The gems of Central West NSW start to shine as soon as you turn off the Great Western Highway. Not saying that the townships of Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo aren’t great places to visit at all — they are buzzing hubs for their regions. It’s just that places such as Millthorpe, Canowindra, Cowra, Forbes, Condobolin and Wellington all offer intrepid travellers something different. The one constant is down-to-earth country hospitality.
Millthorpe was established in 1834 and once the railway line was established in the 1870s, local wool producers had access to the lucrative Sydney markets. The town boomed off the sheep's back. On weekends, 'Little Leura'— as the locals call it — is a tourist’s delight and gets very busy. There’s a vast range of places to stay from pubs to B&Bs, and we can see why with a range of places at which to eat, drink and be merry. For the shoppers, the cobblestone streets have a wide selection of antiques, arts, boutique shops and providores. Our favourite was The Bower, with its eclectic mix of wares and host Julia, typical of the country charm we would get used to everywhere we went. For the foodies, Tonic provides a fine dining experience akin to any city restaurant and serves in season produce and local wines to match. A beer at the Millthorpe Hotel could have easily seen us settle in for lunch in the lovely dining room but we had to keep moving.
Touted as the town that time forgot, Carcoar is a 20-minute drive from Millthorpe and utterly delightful. As you drop into the village from the Mid Western Highway, you feel like you're going back in time. First settled in 1821 and gazetted as a town in 1836, it is the most intact historic village in Australia with beautifully maintained buildings, and the closed-in main street has a great pub and cafe and accommodation options. You can see why filmmakers often use the town. If you like Australian history, then this town is a must visit.
The caravan park in Canowindra is a short walk from the main street and overlooks a popular balloon launching field. The park has immaculately maintained facilities. It got our tick of approval.
As did Canowindra — a real belter of a town. The main street is full of shops busily trading their wares from food, coffee, art, homewares, gardening, coffee or general supplies. Wander from Perennialle Plants after a coffee and pastry down to the Canowindra Services Club for a refresher and wander back up the other side of the street. There is something for everyone along that street.
We opted for a night at the Royal Hotel for dinner. A traditional Aussie pub with a beaut central bar, great food and a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. In 1863, the Royal was famously taken over by Ben Hall and his bushranger brethren. They held the town hostage inside the pub for three days! Sitting at the bar sipping on a quiet rum, it was hard to believe that happened right in this same place. The Royal was also affected by the 2022 floods with water from the Lachlan River seeping up through the cellar. The pub ended up with over two metres of water in it.
There’s plenty to see in and around Canowindra with The Age of Fishes Museum standing proud. What started as a chance fossil discovery in 1955 has led to a museum and educational centre which traces fish species from 360 million years ago. David Attenborough visited in 2013 and described the fossils as world-class.
As we headed south to Cowra, along a very scenic route, we couldn't help but to reflect on Canowindra. The people were so friendly, and the town had a real buzz. Tree changers should put Canowindra on their list.
Cowra is another town that delivers travellers delights in spades. The history of the Cowra breakout and the subsequent establishment of the Cowra Japanese Garden make this a must-stop-and-stay destination. Oh, and it has the best coffee west of the ranges! Gingerbird Espresso located at 24 Kendall Street is a newish place (opened early 2023) and is as good as it gets for the weary traveller looking for a bite to eat and a brew. They are dedicated to their craft, and it shows in every sip.
Now that you’ve revived yourself, unhitch at the Cowra Van Park. Situated on Lachlan River, a few minutes’ walk to town, the park has a nice open feel to it and flat easy access sites. The River Park is next door and provides paved walking trails if you want to get your steps up. There’s also overnighting available at the showgrounds, a few kilometres on your way heading west from town.
The Japanese Gardens at Cowra is 12.5 hectares of manicured gardens, nestled with plenty of places to take in the serenity. Take a picnic or enjoy the onsite cafe. The gardens have lakes, cascading waterfalls and botanical sights at every turn. Our autumn visit saw shades of oranges and pinks and spring would see the blossoms in all their glory. The occasional low ring ‘dong’ from the ‘Bonsho Bell’ adds to the ambience of the gardens.
The Garrison Walk takes you on a guided tour of the relics from Cowra’s wartime legacy. Interpretive signage guides you and it is sobering to reflect on what happened in this small NSW town during the wartime.
The next stop on Caravan World’s trip is Forbes and the delightful Forbes Apex Riverside Tourist Park. The Lachlan River loops around the back of the park. It's a great park and we cooked in the best camp kitchen on the trip. The camp kitchen is spacious, weatherproof and has heaters installed giving a nice cosy feel. A large TV made for a nice evening cooking, chatting with fellow travellers and watching the footy. Our garlic chicken, slow cooked in our camp oven, had a few mouths drooling! If you can, request a site that backs onto the river. Apart from the tranquillity afforded by the Lachlan River, some of the middle sites are a bit tight. Our tight schedule saw us miss bushranger Ben Hall’s grave and where he was shot. It's always good to have a reason to go back to Central West NSW towns!
One of the most utterly delightful days on our trip started off in Forbes and ended up in Condobolin, 100km away via the Lachlan Valley Way. This route combines easy driving, rural scenery and the fantastic Sculpture Down the Lachlan art trail. The larger-than-life installations are quirky, breathtaking and display the fabulous talents of the artists. We started with a visit to ‘Varanus’ (goanna). Taking pride of place in the Gum Swamp Wildlife refuge, the sheer size and perfect stance of Varanus is something to behold. A walk along Gum Swamp and sometime in the bird hides was complementary to the whole experience. ‘The Hunter’ is also an impressive piece at that location.
The drive is dotted with sculptures staged at various distances. The Forbes Arts Society (FAS) has been a driving force in establishing this amazing art trail. Each stop has you contemplating the artist's interpretation and gazing in wonder at these creations — ‘Tower’ with its spooky man standing on an abstract water tank, ‘Bird in the Hand’, ‘Sonata’ has a young girl playing violin atop of a calmed bull and the strength portrayed in ‘Heart of Country’, a warrior-like Indigenous man looking back but moving forward. The project is set to attract people locally and internationally and is a true add it to your bucket list experience.
As we pulled into the Riverview Caravan Park at Condobolin, River Red Gums quietly greeted us. A not-so quiet greeting came from the local cockatoos and galahs. A gorgeous stretch of the Lachlan River meanders beside the park. Renowned as a part of the river with lots of fish, none could be coaxed onto any of our casts. The park just says relax. So, with the firepit on, a deboned leg of lamb blipping away in the camp oven for dinner, we did just that. Magic!
Condobolin town centre is only a five-minute walk away for supplies, coffee or a bit of shopping. The Hall Condo is a great surprise, with a wide range of men’s and women’s fashion, work wear, boots and a coffee bar. It is so nice to see new businesses being established and families young and old embracing the challenge.
About 4km west of Condobolin, on Bathurst Street, is the man-made Gum Bend Lake. It is a very pleasant spot to stay. There’s plenty of space to stay if you are self-sufficient and there is a modern amenities block and barbecue facilities. Water skiing is a popular activity as is bushwalking and birdwatching. Short-term stays are free, but a gold coin donation would be appreciated. The facilities are well worth it.
Next stop was Dubbo. After the relative calmness of the towns we’d passed through, it was a bustling metropolis. We spent time at the Western Plains Cultural Centre and the historical stories and relics on display were well worth the stop. The adjoining art gallery has temporary art installations. We were lucky to see an exhibition of local photographer Bob Montgomery, with images representing over 40 years of photography of the Australian landscape. We’d checked out Terramungamine rock grooves cultural site on the way into town and survived the Old Dubbo Gaol experience and some of its eerie rooms (the padded room was spooky as was the Gallows Gallery). A superb place to walk around and they have optional guided tours. We were keen to visit the Royal Flying Doctor Visitor experience, but our time was cut short when there were no rooms or sites available in town. Ironically, the RFDS was hosting its national conference and the town was booked out!
Luckily, we secured the last site at nearby Wellington Riverside Caravan Park. This place is a gem. All van sites back onto the Macquarie River. It has a great camp kitchen, good amenities and it's only a short stroll into town. We were blessed with a full moon rising that night and not so blessed with an early morning freight train clanking by at 5:30am. A small price to pay for a very comfortable night’s rest.
Our final destination on the trip was to pop into the Wellington Caves precinct. The precinct has a very open caravan park with shady trees which would be welcome in summer, great facilities and amenities within the park and a beautiful view over the ranges. There’s an 18-hole, fully licensed golf club a short walk away. A new visitor experience centre provides for a welcome coffee and is the starting place for guided tours to the caves. The centre has a lovely display featuring a life-sized Diprotodon and ancient landscapes gallery. The tours are led by enthusiastic guides and open the world beneath your feet in spectacular fashion.
The Central West of NSW has an abundance of great towns, each with its own character and each serving up experiences to satisfy the most intrepid traveller. The country hospitality is like a warm hug around you as you journey through this special part of the country. As many of the towns were affected by floods, any time and money you spend is helping them rebuild. You may even get the best coffee west of the ranges!
Points of interest
- Perennialle Plants in Canowindra
- Gingerbird Espresso in Cowra
- The Fat Parcel in Eugowra
- Railway Station Cafe in Millthorpe
Places to stay
- Canowindra Caravan Park
- Cowra Van Park
- Apex Riverside Caravan Park in Forbes
- Riverside Caravan Park in Wellington
- Wellington Caves Holiday Complex
- The Age of Fishes Museum in Canowindra
- Japanese Gardens in Cowra
- Garrison Walk in Cowra
- Sculpture Down the Lachlan from Forbes to Condobolin
- Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo
- Old Dubbo Gaol
- Royal Flying Doctor Visitor Experience in Dubbo
- Wellington Caves
THE NEXT STEP
Are you ready to experience the freedom of the open road? Don't wait - Find your dream getaway now!