Ultimate Travel Magazine
The Rivers of Life
Text and photos by Ben Hall
It’s set on a stretch of coastline that’s an endless procession of classic white sand surf beaches, backed up by lush rolling countryside and mystical rainforests, and the Northern Rivers region of Australia is one of the country’s best kept secrets.
After negotiating the appropriately named Rainforest Way, we sweep down out of lush forest framed by the southern hemisphere’s biggest volcanic caldera into a town that looks like it’s been purpose built for a Baz Luhrmann film.
Tiny Tyalgum is too cute for words and outside one of the local cafes, an old bicycle rests against a post, unchained, and a jaunty tune from an accordion echoes across the wide street. The one-man band behind the squeezebox is Dennis Scanlon, a local who serenades visitors and as an award-winning bush poet and author, he can spin a yarn, play a song and tell you how great it is to live in a place like this.
Even after just a day in the Northern Rivers region, it’s difficult to argue with him and we learn that Tyalgum is a century-old town the locals have tried to keep in its original condition to reflect its history. The 102 year old general store is the heart and soul of Tyalgum and has retained its original timber flooring and village hall. There’s also new cafes, and art galleries set up in original and restored buildings, and it’s one of the many surprises on a driving tour of this area.
The Northern Rivers is a 300km stretch of coastline Tweed Heads and Grafton on the east coast of Australia, and it’s a diverse blend of fantastic beaches, subtropical rainforests with waterfalls, dramatic mountains forged by volcanic activity, and local characters in the guise of poets, artists, farmers, businessmen and eco-warriors.
Australians have known about this slice of heaven for decades and four and a half million locals visit the area every year as daytrippers and overnighters, yet only 225,000 overseas people make the effort to put this on their “to-do” list.
A road trip is the best way to experience the Northern Rivers, and in three days it’s possible to experience a little of what the area has to offer, but the reality is that even in three months you’ll only just scratch the surface.
The Tweed Valley, just a 20 minute drive south-west of Coolangatta Airport, is a great place to start an exploration of the Northern Rivers. This is where you leave the “big city” behind and enter Australia’s Green Cauldron, which is the ancient remnants of the largest shield volcano in the southern hemisphere. It’s been awarded the status as a National Landscape in Australia, one of just nine, and the Tweed Valley lies smack bang in the middle of this giant caldera with the towering peak of Mt Warning as the major landmark of this area.
Lush tropical forests sweep up the mountains, dotted by farms and homesteads, and tiny towns and fresh fruit and vegetable stalls break up the driving along the way. Chillingham Bush Tucker started out as a make-shift shack selling fruit, and now local Buck Buchanan has turned this mini-business into something a little more substantial.
Barefoot Buck, as he’s known, owns 55 acres of rich red dirt farmland outside of Murwillumbah and his exotic native fruits are “exported” to major restaurants around Australia. The fresh native finger limes are the most in-demand produce, but he also sells yuzu fruit, Buddha’s hand, lemon myrtle, curry leaf and neem products to the likes of Tetsuya in Sydney. The old shack has been replaced by the “Banana Cabana” which is open to the public selling the fruit along with jams, preserves, ice creams and other organic products and it’s a popular stop for coffee and a snack.
It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, and the question is - does Buck, with red dirt literally between his toes, ever wear shoes? “I try not to. I got told at the markets in Brisbane I had to wear shoes to come in, and I told them to bugger off,” Buck recalls.
John and Carolyn Tebbutt are another couple of locals who make this part of the world a bit special and they run one of Australia’s most unusual tourist attractions at Crystal Creek Miniatures, which is a collection of more than 100 miniature animals including mini horses, cows, donkeys and other animals. Even their pet dogs are miniatures and the Chihuahua family seem to run the joint.
John Tebbutt drives the tractor tours around the Palmdale Stud and introduces visitors to the animals, which really are quite tiny, and they each have a story and personality of their own.
Simply driving around this beautiful area is an experience in itself and the journey into the Crystal Creek Rainforest Retreat is a relaxing and invigorating way to end a day of exploring the Tweed Valley. The Retreat is a collection of eight luxury private bungalows and rainforest lodges for couples only with romance and seclusion as the main themes. Each accommodation is totally private and all you hear is the sound of Crystal Creek, and the occasional scrub turkey scratching around in the forest.
All the bedrooms look out over the rainforest, and they also each feature a large two-person jacuzzi, also with forest views and totally secluded. It’s the ultimate couples escape and there are bush walks around the area which lead to a good swimming hole and the signature hammocks over Crystal Creek. A gourmet dining menu is offered and can delivered to your accommodation in the afternoon (at an extra cost), and can be reheated at whatever time suits. Some of the menu items include red curry with roast haloumi and cashews, traditional English beef stew and creamy garlic seafood medley.
Breakfast baskets and picnic hampers are also offered, but the kitchen facilities in each bungalow means it’s easy to self-cater as well. This place has won one of the Australian Tourism Awards major gong - the Unique Accommodation prize - along with three international environmental tourism awards and 17 regional awards.
And for those fortunate enough to sit in one of the jacuzzis overlooking an ancient rainforest and its abundant wildlife, it’s easy to see why.