by Robyn Holland
Pack up the car, consult your map and take to the road on a driving adventure holiday through one of NSW's most diverse regions: the New England North West, aka Big Sky Country.
Big Sky Country takes up a large chunk of northern NSW, covering the Tamworth-to-Tenterfield section of the New England Highway then stretching across the north-west plains through Gunnedah, Moree and out to Narrabri. The distances between towns in Big Sky are manageable enough to be able to include at least a few major towns in the space of a week.
To get you acquainted, here's a guide to some of Big Sky Country's highlights, keeping the season in mind.
TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE
There are plenty of delightful drives around Big Sky, ranging in time from one hour to four hours. The Fossickers Way, The Bushman’s Way and The Waterfall Way for example, take in some stunning countryside and past some points of interest. Call in to your Visitor Information Centre to ask for a detailed map. Even if it's a cold day, the car is always warm and you can stop at a cosy cafe or teahouse along the way for a meal.
STAY ON A FARM
An authentic farm experience has to be one of the most appealing winter options for a suburban family. Get active on the farm during the day then get cosy around an open fire at night. From B&B-style farm stays, to self-contained facilities, to fully catered accommodation, you'll find a wide range of farm stay options, particularly around the greater Tamworth, Uralla, Narrabri and Tenterfield regions. Details can be obtained from the visitor information centres in each town or via the web site.
What better way to get the family together than by letting the kids slosh around in a country stream searching for gold, sapphires and other precious gems. The best places for fossicking are in the old gold mining streams around Uralla, Nundle and Glen Innes on the New England Highway and along the Fossickers' Way from Manilla to Inverell and Warialda. Fossicking equipment is often available for hire in these towns, along with detailed maps of the best local sites. Alternatively, in most places you can book a fossicking tour with a guide.
GET BACK TO NATURE
Bushwalking in a National Park is always a memorable experience and Big Sky Country has some of the most beautiful. Try the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in the gorge country east of Uralla; Gibraltar-Washpool National Park east of Glen Innes; Kings Plains or Kwiambal National Parks, both north of Inverell; Boonoo Boonoo National Park near Bald Rock north-east of Tenterfield; and, for something really special, Mt Kaputar National Park - an "ecological island" in the midst of the northwest plains near Narrabri.
There are some self-contained cabins smack bang in the middle of Kaputar but you'll need to book. If you're well equipped for cold nights, camping is an option, but a daytime bush walk is definitely the more comfortable choice at this time of year.
CLIMB A ROCK
Bald Rock is on the Queensland/NSW border, 35kms north east of Tenterfield. There are two routes to the top of this massive granite monolith - one straight up the face and the other a gentler climb. Either way, the views are more than worth the effort. Entry to the Bald Rock National Park and the climb are free or you can join a unique guided Aboriginal tour of the whole area.
SOAK IN A SPA
After all the bushwalking, rock climbing, museum-hopping, farm chores and driving, head west to ease those aching muscles and warm up your cold bones at the Moree Spa Baths. Here, the thermal mineral waters from the Great Artesian Basin are pumped into the complex for everyone to enjoy. Alternatively there are a number of hotels and caravan parks in Moree with their own artesian spa pools.
Collectively speaking, the towns of Big Sky have enough indoor attractions to keep you out of the elements for at least a week!
In Tamworth, the Walk A Country Mile interpretive exhibition, recently revamped and relocated to the Visitor Centre, gives a wonderful insight into Australian Country Music.
The Nundle Woollen Mill in the historic gold-mining village has antique machinery that produces up to 100 kilograms of wool each day. After the tour, you can buy some wool, a hand-knitted jumper or other woollen garment.
Inverell's Transport Museum houses one of the largest collections of transport memorabilia in the country. There's not just cars here either, there's trucks, fire engines, motorcycles, tractors, bicycles, pedal cars, scooters and even aircraft.
The Land of the Beardies History House, located in an old hospital building in Glen Innes, is an extraordinary example of local history with room after room full of memorabilia, which will keep you absorbed for several hours.
The Moree Plains Regional Gallery, in the heritage bank building, usually has a touring exhibition on show as well as a quality permanent collection; and a collection of Aboriginal artefacts in what was previously the bank's vault.
Located in Narrabri, the hub of the cotton-farming district, The Australian Cotton Centre showcases all aspects of cotton production with nine interactive exhibits and a 3D film experience. Great fun for kids.
In Tenterfield, you'll find the Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts, a beautifully restored building which houses the Sir Henry Parkes museum, the shire library and theatre. The Museum contains some history of the building itself in the Learning and Extravaganza rooms, while the Gallery, Games and Debate rooms are devoted to the life of Sir Henry.
Always warm, the New England Brass and Iron Lace Foundry in Uralla was built in 1872 and produced much of Sydney's old iron lace. For a small fee, you can wander around this intriguing site, see 130 year-old moulds and patterns still in use and sometimes watch the blacksmiths in action, using original tools and methods.
The Gunnedah Rural Museum boasts a huge collection of vintage tractors, farm machinery, stationary engines, cars, vintage toys, shearing equipment, cameras and hospital equipment. As they say, it's well worth a look.