When the Lakes need a beach fix we head for Evans Head, a tiny town in far northern New South Wales which fortunately has remained overlooked by the tourist hordes.
It’s about a two hour drive from here if you go straight down the motorway but we prefer to take the slightly longer but much more beautiful route through the back country down the Numinbah Valley. From Tamborine we can take a short cut via Clagiraba through to the Numinbah Valley road. Here the countryside is all ups and downs; on the western side are the heights of the Beechmont Plateau and after this the road follows the west bank of the Hinze Dam which is almost hidden among its many small surrounding hills.
The scenery here consists of rather scrubby forest growing on poor, rocky soil but this soon opens out to green meadows and running creeks as the road runs through the narrow defile between the Springbrook Plateau to the east and the Lamington Plateau to the west. These high plateaus are bounded by formidable cliff faces, steep gorges and great bluffs such as Ship’s Stern, a favourite goal of bushwalkers setting out from Green Mountains and Binnaburra where so many great rainforest hikes begin.
It was a Monday when we left on our latest trip and so the road, which rarely carries much traffic, was very quiet. It’s a good road too, considering that there is nothing much on either side except a few farms, a legacy of the legendary politician Big Russ Hinze who was always very generous to his own electorate!
Mountain in Numinbah Valley
Approaching the Border Range
This good road deteriorates rather abruptly when it gets close to the New South Wales border. There is a scenic wonder here known as Natural Arch, where the upper reaches of the Nerang River have worn through the rocky gorge to form an archway over an exquisite pool, with a cave full of glow worms alongside. A bit further along, near where the old border “tick” gate used to be is a cave, up a steep track, where 19th century bushrangers are supposed to have hidden from their pursuers.
As you drive over the slight rise where Queensland and New South Wales meet there is a splendid view over the whole of the Tweed Valley towards the sea. The land is flat and green with sugar cane and other crops. The peaked cap of Mt Warning, an extinct volcano, can be seen on clear days though more often the mountain’s top is hidden by cloud, as it was the other day. High above, just to the east, is Best of All Lookout at Springbrook which I always think should be called “Worst of All” because the view from up there always seems to be hidden by cloud.
View from Queensland border looking south east into New Souh Wales and the Tweed Valley
I always approach the road down into the Tweed here with great caution because it has suddenly become narrow, rough and with a precipitous drop on the outside. In the past I’ve towed a caravan through here and hated it! No cars were coming the other way, last Monday morning, so it was an easy run down to pretty little Chillingham at the base of the range. Chillingham boasts a few rather scruffy houses and some very pretty Queensland-style (though we are now in New South Wales) shops and public buildings. It’s all very lush, with palms and the sparkling river and many huge and handsome trees shading the buildings. On a dry morning in early November it was particularly colourful because the jacarandas were in full bloom, vying with the flame trees for our admiration. Intriguing little roads take off from Chillingham, into the spectacular Limpinwood Valley and other deep and lesser known valleys that hide among the folds of the Border Range.
Road through Chillingham
A brief glimpse of Mt Warning, not covered with cloud
Our road, though, lies south-eastward to Murwillumbah and the coast. The view here is dominated by mountains of which Mt Warning is only just the highest. It’s stupendous scenery even on a cloudy day.
Murwillumbah is a pleasant town just back from the coast on the western side of the Pacific Motorway that links Brisbane to Sydney. It’s a true sub-tropical minipolis sprawled lazily across many small hills and the streets are shaded by palms and jacarandas and various colourful rainforest trees. There are some fine old buildings in the main street and some lovely old timber houses too on the hillside above, with wide and shady verandahs. The Tweed River runs through it and though at this season it looks tame and peaceful ,come late summer it can turn into a wild torrent pouring down from the mountains and flooding the lower reaches of the town.
There used to be a wonderful little café here called Dali’s which was a favourite breakfast spot of ours because the French proprietor served one of the finest and cheapest big brekkies available anywhere. The walls were covered in Salvador Dali prints and memorabilia and possibly a couple of originals because the proprietor (it was said) had actually known the moustachioed genius. Certainly he encouraged local artists to set up easel just outside in the arcade and there was always somebody there wielding a brush under the keen eyes of the café patrons who were not above offering some advice. There were, too, always European old men playing chess or backgammon in a corner because besides the usual café dining tables there were nooks and niches stuffed with odd chairs and fat sofas and strange curios and arty magazines. Dali’s positively oozed atmosphere and charm.
Alas, like all good things, Dali’s has come to an end. When we arrived in Murwillumbah fanging out for our special breakfast we found the same café premises but all changed and with a new name and owner. They serve a breakfast but it didn’t look all that tempting. Murwillumbah is not short of cafes so we checked out a few and eventually settled on a little place that did good coffee and eggs and mushrooms with a Lebanese twist. Fresh-laid eggs, too, and yummy bread. All very nice but not as good as Dali’s. There is also a large café-bakery in the main street where we had coffee on our way home a week later, and found it very good. They do a breakfast too but it’s a lot more expensive. I’m planning to write a book one day called Breakfast at Dali’s,; I’ve no idea of a story yet but it will be about how nothing lasts forever and that everything we have loved we eventually lose.
Murwillumbah Court House
Well-fortified, we took the road again, still avoiding the motorway but taking the old Pacific Highway south over the Burringbar Range. This was a notorious range in its day, for its steep bends and truck accidents. Today, just to the east of it, the big new motorway runs straight and flat but the range road is worth travelling for its splendid views of Mt Warning and its paucity of traffic. On the southern side of the range is the little whistle-stop of Mooball, stuck between the road and the railway line. Nearly half a century ago the local service station/café owner had the bright idea of capitalizing on the town’s silly name and calling his establishment the Moo Cow or something like that. He offered milk shakes and other milky comestibles and plastered the exterior with bovine motifs and the black and white patches of a Friesian cow. The bottom of all the telegraph poles in town were painted to match. His idea worked well because Mooball was a reasonable stopping place between Brisbane and Sydney so for many years thirsty travelers were happy to try his famous milkshakes. Today, bypassed by the new highway, Mooball is a sad little place with a few houses and the tattered piebald fragments of one man’s enterprise.
The new motorway also bypasses Brunswick Heads, another once-popular travellers’ stopping place but still thriving today because it’s on the beach – we often stop there for breakfast on our way south. Around here is where we finally picked up the motorway for the run up to the lush and scenic plateau behind Byron Bay, where Paul Hogan had a home, and down again to Ballina, a thriving and quite large coastal town where we always stop to shop on our way to Evans Head. It boasts an Aldi, two large supermarkets and a couple of big discount liquor stores – all you need really! The drive from the Byron Bay turnoff to Ballina is always a joy, with the mountains to the west and the vast blue shining Pacific to the east. It’s all macadamia and avocado and coffee plantations, with pretty little leafy lanes running off to either side of the highway. A popular area with New Agers as well as celebrities looking for hideaways. Ballina, too, has recently been bypassed by the upgraded Pacific Motorway and once you are south of here, crossing the Richmond River, the scenery becomes less spectacular where the mountain ranges give place to low hills and scrubby forest.
But the sea is never far away and at Broadwater the fields of emerald cane open up the landscape again and the big sugar refinery pours white smoke into the sky. There is a café here named after Nellie Melba though I can’t think why because I’m sure she never lived there, though she did spend some years on a sugar plantation in north Queensland.
We turn off to the east here, for the short run into Evans Head. Unlike more glamorous or spectacular places such as Noosa Heads or Byron Bay or Brooms Head, little EH doesn’t reveal its scenic treasures at first glance. There is no spectacular ocean view as you drive into town though in fact the beach is only a few metres away, hidden behind low dunes and melaleuca swamp. The first thing you glimpse is the river, only small but very pretty, with aqua water over the pale sand at its mouth. The town itself isn’t much; an ugly pub and equally unattractive RSL club, both of which serve excellent food, a few shops, a big caravan park, one Thai and one Chinese restaurant.
Trawlers in the little harbour
In fact Evans Head is like going back in time to the 1960s – and all the better for that, as far as we are concerned! Most of the buildings don’t seem to have changed from that time and though there are a few very attractive new two-storey beach apartments they are outweighed by the many old fibro beach shacks and sprawling timber holiday homes. Most of these are owned by country folk from the hills and fishing is still the most popular holiday occupation. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing else to do in Evans Head unless you are a bowler or a surfer. It must have the only surf life saving club in Australia that DOESN’T boast an expensive bistro and focuses only on weekend lifesaving activities.
Evans Head Surf Lifesaving Club
Bob on the southern rock wall
For people who are content just to birdwatch and bush/beach walk, however, Evans Head is a marvelous place. The beach north of the river runs just a kilometer or so from the rivermouth before becoming Broadwater National Park. Thus with access only at the township, you can walk all day along this beach without seeing more than one or two other people – and fishermen who are allowed to take their 4WDs along the sand at low tide (but not across the national park dunes). South of the river there are several pretty little coves under the lee of the headland and then the long stretch of beautiful Chinaman’s Beach which runs from the tail of Goanna Headland to the short peninsula of Snapper Rock. We love this walk though you can only do the whole length of it at low tide because there is a small headland in between which is hard to get around at high tide unless you are very young and agile. Here there is the exquisite pandanus grotto where wonderfully grooved and coloured boulders make good seats beneath the overhang of pandanus trees and a small, clear, tea-coloured peaty stream flows out of the dunes. Pandanus palms are thick all along the top of the dunes at Chinaman’s Beach, giving it all a very tropical look. Around the base of both headlands are pretty little rock pools full of tiny fish and crustaceans and colourful sea plants.
Chinaman’s Beaqch south from the pandanus grotto
Chinaman’s Beach looking north to Snapper Rock
Bob sitting out the rain in the pandanus grotto
Colourful rocks in the pandanus grotto
You can reach Chinaman’s Beach by going over the high dunes behind the headland and walking the edge of the cliffs where there is a narrow path. In late winter and spring this open coastal heathland is brilliant with wildflowers and all the bush is low and dense, honed by the prevailing sea wind. Peregrine and brown falcons soar here, along with hobbies and other small hawks, majestic sea eagles, coppery Brahminy kites, plaintive whistling kites, and an occasional pair of harriers hunting low over the swamp to the west of the cliff path. You can also get there by car, down to the reserve and picnic ground above the beach entrance. We sometimes cycle down this quiet dead-end road and on our last trip we went early one morning and took our breakfast of bacon sandwiches and coffee. It’s about a 5km ride from our apartment and a wonderful way to start the day.
I bought this apple pie to carry with me on a beach hike and it travelled safely strapped around my wait until I reached our picnic spot – whereupon I sat on it! Still tasted good though.
South of Chinamans Beach is the large Bunjalung National Park that runs all the way (about 50 kms) down to Iluka and there is no access here (except around Snapper Rock at low tide) because the land abutting this end of Bunjalung is owned by the Australian Airforce and though little activity takes place there now entry is forbidden. This is a good thing because it preserves a large area of pristine beach and heathland.
None of these walks or beaches is very obvious to the casual visitor to Evans Head and we wouldn’t have known about them if we didn’t have friends there to show us. This is a town that keeps its secrets close to its chest and so you would never find the lovely river walk through Bunjalung National Park if you were not told about it. This is approached by a dirt road heading up-river from the boat ramp – at the end you leave your car and do a 5km round trip following the river’s edge. Parts of it are on boardwalks through the mangroves and tidal grasslands. There are sitting places with views up and down the river and an aboriginal midden and a kurrajong tree said to be at least 400 years old and sacred to the local tribe. It’s certainly sacred to us because we like to go and sit under its benevolent shade and watch the little egrets darting for fish in the mudflats below.
Further up river beyond the bridge
Cycling is our other favourite pastime at Evans Head, especially since we gave up fishing. Except for the top of the Head itself, which is more or less the “posh” part of town, everywhere is flat and you can bike along in perfect safety and comfort. There is a good path along the river, right up to the rock wall on either bank, and around to Airforce Beach where we stay.
Me on the northern rock wall
We used to camp at Evans Head but nowadays we stay in an apartment; it’s in an old 70s building but has been nicely refurbished and is only a few metres from the beach. We sit for hours on the narrow verandah watching the sea and reading our books. This is where we have breakfast, too. At night we fall asleep and wake again to the sound of the waves and when possible I get down onto the beach just before sunrise so I can see the sun come sailing up over the rim of the Pacific. Moonrise can be pretty spectacular, too, and at dusk a huge colony of bats bursts out of the melaleuca swamp nearby and flies northwards – it takes an hour for them all to pass and I sit there, drink in hand, wishing them successful foraging.
Tourism as it’s known in more popular beach destinations has largely passed Evans Head by, though it is quite popular with the Grey Nomads. It’s very hard to use a credit card of any kind in the town and though service is cheerful and friendly it is of the “Whaddya youse guys want to eat….not a problem luv” variety! Locals smile and say hello and are welcoming because they haven’t yet learned to hate tourists.
To us, Evans Head is like going back in time to younger days when a beach holiday was less about lattes in a stylish seaside café and more about sand between your toes. We love searching out its secret places and relish the peace of its nights when all you can hear is the sound of the sea. Let others partake of the more sophisticated attractions of Byron Bay and Noosa and the glittering Gold Coast, we shall continue to travel the green and gorgeous road less travelled down to our favourite hideaway.
In fact, now I come to think of it I’m sorry I’ve told you all how to get there!
Sunrise on the sea – from our apartment