All roads to Walcha lead to something wonderful. While the charming town is a great place for a getaway, the area also has an abundance of natural attractions, as Lee Atkinson writes.
And while at first glance, Walcha, with its tree-lined main street of historic shopfronts shaded by wide awnings, might look like your classic small country town, it’s anything but.
Look a little closer and you’ll discover that each and every verandah pole is unique, carved into a fantastic array of geometric and symbolic totems by local and visiting artists.
Footpaths are dotted with giant wooden figures, inlaid with mosaics and pebbled rainbow serpents, roundabouts are crowned with postmodern installations of rusted steel, tin warriors guard the bridge across the river and the pieces of street furniture are all quite literally works of art.
All up there are more than 55 sculptures scattered around the town – which has a population of about 1800 – and along a walkway that runs beside the Apsley River.
For those that like fun facts, Walcha has the most public art per head of population in Australia and is one of the largest open-air galleries in the country; it was also awarded a silver medal for Best Sculpture Park or Trail in the Australian Street Art Awards held in March 2021.
Created by a range of local, national and internationally renowned artists, many of the extraordinary pieces were originally made for Bondi and Cottesloe’s annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions, so don’t be surprised if you come across a life-sized whale breaching in the grasslands beside the river as you stroll along the trail.
Download the free Walcha Sculpture Soundtrail app and you’ll hear the backstories to some of the artworks as you pass by each featured sculpture, many of which won major prizes before landing permanently in Walcha.
You’ll also learn some fascinating snippets of local history: did you know Walcha was the first place in Australia to spread super phosphate by aeroplane?
The Tiger Moth aircraft used to do this is on display at the Pioneer Cottage and Museum Complex, along with a reconstructed blacksmith’s shop, shearing equipment and historical tool shed.
Not all the art is outside though. WGoA (Walcha Gallery of Art) showcases contemporary art in a range of changing exhibitions throughout the year.
Walcha Creative Arts and Walcha Handmade both feature the handiwork of local makers and creators and, when it comes to inventors, you’ll be blown away by what you find at the Antipodean Tynker, a gallery of steampunk, curious gadgets, whimsically bizarre motorcycles and jewellery (open by appointment).
Where to eat in Walcha
You’ll also find a range of imaginative industrial art in the flower-filled garden at the nearby Walcha Royal Cafe where much of it has been repurposed into furniture.
The cakes are sensational at the old pub, which has been transformed into a stylish cafe full of retro motorcycle memorabilia.
The cakes – and tarts, pastries, brownies, curries and pies – are just as good at Cafe Graze next door to the WGoA, where the walls are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of gourmet chutneys, jams, and other goodies, which are perfect for stocking a picnic hamper.
Head to one of the friendly pubs for a long lunch if you’re here in winter, when snowfalls are not that uncommon; the Commercial Hotel almost always has a raging fire going in the cooler months. Visit the coffee window in The Fruit Shop for coffee as good as you’ll find in Melbourne.
You can’t miss it: just look for the line of locals waiting patiently for their breakfast muffins outside the cafe, which is opposite the roundabout with the big steel Song Cycle sculpture in the middle of it.
Going wild in Walcha is easy
One of the best things about spending a few days in Walcha is that nowhere is very far from anywhere: you can walk wherever you need to go in town.
Even the wilderness is within easy reach. Oxley Wild Rivers National Park – the sixth largest wilderness area in NSW and part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area – is just a short drive down the road.
Here, the edge of the sunlit plains of New England High Country’s tableland are split by countless jagged-edged gorges where, after rain, rivers rage and tumble over the edge, creating some of the most spectacular – and highest – waterfalls in the state.
Apsley Falls are just 19 kilometres from Walcha – one kilometre off the Oxley Hwy on a sealed all-weather road – and much of the walk around the rim of the gorge is wheelchair accessible, including two lookout platforms where you can gaze out at the 85-metre-high waterfall.
It’s just as awe–inspiring today as it was back in 1818 when explorer John Oxley wrote in his journal that “we were lost in astonishment at the sight of this wonderful natural sublimity”.
Tia Falls (say Tye-ah, not Tee-ah) are also just off the Oxley, and are particularly impressive after rain. In spring, the bushland is carpeted in beautiful white and yellow everlasting daisies and other wildflowers. It’s a great spot to unpack the snacks you picked up earlier from Cafe Graze or The Fruit Shop.
The best motorcycling roads in Australia
Walcha is famous among one group of intrepid Aussies – motorcyclists.
Anyone who likes to wind their way through stunning mountain scenery on two wheels already knows about Walcha, one of the first unofficially designated motorcycle-friendly towns in Australia. Heading to Walcha for a weekend or mid-week break is high on the bucket list of anyone who likes hanging onto a set of chromed handlebars.
To get there, you can take the legendary roads that snake through the ferny rainforest from seaside Port Macquarie on the Oxley Highway.
You can also loop around the legendary Thunderbolts Way (a road named after the infamous ‘gentleman bushranger’ who once roamed these hills) from Gloucester (just off the Pacific Highway north of Newcastle) across forgotten valleys carved out by the Manning River and through the foothills of the Barrington Tops. Travelling across the big-sky, high-country grasslands and waterfall-riddled gorges of the northern tablelands from Tamworth or Armidale is another popular route.
Of course, you don’t have to wear leathers to enjoy these roads, because they are just as fabulous in a car as they are on two wheels: every road to Walcha is a scenic one.
There are two motels and twice as many pubs with accommodation in Walcha, but for a real taste of Walcha-style country hospitality try Old Greenwells B&B on the Thunderbolts Way. If you’re a flower fancier you’ll fall in love with the century-old gardens surrounding Cairnie Country Cottage. If soaking in a gorgeous view is more your style, check into Valley Views Cottage, one of many wonderful places to stay in Walcha.