I have a friend who makes a very good living as a travel writer, and I’m about to check if I have potential myself. I justify this digression under the category of “retirement” in my blog’s scope, although truthfully it’s just me getting sentimental about this hitherto understated part of the world I live in. I have a cousin who is still resisting the idea of retirement, and I have a notion that this is the post that will tip him over into passionately embracing it, not to mention bring him down to Australia for a visit.
Rick and I’ve just spent a week showing off our countryside to longtime friends from Canada. Boyd and Denise are seasoned and adventurous travellers, but as they were at the end of a month-long excursion through Queensland and northern NSW, they were ready to bunker down in our guest shed and settle for day trips.
Fortunately, we have plenty of those in stock in the Manning Valley.
We took Boyd and Denise out on The Boat one fine day, so let’s start with the river system that gives the Manning Valley its name. A couple years ago, a group of us were sitting around one evening exploring the idea of buying a boat together. I had in mind a 6 foot tinny with a putt-putt motor, but someone pointed out that there’s 150 kilometres of river to explore. Imagine that. And it’s true—when we take out The Boat (we settled on a 16 foot demon with a 140 hp motor) we have to speed along with our hair straight back for a half hour before we get to out-of-the-way places we haven’t seen before. This trip we whistled up to the Coopernook Pub to pick up friends, then together dawdled down Ghinni Ghinni Creek, a quiet tributary with trees clinging to the water and fish leaping about in surprise. Near the mouth of the creek, we moored at The Other Side Café and Gallery and had brunch at a shady table by the water. The point is, the Manning Valley has a long and elegant river system.
We’ll move on to Taree, the town at the hub of the valley. Taree is located about 16 kilometres from the coast; like many coastal towns, it was built more or less at the sweetwater line, where the tides stop. Its population is around 20,000, about half that of the whole Manning Valley. You’ll never find a guide book that calls it a charming country town, but I swear it’s getting less rough-and-ready every year. With our friends, we relaxed at a riverside café that makes coffee you couldn’t beat in Italy. We strolled along a series of just-completed redbrick riverside paths and sat for a moment in a well-maintained memorial park. I reckon a sense of pride is swelling as the locals catch on that our town can be not only practical but attractive. It doesn’t have massive developments with luxury housing. There aren’t a lot of multi-millionaires here: mostly just farmers, retirees and hard-working townspeople. You’d have to call it a cash-poor area (think of what it costs to maintain all the assorted bridges over 150k of waterways). The good news about that is reasonable house prices. The bad news is perpetual pot-holes.
I should also mention that Taree has a large and well-equipped hospital, as I came to experience in person after spending most of Sunday night there while Rick sorted out a round of nasty stomach cramps. Shops? Well, you won’t find a Sass and Bide anywhere, but there are two hardware megastores. Oh, and don’t let me forget the jacarandas. For the entire month of November, as you drive toward the bridge into Taree, you could be forgiven for mistaking this town for one of the seven wonders of the world.
On the subject of towns, I have to tell you about historic Wingham as well, which IS a postcard perfect town, and has a number of worthy features other than Wingsong, our beloved community choir. And then there’s Old Bar, about 10 minutes from home and a hidden gem. It has a spectacular beach (where you might actually see eight or ten people in the water). And five cafés, yes, FIVE, each and every one of sophisticated Sydney standard. I can only assume that the local surfing conditions attract quality chefs.
I also must give a nod to the Manning Valley climate. Our Canadian friends got to see it at its autumn best. Rick had a running joke that every time he looked at the car’s thermometer, the temperature was 27 degrees. You can’t improve on that. Technically a “humid subtropical climate”, the Manning Valley is most often verdant and green. Winter temperatures average around 18 degrees. I might mention that our guests got to experience the most ferocious gale I can remember ever encountering, the kind that blows all the shoes into the house when you open the door, and then won’t let you shut the door afterward.
And then there’s the Great Dividing Range (formed when Australia collided with South America quite some time ago), that runs pretty much all the way down Australia’s eastern coast and has the distinction of being the world’s third-longest mountain range. It’s not especially “great” and it doesn’t divide much, but there’s no doubt it’s beautiful, particularly here in the Manning Valley. I like getting onto the unsealed roads up in the local hills (Rick’s not so wild about it, as he pictures the car’s screws all jostling loose). A favourite spot is Ellenborough Falls, reputed to be the “the longest single drop waterfall in the southern hemisphere”. Don’t hold me to that, but it is a wonderful sight. We didn’t really get into the Range with our guests, but satisfied ourselves visiting one of our favourite coastal families: the mountains we call the North, Middle and South Brothers. We craned our necks viewing the Big Fella gum tree, in his own way a serious competitor of the California redwoods or the BC Douglas fir.
And of course we took Boyd and Denise to beaches. You can’t escape them. There are 45 kilometres of them, as a matter of fact, and at any given time there might be you and a lone fisherman on the beach. Every Australian beach I’ve ever been to is more beautiful than Malibu—and nearly dead empty. So much beach and so few people to enjoy it.
Closer to home, we have our territory: Mitchells Island. You cross a couple of bridges to get here and you’d never really realise you were on an island if you didn’t study a map. Technically I suppose we’re a delta, with beef and dairy farms and market gardens. But there are also hills and valleys that give the island no end of character.
Lastly we have the Shedders home itself. When I walk around our home and gardens, all I see are the things that need to be done. But every now and then, like when friends arrive from faraway and are gob-smacked by the unusual plants, the colour and the fierce growth, I take a moment to feel quite satisfied. Four and a half years ago this was a construction site trammelled by bobcats, cement trucks and steel-toed Blundstones—and now it’s a well-nurtured little piece of paradise.
I can understand why our friends had long faces as they left. The Manning Valley had got under their skin as well.