Page 57

Port Stephens Then South To Sydney.

Nelson Bay, Port Stephens.

If the word 'port' conjures images of ships and cranes, let's start over. Picture a shallow lake twenty five kilometres long and up to six kilometres wide, joined to the sea at its eastern end through a neck of water about a kilometre wide. Well, that's Port Stephens. It's not a town, it's an inlet from the Tasman Sea. Nelson Bay is on its southern side near the mouth of the inlet and is a town (and a bay). It consists of a harbour full of expensive yachts (what other kind are there?), sandy beaches, hotels, apartment blocks, shops and restaurants as well as housing. Put another way, it used to be a paradise for wildlife but the developers descended on it long ago and now it's a paradise for holiday makers, especially the nautical type. The Port Stephens inlet has a shoreline at least 110 kilometres long. The surface area of the water is about 130 square kilometres with many creeks and rivers draining into it. We were told it has two and a half times the surface area of Sydney Harbour (that good old Australian benchmark) but because much of Port Stephens is only about two metres deep, the volume of water in Sydney Harbour is greater.

We stayed in a very nice caravan park adjacent to Nelson Bay. The area was called Little Beach because, compared to Nelson Bay, the beach was . . . little. A road ran up a hill next to the caravan park leading to the Nelson Head Inner Lighthouse.

Inner Lighthouse

Do you remember when lighthouses were tall, dignified, white towers built of stone with a spiral staircase inside leading up to a large prism focusing the light from a kerosene mantle and rotating on a turntable floating in a bath of mercury? The turntable was driven by a sort of clockwork mechanism deriving its energy from a large weight suspended in the centre of the tower which had to be pulled back up periodically by the lighthouse keeper. Remember all that? No, neither do I.

The Nelson Head Inner
Lighthouse at Port Stephens

The lighthouse on the summit of Nelson Head, just above the caravan park, looked more like a tin water tank bristling with antennae and mobile phone repeaters and proudly flying the Aussie flag. The original lighthouse was built on the site in 1872 and used four kerosene lamps shining out of four windows facing in different directions. In 1946 the light source was converted to electrickery. Then in 1984 they upgraded again to an automated electronic system, making the lighthouse keeper redundant. In 1995 the system was converted to solar power. And the light itself? To quote the brochure, "An occulting white and red sector light flashes every three seconds."

We found the lighthouse manned by three men of the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol in a large control room with panoramic views both down Port Stephens inlet and along the coast. They monitor all the nautical radio traffic, co-ordinate search and rescue operations, issue meteorology and sea condition reports and . . . a whole lot more. We were free to go up and chat to them and I did. They were a friendly bunch and I enjoyed talking to them. A bit too much, I suppose, totally forgetting that a little woman was waiting patiently below. Under the control room was a gift shop and the adjacent keeper's cottage has been converted to a tea room and mini-museum.
Soldiers Point

Pam wanted to visit Soldiers Point, a peninsula jutting out into Port Stephens inlet, narrowing the water to a two kilometre wide channel. The garrison of old, and its cannons, were stationed on the outer end of the peninsula, a position which afforded them good control of the inlet, hence the current name, Soldiers Point. Today there is a modern marina at the tip of the peninsula with restaurants and bars. So that's why she was so keen to go. Bars!
A boat trip up the Myall River.

The boat left from Nelson Bay at 11:15 so we set off walking at 10:30. On the way to the harbour we decided to stop at a public toilet to 'pump the bilges' before boarding. As I unzipped my fly, the metal zipper tag thingy came off in my hand. I found that the zip still worked but would not stay up. I met Pam outside and we decided there wasn't time to return to the caravan and change my pants; I needed a safety pin. We continued to the boat harbour, me with one finger jammed under the zip fastener.

Having a few minutes to spare before departure we rapidly reconnoitred the nearby retail businesses. Not a safety pin to be found. What else would suffice? The only thing that came near to a compromise in that marine environment was a small fish hook so we purchased a packet. The fish hooks were certainly sharp enough to pierce the backing material of the zipper (and my finger) so I made do with one and the zip appeared secure. Gives a new meaning to fly fishing.

We boarded the boat and had a very enjoyable cruise, slightly marred by my need to check the elevation of the zip each time I moved. I need not have worried, as I discovered when I needed the toilet again. Let me advise anyone who finds themselves in a similar predicament; a fish hook has a nasty little barb that is designed to prevent the hook coming out once it has pierced something. That applies equally to a zipper backing material. Once in, the hook won't come out. It has no consideration whatsoever for your bladder. Worse, the moment your bladder discovers it is to be thwarted in its urgent need to drain, it proceeds to throw a tantrum - considerably more so if you are over sixty. I'm sure I need say no more. Avoid fish hooks like the plague. I have considerable sympathy for the poor fish.

The second misfortune to befall us was when a couple of women boarded the boat with two very young children and sat opposite us. We witnessed a battle of wills when the female brat - there was one of each gender - dropped a crayon under an empty seat and wanted her mother to pick it up. Her mother refused, telling her to pick it up herself. We tried to 'open a book' on who would win this contest but that fell flat when we found we were both backing the brat. In the event it was hard to judge as a third party became sick of the conflict and picked the crayon up. We gave a points win to the brat.

The Myall River empties into Port Stephens more or less opposite Nelson Bay so our boat, quite a small one seating about thirty passengers, first crossed four and a half kilometres of open water then entered the river mouth. Our first stop was at a small place with the unlikely name of Tea Gardens. Here many of the passengers, including the brats, disembarked allowing the remainder a lot more elbow room. Our captain also disembarked, returning with take-away lunches for those remaining on board. We then proceeded up the river at a sedate 4 knots. The water was a brownish colour caused by tannin from certain grasses that grow in the shallow water near the river banks, and also from tea trees of which there were many.

Myall River

The trees grew right down to the water.

Our guide/captain was very excited when he spotted a Whistling Kite. He also showed us several kite's nests in high trees along the river banks. We had seen so many kites in our travels that we had difficulty raising much enthusiasm. In Katherine in the Northern Territory they were more common than crows. That is not to denigrate kites, however, they are my favourite birds appearing more intelligent than eagles and with superior soaring capabilities.

We passed pine plantations along the banks of the lower Myall. A few years ago shares in these plantations were sold as amazing investment opportunities. It didn't quite work that way. Now the pines are seeding in the adjacent national park and are taking over. They block the light and their needles carpet the forest floor, stifling the native flora and driving away the native animals which rely on that undergrowth for food and cover. Yet another example of humans upsetting the natural balance. The situation has become so bad they don't how to begin to rectify it.

Pine Trees

This was national parkland but the pine trees on the Myall's left bank completely dominated the other trees.

On the way up the river the captain spotted a lone dolphin making its way downstream. We all wanted a photo opportunity and the captain assured us we would catch up with the dolphin on our return journey and 'he' would interact with the boat. There never seemed any doubt that the dolphin was a male. Either way, we did catch up with it on the way down river but it wasn't in a playful mood.


I'm a failure. This was the best shot I managed of this dolphin.

We'd catch sight of it on one side of the boat, then the other. Sometimes it was astern of us (note the nautical lingo) and then it was ahead. The captain was amazed how fast it had travelled to overhaul us.

But just hang on a minute! Suppose there were four of them, one on either side, one ahead and one behind? While we thought we were the smart ones, heading fast to each sighting, they'd be laughing at us. The uncertainty defeated my attempts to get a good picture, though. I ended up with dozens of images of a dolphin diving - sometimes just a swirl of water after the dolphin had gone. But it was fun and we enjoyed it. I'm not so sure the dolphin(s) did.

We again stopped at Tea Gardens on the return trip and picked up some of the passengers we dropped on the outward trip but NOT the two brats. Crossing Port Stephens again afforded me an opportunity to photograph Nelson Bay and Little Beach (where we were staying) from the 'sea'.

Little Beach

Little Beach from the water. Circled is the lighthouse and to its left is the passage to the open sea.

Nelson Bay

Apartment blocks dominate the scene. Nelson Bay.

All in all, a very enjoyable day out.
Tomaree Head

One morning, in a fit of irrationality, Pam decided we should climb to the top of Tomaree Head, the hill that guards the entrance to Port Stephens. During WWII this hill bristled with guns and torpedoes. There had also been a radar unit on its peak. Access to the Port Stephens inlet would have brought the enemy too close to the steel works at Newcastle and the RAAF base at Williamtown. Tomaree Head is only 161 m. (or 525 feet) high but it's very steep in places. The views on the way up, and from the peak, made the exertion worth while.

Lighthouse from Tomaree Head

The Nelson Head Inner Lighthouse and café (circled) taken from the peak of Tomaree Head, 2.5 km away. The yellow cross marks our caravan's position, though on the other side of the trees. From the summit we could also see the Outer Lighthouse on a short peninsula along the coast. It was the traditional 'white tower' type.

I won't inflict more pictures with water and beaches on you 'cos you're probably bored to death. Instead I'll tell you about what we saw on the way back down the hill. As the gradient reduced, the path changed to brick paving. There were benches at intervals and we'd just passed a bloke sitting on one when we paused to admire the scenery. I was talking, as usual, when Pam pointed behind me. Turning, I saw the same bloke coming around a corner towards us. He wasn't walking, he was dragging himself down the path on his bum. Well, your first instinct is to laugh but of course you don't. He was a heavy man and he was wearing ordinary shorts. How long would they last being dragged along the brick paving, I wondered. Pam walked on but I lingered and he dragged himself past me without speaking. That would make quite a photo for the web site, I thought, as I walked behind him. Then I was immediately ashamed of myself for even entertaining the thought, I really should have more sympathy. So, filled with remorse, I took his photo.

At the bottom of the hill was a large building set back amongst the trees. We read the notice board at the gate. It was a residence for people with various disabilities. So, no, I won't print the picture. Here, instead, is a monitor lizard we spotted in a tree. Had it not moved we'd have walked right past.


A well disguised Monitor Lizard. Below is an enlarged view.

Lizard, Close Up

It's tail must be twice the length of its head and body combined.

Narrabeen, Sydney.

Leaving Port Stephens we travelled south to Sydney, breaking our journey in Newcastle to visit two good friends. We met Ann and Tom on our voyage from Cairns to the tip of Cape York on the M.V. Trinity Bay and have stayed in touch ever since. (Page 16.)

The closer we got to Sydney the heavier the traffic became and the faster it travelled. A Sunday it may have been, but the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway was very busy and our car had to work much harder than I prefer to push it on the uphill gradients in order not to cause a hold up. Leaving the Freeway we were faced with twenty kilometres on the Mona Vale Road which was not funny either. We were frequently in three-lane traffic. I tried to stay in the left lane, having the caravan on tow, but then we'd come round a corner and find something parked in our lane. Invariably we'd have to stop and wait for a gap as no self-respecting Sydney driver is going to allow a caravan to change into his lane. Often the traffic lanes were so narrow that large vehicles in the next lane would be almost touching us. However, we arrived safely at Narrabeen, though with our nerves considerably frayed.

I'll not cover Narrabeen or the Lakeside Caravan Park in detail as we stayed here about eighteen months ago and it is covered on Pages 21 and 22.

Harbour Bridge

That most famous of Australian structures, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, taken from the Darling Harbour ferry as it left Circular Quay. Three climbing parties are visible against the sky on the near side of the bridge.

Climbers on the Harbour Bridge

It looks quite busy on the bridge summit. The cost ranges from $198 per climber to $258 at Christmas.

Because of the danger of objects falling on the traffic below, each climber wears a special jump suite and cannot even wear a wrist watch, let alone carry a camera. Each climber is attached to a safety cable throughout the climb.
Driving in Sydney

Immediate impressions of Sydney after spending so long in the bush were of speed, noise, crowds and towering buildings. Three lanes of traffic almost everywhere, moving at reckless speed one moment, stationary the next. And that was how it was driving; the traffic would rocket away from traffic lights and in ten seconds it would be braking hard to stop at the next lights.

The rules at traffic lights appeared to be:

There were road signs everywhere including Bus Lanes, Transit Lanes and Clearways, all of which applied at some times but not at others, as indicated by the wording. If you took your eyes off the road for long enough to read the details, the vehicle ahead would have stopped when you looked up. Clearways were not clearways on a Sunday but they would usually remain empty. We found out why when we rounded a bend in a clearway lane and found a row of parked cars ahead. Seasoned Sydney drivers quickly diverted right, into the next lane, whether or not there was a safe gap. This more timid driver slowed, indicated, and watched for an opportunity to safely move over. The seasoned Sydney drivers in the next lane ensured there was no such opportunity. The secret seems to be, never indicate. It is a sign of weakness and a challenge to other motorists.

Alice, our beloved GPS, was all but useless in the city. The tall buildings screened the satellites on which the system relies, slowing down the response of the GPS at a time when we needed directions fast. Crossing the Harbour Bridge was fun. The GPS knew we were on the bridge but didn't know which of the many lanes we were using, instructing us to carry out impossible manoeuvres as we left the bridge and re-entered the urban maze. Advice to turn was either given at the last second, too late, or when we were in an inappropriate lane and hemmed in by traffic. Frequently we just guessed, often wrongly. One such error saw us crossing back over the Harbour Bridge. On the far side the GPS suggested we do a U-turn. Can you imagine attempting a U-turn in that density of fast-moving traffic? They'd still have been clearing the carnage at Christmas!

Sydney, we discovered too late, has many privately owned toll roads and tunnels. Most of the toll collection operates electronically; there isn't a place to stop and pay. A good idea, you may think, especially as it keeps the traffic flowing. Sydney residents purchase an "E-tag" which registers their presence on toll roads. If you haven't got a tag, cameras photograph your number plate. You are then supposed to phone the road owner and pay by credit card. Failing that the road owner will hound you down and extract his pound of flesh plus a large surcharge for his trouble. Being visitors, we were unaware of the electronic system for several days. We drove around, frequently lost, and probably using toll roads. How do we find out later? There's no central enquiry point, the toll road owners operate independently. How totally stupid is this? Pity the foreign visitor with very little English.

Advice to motorists in Sydney? Use public transport where you can. If you have a Senior's Card you can travel all day, stress free, on buses, trains and ferries for just $2.50.
Goodbye Sydney

We finally left Sydney for Singleton with no regrets other than leaving behind good friends.

Sydney Harbour with its bridge and opera house is very beautiful, as is much of the surrounding area. But why, in a continent so vast, do millions of people choose to live in such a relatively confined area? It results in buildings being crammed onto every scrap of available land, property becomes unaffordable, litter is everywhere, stress levels rise, the crime rate increases and the streets are choked with traffic belching fumes and creating noise. Many places in the world don't have the luxury of spreading out, but . . . Australia?

Footnote: This re-working of Page 57 was completed on 8th June 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.