A Trip to the Clarence River Region an Area Rich in History, Boasting Beautiful Coastlines and Unbelievably Fresh Seafood.
From high in the hills of the northern New England area close to the NSW-QLD border, the Clarence River starts it’s mighty journey to the ocean. Gracefully meandering through the valleys of the Great Dividing Range and through the picturesque city of Grafton. It then bends around to the north and flows out through low lying farmlands passing many small islands and eventually meeting the ocean between the seaside villages of Iluka and Yamba.
In its own right, the Clarence Valley is just as much of an iconic tourism hot spot as the famous Murray and Darling River regions. With lots of history, quirky towns and some of the states best beaches thrown in along the neighbouring coast- it’s definitely a great spot to spend a few weeks exploring, either for a short holiday or an addition to a more long term road-tripping itinerary.
The City of Grafton
We will star our journey of the Clarence Coast at what would arguably be considered the hub of the region- Grafton. Known affectionately as the ‘Jacaranda City’. A large regional city divided into two precincts thanks to the mighty Clarence River. Driving along the Pacific Highway, you will only get to pass through the fringes of South Grafton as the highway bypasses the main city. You will need to turn off near McDonalds, with a quick stop in at the Tourist Information Centre being a must. The information centre has to be one of the most resourceful and most informative centres we have come across. A real asset to the region. The staff were very friendly and knew their area well. They issued us with plenty of reading material and handy mud maps with places of historical significance. They also gave us some great tips for self-drive tours just out of town. It is also worth noting that the information centre is backed up by a very comprehensive website that we found very handy when we planned our visit.
To visit Grafton itself from the south, you first must cross the river via a very unique bridge. The bridge was opened in 1932 and replaced 2 massive steam-driven ferries. The bridge is unique as it not only carries vehicles but rail and pedestrians too, in a double-decker style arrangement.
Arriving on the north side of the river it won’t take you long to realise why Grafton has the nickname ‘The Jacaranda City’. One of the most notable features of Grafton are the tree-line streets, many foregoing the traditional kerb and gutter style approach and letting nature do the work. In season the Jacaranda trees light up with a sea of purple and spilling leaves onto the ground creating quite a visual spectacle. It is estimated that there are over 2000 Jacaranda trees in Grafton itself.
Grafton residents have embraced the abundance of Jacaranda trees and annually hold a festival celebrating their presence. The last weekend in October is when you will see the Jacaranda Festival in full swing and is something worth marking on your calendar.
Grafton boasts a very rich history and the city is home to many colonial buildings with some very interesting Edwardian and Victorian architecture- many of which are classified by the National Trust. A few buildings worth mentioning are the notorious Grafton Gaol, Christ Church Cathedral and Schaeffer House which has been made the home of The Clarence River Historical Society. Sightseeing the many historical building in Grafton is made very easy by first picking up a printed mud-map from the tourist information centre.
If self-drive exploring is your style, then there are plenty of options just waiting for you. One of our favourite trips is to the west towards Glen Innes. Take the Gwydir Highway and around 7kms out of South Grafton turn left onto the Old Glen Innes Road. This road is a mix of bitumen for the first part then turns to gravel after about 40kms. This trip will take you through the small historical villages of Buccurumbi and Dalmorton. Once a buzzing township with a population of over 5000 people and around 13 pubs, Dalmorton is now not much more than old but interesting ruins- the most notable ruin is the old butchers shop on the left as you drive through. For part of the journey you travel beside the very picturesque Boyd River before reaching a very special engineering marvel- the Dalmorton Tunnel, a great photo opportunity. For many, this is the end and they turn around and head back however if you have time, the loop continues west through to Newton Boyd and back out onto the Gwydir Highway for you to return home. Definitely take a picnic with you, there are plenty of places to enjoy a cuppa and a snack. And be aware that there are no shops or fuel stations out that way.
Another great option for a self drive tour is to a small village to the north- a village entirely classified by the National Trust. The small town of Ulmarra has looked after its heritage buildings keeping them well maintained to their original design and appearance. The local hotel is a fine example of this and is a perfect stop for lunch.
The town of Ulmarra embraces its ‘old charm’ ambience and here you will find many older buildings turned into shops selling ‘old wares’, antiques and many art & craft stores. Perfect for a lazy stroll around looking at the style of days gone by. As an alternative to heading back via the Pacific Highway to Grafton, just a short trip to the north you can catch the free vehicle ferry which takes you to the northern side of the Clarence River- here you can follow the road (and the river) back to Grafton.
Heading further north, closely following the mighty Clarence River you will come across the turn off to Maclean. The Tourist Information Centre is right on corner. Another great spot to visit or perhaps a stop for some lunch from the attached cafe. Maclean is known as Australia’s own Scottish town due to the high number of Scottish immigrants that settled there, many descendants still call it home. Only 3 minutes off the highway, its worth the effort to call in and once again check out some more of the old buildings in the region and maybe even take some time to see some of the 200-odd power poles which have all been painted and decorated to represent the tartans of each local Scottish clan. A map of the tartan-clad power poles are available from the tourist information centre if you wish to track down your own tartan just in case you happen to have any Scottish connections!
Every Easter, the town turns on its best Scottish traditions and the sounds of bagpipes and drums ring over the hills from the town centre to the showground. Kilt-wearing locals and visitors embrace the annual Easter Highland Gathering- a very popular, fun and unique festival that really puts Maclean on the map. Join in on some of the traditional Scottish games or maybe try some traditional food.
The other claim to fame for Maclean is that it is classified as the Southern Gateway to the sugar cane industry- in fact the nearby Harwood Island Sugar Mill is the longest, continuously running sugar mill in Australia.
A short drive south east of Maclean will take you to the small seaside holiday village of Brooms Head. Here, you will find one of the best swimming and fishing beaches on the coast. Its no wonder that the school holidays sees literally thousands of visitors, campers and caravanners converge on the local caravan park for a family holiday. With some sites offering absolute beach frontage- this place has to be some of the best real estate on offer to campers.
A short drive to Sandon along the banks of the Sandon River and a 4×4 trip back along the beach is a popular self-drive activity for keen beach goers.
A part from the caravan park, the town mainly consists of a small corner shop, a bowling club and a lot of holiday rentals. In comparison to the swollen numbers of tourists during peak times, the locals only make up a small percentage of the population.
If you take the road to the Yuragir National Park (only a few kms from the Brooms Head township) you will do a loop of the national park camping areas of Lake Aragan, Red Cliff and Grey Cliff. The Red Cliff headland glows a rich deep red, especially at sunrise. The walk between headlands is a popular activity for visitors but on days where the surf is performing, you will find many locals lining up waiting to catch a wave. A short deviation definitely worth the effort.
Heading to mouth of the Clarence River you will find yourself at the seaside town of Yamba. Voted ‘Australia’s Best Town’ (Australia Traveller Magazine 2009) Yamba has grown significantly since I was a little tacker. My family and I used to holiday there with our caravan and I have plenty of fond memories. Its a great little spot with fantastic beaches, swimming pools and of course plenty of recreational opportunities thanks to the river and neighbouring national parks. Canoeing, kayaking or punting around in a tinnie trying to catch a fish are just a few possibilities.
The town centre caters for many, with cafes; take away shops and a few boutique shops thrown in. There is a supermarket, hardware shop and all the other main services you would need, so a longer stay in the area is possible and comes very much recommended. There is plenty to keep you busy however you will be hard pressed to find a spot more perfect to simply do nothing, kick back and relax.
The Yamba area and more so Angourie, a short drive from the Yamba township, is famous for surfing and boasts Australia’s first ever dedicated surfing reserve. But, when it comes to being renowned for something, surfing is nice but the fresh seafood is something many people rave about. The warm, clean waters off the coast make for perfect seafood and the local prawns are something highly sort after by many high-end restaurants and seafood connoisseurs alike. Grab a bag of fresh prawns, perhaps a few local oysters, a bottle of wine and take a stroll along the break-wall and take in all that’s great about this little village.
Across the river mouth you will find another little gem, Iluka. A small town with a couple of great caravan parks perfectly suited to holiday makers. The locals reckon that most visitors who choose to stay in Iluka who bring their fishing gear along will usually also bring a frypan. The frypan is almost guaranteed to get a good workout. Fishing is the ‘big thing’ here in Iluka and a popular past time for locals with many people retiring here to do just that. From river fishing to beach fishing or perhaps a deep sea fishing charter- anglers will find Iluka to be pretty close to paradise.
But even if wetting a line isn’t your cup of tea, Iluka is still a fantastic spot to spend a week or two. The nearby Iluka Nature Reserve is perfect for picnics, birdwatching or bush walks.
An absolute ‘must do’ is catch the passenger ferry from Iluka to Yamba (or vice versa).
There is obviously a lot more to the Clarence Coast, but we couldn’t possibly mention everything. The best thing I could suggest is to log on to www.clarencetourism.com and start looking at all the other attractions and little towns on offer here. All the contact details for many of the caravan parks and information on the designated National Park camping areas are all on the website.
Don’t just ‘pass through’ next time, call in and discover this area for yourself.