The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River

Coffs Coast local and Senior Research Scientist (NSW Fisheries), Paul Butcher shares with Coastbeat what he loves most about ‘The Gorge’ on the Clarence River. Find out why he considers it one of the best camping spots in Australia.

Location / Getting there

The Clarence River starts at the Macpherson Ranges on the QLD/NSW border and runs south to where the Mann River joins upstream of Grafton. It’s this unique area that is collectively known by locals and the rest of Australia as ‘The Gorge’.

To reach this remarkable spot by road you can travel through two private properties; The Gorge and Wave Hill Farm Stay The more adventurous might like to canoe or kayak your way through this area.

I visited The Gorge on a few occasions growing up and for me, it’s still among the best camping spots you’ll find in Australia. We love venturing there as a family and with friends.

The property was in the Winters family for over a century and covers more than 8,000 acres across ten kilometres of river frontage. Originally a working cattle station, in the last six months it has been purchased by new owners. In great news, the change of ownership has no bearing on this stunning stretch of river continuing as a tourist destination for those seeking fresh mountain air with beautiful views.

The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River
We set up by the river during our two recent stays. The main cottage is in the background to the right of the jacaranda in bloom

The ideal spot

This area offers something for everyone from the curious day tripper to campers staying for a while. There’s plenty to do such as catch-and-release fishing, bushwalking, boating, canoeing or if you’d rather do less, you can relax by the river and watch the day go by.

Upon arrival you’re welcomed by hosts Belinda and Buck who escort you to your campsite with a welcome smile and a yarn or two. Depending on whether you want to set up on the grassy knolls with penthouse views or down on the water, you’ll find the perfect spot to pitch your tent, campervan or caravan (but you need to book).

Our most recent trips to The Gorge coincided with the Clarence River being at the lowest water levels on record (October) and then a rise in the river around New Year’s Eve so we’ve experienced the river in varying conditions.

It also meant we had a first-hand look at the property before and after the recent fires that devastated this entire region.  We went to bed each night with a glow on the horizon and back burning not too far away.

The low water levels on the first trip also gave us the opportunity to extensively explore the waterfalls that litter this area and reach spots not often accessible due to higher water levels.

The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River
Naturally, our activities centred around the river (l) and (r) my three sons with the beautiful gorge behind them

Riverside camping with wildlife

Our two recent trips saw us stay right on the water below the lodge. This site is shady and full of wildlife. Each day we were greeted by about 40 turtles, Australian bass and a few catfish, all waiting to see if we had anything to feed them. The kids loved jumping in the crystal-clear water and following them around all day.

Be mindful that during the day the local herd of cattle will make their way down to the water through the campsite so be sure you lock up any food. We found out the hard way and our camp mates lost a big bag of fruit to the herd who hoed in without leaving so much as a skerrick behind. The cattle were a big hit with the kids though.

The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River
This location offers lots of wildlife. Keen campers Nate (l) with his bass catch & Taj (r) with a turtle

Activities on the Clarence River

There are usually two main activities (three if you include fishing) that most appeal as you settle into your stay. Experiencing the rope swing and exploring the river. 

An amazing night sky and the best Australian Bass fishing

As soon as the sun goes down, the night sky lights up and with urban society so far away, you can see every star, plane and satellite drifting above your head.

As I’m a fishing fanatic I’m always sneaking out after dark (with one child in tow) in search of Australian Bass that are found in big numbers and colossal sizes in these waters. If you can’t get your biggest bass ever in this water, you just aren’t fishing enough! Fish over 50 centimetres fork length are common.

The rope swing

To get to the rope swing, paddling downstream was the way to go with kids and parents in tow. For those wanting to drive, you can park 50 metres away on the opposite side of the river.

The rope swing is not for the faint-hearted as it sends the kids (and adults) some 20 metres out into the river on one of the best rides I have seen. The kids never get sick off this activity and the whole morning can be spent sitting back and watching everyone have a go.

After the rope swing, you can spend the rest of the day in the water swimming, snorkelling, fishing or alternatively, stay on dry land to enjoy a nap or a good book under the shade of a tree while the kids climb up the huge mango trees and explore the boulder fields.

At the end of the day, you have the option of heading up to the main cottage for a hot shower and toilet stop (and a beer with the hosts) but most campers choose to fend for themselves at their campsites with a fire, beer and dinner.

The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River
The kids and grown-ups got plenty of thrills and spills on the rope swing

Heading upstream

The next day, activities are upstream for us and we spend the day fishing, casting and exploring the 10-metre gorge rock walls for bass that are trying to head much further upstream. These fish are often stopped by the low water and sheer rock wall cliffs they can only navigate during floods. As we know, large floods are a necessity in all ecosystems. 

Walk to waterfalls

After fishing we put on our shoes and take on the three kilometre walk to The Gorge waterfalls. It takes around 80 minutes to reach them by crossing flat rocks, grassed fields, gullies and creeks filled with wildlife and remnants of ancient floods.

You hear the falls before you see them (from around 500 metres away) and the first falls are followed by several others upstream. If you’re keen, you can keep scrambling a further three kilometres upstream and stand at the junction of the Mann/Nymboida River and Clarence River.

One recent trip in October saw the water levels so low we could go under and behind the waterfalls and even jump off the 10-metre ledge into the deep pools below before moving and jumping between spots that are often in strong current and deep water.

The water is usually crystal clear and full of life. Unfortunately, on our return trip, spots were much deeper and dirtier and strong currents from recent rains were being pushed down the river, but we still had fun.

Be sure to save some of the water you packed for the walk home as the kids will need it and motivation in the form of lollies to make it back to the campsite wouldn’t go astray either.

For most campers it’s usually an early bedtime each night before getting up early the next day to make the most of this wonderful region – and every day thereafter until the time comes to head back to civilisation.

The Gorge – creating memories for a lifetime on the Clarence River
The waterfalls are a 3km walk across flat rocks, grassed fields, gullies and creeks 

Be sure to explore!

Locations such as these are splattered across Coastbeat territory so do your research and get out and explore these areas.

Just as I encouraged readers to take the time to experience the wonders of the Solitary Islands Marine Park for themselves, I strongly encourage you to pack up and head out to The Gorge on the beautiful Clarence River to enjoy nature at its best. You won’t be disappointed!

Find inspiration right here with great camping and fishing spots across the NSW North Coast, the best camping spots around Byron Bay and come with us as we camp at Point Plomer and go off-roading in Yuraygir National Park.

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Coffs Harbour