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20. Australian Road Trip: Into the Big Volcano - Byron Bay and beyond
Yamba and environs
First Stop...Yamba - great beaches, surf, landscape, pub, township, - I love Yamba. Angourie, just down the coast is a legendary NSW surfing spot too.
The Big Volcano
Into the Caldera
Head north from Coffs Harbour and the climate and landscape changes before your eyes. Coffs itself is the banana heartland and there is a real tropical feel to the region, with its steep hills patterned in ragged-leafed plantations, the fruit often wrapped in blue plastic bags to hasten the ripening process. Big River Country comes next – the mighty Clarence drifting leisurely through rolling farmlands before widening out to form a broad estuary that spills into the sea at Yamba. Along its banks are mudflats, mangroves and houses on stilts. Yamba town and the nearby hamlet of Angourie are worth describing but I won’t do that here, their pleasures are best kept secret from the general public… oops.
Mt Warning - Woollumbin
Mt Warning: the centre of a huge volcano, the remnants of the inner walls of the caldera are the Border Ranges NP to the left of the marker (A)
The Big Volcano
North of Yamba, beyond the town of Ballina, there are mountains that do not belong to the Great Dividing Range which runs up the entire east coast of Australia. They are part of a 'caldera' - the remnants of what was once one of the Earth’s largest volcanos. This ex- volcano goes by several names, among them The Mt. Warning Shield Volcano or The Tweed Volcano, and it is a designated World Heritage Site. This means that this is a very special place indeed. I would go so far as to say it is my personal Favourite Place, not only in Australia but perhaps in all the world – I know, I know, that’s a big statement to make and what about Paris, or the Big Apple or even “Home” (there’s no place like it they say). I won’t dwell too much on facts here – you can google them – lets look at feelings, a totally subjective approach, but you gotta trust me.
The caldera, or crater if you like, is over 40 kilometres in diameter and centres around Mt. Warning, named by Captain Cook, but originally and concurrently named Woolumbin by the local aboriginals. Woolumbin is the rock-hard core of the volcano, an unerodable volcanic plug of lava over 1100 metres tall. To the east of Woolumbin, the walls of the caldera that once surrounded it have eroded to the size of steep hills. But on the western side they form a near semi-circle of serrated mountains – the inside walls of the bloody volcano – right there for one to see, and in seeing, so you can dream of the power and the energy and the primordial history that made this place. It is a magnificent sight that surrounds you as you drive through the rolling green farmlands and sub-tropical forests that make up the floor of the crater. There is a road if you can find it – not for the faint hearted – that goes up from the crater floor, following the ridge of the caldera. It is a dirt road, it is narrow and it rises to almost 1000 metres above the valley floor. On each side of the road there is a sheer drop, either into the crater or over the outside edge of the volcano – get it? The air at the end of the road is cold and clear and you look over the edge across the stunning valley dotted with gum trees and dairy cows, past the imposing peak of Mt Warning/Woolumbin, out over the Tweed River, Muwillumbah township, the cane fields and sparkling in the not so very distant distance – the Pacific Ocean. The quaint village of Uki (pronounced yook-eye) sits in the shadow of Mt. Warning, the central and dominant feature in the volcanic setup, and from here it is possible to walk the trail up to the top of the spikey mountain. They say that stting on top of Woolumbin at dawn is truly a life changing experience as this is the first place in Australia to see the rays of the rising sun. I’m yet to do this pre-dawn climb, though it is on my life agenda.
Byron Bay, you can't bloody beat it mate!
Byron Bay is Beaut
You can’t talk about the Big Volcano without talking about Byron Bay. This is one of Australia’s top ten tourist destinations, especially for modern day backpackers; but it has always held an attraction. Cape Byron is the most easterly point of the Aussie mainland, and there is a great view to be had from the historic lighthouse on the point. From here you can look down on the ocean and see dolphins in the shallows, whales cruising up the coast and surfers riding the near perfect waves that peel off the sand bars and rocky points. You can look back to the west and see Mt. Warning, aka Woolumbin, dominating the skyline, surrounded by the serrated ridges of the caldera. Though I can’t see it, I believe I can sense the immense landmass of Australia that lies beyond those rainforest-clad mountains of the former volcano, a landmass that extends thousands of miles across desert and wilderness to the far western shores of the continent.
Byron Bay is a surf town, a hippy town, a playboy’s town, a trendy town, an over-commercialised town, a country town, a party town, a millionaires town and a town where you can camp and do absolutely nothing if that’s what you want to do… at least for a while.
The surf at Clarkes Beach, at the far southern end of the bay can be fantastic. The waves break off the point then form into tight, fast tubes on the sandbar that lies just beneath the warm, shallow water. If you get on the right wave, and if you time it right, and if you don’t fall off, on a good day you can ride one of these fast, tight tubes for quite a distance. So far in fact, that it is easier to walk along the beach to return to the break zone than it is to paddle back against the ferociously strong current that sweeps along the shore.
There is a campground in the woods just behind the beach. You can see the waves from your tent or in my case from the bed in the top of our camper – it is just too good here. I don’t even mind the over exploitation and commercialism which is itself overwhelmed by the laid back charm of the place. I just wish I had managed to get a slice of it for myself 30 years ago when it was marginally more affordable and considerably less busy.
Byron Bay hosts a major music festival every year - Bluesfest. Check out the website for Bluesfest 2013 - an amazing line-up of musicians (Not just blues either) in an amazing location - Amazing.
The Age of Aquarius
Our road lies north, into the real tropics – but before we go, before you go - take a drive into the caldera, and find the small mountain road that winds through the rainforest and over the other side of the bowl. Find and follow signs to the village of Nimbin where you can marvel at the colourful shop fronts and fanciful facades that make up Australia’s most famous Hippie town. Nimbin - where you can buy Special Cookies, at three for $10, and smoke local homegrown in the cafés*, and, if you close your eyes to the wandering ferals and the backpacking tourists, and let the warmth of the air, the smell of the frangipanis and the distant twang of guitars waft over you, you can imagine what life might be like in The Age of Aquarius.
*The author does not advocate the use of special cookies or local homegrown.