Granite Belt Begs to be Ridden
The Granite Belt in southern Queensland tempts Gold Coast rider and Motorbike Writer contributor Todd Parkes
The region is two hours west of the Gold Coast and up until now I only knew it as that cold place where it snows in Queensland in winter.
Stanthorpe is at the heart of the region and when I was told it was one of the cooler areas in South East Queensland over the summer, I was hooked as riding in summer can be taxing. I was especially hooked when I remembered the curvaceous ride up through Killarney and the sumptuous twists of the Tenterfield range that enable me to get there and return.
The Granite Belt region is aptly named sitting on a ribbon of granite rock that is naturally displayed in all sorts of interesting shapes. Budding geologists will have a ball.
The land is utilised for many industries including wine and grape vineyards, apple farms, strawberry farms, fish hatcheries and cheese factories to name several.To get to the Granite Belt region from Brisbane or the Gold Coast, there are several options: the Warrego Highway to Toowoomba then out through Warwick and south bound. There is also the Cunningham’s Gap option which is a stunning and curvy ride to Warwick. I came up through Boonah, Carney’s Creek and Killarney. If you are coming from the Northern Rivers region, up through Casino then the Tenterfield range is the way to go.
For me the ride up through Killarney is stunning, encompassing narrow, winding roads through canopied rain forest regions, then bursting out into ribbons of asphalt along the ridge of the main range area. I wanted to turn around, descend and do it again as it’s a favourite of mine.
Along the way, a picnic at Carney’s Creek near the rock formations is a great idea; followed by a stop at Carr’s Lookout to see if you can spot the plane wreckage from the 1900s that is still in the foliage across from the lookout.
If you love the bushland, Queen Mary Falls and Brown Falls waterfalls awaits. Several cafes along the ridge also await to tantalise your tastebuds.
From Killarney you can pursue the highway south or, as I did, take Old Stanthorpe Road. If your bike is a tarmac queen, avoid it, as it has about 10km of unsealed, corrugated roads. Eventually you will appear at the northern end of Stanthorpe near Applethorpe.
My first arranged stop was Sutton’s Apple Farm. Ros and David own the farm and they make juices, pies, ciders as well as obviously producing apples for the industry. Being a teacher by trade, Ros is always keen to host school visits of all ages and even has schools visiting from the Gold Coast.
I had heard great things about their apple pie so had to try it. It is completely handmade with onsite ingredients and served with special flavoured ice-cream and apple syrup dribbled over the cream. It did not disappoint.
My gran used to make her apple pies by hand so this was a great throwback. In fact this apple pie has such a great reputation that when one customer Googled where to find the best apple pie, Sutton’s came up, he jumped in his helicopter on the coast and flew up requesting landing clearance on the farm while in transit. He has since popped in again numerous times.
From there I went via Thullimbah, an old local rail station, to Donnelly’s Castle, one of Captain Thunderbolt’s hideouts. It has all sorts of outcrops, formations and even some cave-like nooks. I approached from the wrong direction and turned into the state forest nearby which also had amazing formations. The tracks are well-beaten, but may be tough for some road bikes. Donnelly’s Castle road is also unsealed but not too difficult.
The region is also known for its strawberries and Ashbern’s Strawberry Farm was next on my bucket list for the weekend. Picking fresh strawberries is a highlight as well as experiencing food and drinks with the strawberries as the main ingredient.
Overnight in the Vineyard
There is so much to do in this region you will have to stay a night or several. My accommodation was arranged at Ridgemill Estate which has eight modern and inviting cabins on site overlooking the vineyard.
Ridgemill Estate has its own cellar room, manufacturing facility and taste-testing sessions. They make some beautiful wines, some of which have won prestigious awards. The location is a stunner and to sit on the deck looking out on the vineyard hearing the sounds of nature is so relaxing. You can eat out under the stars or around the nearby rocks area.
If you love sunsets, Mt Marlay lookout is a top spot with a viewing platform, walking trails, rocky outcrops and mountain biking trails. There are many restaurants in or near town to suit any taste or you can cook a barbecue at Ridgemill. Don’t forget to enjoy the chockies and a glass or two under the vista of the many beautiful stars.
Day two of my new frontier exploration of the Granite Belt region led me to more wonders.
The Jamworks Gourmet Cafe and Larder was the place to go for breakfast where they make all their jams on site. One of the owners, Stef, was on duty and shared how they often get machinery clubs and car clubs among others journeying through or frequently meeting up there.
In fact as I enjoyed some apple juice and an omelette, the local classics group turned up for their monthly gathering. A smattering of classic vehicles surrounded the parking lot and the conversation rose enthusiastically within the cafe to fever pitch.
You aren’t visiting Stanthorpe properly if you haven’t experienced several wineries across the area. In fact there are more than 45 different vineyards in the region and to explore all of them in one hit is an impossibility which is why many people just keep returning.
Jester Hill Wines was my mid-morning stop. Ann and Mick Bourke own and run Jester Hill Wines. They are keen motorcyclists and they visited the Granite Belt on a bike trip together nearly a decade ago. They visited Jester Hill Wines when under its previous owner and decided to buy it out of the blue!
They have a wine called “Two Fools” and they say they named it after themselves and their story of the bike trip that ended in buying a winery. I had a great chat with them both as well as a lovely coffee. Wine tasting is available and a must as well as taking away some produce with you. If only I could have fitted a case on the bike!
They do courier your purchases (like the other wineries do too) though and often they arrive home to your doorstep before you do.
More spectacular scenery can be explored in the region including Girraween National Park with rock formations, caves and outcrops. On the way I saw a man-made pyramid in the Ballandean area on Jacobsen’s Rd. It is a stone pyramid, built from blocks of local granite, standing about 17.5m, 30m square at the base and containing 7500 tonnes of rock. It was built using an excavator and dump truck and it took eight months to complete.
Leaving Stanthorpe and heading south to the border I arrived at Wallangarra Railway Cafe in the old border station. In its prime, it received trains from NSW on their unique gauge and shifted the freight to waiting trains on Queensland’s different gauge railway line.
That doesn’t occur anymore but if you are in the region at the right time, a steam train comes from Warwick monthly to this destination (the next is February 9, 2019), stops for lunch and heads home. There is a museum with well-laid-out models, displays and a theatre room. Kim and the other helpful staff are always warm and welcoming as they serve you snacks, meals and drinks while sharing the site’s history.
At the end of my two-day ride through the Granite Belt, I resolved to return with my clan to explore the law dog training shows, see some glass blowing, visit the saddlery, taste some cheeses and see more of the region’s natural beauty.
I headed south to Tenterfield and then east through the ranges to Casino, Lismore, Bangalow and home to the Gold Coast. For more scenic non-motorway oriented riding you can ride through Kyogle, Nimbin and Murwillumbah. However you manage that trip, the roads are delightful.
Top 10 reasons to ride the Granite Belt:
- The roads to get there are great.
- The wines taste completely different to coastal areas or lower valley regions.
- The farm industry (apples, strawberries, grapes, etc) offers tasting, picking and tours as well as products such as juices, jams, snacks, etc
- The craft industry includes glass blowing, chocolate making, cheese making, beer brewing, fish hatcheries, leather goods and more.
- Natural sites to delight geology buffs include Girraween National Park, Donnelly’s Castle, many random sites with interesting granite formations and Mt Marlay Lookout.
- Local hospitality is friendly and inviting and the businesses seem to work together for the good of the region not in competition for tourist dollars.
- Cafes, restaurants and accommodation all offer unique experiences.
- Many think of it as a winter destination, the chance to maybe see snow in Qld and feel the warm fireplaces and drink hot chocolate at night, but in summer you can explore the roads without the heat and humidity of the coast.
- Unique experiences include the Law Dog Training school to see how dogs used in all branches of security work are trained; the Granite Belt Maze and Mini Golf, Christmas Tree Farm, Queensland College for Wine Tourism daily tours and world-class dining.
- History buffs will enjoy the various museums, military memorials and the historic villages named after French and Belgium World War I Battles.