes later I was back on the small track that lead to the lookout over the gorge and falls. The rest of the campers were approaching me and I smiled and said “Hello.” They were all fairly old and wrapped up in thick jumpers, boots and jeans. They all smiled back, and a couple of them said “Hi” but no-one stopped to chat. No worries. I found the lookout and was amazed to see how deep the gorge was was. A set of iron and timber stairs lead down to a viewing platform from which the falls could be seen. I eagerly set off down them.
I’m used to hanging over heights, used to clambering up and down iron stairs and ladders at work, but when I stepped onto the small platform which hung over the top of the falls and the gorge I felt a thrill of fear rush through me. Shit it was a long way down!
Two hurried photographs later I slipped my camera back into my carry bag and ripped back up the stairs. The people who built this thing must have had nerves of steel! Taking a bit of a look around the area I saw that the camping area was empty except for the two tents I’d seen earlier. As I strolled by a ladies voice cried out, “That’s him!” I looked up guiltily to see six wrinkled faces glaring at me. Giving them my sincerest and friendliest smile I waved a languid hand in their direction. Nobody waved back. Two old men looked at me as if they were assessing their chances. Okaaay. Returning to my car I saw a motorhome pull up, two more elderly people got out, nodded ‘Hello’ to me and made their way toward the other pensioners. They must have been having some sort of meeting out here. As Russel Coight is fond of saying, “And soon it was time to hit the road.”
Back on the highway I continued westward, wondering how long it would take me to get to Tamworth. The sun was dipping lower, but now that I was on the westward side of the range I had more sunlight to see by, even if it was punching into my face as I drove toward it. I thought for a moment about the old campers, and the fickle finger of fate that seems to plague me at times. Eventually I saw the funny side of it… months later… at home.
The road came to an intersection where it met with the New England Highway, turning southward toward Tamworth I was surprised to see large signs warning motorists about the steep grades ahead, for some reason I had assumed the land was flat way out west.
The grades were steep. Very steep. Several emergency ramps, covered in a thick layer of sand and gravel lay either side of the road. Many of them looked well used, with large skid marks leading up to the dirt entrances, and great gouges cut into the gravel ramps. I wondered what it would be like to lose control of a semi-trailer on these bends, picking up speed and hoping like hell if I could keep the truck upright until the next emergency ramp appeared. I also wondered how many truckies had gone over the side of this range.
I didn’t wonder for long, as a truck appeared in my rear view mirror, and instantly pulled out to pass me. Bloody hell he was moving. Picking up my speed, I hung onto his rear trailer, keeping a few car lengths distance between us. I don’t know what our speed was, all I did was hang on as he cut corners, passing slower cars and trucks as we whipped down the hillside. Again, I wished I was on my motorcycle.
As it turned out, the truckie wasn’t out of control, he must have been a local who knew this road like the back of his hand. Geez he could drive. As the road flattened out, and the signs advertising tourist attractions and local businesses in Tamworth increased he slowed down and I took the first opportunity to overtake him. He was a young fella, and I was reminded of my grandfathers’ old saying from the war, ‘There are old pilots, and bold pilots. But there are no old bold pilots.’
Tamworth appeared over my dashboard, and cruising into the heart of the city I saw a well maintained motel near the city centre and pulled in. I’d had enough driving today, and didn’t care what the room rate was, this was home for the night and I wanted to get out of the drivers seat and walk around. There was a stack of sights I to see, and very little day light left. The room was expensive, but clean and tidy, and by far the best accomodation I’d stayed in since I left Cairns last month. Tossing my gear onto the bed, I grabbed my canvas bag and waltzed into the cool dusk. Tamworth was waiting, and I was keen to see it.