'I’m surprised how straight it’s become – people wear clothes now': a visitor's guide to Bellingen

Susan Gough Henly
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Dallas Stribley/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dallas Stribley/Getty Images

Bellingen is a buzzy little town straddling the gorgeous Waterfall Way, which links the serene beaches of the New South Wales mid-north coast with the escarpments of the Great Dividing Range. Bello to the locals, it’s had many lives, from timber-mill town and dairy hub to hippie hideout, environmentalist holdout and hipster hangout.

Logging trucks still roll through town past the hemp store, butter factory turned craft centre, spiffed-up Victorian and Art Deco shopfronts, and an edgy Japanese restaurant in a ramshackle wooden house. Locals sing in a Gumbaynggirr-language choir at the community centre. Hearthfire Bakery creates breads from local flours and, across the road, second-generation butchers, Thorns Gourmet Meats and Smokehouse, sell some of the country’s finest pork, beef and small goods. Local kids play in the acclaimed Bellingen Youth Orchestra when they’re not rewilding in the bush. And, as the sun sets across the lime-green alluvial valley, everyone is invited to join Bello’s progressives on Friday nights at the Cedar Bar (at least in pre-Covid-19 times).

Aboriginal elder and Gumbaynggirr language teacher Micklo Jarrett explains how “our Dreamtime stories describe the ocean 120km east of where it is now, which proves our people have been in this region for more than 10,000 years”. Today, the Gumbaynggirr people have been active in stopping logging for wood chips in the nearby Nambucca State Forest. “All we want to do is preserve the land for everyone,” he says.

Meanwhile, the National Parks Association of NSW is lobbying the government to establish the Great Koala national park nearby, to link protected forests so the dwindling koala population can thrive again.

Journalist Peter Geddes turned up with his family in the 1970s. He’s working on a documentary about Bellingen’s hippie era, when alternative lifestylers rented houses for two dollars a week and used to ride into town on horseback. “We made something out of nothing and eventually the old timers came to accept that Bellingen turned out pretty well with a sustainable lifestyle,” he says. “I’m a little surprised how straight it’s become, though. People wear clothes now.”

Yet, Bello has held onto its free-thinking spirit and over the years has attracted creative types inspired by the beauty of the surroundings. Peter Carey was living in a Richard Leplastrier-designed treehouse in the Promised Land, across the Bellinger River, when he conceived his Booker-prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda, which is inspired by the little church in Gleniffer.

Bellingen remains a bubble of progressive politics in National party heartland. Kevin and Lowanna Doye are part of the new wave. After cycling from the UK to Sydney (it took over a year and a cargo ship was involved) to highlight the environmental impact of air travel, they moved into one of Bello’s 27 multiple occupancy intentional communities and opened Kombu Wholefoods in 2004, to sell local organic produce at affordable prices. Bello Shire ranges from subtropical coastal regions to 1,500 metres elevation on the escarpment so they can source everything from mangoes, bananas, avocados, macadamia nuts, and pineapples to all sorts of greens, pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, citrus and stone fruits.

“I live in a beautiful place connected with my family doing something I believe in. Our philosophy is all about strengthening the local community.”

In times like these, it all makes perfect sense.

Don’t miss

The Bellingen Community Markets are held every third Saturday at Bellingen Park. Sample orange Jaffa and caramelised fig and marsala gelato at Bellingen Gelato.
Browse Australian fashion brands, linens and beauty products at the Art Deco HYDE Bellingen, as well as Emporium Bellingen in the 1900s Hammond and Wheatley building.

Culture fix

In normal times, the festival calendar (Camp Creative, The Bellingen Fine Music festival, The Bellingen Readers and Writers festival, etc) is brilliant.

Where to eat and drink

Who’d have thought Middle Eastern street food and hip Japanese fusion would be the local go-to spots in a NSW country town – but this is Bellingen, after all. Qudo dishes up dazzling barramundi teriyaki and sushi rolls infused with exquisite greens, while Za’atar cafe offers falafel, hummus plates and lamb kofta in fluffy pita bread. Black Bear Cafe is the spot for breakfast on the sunny terrace and for excellent pizzas, craft beer and a pared-back urban vibe head to Bellingen Brewery.

Where to stay

Rent a cottage in the Promised Land through Airbnb and other agencies. The best campgrounds are Reflections Holiday Parks beside the Kalang River estuary in Urunga and a free camping site next to the general store in Thora, on the drive up the escarpment to Dorrigo.

Get out of town

Go canoeing on the Bellinger River to spot sea eagles, azure kingfishers, flooded gums and dairy cow river crossings, or drive the loop around the Promised Land and dip your toes in Never Never Creek.

Visit the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre for escarpment vistas of the Gondwana rainforest, or hike into the world heritage-listed rainforest on the two-hour Wonga Walk.
Walk the Urunga boardwalk along the river estuary to the spectacular Hungry Head ocean beach.

Getting there

Almost half-way between Sydney (five-and-a-half hours drive north) and Brisbane (five hours drive south); Bellingen is around 30 minutes drive south-west from Coffs Harbour airport. While there is some public transport available in the area, having a car is strongly recommended.