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

While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.

Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.

After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.

Ugly mothertruckers

Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.

Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.

So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.

Roadhouse blues

Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!

The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.

So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!

Send us a travel tale (preferably about Oz) and if it’s published you’ll win a $300 travel voucher redeemable on Oz Experience Passes and ATA NT camping trips (www.adventuretours.com.au). Email your tales (700 words max), with a picture of yourself, to travel@tntdownunder.com