Tour Report: A Winter Tour of the North Coast July 2019

A Winter Tour of the North Coast; or

How I was thwarted by a $5 billion Government Project

It was already the mid-winter and I hadn't managed any touring this year. It was time to get going! I reasoned the North Coast of NSW would be warmer so that's where I would go. And since July (and August) is the driest month so I hoped I wouldn't have to deal with inclement weather. As it turned out every day was brilliant sunshine. Indeed looks like July was the third warmest on record.

The plan was to ride from Newcastle to Casino which is a terminus for the XPT train then catch the train back to Sydney. Alas it was not to be so. But more of that anon.

If you are heading north along the coast, and wish to avoid the Pacific Highway as much as possible, there aren't many choices of route. Most published routes I have come across are some sort of variation of the ride I did here. I had ridden this area twice before both times through to Brisbane. The first time was in the 1980s and the second time was with my brother in 2015.

The topology is interesting. For the first few days you are riding beside a range of coastal lakes - Myall Lake, Smiths Lake, Wallis Lake and so on; then you start crossing the larger coastal rivers. You find yourself riding on flat plains interspersed with some hill climbs as you transverse from one watercourse to the next watercourse.

I carried a tent, sleeping quilt and pad; and stayed at caravan parks. I ate at pubs and cafes supplemented with some food from supermarkets. This enabled me to get everything I needed into 2 rear panniers.

Overall distance travelled: 700km in 10 days.

Day 1: Newcastle - (ferry) - Stockton - Nelson Bay - (ferry) - Tea Gardens - Hawks Nest (~50km)

It was 4.30am in the pitch black night when I hopped on the inter-city train from the Illawarra to Sydney. And then onto the train to Newcastle where I arrived just after 10am.

It had been raining for a week straight and I cycled the 2 kilometres from the train station to the ferry wharf in a drizzle. (There is a bike path that starts near the station that runs by the foreshore of Newcastle Harbour). Luckily the weather forecast for the following days said this would be the last of the rain. The 10 minute ferry trip took me across the Hunter River to Stockton.

While this is really a one day ride, since my bother lives at Stockton, I took the rest of the day to catch up with him and family. So it was in the pre-dawn next morning I pushed off from Stockton just in time to catch the tradies' rush hour - HiLuxes to the left of him, HiLuxes to the right of him.

Past the Stockton Bridge turn-off it was a flat and fast run through to Nelson Bay with a usable verge to ride on most of the way. Along the way the sun rose and shone into my eyes. Just a reminder that the sun is in the northern sky in mid-winter. I found this happened on most days of the tour. So it is worth being extra careful at such times as drivers approaching from behind will have the sun in their eyes also.

Morning tea was at a waterside cafe then I picked up the ferry to Tea Gardens. The ferry only runs 3 times a day in winter and it is worth ringing them to book as the ferry was packed to the gunnels. There are more ferry trips in summer. The ferry has carriage for bicycles - they strap them to a rack on the roof! I spent most of the 1 hour trip fearfully looking out of the window expecting to see my bicycle splash into Port Stephens. After crossing the harbour the ferry travels up the Myall River to Tea Gardens. From there it was a 10 minute ride around to the caravan park at Hawks Nest. If you prefer bush camping there are a number of National Park riverside campgrounds along the Mungo Brush Road outside Hawks Nest.

Day 2: Hawks Nest - Boomeri Campground - (Old Gibber Trail) - Bungwhal - (The Lakes Way) - Smiths Lake - Tiona (70km)

The Mungo Brush Road had very little traffic on it as I set off in the morning for a flat ride through the coastal bushland between the Myall River and the ocean. Eventually this road ends at the Bombah Point ferry. About 1km before you reach the ferry you pass the Boomeri Campground on your right and at the back of the campground is the start of the Old Gibber Trail. The trail was rough going as it is basically made up of sizeable loose rocks - the clue being in the name. A couple of times I had to dismount to get through short sections where I couldn't pick a viable path.

It was along here that my quill stem started to creak and I asked myself: "Exactly when was the last time you greased this thing Tony?"

The 20km of the trail took me 2 hours to negotiate. Even in mid-winter it was exposed and hot. (A possible alternative would be to take the ferry at Bombah Point, continue on the Bulahdelah, then pick up The Lakes Way.)

At the start of the Old Gibber Trail. Strapped to the handlebars is a Ground Effects bag to carry my bicycle on the train home.

Eventually I was back on the tar and joined The Lakes Way at Bungwhal. I was soon riding around Smiths Lake with great views across its foreshores. Not long after I reached Wallis Lake and eventually, along the very narrow isthmus between the lake and the Pacific, I stopped at Tiona to camp. (There is also camping available nearby at the National Park Ruins Campground.)

The afternoon was spent watching the sun set over the lake. There are no shops in the immediate area so I ended up eating my emergency food for supper. The nearest shops are at Blueys Beach.

The Ground Effects bag was not dead weight - I used it as an improvised ground sheet every day.

Day 3: Tiona - Forster/Tuncurry - (The Lakes Way) - Taree/Dawson River (56km)

As I only had 56km to ride this day I treated myself to a lazy breakfast at Forster. Then it was over the bridge to Tuncurry on a SUP to pick up The Lakes Way again. There was a decent verge as far as the Halidays Point turn off but from then on the verge ended and hill climbs began until the junction with the Pacific Highway. I cut out a couple of kilometres of highway riding on the back road through Rainbow Flats. The Highway has a breakdown lane to ride in filled with the usual detritus but an easy few km to Taree. Deano's Bicycle Shop in Taree shouted me some grease so I was able to attend to my noisy stem.

The campsite was a few kilometres out of Taree on the Dawson River. Quite a strong westerly wind had come up so I was glad the day was finished. I took advantage of the wind and sunshine to give most of my clothing a decent wash and dry. Funny on tours how important the day-to-day domestic chores become.

Bridge over Manning River at Taree

Day 4: Taree/Dawson River - Cundletown - (Pacific Highway) - Harrington - Crowdy Bay National Park - Laurieton - Lake Cathie (78km)

Another pre-dawn departure riding through Cundletown then on to the Pacific Highway. I generally prefer to get on the road before sunrise when touring: usually it is the stillest part of the day - no headwinds - and as I'm often riding out of a populated area the traffic is lighter. 18km along the Highway bought me to the Harrington turn-off but since the road is on river flats and the breakdown down lane ample this was quickly knocked over.

Ah Harrington Waters! This is the first of the over-55s "life style" developments you'll come across that litter this part of the coast. They promise a sea-change of beach walks and golf. I'd rather be riding. Luckily just past here is the original old seaside village of Harrington. I take time to have a cup of coffee and watch the Manning River flow into the sea.

From Harrington it is on to Crowdy Bay National Park and another dirt road. It is still early morning, the birds are singing, the light is dappled and there is hardly any traffic. Unfortunately the road is quite pot-holed and corrugated. It's hard going and there are constant jolts to my arms and neck.

Road through Crowdy Bay National Park - 27km of dirt road

I arrived at Laurieton for an early lunch. I was very sad to see the Laurieton bicycle shop had closed. In 2015 I bought a orange Laurieton bicycle shop branded drink bottle here which I still carry on my touring bicycle.

Past Laurieton the road turns nasty for the few kilometres around Bonny Hills. The road is narrow, there is no verge, the edge is broken, the speed limit is 90 kph, you are climbing some short sharp hills, the traffic is heavy, and no-one has heard of the 1.5 meter overtaking law.

I pulled into Lake Cathie. Port Macquarie is only 15km further on with lots of accommodation options. But it is a significant hill climb to reach the town on busy roads. It's been a rather flat day of riding so I preferred to grab a cabin for the night at Lake Cathie. The carbohydrate hit of spaghetti for dinner feels good.

Day 5: Lake Cathie - Port Macquarie - (ferry) - (Maria River Road) - Kempsey (73km)

I get into Port Macquarie quite early and decide to cross the Hastings River on the Settlement Point ferry. (The other option is the Hibbard ferry.)

Onto Shoreline Drive and then another dirt road - the 32km of the Maria River Road to Crescent Head. The riding isn't as bad as on the dirt yesterday but the road still has many potholes. Back in 2015 when my brother and I rode here we flew along this road. So things have deteriorated since then. It's a bit of a disappointment that half of the ride this day is spent looking over the front wheel to pick the track to ride.

Grass trees in swamp alongside the Maria River Road

It's back on the tar on the Crescent Head Road to Kempsey. There is no verge and there is a bit of traffic. I set up at a caravan park in Kempsey. Towards evening 2 young blokes ride in on road bikes with bikepacking gear. They are riding to the Splendour in the Grass festival at Byron Bay and have to cover 100km+ every day on the Highway to make it.

Day 6: Kempsey - Smithtown - (Plummers Lane) - Clybucca - Stuarts Point - Grassy Head - Scotts Head - Macksville (78km)

The temperature dropped to 0C overnight. I was riding with light liner gloves and my bike gloves but had to pull a pair of wool sock over my hands when I left that morning. Even so my fingers were frozen numb riding along the Macleay River flats to Smithtown. Smithtown is an old river village and it was amusing to see chooks wandering down the main street. The sun was now up. It was now a lovely, quiet, flat ride along the left bank of the river.

Riding along the Macleay River

The route then went along Plummers Lane and Macleay Valley Way until the Highway was hit outside Clybucca. It was only 1 km on the Highway until the Stuarts Point turnoff and on through Grassy Head and Scotts Head and finally to Macksville. There are a number of short sharp hills here and I had to do some walking. I saw the first macadamia and banana farms along here which reminded me it's the north coast. I have the best meal of the trip at the pub on the Nambucca River at Macksville. The things you remember!

Day 7: Macksville - Nambucca Heads - (Giinagay Rd) - Urunga - Raleigh - (Keevers Dr/Pine Creek Way) - Toormina/Sawtell - Coffs Harbour/Park Beach (60km)

A fair bit of this day's ride was on the lightly trafficked Tourist Drive road which parallels the Pacific Highway. First it was to Nambucca Heads following the Nambucca River. 5 km out of Nambucca there is a SUP I picked up as the road here has no verge. Then there was a bit of hill climbing as I passed between the Nambucca and the Bellinger river systems. Uranga for breakfast and coffee was a welcome stop.

There are more hills to climb but nothing overwhelming as you approach Coffs Harbour. To avoid the highway I travel into Coffs through the suburbs of Toormina & Sawtell via Lyons Road, Toormina Road and Hogbin Drive. These are major roads but a SUP starts at Toormina Road that takes you all the way into Coffs. Coffs Harbour looks prosperous and the main street was very busy. After lunch in the main drag I rode on another SUP out to the caravan park at Park Beach. At the campsite next to mine there are several young ladies travelling to Splendour in a hired camper van with all the luxuries - well luxuries to someone whose camping kit fits one pannier.

This was a fantastic day's riding, the best so far. It was sunny but cool weather, very scenic over varied terrain, with light traffic, and on decent roads. Perfect conditions.

Day 8: Coffs Harbour/Park Beach - Coramba - Nana Glen - Glenreagh - South Grafton (88km)

I left Coffs on a long steep climb out of town were I had to walk the last bit. This got me to the Orara Way which is the back road to Grafton. Orara Way has absolutely no verge along its entire 70 km length. While the traffic was light there seemed to be an undue preponderance of trucks including B-doubles and logging trucks. I found the ride unpleasant.

The highlights - indeed I'd say to only lights on this road - are the old villages of Coramba, Nana Glen and Glenreagh that you pass through. It's worth stopping at each one to have a coffee and a snack.

Old Post Office, Glenreagh

This was the longest ride of the trip. The road undulates through bush and scrubby paddocks - overall boring scenery. For me it was a case of heads down and push on to clock up the mileage.

I booked my ticket home on the XPT at Grafton railway station (which BTW is in South Grafton). I stayed at a dinky old caravan park next to cow paddocks on the river flats.

Moonrise South Grafton

Day 9: South Grafton - Lawrence - (ferry) - Maclean - (North Arm Dr, Harwood Island) - Chatworth Island - Woombah on Iluka Rd (74km)

Woke up with ice on the tent. Freezing. I started out bravely but I was so numb I only made it to the South Grafton shops where I found a cafe with a heater. Even so it took me 5 minutes before my fingers had feeling to unbuckle my helmet. So I holed up with a coffee until the sun had heated things up a bit.

One route from Grafton to my final destination of Casino is the 1 day 100km ride along the Summerland Way. I had done this previously and found it to be a long and dull ride through scrub and forestry plantations. So this time I had decided to take 2 days to get to Casino - from Grafton to Woombah, then from Woombah riding 30km on the Highway then through Coraki to Casino.

So I left on the Lawrence road through fields of cattle, through fields of cane, alongside the Clarence River . At Lawrence there is a ferry then the road continues on the other side of the river to Maclean which is on an island.

Maclean certainly celebrates a Scottish heritage, most noticeably with every telegraph pole decorated to a height of 2 meters in a clan tartan.

Cane fields near Maclean

Leaving Maclean is by a bridge. A massive new bridge is being built next to the old one. Roadworks blocked the ingress so I had to carry my bicycle up steps onto the old bridge. Once off the bridge it was a left hook to get off the Highway and through the cane fields of Harwood and Chatsworth Islands. I loved Chatworth Island. All long the riverbank people have constructed dioramas full of garden gnomes. And then there is the Thong Tree.

I came back to the Highway at the Illuka Road crossing.

Disaster! In front of me stretching off into the distance was the Woolgoolga To Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade.

The Highway was reduced to a single lane each way for 50km to allow for the roadworks. Concrete barriers abutted the road. It took me 15 minutes to get across the Highway and through the roadworks to the Illuka Road. I talked to several people and it seemed that it would be highly unlikely I could ride my bicycle onwards under these conditions.

So I bit the bullet and decided to return to Grafton the next day where I would catch the XPT home.

Day 10: Woombah - Grafton Railway Station, South Grafton (70km)

Yesterday's ride in reverse. My son and I passed each other today on different roads - my son was driving to Splendour. He confirmed the impassibility of the Highway. I wondered how the 2 blokes I met at Kempsey fared here? Did they make Byron?

Packed up for the XPT

Accommodation Costs

8 unpowered tents sites at caravan parks and 1 cabin with a average cost of $40 per day. The cabin was expensive.

Note on Food

If you want to eat out there aren't many vegetarian or vegan options outside the bigger towns - unless you reclassify chicken schnitzel as a vegetable. Most vegetarian dishes seemed to based around cheese.

Bicycle & Equipment

The bicycle was my build based around a Velo Orange Campeur frameset. This is a very stable platform both loaded or unloaded. The panniers are Wilderness Equipment canvas purchased in the 1980s and still going strong.

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Thanks for the detailed reports, pictures and finding ways around the obstacles! 

I'm hoping to inspire others to have a go at touring. And to give up-to-date info for seasoned tourists.

Thanks for the report, that's great

What's SUP [I'm going to kick myself when you answer]

SUP = shared user path

It's when someone sprays a bicycle logo on a footpath and the pollies announce brand new cycling infrastructure.

I plan a home bound trip roughly the reverse of yours later in the year. I was planning to use the Orara Way south of Grafton for about 30k and then swinging east to the highway and join up around Halfway Creek. The dual carriage way looks to be in use to there and it'd be maybe another 20-30k on the M1. Can you shed any light on this?

I haven't ridden the Highway here but I did vow to give it a try if there is a next time rather than Oran Way. 

A quick look at the map shows that you can skip a section of the Highway south of Halfway Creek on the old Highway and then a little later on Solitary Islands Way/Gaudrons Rd.

Have a look at the NSW Coastal Cycle Trail route through this area which is similar

NOTE THE SITE SAYS:  During August 2019, RMS will be upgrading Solitary Islands Way near Corindi and this road will be closed  between 7 am & 6 pm weekdays.  During these times the alternate route will be via the M1 

Looks like you could also turn left at Nana Glen and do Bucca Rd & Central Bucca Rd.

This is great! Thanks for sharing. So inspiring.


Thanks Shane. I've been touring for nigh on 40 years now. I hope I might inspire others to give it a go.

It is just astounding that just about every road and many places I travelled on this tour has been burnt out by bushfires. 

It is very pessimistic but with climate change and the extended bushfire season perhaps bike touring time becomes very constrained.


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