On the road again, nat­u­rally

A gen­tle driv­ing jaunt around the By­ron Bay hin­ter­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ALIS­TAIR JONES

THE last time I drove a car it prob­a­bly had run­ning boards, but be­ing out of prac­tice is of no con­cern to hire com­pa­nies. I just sign a form at Bal­lina air­port and next thing I’m dodg­ing trucks in the rain on the Pa­cific High­way, blinded by the spray of pass­ing ve­hi­cles.

All the wipers are flap­ping, even the lit­tle flippy ones on the mir­rors. Any more and I’d be air­borne. The choice of light switches is con­fus­ing so I turn them all on, giv­ing fair warn­ing that a lat­ter-day Mr Ma­goo is on the loose.

I’m off to the hill coun­try of Coora­bell. It holds a dress-cir­cle po­si­tion in the hin­ter­land over­look­ing By­ron Bay on the NSWnorth coast.

Mini-es­tates of ur­ban es­capees have colonised rolling farm­land, al­lot­ments of a few hectares fea­tur­ing pavil­ions and vil­las se­cluded by lush gar­dens, usu­ally with calm­ing vis­tas from ex­pan­sive decks. I think of Con­necti­cut on the caldera, or Palm Beach in a pad­dock.

The teem­ing fe­cun­dity of sub­trop­i­cal vol­canic soil is never re­ally tamed. Amid pos­sums, pythons and com­post­ing toi­lets, lo­cal handy­men do a roar­ing trade as con­stant gar­den­ers, re­pelling the lantana and fer­ret­ing out in­va­sive cam­phor lau­rels to main­tain these ar­chi­tec­tural ex­per­i­ments, a num­ber of which can be booked for short stays via online providers such as stayz.com.au.

There’s no pub­lic trans­port and the irony of rip­ping through fos­sil fuel to en­joy a green life­style does not es­cape me as I wind around blind cor­ners on a 10-minute drive to the near­est shop, where buy­ing ground cof­fee for my hosts’ espresso ma­chine costs twice what it would in the city.

But when­ever the sun breaks through, there’s a golden light, a steam­ing sense of par­adise un­til the next shower. I head deeper into the hills. Down canopied lanes the bi­tu­men turns to gravel and Re­pen­tance Creek is wash­ing over the road at door-win­dow depth. A wrong turn takes me into the for­est. The trail be­comes a tun­nel as I ford more swollen streams, swerve to avoid fall­ing branches and shud­der over the sort of potholes that make me glad I don’t ac­tu­ally own this car. Oc­ca­sional mail­boxes on over­grown gates be­come in­creas­ingly woe­ful, less likely to have ever seen a let­ter. Is that ban­jos I hear as I pass a crum­bling fence dec­o­rated with cow skulls?

I’ve strayed on to a track that’s just a dot­ted wig­gle on the map. I’m now be­yond even that ap­prox­i­mate car­tog­ra­phy, seem­ingly in who-re­ally-knows ter­ri­tory. Time to turn back.

I make it to Mul­lumbimby, a pleas­ant farm­ing town where La Ta­ble cafe and restau­rant is a re­cent and fine French al­ter­na­tive to the var­i­ous ugg-boots-and-bean­ies eater­ies, which all seem to have pump­kin some­where on their menus.

And then there’s pretty Ban­ga­low. The knit­ting cir­cle at the Coun­try Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion meet­ing room in the main street is a step back to the 1950s, com­plete with a photo of a young Queen. Just the place to snap up a hand­made tea-cosy. The CWAowns this build­ing and it’s stay­ing put, a pioneer stal­wart as stylish stores with met­ro­pol­i­tan prices gen­trify the town. One of the women tells me the his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety’s re­opened tea­rooms serve a de­cent scone.

All that re­mains is to thank the friends with whom I’ve been stay­ing with a bot­tle of lo­cal limon­cello from the farm­ers’ mar­ket at By­ron Bay be­fore re­turn­ing the car to Bal­lina air­port. It’s sus­tained no ap­par­ent dam­age but is com­pletely cov­ered in mud. I’m ready for a spot on Top Gear af­ter this. stayz.com.au lat­able.com.au vis­itnsw.com

NORTH­ERN RIVERS TOURISM

Past meets present in pretty Ban­ga­low’s main street

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