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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Little Beach from the water. Circled is the lighthouse and to its left is the passage to the open sea.
Apartment blocks dominate the scene. Nelson Bay.
All in all, a very enjoyable day out.
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.
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
A well disguised Monitor Lizard. Below is an enlarged view.
It's tail must be twice the length of its head and body combined.
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
- Green: Go
- Amber: Go
- Red for less than five seconds: Go
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.
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.