Driving the Legendary Pacific Coast (day 3): Nambucca Heads, Waterfall Way & Coffs Harbour
After an amazing two days road tripping from Wollongong to Newcastle and continuing on through Port Stephens and Port Macquarie, Diana and I are beyond excited for another day on the road. We’ve got quite a distance to cover today, making our way from Nambucca Heads all the way to Runaway Bay on the Gold Coast so that we can begin our research with the NRL tomorrow, but there are still heaps of exciting stops planned that should break up the drive nicely.
Much to our disappointment, the sun had just gone down when we arrived in beautiful Nambucca Heads last night, so we made an ambitious plan to wake up in the dark and get to Pilot Lookout for sunrise. No one is more surprised than I am when I do actually get up for my 5.20am alarm (I can probably count on one hand the number of sunrises I’ve woken up for), but I think the ridiculously early bedtimes are finally catching up to me. I have felt like such a granny going to sleep at 8.30pm, but the obvious benefit is that I can now rise early to make the most of the daylight hours!
Diana and I set out from our cute little riverfront hotel with a slow walk that gradually transforms into an enthusiastic power walk as we notice the sun beginning to peak over the horizon. Although Nambucca can be crowded during summer holidays, it feels as if we have the place entirely to ourselves (plus or minus a few grey nomads out for their morning stroll) and the serenity is staggering.
The Foreshore Walk, which came highly recommended by Diana’s boyfriend who holidays here annually with his family, winds all along the Nambucca River, alternating between a footpath and an over-the-water boardwalk that eventually brings us to the colourfully painted breakwall. We get distracted by some particularly artistic rocks before realising that the sun is well and truly on its way up now. Not wanting to miss a single moment, we sprint the final distance along the breakwall, reaching Pilot Lookout just in time to watch the light break over the rocks.
Now that the sun is up, we finally have the lighting to explore more of the vibrant breakwall, but it’s not long before we are pulled away again by the passing information that dolphins are playing in the river a few minutes away. We hustle over with plenty of time to see half a dozen bottlenose dolphins splashing and swimming around near the river mouth, and we are both exploding with excitement. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing wild animals in their native environment.. there is just something so magical about watching a dolphin swim and surf and jump in the ocean (or river, as it may be) that can never be replicated in a zoo.
Back at our hotel room in Nambucca Heads, we enjoy a quick breakfast on the balcony before hopping in the car and cruising along aptly-named Waterfall Way for our first stop of the morning. The drive is pretty much exactly an hour (although it feels at least double that when I get stuck behind a driver determined to do half of the posted speed limit on a one-lane road), so it’s still plenty early when we arrive at the amazing Dangar Falls just a couple kilometres outside Dorrigo. I’m not sure if it’s our early arrival or the time of year, but we enjoy the beautiful waterfall all to ourselves from the viewing platform! If not for our jam-packed itinerary, I’d already be halfway down the trail to see the falls from below, but we’ve had to make a few sacrifices to fit all our top stops in, so it’s not long before we are back in the car and en route to nearby Dorrigo Rainforest Centre.
Dorrigo Rainforest Centre
I left time in our morning schedule to spend an hour in the rainforest, so when we arrive at the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, we make a beeline inside to speak to the park ranger for recommendations on how to best fill our little time slot. The woman inside sweetly waves away the $2 entry fee (since we don’t have any cash on us) and then helps us map out a visit that consists of the Sky Walk, a wooden boardwalk overlooking the rainforest, Dome Mountain, and a few other distant hills; a section of the Wonga Walk; and beautiful Crystal Shower Falls.
From the end of the Sky Walk, I can see nothing but lush vegetation in varying hues of green and blue, apparently unaffected by the lack of rain we’ve had this year. We spend a few minutes taking in the view, even having a nice family snap our photo, before hurrying back to the car to start the Wonga Walk.
Crystal Shower Falls
We only have to drive 2min down the road to reach The Glade picnic area where our rainforest walk begins along the Satinbird Stroll, a gently declining section of trail that enjoys almost full shade from the towering trees. I spend the majority of this section tailing a goana as it weaves through the bushes, trying (in vain) to get a nice photo of the enormous lizard. Soon, our path joins up with the longer Wonga Walk and we continue along this trail for another 15min to reach Crystal Shower Falls. There’s distinctly less water falling than we saw at Dangar Falls, but the early morning light has created a rainbow along the bottom of the waterfall that makes for an absolutely magical scene. After taking several dozen photos from the suspension bridge, we start back upwards to the car, finishing our 3.7km hike just under the self-imposed 1hr deadline.
On the road again, it’s only an hour to reach one of the most famous (and random) stops along the Legendary Pacific Coast drive, the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour. Who knows why, but this giant banana just off the highway has become synonymous with a NSW road trip; yet, as many times as I’ve been through here, I’ve never taken a photo with the enormous yellow fruit! The fact that Diana travelled to Coffs Harbour with her boyfriend about 6 months ago and didn’t even know about the Big Banana makes a stop even more essential.
After taking our obligatory banana photo, we cruise into the Guzman Y Gomez drive-thru (what can be better than a drive-thru burrito bowl?!) and onwards to Digger’s Beach, where we set up a big beach towel and enjoy our lunch surrounded by incredible palms and crashing waves. Full from my burrito (and the small bit of sand that may have blown into my sour cream), we head back to the car and drive up through the hills, passing banana plantations to reach the Forest Sky Pier. Like the Sky Walk we visited earlier this morning, a boardwalk extends over the hill and offers stunning views of the landscape below, but unlike the Sky Walk, we are treated to sweeping coastal views over Coffs Harbour and the ocean.
Look At Me Now Headland
Just 20min north of Coffs Harbour, our final stop of the day is Look At Me Now Headland, a superbly named hill that I read about as a great place to see dozens of wild kangaroos just hanging out around the beach (and I think we can all agree that’s pretty adorable). I’ve been trying to moderate my excitement all day, reminding both myself and Diana that there is no guarantee when it comes to wild animals and that even if we don’t get to see any roos, at least it’s still likely to be a nice beach.
In reality, we see about 40 small grey dots milling about on the hillside before we’ve even parked the car and then about a dozen roos nibbling on grass or lounging along the path as we half walk/half run across Emerald Beach towards the headland, giggling somewhat hysterically. It’s not long before we’ve crossed the sand, climbed the steps, and made our way along the path to the lookout, where we can see superb beach views around either side of the headland. Somewhat overwhelmed by having incredible scenery AND kangaroos in a single location (I’m used to seeing roos in grassy fields or on the side of the road, certainly not at beautiful beaches), we snap quite a few photos of the view, struggling to both sit atop the white pillar for the perfect #BiomechanistsOnTour photo, before continuing our walk.
Out of respect for the kangaroos (and also self-preservation, because I’m not looking to get punched in the face or kicked in the gut), I maintain a reasonable distance as we cross over the headland and begin to approach for photos. According to a very informative sign near the start of the trail, it’s intimidating to the kangaroos (and can provoke an aggressive response) if you look too tall, make direct eye contact, or move too quickly, so naturally I am crawling across the paddock like a gremlin and averting my eyes from the kangaroos while I try to get close enough to take a few nice photos. Not a great moment to have left my longer lens in the car, but at least Diana gets a fair bit of amusement out of watching me tip toe backwards through the grass.
The kangaroos are certainly wary of our presence, freezing if I look at them for too long or even taking a couple hops towards me, but they mostly just go about nibbling their grass or lounging in the sun. We even get to see a little joey hop out of his mum’s pouch for a stretch and then try (rather unsuccessfully) to get back inside.
People always ask me if I’m “over” kangaroos now that I’ve been living in Australia for 6 years, if they’ve become so common for me that they are no longer exciting, but absolutely not. I don’t think I’ll ever lose my manic excitement for kangaroos, probably because I’ve never lost my excitement for any animal, even the ones I grew up seeing regularly (e.g. still squeals over domestic house cats). At least I really hope I never “get over” my sense of wonder for mother nature or wild animals; I want to carry this send of amazement with me forever, continuing to find beauty even in the things that become everyday and bubbling over when I find something extraordinary.
Even as we walk back along Emerald Beach, retracing our steps from Look At Me Now Headland to the car, I’m overwhelmed with what we’ve just seen. From wild dolphins frolicking in the river this morning and goanas creeping through the rainforest and up trees, to the countless incredible beaches, viewpoints, waterfalls, and sun-baking kangaroos, today has been yet another one for the books. Our entire 3.5hr drive to Runaway Bay is spent discussing all the amazing places we’ve been and incredible things we’ve seen, both of us just as excited as the other for what’s been and what’s yet to come on our trip.