Photo courtesy Walcha Hotel
The New England town of Walcha is historic, hospitable and hip.
A country town that decides to place 27 sculptures all around it to create an open-air art gallery has to be pretty hip, I thought, staring up at the huge timber “tuning fork” structure with the word “Walcha” etched across it.
My assumptions were right and it didn’t take long to discover that Walcha (rhymes with polka, in case you wondered) is a town that’s gradually getting hipper.
Situated in the New England Tablelands, east of Tamworth and south of Armidale, Walcha is a gateway town to some of the most beautiful National Parks in the state. Stick to the New England Highway and you’ll miss it because it’s located on Thunderbolt’s Way, via Gloucester in the south, or from Uralla in the north.
Walcha was first settled by squatters around 1832, has a population of just over 3000 and a solid agricultural and timber industry. More recently, it has attracted a very decent eco-tourism trade, attracting bushwalkers, backpackers and families passing through enroute between the cities.
Other groups who think Walcha rates high on the hip metre are members of the Ulysses Motorcycle Club, who make it a regular stopping point on their weekend; and the fishermen (and women) who usually reel in Eastern Bass, or trout if they’re lucky.
Back to those sculptures. Most have been created using local timbers, and several of them double as public seats. There’s a black cockatoo, a rainbow serpent mosaic, a sea monster and weather signs, just to name a few. More sculptures are still being planned to extend this open-air gallery.
If you’re doing a walking tour around Walcha, there’s a dozen heritage buildings to see, including Pioneer Cottage, the 1860’s residence that houses a collection of rural museum pieces. Arguably the most interesting item here is the vintage Tiger Moth plane, which in 1950, was one of the first planes in the country to spread super phosphate (fertilizer) over farms.
Another definitively hip moment was my breakfast at the Royal Café. It was a classic country pub until 1996 but now it’s a café disguised as a pub - so much so that its owners, Toni Heaney and Brad Keable, get people walking in all the time asking for a beer.
You sit at what was once the bar and order a flat white rather than a draught, a home-cooked breakfast rather than a pie and chips, and there’s a novelty factor in the experience. The Royal is also open for lunch.
Hip moment number three was walking inside The Walcha Guesthouse, the old town saddlery that has been luxuriously renovated to accommodate up to eight guests at a time in comfort.
Guesthouse owners Jock and Carley McClaren have thought of everything, including the all important broadband access and a fully equipped kitchen. There are four superbly decorated bedrooms, three bathrooms, a cosy woodfire, laundry, and outside barbecue. If you’re not inclined to cook for yourself, Café Graze, right next door, can do breakfast or lunch. This café also offers homewares and antique furniture along with its gourmet food.
Speaking of gourmet, we come to hip moment number four: dinner at The Commercial Hotel. One of three pubs in town, The Commercial has a spacious, contemporary restaurant that opens out onto a beer garden. Its menu is as diverse as any city establishment and if my lamb shank pasta dish was any indication, the food quality is superb.
The wilderness is Walcha’s main attraction. Begin with its number one attraction, Apsley Falls in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, which is about 20kms east of town via the Oxley Highway. Plummeting over 60 metres into the Apsley Gorge, these falls are an amazing whitewater spectacle. The ease of accessibility to the various viewing platforms around the rim of the gorge makes it appealing to all fitness levels. Another 24 kms east are the Tia Falls, also spilling into a gorge and offering great views and easy walks. Both waterfall sites have picnic facilities, barbecues and campsites.
Guided bush walks into the rugged gorge country of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park are available through Wild River Walks, which is run by Charlie Winter, who also happens to be Walcha’s Tourism Officer. Charlie offers the one or two day walks for a maximum of four people, and accommodation can also be included at the Cheyenne Wilderness Retreat for nights prior to, or after the walk.
To investigate the bush walking trails around Walcha, either check out the National Parks website or once you’re there, ask at the Visitor Information Centre, which also happens to be equipped with an excellent wall map displaying the layout of the land.
Heading out of Walcha towards Uralla on the Thunderbolt’s Way is a one-pub village, home to the Walcha Road Hotel. Here we have reason to be hip number five. Completely destroyed by fire in 2004, the 1862 hotel has been rebuilt and reopened in November 2007. In the interim, its ingenious owners, Gary Fairley and Suesann Long, served the beers from an old train carriage. Walcha Road is on the Armidale train line and the station is directly across the road from the hotel.
Having revived his hotel from the ashes, Gary now has some grander plans for the place. He soon hopes to offer wedding packages, which will include a ceremony at the village church, and a catered reception with accommodation at the hotel. The train carriage is being converted into backpacker style accommodation while the hotel will have eight separate motel style units, as well as a “bridal suite”.
A commercial bakery in the downstairs section of the hotel means that Gary can provide weekend cooking retreats, with bread, pasta or cheese making classes. The bakery is also being used as a training ground for local apprentices.
Woolbrook is a village on the Oxley Highway, about 25 kilometres west of Walcha. If you want a first hand look at a platypus in the wild, go to the Woolbrook bridge, stay quiet, wait and watch. Spot one and that makes reason to be hip, number six.
IF YOU GO
Walcha is situated 447 kms from Sydney via Gloucester and the Thunderbolt’s Way, or 534 kms from Brisbane via the New England Highway. The nearest airports are either Armidale or Tamworth. Walcha also has a light aircraft strip.