Northern NSW is one of those gloriously laid back areas where rolling, lush green hills meet warm temperate seas and long strands of golden sand back sweeping bays facing onto the South Pacific.
Rich sub-tropical rainforests and sweeping vistas of sugar cane and banana plantations are pierced by high spires of extinct volcanoes and numerous wide green rivers slide smoothly down to the sea. It’s little wonder that it has become one of Australia's great sea change destinations.
The area was opened up to holiday makers and those seeking a rich life away from the modern world by the surfing generations of the 1960s , who found dream breaks bending around headlands from north to south and warm waters that were a pleasure to ride all year round.
The surfers were followed in the late 60s and early 70s by the dropout generation of hippies who retreated to the rich lands and forests away from the coast looking for simpler solitude to get away from a world they’d lost faith in. They and their children today populate the market stalls and small towns in many nearby areas.
The very features – the rich soils and beautiful warm climates – which eclipse commerce and bureaucratisation as ruling forces to life, tell us much of the region’s earlier history.
Australia is a continent on the move. It began to break away from Antarctica about 80 million years ago, opening the great Southern Ocean and its global circulating ocean currents and winds which dominate the globe's southern climate. Macquarie Island, which lies the same distance south of the Equator as London is north of it, is so cold and bleak that no woody plants will grow there, yet its Northern Hemisphere equivalents, warmed by the Gulf Stream and sheltered by large continental land masses, are carpeted by rich forests and populated by cities of many millions.
As Australia has climbed towards the tropics at the rate of a rapid 6.9cm per year (with a slight clockwise rotation) it has been passing over a global hotspot. Such hotspots are believed to form over a narrow mantle plume of molten material about 3000km below the Earth’s surface. They are unusual in that most volcanoes are formed at the edge of the Earth’s tectonic plates, where they collide. Another famous hotspot exists beneath the Hawaiian Islands in the central Pacific.
Like a blow torch blasting its way up through thinner areas of the crust, it has punctured the continental surface in a series of volcanoes which start in the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland and have continued in a line down through NSW and past Melbourne and now lie beneath Bass Strait. At some point in the future – it will be millions of years away, so don’t be concerned for your real estate investments – it will likely reappear, this time in Tasmania. At 2000km in length it is the world's longest line of continental hotspots, nearly three times longer than that of the Yellowstone hotspot track in the USA.
One of the primary features of this chain on the far North Coast of NSW is Mt Warning-Wollumbin. The former name was applied by Captain Cook in his journey along Australia’s East Coast in 1770, but altered to the latter traditional indigenous name in 2006. It is, for two brief periods each year, the first part of the Australian mainland to be touched by the morning sun.
Mt Warning-Wollumbin, like so many other prominent landmarks along the East Coast – such as the Glass House Mountains in Queensland and NSW’s Warrumbungle Mountains — is formed from the eroded remnant core of an extinct volcano.
Mt Warning-Wollumbin lies at the centre of the Tweed Valley Caldera and despite years of erosion, stands at a height of 1156m, about 900m of material having been eroded away. A caldera is a depression formed after the collapse (explosively, by physical collapse due to the exhausting of a lava chamber beneath; or through erosion) of a volcano. At 40km in diameter and over 1000m in depth, the Tweed Valley Caldera is one of the largest in the world and bigger than the famous Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The volcano became active about 23 million years ago and over the next three million years rose to a height of over 2km, with lava and ash deposits spreading out over a diameter of 100km.
Most of that ash and lava has been eroded since, but it has left a heritage in the form of deep, rich soils which support a strong agricultural industry in the region. Mt Warning-Wollumbin and the rim of the caldera to the west are formed from hard, resistant basaltic rocks.
Australia’s Great Dividing Range is the third longest continental mountain chain in the world, at 3500km in length. By world standards it may be long, but it is fairly low and in some ways insubstantial, but it has significant impacts on climate, population distribution and river systems.
While there is much controversy, it appears that the Great Dividing Range was formed over two periods of uplift, one about 100 million years ago, and the second about 50 million years later, as Australia drifted across a zone of upwelling mantle material. All this was complicated by rifting – the breaking apart – of Eastern Australia, with the coastal edge sliding off and then sinking below the ocean in the Tasman Sea.
One of the most significant impacts is on Australia’s river systems, with those west of the Great Dividing Range flowing largely west and south to the Murray and Darling basins, and those to the east flowing towards the ocean. The greater level of rainfall on the mountains and short distances to the sea have produced prosperous, well fed rivers that sometimes astonish travellers from elsewhere in the nation.
The river systems of the Tweed, Richmond, Clarence, Macleay, Hastings, Manning and Hunter Rivers are all relatively short but wide and rich, supporting numerous small towns and communities. They were, at least in the earlier colonial era, navigable by coastal shipping in their lower reaches, subject to flooding and impacted by run-off of pesticides and fertilisers. Few are dammed to any extent.
Check out the full feature in issue #120 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.