In Australia some towns feel the need to attract tourists with giant inanimate objects that resemble the area’s local industry – like Ballina’s Big Prawn, Taree’s Big Oyster or Nambour’s Big Pineapple, which is large enough to make pina coladas for the entire Caribbean. But they’re all copy cats. Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales was the original.
Back in 1964 an American bloke thought Coffs should have a monument to rival Rio’s Jesus Christ or Ms Liberty of New York, and so the massive banana was born.
As glorious as it is, in all its yellowy splendour (you can even walk through it!), Coffs needn’t have stooped to such lows. Placed strategically next to the highway that careens through the centre of town, the large banana is supposed to make you stop. And sadly, you could be forgiven for thinking that the highway from Sydney to Brisbane was actually called ‘the Specific’ rather than the Pacific Highway. It takes the quickest route through the state and if you haven’t the enthusiasm or drive (ahem) to take some detours, all you’ll get are photos of yourself with giant fibreglass produce.
The Coffs Coast boasts some beautiful sun-drenched beaches and quaint coves, perfect for water-based activities, while its hinterland is full of lush rainforest – none of which I would have known about if I had not taken the time to explore. As we head into the hot end of the year, the North Coast of NSW is an ideal place to laze your days away.
Up the Coast Without A Paddle
Surf rafting involves hopping in a modified whitewater raft and taking to the surf. I joined my guides and a group of real estate agents on their office party weekend, surly and sour from the night before. We ventured into the waves like Australian surf lifesavers, without the multicoloured skull-caps and budgie smugglers wedged up our butts (they do it, hairy butts ‘n all).
A wave hit us and we bounced over the crest of the white wash. A second took us with more force and a third wave skittled us like a strike on a bowling alley. Rising from the deluge we tried to rescue the paddles we’d lost. Holding the raft steady, there is a strict, extremely unflattering trick to getting back on board. I thrusted up and over the inflated edges and buried my head deep into rubber as my ass crack saluted the sun. Then, for the first time in too long, I managed to get a leg over to lever myself on top.
As the first guy on board, I had to help my fellow crewmembers as they did the same. I grabbed their lifejackets and drove them into the rubber headfirst. The waves didn’t think to be polite and cease while we attempted this trying procedure. Finally, after doing this five times we were all back together. We locked our feet under the straps and went full steam ahead.
Arriving out the back to calmer waters, we gave ourselves a moment to catch our breath. Some of the hungover guys were about to keel over so we turned and began paddling after an incoming wave. It rose behind us, picked us up and momentum took control, zooming us down the face. On the call from our guide with a ‘left’ or ‘right’, we’d lean and pull off the back of the wave. Success. The rides resulted in a few crew getting seasick and bailing to the beach but I have a sneaking suspicion that was courtesy of the previous night’s swill, rather than the swell.
Dive Another Day
There’s plenty more to explore in Coffs though. Snorkel and dive trips boast fantastic results as the water provides the perfect schoolyard for tropical, subtropical and temperate marine species to coexist. The Solitary Islands Marine Park is zoned accordingly to allow diving, fishing and a sanctuary.
The list goes on with the Coffs Coast: sea kayaking, surf schools, whale spotting throughout October and November – pretty much anything goes on here.
To get a little closer to the marine life in a controlled environment you can visit the dolphin pool by the jetty, an area popular with travellers with plenty of surf and calm water swimming.
For those travel partners who have been in each other’s pockets for four months and need to vent, may we suggest taking up arms. Just out of town is a wicked skirmish (paintball) set up. Pick your battle – Hamburger Hill, Fallujah, the colosseum, jungle warfare – it’s all here and all set outside for a real touch of authenticity. They have a few side projects too, like fishing, hikes and 4WD tours. Of course what’s a resort town without a skydiving operator… but going snow toboganning?
Back at the beach take a walk out past the harbour to Muttonbird Island to watch the winged burrowers come home to roost at sunset. Or roost yourself at the Plantation Hotel, the main source of nightlife in town with touring bands and international DJs stopping here, like Krafty Kuts, who’s a fan. ‘Lovely place to go. Lots of creepy crawlies though, out the front of my hotel there were huntsmens, red backs, snakes everywhere,’ he says. And that’s just from your hotel room, Krafty. The wilderness in the Coffs hinterland, amongst the ranges, offers an entirely alternative experience.
Head For The Hills
Somewhere along the line the good people of Bellingen got confused. The river and the region around the town are called Bellinger. But the town itself is called Bellingen. Which is right? The answer, like Stonehenge and Victoria Beckham’s singing talent, is lost to time.
Whatever the case, the Bellinger region from the Pacific Ocean to the western heights of Dorrigo Plateau, is lush with national parks, water systems and beaches, not to mention the quaint town of Bellingen.
Like all good Australian country towns, the pub is at the centre, both geographically and socially and Bellingen’s Federal Hotel is testimony to this – it’s friendly, spacious and has a welcoming verandah. The town is cooking with delicious foods, such as pies and sweet desserts that are only rivalled by your nan’s specials. There’s also plenty of cafe culture around town. Live music plays most nights at the pub and if you’re not sold yet, it’s stumbling distance from one of the best YHAs in the country.
Backing on to the town and overlooking the Bellinger River, the hostel is a beautiful old farmhouse, polished and retouched. Don’t expect rock ‘n’ roll all night and parties every day though. Maybe an acoustic session and a drum circle at dusk is a lil’ more the norm here. Heading upstairs you might notice some odd wallpaper. The entire upstairs hallway is covered in human nude bits as photographed by Greg Kenny. People from all over the world have returned to stay at the hostel just to get their picture taken in some awkward or unique way, always tasteful. Everyone here is represented: cyclists, smokers, surfers and Swedes.
From here there are loads of activities and adventures to tackle. Try some canoeing down the Bellinger, and once you’ve mastered the still waters get wet ‘n’ wild rafting down the Nymboida River just west of Dorrigo.
Where The Wild Things Are
Obviously, with half the region dedicated to national and state forests, there are plenty of walking trails to explore with waterfalls as your refreshing destination. The World Heritage-listed ranges are the magnificent backdrop west of Bellingen and amidst it all is Dorrigo.
Head to the Rainforest Centre to take the spectacular skywalk lookout. From there you can branch out. You won’t be the only one amongst the trees. The Bellinger region, and in particular Bellingen Island, is the ultimate hangout for flying foxes, which socialise, groom and sleep by day before venturing out at night to party – and damn are they loud. You can see them in their thousands silhouetted against the orange and red sunset sky.
Contrary to big yellow monuments, you’ll have to turn off the highway to truly go bananas at Coffs Harbour and its hinterland.
The Experience: Liquid Assets Surf Rafting, Ph: (02) 6658 0850
Accommodation: Coffs Harbour YHA, Ph: (02) 6652 6462