Dorrigo National Park is one of those places where the importance of preserving some of the natural environment and keeping it from man's desire to consume the planet, makes compete sense.
Even driving there is a sensoral experience. Whether you approach it in a gradual climb across the increasingly thin sliver of the Northern Tablelands which lies to its west or up the steep incline from the coastal plain to the east, sights and sounds and smells greet you. Everything is green and today, wet. The aroma of fresh rain and stimulated decay are pungent when you open the door at the Rainforest Centre.
Standing as it does on the dividing line between coast and inland, this pocket of rainforest which dips over the eastern edge of the Dorrigo Plateau has everything to offer in terms of diversity both within itself and in comparison to the country which surrounds it. Geological time, gravity and a high annual rainfall have developed stunning waterfalls on the way to the park and main fine ones inside its boundaries. Even on the hottest days, relief lies waiting under the rainforest canopy.
A world heritage site and one of the jewels which lie studded along the Waterfall Way between the Pacific Highway at its eastern end and Armidale at the western, it was established in 1967 as one of the early precincts of the then newly created NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The Rainforest Centre which greets you and acts as the doorway to the walks on the southern end of the park, was established much later, along with the sensational Skywalk - a steel and wooden construction that juts out from the edge of the escarpment and over the highest of the forest canopy. The view is stunning. On a clear day, you can't see forever but you can see Bellingen and beyond to the coast. There is even a camera mount on which you can secure your digital cameras - the real ones, not the smart phone ones - and take that most desired "selfie" without fear that some fast running youth will abscond with your Canon.
The far view is one thing but the immediate surrounds are far more interesting and even on days of close fog, that view is uninterrupted. Birds of all sizes come in and out of the canopy seeking treats, many of them used to the strangers on their oddly linear tree. Peering down through the foliage, you realise how high you are and how privileged to be sharing the experience nature's hard work has created in the giants beside you.
It's the walks that reveal the best of this park and for people with average fitness, they are achievable but not without work. We walked the 6.2km Wonga Walk, in the recommended anticlockwise direction, taking the steep slopes down to the first of two spectacular waterfalls. The track is better than when Sue and I first walked here in the late 1970's. Then it was dirt, which more often than not could be slippery because of the pervading moisture of this place but now it is nature infused bitumen. Roots and leaves and a variety of vegetation types are slowly taking it back but in the most part it was an easy surface to walk on.
After nearly three kilometres and a smaller set of falls which came across our path, The Crystal Shower Falls appeared around a bend, nearly a full five minutes after we heard it. It free falls perhaps thirty metres into a plunge pool and across a cavernous opening which sits behind the last third of its fall. A suspension bridge spans the space in front of the falls, where once the track had led directly behind it but entry into the cave has been retained and improved with a steel-grated pathway.
Standing behind the waterfall's curtain is a unique experience and one not fully captured by images. Long roots have followed the waters path to the pool below and this adds to the visual effect. The sound of the water crashing into the pool on this day, after inches of rain, was in direct competition to speech.
Once we had exhausted our photographic hunger, we sat beside the falls for refreshments and took, probably, the best selfie ever.
Our reluctance to move on and especially to go lower still, was rewarded about ten minutes later by our arrival at Tristania Falls. Unlike Crystal Shower Falls, the water here runs across the rock face, taking up many pathways both into and also bypassing small splash pools before racing on. Another suspension bridge takes you across the face of the falls, with it extending above and below you. It is different but no less impressive.
From this point of the walk, at approximately the halfway mark, you begin a long, slow, upward climb which passes below the first half of the track. Some of it is undulating, some of it level but for much of the time, it is a long, steady climb. By the time we reached the Rainforest Centre, all thoughts of a coffee and cake reward were gone as the cafe had long since shut. We were sweat from top to toe but not as worse for wear as our thoughts might have imagined. Sue, thought incapable of such walks twelve months ago, had coped better than expected and although slower than in bygone days, I still got there. The heavy, humid air, did no favours for my asthma but artificially propped up or not, I made it.
We drove through Dorrigo for a late afternoon viewing of Dangar Falls, located just outside Dorrigo on a road that will eventually take you to Coffs Harbour the original way, through Ulong and Coramba and past one of my favourite Australian place names, Upper Bobo. To think such a locality could be divided into and upper and lower! The falls were as I remembered them, having driven this way in 1977 in my original vehicle, a four door 1968 Cortina, which I would write off outside Kootingal only weeks later. It was the fencing and picnic area that were different. In 1977, you simply walked to the edge and looked. Perhaps in Western Australia, you still would.
After the falls, we followed a lesser known route which departs from the Waterfall Way almost immediately before it begins its descent and runs along the top of the mountain - with a few turns and a single lane for good measure - until you reach Griffiths Lookout. The view would have been superb on a late afternoon which didn't accompany the mist with rain. We didn't get out of the car.
Our last act of the afternoon was to detour off the Waterfall Way between the base of Dorrigo Mountain and Bellingen, to a quiet little crossing over the Little North Arm of the Bellinger River at a point where the Summerville Road crosses. Less than a kilometre off the Waterfall Way, this quiet spot with it low-lying road bridge - different now than it was in 1977 - was the place where the ashes of Sue's father John Gibbens were scattered and then, less than a year later, those of his grandmother, Kate Knapman nee Margaret Stuart. It was a place we had found only once before and given other tasks we hope to achieve before leaving Nambucca, it was a significant thing to do.
Our return to Nambucca was quiet until we had to get out of the car. Parts of us groaned and complained and made it sound like it was a corporate decision. Our mouths just went along for the hell of it.
The hot chips and cold beer were suitable compensation.