An unexpected adventure: Rock climbers in the Northern Tablelands
It might not be the first place that comes to mind, but the Northern Tablelands of NSW is the ideal location to indulge your love of the climb.
The NSW Northern Tablelands, a high plateau that sits within the wider New England region, is a mecca for rock climbers. The area’s distinctive granite boulders form the southern part of a geological feature that extends into Queensland’s Granite Belt region.
Climbers flock here to test their skills because the region offers some of the best granite bouldering in the world, dazzling gorge climbs and a long history of what’s known as trad (traditional) climbing, where more adventurous climbers use removable protection equipment as they make their way over a rock face. This more eco-friendly way of climbing means you don’t clip into pre-placed bolts. It’s next-level adventure (expect to feel the butterflies).
Where to climb
The regional city of Armidale, Australia’s highest city at about 1,000m above sea level, makes a great base for exploring climbing areas such as Mt Yarrowyck Nature Reserve, which protects an Aboriginal cave-painting site. Located a 30min drive west of Armidale, the reserve is also home to fields of boulders ranging from two to 15m high. Climbers who come to conquer boulders – some of which feature intriguingly named routes such as Bad Times Just Around the Corner and Confused Fig Roof – enthuse about the granite’s high quality, great friction and unusual features such as crystalline pockets.
Ebor Gorge, an hour’s drive northeast of Armidale along the scenic Waterfall Way that links to Coffs Harbour, is also famous among the climbing community (note, though, that it’s located within Guy Fawkes River National Park, which suffered bushfire damage in 2019-20 so check the website before visiting). The big drawcard for climbers are the cliffs near the tiered Ebor Falls. These vertical basalt columns form the original climbing area that took off in popularity in the mid-1970s and are known as the Breakaways (numbered from one to six). In 1995, a climber on the second Breakaway even developed a new climbing style called ‘shimmying up a fridge’.
One of the most accessible climbing areas is Gara Gorge, a 15min drive southeast of Armidale. The Gara Boulders area, part of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, offers climbers a great variety of ‘problems’ to conquer. Head there for a quick afternoon’s climb. One area known as The Holy Land, with features including the Altar Block and the Bell Tower, is perfect for new climbers or a warm-up session.
The park is also home to Wollomombi Falls, one of the state’s highest waterfalls. After heavy rain, water plunges more than 220m in a single fall. Many visitors are surprised to learn the New England region incorporates Australia’s largest gorge system, carved out over time by hundreds of kilometres of rivers.
About an hour’s drive north of Armidale and 10km south of Glen Innes is Stonehenge Recreation Reserve – a great bouldering destination. Many of the unusually shaped rocks, some as high as five metres, offer multiple climbing routes. At Cliffhangers, for instance, you can try to conquer the Green Rabbit and the Benevolent Biscuit routes. With Stonehenge’s recreation facilities, you can also enjoy a civilised picnic at this spot. Don’t forget to stop for a peek at nearby Balancing Rock (located on private property but viewable from the rest stop).
Where to eat & drink
Local climbers often hang out at the New England Hotel, which offers a cosy ambience, fireplaces to ward off the high-altitude chill and huge meals such as burgers, wagyu rump and chicken schnitzels.
On the same block you’ll find the art deco-style Tattersalls Hotel, recently renovated to restore it to its former streamlined glory. With a French chef and a Spanish charcoal oven and grill in the kitchen, it’s the place to splash out on a memorable meal. Order a local grilled steak and top it with a lobster tail.
Need to carb-load before climbing? Head to the pea-green Goldfish Bowl. This Armidale bakery-cafe is proud of its organic wood-fired sourdough and in-house-roasted specialty coffees. Even the muesli, one of the brekkie offerings, is wood-fired. For Friday lunch and dinner, the oven is put to work firing pizzas variously topped with the likes of wagyu bresaola, Coffs Harbour prawns, nduja and more. Enjoy your meal indoors, next to the giant chalkboard, or outside in the courtyard.
Craft brew fans can hit the various bars opened by The Welder’s Dog crew, who use barley grown on a property near Wee Waa. The original craft beer bar opened in Armidale in 2014 in premises previously occupied by a locksmith, a service station and mechanic spare parts. Now, you can grab a platter of local produce from the self-serve fridge or BYO food to pair with brews such as the Piney Pale, Spelt Sour or the Pea Blossom Lemonade. That bar is a late-night hang whereas the Brew Bar is more daytime-oriented and offers tours of the company’s brewing operations. In 2017, the team opened another outlet in Tamworth – this time in a former drive-through rural produce store.
In Uralla, a 20min drive south-west of Armidale, a historic converted wool store houses the New England Brewing Company. The beer selection includes both year-round and seasonal brews, and there’s pizza on select days. Like The Welder’s Dog, the brewery door includes a snack fridge filled with nibbles.
Half an hour’s drive north of Glen Innes is the village of Deepwater – known for its historic buildings and for Deepwater Brewing. With just over 300 residents, the village extends its community feel to the brewery, which describes itself as “a community meeting place and tasting room”. It also embraces four-legged visitors, saying “all best mates are welcome”.
Where to stay
The Armidale Tourist Park, on the city’s eastern outskirts, is a notch above your usual holiday park, with cabins that sleep up to nine people, as well as caravan and camping sites. The park features a gym, solar-heated swimming pool and a tennis court.
Looking for a little luxe after a hard day on the boulders? Petersons Guesthouse and Winery is the best Armidale has to offer – the 1911 historic home at the centre of the property features seven suites with baths perfect for soaking tired limbs. Fuel up with a big country breakfast, with views over the beautifully manicured English-style gardens.
For a stay with real character, try Platypus Lodge at Thalgarrah, half an hour’s drive north-east of Armidale. This rustic cabin on a working sheep farm is made from convict-cut timber slabs and corrugated iron. From the veranda, take in views over the nearby river.