Rides We Love: Getting High in New England

Get away from the city and see what NSW’s glorious New England High Country has in store for both adventure and tarmac riders.


Words: Roderick Eime

Photos: Roderick Eime, Hema Maps/Matt Williams

“So, who’s been in my room?” asked Paul, “all my stuff has been moved around!”

As Paul paced the hallway of the Walcha Royal Cafe, scouring each room for the imaginary culprit, the perplexed look on his face confirmed our suspicions. The former Walcha Royal Hotel, first built in 1889 and burned down and rebuilt in 1938, has a reputation for being haunted and the entity – if it does exist – has just entertained itself by rearranging Paul’s helmet, gloves and toiletries.

“Well, it’s not really haunted,” Toni chirps in, “but some psychic who stayed here said there was a ‘benign presence’ – whatever that means. Anyway, we’ve been here for twelve years and never felt or heard anything.”

Current owners, Toni Heaney and Brad Keable, bought the old pub in 2006 and turned the joint into a hip cafe and boutique accommodation that has garnered much appeal with the constant cavalcade of riders who pass through. On any given Sunday, the kerbside is chock-a-block with all manner of machinery from sleek sportbikes, chunky adventure kit and brawny cruisers to vintage and classic contraptions. And today is no different.

Now many of you guys and gals reading this will nod in agreement when I assert that the New England High Country of Northern NSW (which has its own acronym NEHC) possesses some of the very best riding roads anywhere in the country. Back in Issue 140, Geoff Ross took his Facebook pals on a meandering tour from down south and along the famous Oxley Highway, widely regarded as one of our land’s top strips of tarmac and possibly the jewel of the NEHC roads. Paul Davies led the Grey Ghosts back through the NEHC only the week prior, passing through the Hunter for our feature in 148.

When presented with route options, the NEHC will never leave you wanting and for those wishing to stay a few days for leisurely sightseeing, using Walcha as a hub makes a lot of sense both in terms of economy and geography. Just remember to hang the garlic cloves outside Room #7!

So, anyway, it wasn’t a hard sell to get me back up to the NEHC for a more comprehensive reprise on these roads. This time we were able to explore each of the key routes as detailed on the companion HEMA map.

Plenty of ‘comfort stop’ opportunities along the way (RE)

Day one had us out in force from Port Macquarie for the Oxley Highway, a road that needs no introduction for seasoned riders. In a kind of baptism of fire, we set out for the well-known Gingers Creek layover and their famous pies. It would be remiss of me not to advise first-timers on this road to pace yourself as one tends to get over-excited with all its lovely 300-odd corners, many of which like to tighten up as you get into them. Road conditions along the Oxley – and indeed on most roads throughout New England – are much better than many will remember, but you are still more likely than not to encounter a road crew somewhere along the route, so calm down guys and gals and don’t get suckered into a race.

Walcha, as we mentioned, is the perfect overnight stop at the Walcha Royal Cafe. Say g’day to Toni and Brad and take a look at some of his “junk” art. It’s really quite spectacular. Even then, Brad would have to defer to the ‘Antipodean Tynker’ over the bridge and past the roundabout. Mark Walker is one of those crazy geniuses you find in the bush who can make stuff out of anything. Like his supercharged V16 motorcycle, part hand-built, part salvage. Just astonishing.

Walcha Royal (RE)

TIP: Dinner at the Commercial Hotel, Walcha. Quite the hidden gem.

Day two took us to Inverell via Uralla along Thunderbolt’s, stopping at McCrossins Mill museum and the recently relocated National Transport Museum, now in purpose-built premises just out of Inverell proper. This is an absolute must-see for anyone with an internal combustion fetish. See the last 1906 Dayton left in the world as well as all your old favourites just like dad had in the garage back in the day. 120-plus exhibits all up, including motorcycles.

TIP: Lunch at Michael’s Cafe, Uralla. Super pie selection, baked in-house.

Day three was a bit longer, 300kms, taking us to Glen Innes via Tenterfield along the Bruxner mostly. Yeah, of course, we stopped at the Sadler. You have to. For a super view, head out to Mt Mackenzie and if you need to get a dirt fix, keep heading SW through some super rural countryside that will bring you back to the New England Hwy via Stannum near Deepwater for the run into Glen Innes.

TIP: Lunch at Bohemian Tea Rooms, Tenterfield. Great salads. Your guts will thank you.

Day four was another easy one to Armidale. We left plenty of time to explore the fabulous ‘Land of the Beardies Museum’ in the old Glen Innes hospital. There’s all manner of nostalgia-invoking items collected from around the district, many of which we grew up with. Everything from wire soap-savers to Telex machines, horse-drawn carts, shearers’ gear and meticulous historical records and photographs can be found here. Dirt detour via the Ben Lomond Loop if you are so inclined. We finished the day with a bit of ‘kultcha’ at the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) where everyone is justifiably excited about the Howard Hinton collection.

TIP: Welder’s Dog for pre-dinner ales and White Bull Pub for steak dinner. Try the Tomahawk!

Day five was our wind-down day back to Port Mac along the Waterfall Way via Dorrigo and Bellingen. Don’t get complacent as this long downhill stretch gets busy and the scenery is likely to distract you. We took a break and a few photos at Ebor Falls and stopped by to meet the new owners, Brian and Christine, at the Ebor Falls Hotel Motel. A great overnight location for a riding group or even just a lunch or coffee stop. The alternate route would be to get a double dose of the Oxley in reverse.

TIP: Saumarez Homestead near the Armidale Airport is a treat for historic house buffs. There are some very cool old items in that old National Trust mansion.

There is a half-decent companion website for the whole New England High Country riding territory where all the stuff mentioned here is covered in more detail, complete with video.

Superbly optimised for mobile devices, you won’t have any trouble viewing the whole site on your smartphone.

Point yourself to: www.myfavouritecorner.com.au

Or: www.newenglandhighcountry.com.au

The Bikes

Choosing a bike for your NEHC adventure is all about matching a machine to your abilities and your intended terrain. Truth is, as far as the NEHC is concerned, you can enjoy yourself on just about any bike. If you intend to stick to the tarmac, a tourer, cruiser or sportbike will serve you nicely. An adventure bike, on the other hand, will allow you to take any of the unsealed detours in comfort and with confidence while still enjoying the tarmac to its fullest. Obviously, a full knobby trail bike will impede you somewhat on the long straight sections and the tight tarmac, especially if there are some bumps and depressions on the apexes. And unless you have one of the newer Softail Harleys like the Sport Glide or FXDR, you may find yourself scraping pegs in some of the tighter sections like on the Oxley.

Thanks to support from BMW Motorrad for our NEHC adventure, our prime steads were the spanking new pair of Bavarian GSs, the F 850 and F 750. Elsewhere in this issue, Snag will go into detail with the nuts and bolts of these superb bikes but suffice to say, you would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable mount than either of these beauties. Why? Because these latest-tech machines have the versatility, performance and comfort to ride all day and not feel like you’ve been dragged behind a truck.

As you will have wondered, why did BMW call one 850 and the other 750 when both effectively have the same 853cc engine? See Snag for the long answer, but the short answer is that the 750 is down-specced both in terms of OE equipment and output. BMW did the same thing with the previous F650/700/800 GS combo, all of which used the Rotax-built 798cc twin. Nonetheless, I found the 750 a completely satisfying and appropriate ride for the 1500-odd kilometres over five days and for a middle-aged bloke with all the associated aches and pains, that’s saying something.

Road Tips

  • For goodness sake, don’t risk your ride with marginal equipment. I know, nag nag nag, but brakes and tyres should be spot on if you intend to push along a bit.
  • Mobile phone coverage can be patchy at best. If you’re in a group, it would be ideal if one rider had a SatPhone and if you are heading into the dirt, maybe even an EPRIB.
  • Public hospitals with 24-hour emergency are located in Tamworth, Wauchope, Glen Innes, Gloucester, Armidale and Dorrigo. Have a plan in case someone goes down.
  • Stay hydrated. We know that dehydration impairs your brain functions, so keep drinking water. Don’t buy plastic, there are plenty of taps to refill your bottle.