Does it even count as a romantic summer getaway to Bellingen without hiking your way to some swimming holes? Most definitely not, writes Kate Bettes.
I had been anticipating four days of romantic bliss with my partner up in the mid-North Coast NSW village of Bellingen for some time. And, as I told him as we hurtled north up the Pacific Highway from Sydney to celebrate our anniversary, I had planned the perfect hit list to go with it. Swim in as many natural pools as possible, and give Drew Barrymore energy when she’s floating in the lake in Ever After. Morning hikes followed by lazy afternoons of passionate lovemaking. Book a terribly romantic restaurant, preferably with fairy lights and amaretto sours with cherries. Eat fresh, local oysters at a ridiculously good price. Boast about price/quality for the next six months to my city friends.
One of the good things about being in a relationship for more than a few years is that habits that could be perceived to be annoying, like a tendency to over-plan trips, instead become what I like to think of as charmingly endearing quirks. I’m also unashamed when it comes to asking total strangers for tips. I knew this area was famous for its waterfalls and hidden water holes, neighbouring as it did the Gondwana rainforests and volcanic slopes of the Dorrigo National Park and the Waterfall Way scenic drive. And now, thanks to the help of the Bellingen residents I polled on arrival, I have a list of the best local swimming spots and hikes. Armed with knowledge and sturdy water shoes, it was time to get our fix.
Natural pools are where true magic lies. (Image: Destination NSW)
1. Bellinger River, Lavender Bridge Park
Lavender Bridge is one of the first sights you will see when coming into town from the coast. Crossing the Bellinger River, the park beneath the bridge makes for a tempting first stop if you’re looking to cool off, quickly.
When we last came through this way, on New Year’s Eve many years before, the banks were filled with picnickers and sunbathers: lounging on rugs and towels and making their way down to the water. Sweaty and bothered from an hours-long drive and with no swimmers, I’d jumped in for a super satisfying, but ill-judged, fully clothed dip.
I ended up with an itchy shirt and a damp seat all the way to Byron Bay. Don’t be like me. Be like the person who puts their swimmers, towel and water shoes on top of the suitcase for easy access if the temptation strikes.
Have your swimmers at the ready so you can take a dip at any point. (Image: Destination NSW)
Nearby walks: Take your time with an easy stroll along the main drag of Bellingen. There’s plenty to see here beyond the classic road trip stop at the bakery.
For coffee, make a stop at Habitat a priority. Once a petrol station, it is now covered in creeping vines, which drape from the roof and onto fading orange fuel pumps — reinvigorated in its new life as a Jumanji-style coffee house-meets-plant nursery. Outside, the bright red truck of Mak’s Turkish Gozleme idles, doing solid business whipping up gozleme fresh to order.
We mimicked the feasters on the grass down at Lavender Bridge and headed two minutes out of town to Fullers Fresh fruit market. Warm bread, local honey, cheese and apricots, paired with French apple cider from Bellingen’s craft Libertine Liquor store will make any sunny afternoon spent here, sparkle.
The small town of Bellingen has a lot of charm. (Image: Destination NSW)
2. Crystal Falls, Dorrigo National Park
Despite my rose-coloured glasses, there was no swim here. But there is a fantastic view of one of the area’s prettiest waterfalls, Crystal Falls.
Crystal Shower Falls is one of the area’s prettiest waterfalls. (Image: Destination NSW)
Nearby walks: Start at the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. Once you’ve dropped in your two-dollar donation, make for the Wonga walk circuit, which will take you through the subtropical rainforest and under the canopy of impossibly tall and ancient trees to the Crystal Falls.
Take your time walking through the damp undergrowth, so different from the drier bushlands commonly associated with Australia.
The damp undergrowth is so different from the drier bushlands commonly associated with Australia. (Image: Destination NSW)
We couldn’t resist stopping to look at everything and soak in the green and the growing, from ledges of beautiful fungi that grew on rotting trunks to staring open-mouthed up at the colonies of giant leaves that encircled centuries-old trees, that rose to mindboggling heights and enormous sizes.
You’ll hear the Falls before you see them. Crossing onto a wooden bridge, the sun creates rainbow hues in its clouds of spray below.
As tempting as it might be, resist scaling down the slippery rocks to take selfies down by the water. Instead, go behind the waterfall and admire falls from an angle you might never have experienced before.
Next, keep going to get to Tristania Falls, another permanent waterfall in the park.
Crossing onto a wooden bridge, the sun creates rainbow hues in its clouds of spray below. (Image: Destination NSW)
3. Dangar Falls, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park
Dorrigo’s not the only park with waterfalls. We hopped back in the car to go further along Waterfall Way, towards Dangar Falls in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Armed with both swimmers and umbrellas (the humidity had turned into a warm drizzle), it took under 10 minutes to get to our destination.
Dangar Falls is a dream. (Image: Destination NSW)
Standing at the top of the falls, across from ancient rock formations, and lichen-encrusted pines across the way, my gaze kept falling on the enormous plunge pool below. Before I knew it, we were taking the winding path down, across the pebble-stoned creek beach and were wading in.
Behind us, the waterfall powered on, as the water fell with unimaginable force down into the pool below. Yet from where we were floating on our backs, looking up at the now clearing sky, we felt immensely at ease.
The viewing platform offers a great vantage point and excellent photo opportunity of the falls. (Image: Destination NSW)
Nearby walks: Aside from the short track down to the water, there is also the curiosity-inducingly named McDirtys walking track. Despite its delightfully filthy-sounding moniker, McDirtys has plenty to offer in terms of wholesome experiences along its six-kilometre length.
As well as lookouts over Dangar Falls, the Rock Wallaby lookout has incredible views across the Gondwana rainforest and the gorge below.
McDirtys has plenty to offer in terms of wholesome experiences. (Image: Destination NSW)
4. Never Never Creek, Promised Land
If we could only do one of the Bellingen swimming holes, I had been determined Never Never would be it. Stories of its beauty had been repeated to me over the years by friends. But despite being keen as green beans, we came worryingly close to missing it.
Confusingly there is also a Never Never Picnic Area up in Dorrigo National Park, over 45 minutes drive away.
But as a store owner at Bellingen’s Old Butter Factory patiently explained to us when we happened to tell him our plans for that day, the famous swimming hole is just 10 minutes away from Bellingen, and in a completely different direction.
Never Never Creek is just 10 minutes away from Bellingen. (Image: Destination NSW)
To get there, head out of town towards the Promised Land at Glennifer. It’s incredibly scenic, with rolling fields, light-dappled tunnels of trees and mountains in the distance. Cross the Never Never Creek, but don’t stop now. Instead, take the next right down Promised Creek Road when it splits in two, and park past the bend. From there, you’ll find a short track down.
Was it worth it? All that and more.
We came across a crystal-clear creek, glowing in the sun in dusty tones of green blues and brown quartz, with extensive flat rocks that we lay across like sun-drunk lizards. The trees of the bush leant their branches over the water like thirsty old men, and the sounds of birds and tumbling waterfalls are the only things we heard.
It’s a popular spot, so come on a weekday and minimise your impact. Don’t wear sunscreen or other pollutants that can muck up the water quality or leave anything behind.
Don’t leave anything behind. (Image: Destination NSW)
Nearby walks: You can walk or drive along parts of the creek, in search of the next rockpool to cool off in or a rope swing to swing out on.
But if you’d rather see another side of the Never Never, take a trip up into the Dorrigo National Park to the aforementioned Never Never picnic area. From here you can do four different walking tracks; Red Cedar Falls, Rosewood Creek and Blackbutt walking tracks, as well as the Casuarina Falls circuit.
Towering blackbutt trees, rushing waterfalls, creeks and verdant rainforest await. The hardest track — the challenging eight km Red Cedar Falls walk — takes you to the largest and one of the most dramatic waterfalls in the park.