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Northern NSW loop: New England and the coast

Brian Bagster's picture
Overlooking Tamworth from the Oxley Lookout. Cycle Traveller

This scenic route winds its way from the coast of northern NSW inland through Waterfall Way and the New England Plateau and then back along the coast, taking in some spectacular views. From the ocean to small historic towns amid the rolling hills and deep valleys of New England, there is never a dull moment. This route incorporates plenty of climbing and some dirt road sections over long days, however, days can be broken into shorter distances for those who would like to take it slower.


Where: Ballina Loop via Tamworth
Distance: 1,210km
Difficulty: Hard
Days: 10+


Day 1: Ballina to Grafton, 140km

I set off from Ballina at 6:30am on a mountain bike loaded with gear weighing in at 25kg. I had been training for about five weeks but it's a real shock at how much slower and harder it is to push my bike fully laden. I thinking to myself, “what am I doing?” Luckily, on the Burns Point Ferry I meet a fellow rider who has toured before. She assures me I would soon get used to the extra load and suggests I treat each day like I'm a millionaire. We are riding along the flat and I ask her how fast we were going. “21km per hour,” she says. I have to cover 140km, flat going, to get to Grafton today via Woodburn, Bungawalbin and Whiporie, including 30km of rough dirt. I take a 10 min rest at Woodburn and an hour at Whiporie, arriving at Grafton at 2:30pm tired and contemplating tomorrow's ride: 130km to Ebor starting at sea level and climbing to 1350m. Riding time (not including breaks): 6h 20m.

Day 2: Grafton to Ebor, 130km

After a few beers, a good meal and sleep at a good friend's place, I head off into a lazy headwind through undulating country to Nymboida, 40km away, where I take a coffee break. Worth a peek here is Russell Crow's The Museum of Interesting Things at the Nymboida Coaching Station Inn. About 5km down the road is where the real torture begins. It seems for every 200m gained in altitude I lose 100m on the other side as I ride through a series of winding climbs and descents until I reach Dundurrabin, which is where I begin to steadily climb for 35km to Ebor. An absolute epic ride through fantastic scenery and singing bellbirds singing. This is a road obviously enjoyed by the numerous bikies who came whistling past. I booked into the Ebor motel where the fire and a couple of ambers are too good to refuse. Riding time: 7hrs

Armidale. Cycling the Northern NSW Loop. Photo by Brian Bagster for Cycle TravellerDay 3: Ebor to Uralla, 110km

I'm heading to Uralla on the Waterfall Way, thankfully dropping 350m in altitude today. It's fairly busy with traffic at this stage until I turn off 10km south of Armidale to cruise through beautiful Arding and Invergowrie, arriving on the west side of Uralla. I check into the Top Pub, rest a while and head off to McCrossings Museum where the history of bushranger Thunderbolt's final demise is depicted in a series of paintings by Pommeroy. Well worth a look. Back to the pub for another fire and great meal, great hosts. Riding time: 5hrs

Day 4: Uralla to Tamworth, 110km

It’s 110k to Tamworth via Kentucky, Walcha Road, Woolbrook, Limbri and Kootingal. I call Uralla and the New England Tablelands the land of the long grey cloud at this time of year. Some warm clothes are a must. It's 10km on the New England Highway then it's all backroads to Tamworth. The road is undulating unLimbri at 500m altitude. It's 29km of sometimes corrugated dirt road. You need to stay focused riding this road because you reach good speeds descending and you don't want to come a cropper or break anything here as I only saw one car the whole time. The scenery is fantastic and the ride from Limbri to Kootingal alongside the Cockburn River is not to be missed. There's a free camp site a few kilometres west of Limbri for anyone interested. For me it's a well earned burger at Kootingal and another 20km to Tamworth and a couple of days' rest. (Riding time: 5hrs.)

Day 5: Tamworth to Nowendoc, 115km

It's 115km to Nowendoc up through the gently rising Dungowan Valley. At the 55km point I reach the foot of Port Stephens Cutting, a narrow winding 5km climb then another 15km of climbing to Hams Corner, reaching 1350m altitude. It's cold up here atop the plateau with no protection if the wind decides to blow, which it did lazily into my face. About a dozen kilometres across the top then a right turn and a drop of about 400m down into Nowendoc. A pleasant stay at the Nowendoc Motel and meals served at the general store. (Riding time: 5hrs 30m.)

Day 6: Nowendoc to Taree, 115km

The Cooplacurripa Valley, NSW. Photo by Brian Bagster. Cycle TravellerWhat a day! The first 57km of this leg is dirt – and rough. As locals tell me, it is only graded every 14 months or so. It's open grazing country down through the Cooplacurripa Valley and fairly remote as I come across only two cars during the four hours it takes to cover this section. The corrugations shake out a screw holding my rack stay causing the stay to lodge between the cogs. Next job is to find a fence to retrieve a piece of tie-wire to get back on the road. With  10km of dirt remaining, down comes the rain just to add some more adversity. Finally onto the tar at Knorrit Flat where I have another hour and a series of very demanding hills to negotiate before reaching Mount George for a pie and coke. Apart from the toughness of the trip thus far, the many creek crossings and scenery alongside the river with numerous colonies of bellbirds chiming away, have all made it worthwhile. Another 1hr 40m of undulating road to Taree. (Riding time: 6hrs 40m.)

Day 7: Taree to Kempsey, 150km

Now to tackle sections of the Pacific Highway, something I wouldn't recommend to anybody. It's 20km along the highway to Coopernook, and this section is OK. Then I divert east off the highway to go 20km to Crowdy Head, then 24km along sometimes corrugated dirt through Crowdy Bay National Park to Camden Haven (plenty of camping spots through here). What a picturesque area Camden Haven is, with the many waterways and surrounding lookouts and mountains. Another 35km to Port Macquarie along the Ocean Road and then back on the dreaded Pacific Highway to Kempsey. The highway is a scary place with all the B doubles on a mission to their destinations, the worst parts being the overtaking lanes as there is no shoulder here and, as you know, everybody tends to race on these sections. The hotel at Kempsey is in the middle of town and is a good spot to stay with an all you can eat $10 breaky. (Riding time: 6hrs 30min.)

Day 8: Kempsey to Coffs Harbour, 108km

Unfortunately, this is all Pacific Highway. Don't go there if you can avoid it. (Riding time: 4hrs 40min) (Cycle Traveller note: for those who would like to reduce the time spend on the Pacific Highway on this leg, exit Kempsey via the Macleay Valley Way and then onto the Collombatti-Frederic Way and continue to Folly Road. Head back onto the highway for a while then turn left onto the Upper Warrell Road. The route is longer, but it takes you off the highway.)

Day 9: Coffs Harbour to Maclean, 135km

The set up. Brian Bagster. Cycle TravellerI venture some 15km on the highway past Moonee Beach before turning west on the Bucca Road to Nana Glen, then north through Glenreagh to Grafton. Don't expect any flat road here because you're not going to find it. But what a scenic ride with bugger all traffic! As we do in Australia, like to do all things big (the Big Prawn, the Big Banana, the Big Gumboot, the Big Merino, etc.) Glenreagh has the Big Dingo. I leave Grafton and head to Lawrence 30km away, where I board the ferry to cross the Clarence River and on to Maclean. A day of contrasting terrain and scenery with this last 40km section totally flat big river grazing country with a big sky to match. (Riding time: 6hrs.)

Day 10. Maclean to Ballina, 100km

The first 50km of today is back on the nerve racking Pacific Highway, we won't talk about it. A stop at new Italy for coffee 'n snack and a detailed history of Italian settlers to the area is impressively displayed here. On reaching Woodburn I cross the bridge over the Richmond River and away from the highway and follow the river 10km along flat sugar cane country to Dungaruba. There's a free camping site here right on the banks of the river with toilets and a BBQ. Then it's 15km of undulations on Bagotville Road through the remnants of subtropical rainforest to Wardel. If you turn right at Bagotville you can cut this trip by 5km on well maintained scenic dirt road. Cross the Richmond River again at Wardel and follow its glistening waters 13km to the Burns Point Ferry. I now have only a few kilometres to go and, finally, a tail wind. I've had a lazy northerly blowing since Taree. Trip complete.

Images: 1. View over Tamworth from the Oxley Lookout (source: Wiki Commons) 2. Riding into Armidale. 3. The Cooplacurripa Valley. 4. The set up, with mascot Garry (photos courtesy of Brian Bagster).


redrider's picture

Glad to see a route posted round northern NSW. Being locals we are aware of some fabulous cycling round this area. The comments on Nowedoc to Taree are useful though; we have had this road in our sights to a while but not yet done it. I'm sure its possible to do a similar route to yours with considerably less pacific highway though.

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