Whales, sand dunes, and fighter jets – a winter break in Port Stephens
We arrive at the house, open the door and can see the blue horizon peeking thru the end of the hallway. A few steps down to the living room and just then thru the window, I spot a big splash a mere 50 meters away in the ocean.
Forget unpacking the car, inspecting the rest of the house or turning the heater on. There is a whale and her calf playing right here an then, I don’t want to miss that. I don’t even reach for my camera bag, in fear of missing this precious moment.
In the background, I hear the distinctive noise of a beer opening and the popping of a champagne cork. Then Mr T is quietly slipping a glass in my hand as I am still staring out the window.
For a few minutes, we both stand still in silence, until Mum and Baby nonchalantly swim further along past the headland and out of our sight.
This is going to be a good 3 days and I can’t wait to sit on the couch and watch the whales.
We are in Fishermans Bay, a coastal hamlet tucked between Anna Bay and Nelson Bay, in Port Stephens, a 4 hour drive north of Sydney. Actually, you could do it in 3 hours, but it took us a little longer as our teenage daughter, Anne, was driving and being an L-plater, the speed limit was restricted to 90 klm/hour and Mr T made a couple of stops along the way in Newcastle.
This is the kind of destinations every Australian knows about, as I discover that every one I mention it to, somehow, has memories of either camping there as a child on summer holidays, boating in the Great Lakes or surfing along many of the golden beaches. Mr T reminds me that we anchored off Shoal Bay 30 years ago, seeking shelter from a nasty southerly storm. I vaguely recall being unimpressed then, since the weather was awful and the shore was looking grey and uninviting.
This time is different. The weather forecast for the next 3 days is for glorious sunshine and I have done my research. Apart from whale watching, we’ve also come for the sand dunes on nearby Stockton Beach and have a try at star photography.
Rather than a hotel, we chose to stay in a house as there are 3 of us and since we all love our space and privacy, it is much better value. “Ocean Views” took some efforts to find, but it lives up to its name. Sitting on the rocky waters edge, the home is exquisitely furnished in a comfortable Hampton style with nautical references and dozens of magazines and books. There is plenty of room for 8 ( I initially thought there would be 7 of us! ), 2 living rooms with TVs ( ideal for Mr T to watch the football in one while I followed Masterchef in the other one ), a large dining room overlooked by a full size kitchen.
Being a home rental, only basic cleaning and catering supplies are provided. We were asked to bring our own toiletries, linen and towels, which I didn’t mind but I can see how some people would find it off putting to have to make their own bed. Having brought my own groceries, I pack everything away and claim the best spot for whale watching during the day ( the lounge room ) and star gazing at night ( our bed! ). I already wish we’d book for a week rather than 3 nights.
“What’s to do?” asks Anne. Being in winter, swimming is out of the question ( though thick skinned surfers do, we’re just wimps! ) but there are a lot of other options.
We start the next day by a beach drive at the bottom of the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes. Part of the Worimi Conservation Lands and owned by the traditional aboriginal Worimi people, these cover 4200 hectares, including 32kms of the longest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. They reach heights of over 30 meters with slopes of up to 60 degrees, forming an amazing landscape part-desert, part-lunar. Driving along the whole length of the beach by 4WD is allowed with the purchase of a permit ( $33 for 3 days ) and best done at low tide. Mr T introduced Anne to four wheel driving in soft sand, which I think she found challenging, muttering to herself “please don’t get bogged!”.
I didn’t help, requesting we make a few stops along the way to explore historic sites such as Tin City. Which is not a city at all, but rather a collection of ramshackle houses best described as shacks.
The story goes that a couple of them were originally built in the 19th century as shelters and provisioning sheds for shipwrecked sailors. Then during the 1930’s Depression era, homeless men came to construct more tin shacks in this isolated section of the beach, between industrial Newcastle to the south and resort town Nelson Bay to the north. After WW2, returned soldiers added to the settlement, in search for low cost housing. Today, 11 of these shacks remain, maintained as best they can by residents who constantly battle sand erosion from the sea as well as shifting sands from the dunes, leaving their huts often half buried.
Because Tin City is part of the Worimi Conservation Lands, the shacks cannot be rebuilt once destroyed by the elements or sold by anyone. They are merely passed on to family or friends of the residents. This sounds like a “handyman’s challenge” to me, but the curiosity factor seem to attract enough tourists to make it interesting.
Not far from the southern access road to the beach and located on the Royal Australian Air Force base in Williamstown, is Fighterworld, an aviation museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Royal Australian Airforce fighter aircraft operations.
As the name suggests, it is a place where old and famous fighter jets like a Mirage 3, an Avon Sabre, an F-111 or even a Mig-21 are on display. Along with a huge collection of hand build model airplanes, weapons and books, it is heaven for aviation enthusiasts, particularly top guns fans.
There is an observation deck where one can perch oneself and watch the various RAAF squadron jets take off and land ( in fact it is a prized spot for photographers and plane watchers alike ).
And if all this Top Gun stuff gets too much for you there is always the Fighter Beans cafe next door, where you can mingle with airforce personnel and enjoy a nice hot pie and a coffee or a massive chicken sandwich and a hot chocolate ( it was a cold day, we needed the sustenance! )
It is a short drive back to Port Stephens, stopping at the Gan Gan lookout for the compulsory panoramic view shot. This is where you get your bearing with the harbour entrance to the east, Tea Gardens to the north, Soldiers point and its oyster leases to the west and the golden sands of Stockton beach to the south. In hindsight we should have started and planned the trip from there.
Now that we know where we are and where we’re heading, we explore every single beach on the way back to Fisherman’s Bay, joining the dozens of tourists sitting on the rocky edges whale watching. As a matter of fact, you could spend an entire day staring at the ocean and spot whales and dolphins, there are so many of them at that time of the year.
However, after a while, the cold wind defeats us and I prefer to use the remaining daylight to set up for sunset shots back at Stockton Beach. Mr T is a trooper, driving along with me and shivering as the sun disappears behind the dunes.
It is so cold by then, I feel bad suggesting we go back into town for dinner, beside the football is on TV, so it is TV dinner and I settle for star photography from our terrace later on instead.
We wake up the following morning to more whale antics right outside our windows, and decide to go for another beach drive to try and find the Sygna shipwreck. Here is a story that goes back 45 years, when the Norwegian bulk carrier MV Sygna ran aground off Stockton beach during a massive storm in May 1974. Part of the ship was salvaged but the stern section sat off the beach for over 40 years, becoming much of a local landmark and a favourite spot for fishermen and photographers. Because the local tourist map shows the location of the wreck, we assumed that it would be easy to find and it never occurred to us that it could have been reclaimed by the ocean. But that’s exactly what happened!
What we spotted as emerging rocks at low tide turned out to be what remains of the wreck, which rusty bones had stood up for decades but eventually were swallowed away by the elements during a bad storm in 2016 ( All of this information, I would only read about after our trip of course, trying to figure out why we could not find the wreck. Mr T is now teasing me no end about the accuracy of my research ).
Feeling a little deflated and sandblown ( the wind has picked up quite a lot since yesterday ), we decide to shout ourselves a nice lunch in Port Stephens. Of course we all have different notions of a “nice lunch”, I picture mute table service in a cosy restaurant, Anne would like anything that is NOT a sandwich or a burger and Mr T only cares about enjoying a beer overlooking the water. So we compromise and end up at the Little Beach Boathouse.
This split level waterfront building is overlooking the bay and Little Beach, and houses a restaurant on the top floor and a bar on the bottom. One look at the white tables at the restaurant and I know we’ll head straight for the bar! But that’s perfectly fine, as the menu is perfect for a light casual lunch: Mr T discovers one of the local brews, Murray’s Angry Man while i find out what an Italian soda is: a mix of soda water, lychee sugar syrup and passion fruit. Super refreshing!
As usual, Mr T orders the oysters, they are Port Stephens Rock Oysters half served natural with yuzu juice and the other half served kilpatrick. They are nice and briny, Anne particularly likes the Kilpatrick dressing! She orders the Pork Belly San Chow Bao, small chunks of marinated pork belly served in cos lettuce leaves. We are reluctantly allowed a piece of it in exchange for a share of our fried calamari with wadashi seasoning and aioli. We all tuck into a plate of salt and pepper prawns with ponzu dressing, but the winner has to be the truffle and parmesan fries which are fought over to the last bite!
I look around and the place is pretty much full inside, the weather may be sunny but since it is blowing a gale and quite choppy out in the bay, dining on deck isn’t an option, except for the odd family who called in with a couple of dogs ( it is pet friendly in that way ). Needless to say that my suggestion to walk lunch off fall on deaf ears, as does the offer to board a whale watching trip. My crew is feeling as full as a carpet snake, and wants nothing but stay warm and cosy.
I do get my way, the next morning however. As we have time before heading back home, I drive up to Tomaree Head where you have a choice of 2 walks: one is relatively easy, as it takes you on a paved track around the lower slopes of the headland, leading to WW2 gun emplacements built in 1941 when Fort Tomaree played an important role in Australia’s east coast defence system during World War II.
Fort Tomaree included search light stations, a radar tower, torpedo tubes and barracks, where around 500 army, navy and air force personnel served. Most of the Fort’s buildings and guns have been removed; however the historic gun emplacements remain.
Army buff Mr T loved checking out the interpretive panels near the emplacements, declining to walk up the summit. Anne and I do take the Tomaree Head Summit walk to the summit of Tomaree Head. Described as an “invigorating” short walk, it is a gradual climb on a paved path followed by steep steel stairs and gravel tracks leading to a picturesque view of Port Stephens.
A reasonable amount of fitness is best, and I am glad we didn’t attempt this after lunch yesterday. Still, if young kids can do it, it is quite manageable and the view from the top is nothing short of spectacular.
And this wraps up our quick visit up the coast. Not the extensive food trip I was hoping for, but a very enjoyable getaway nonetheless. Anne has managed to clock up a few driving hours in her log book, I tried enough astro photography to know that I need a lot more practise and Mr T is already talking about coming back for another short break. In summer though, he’s had enough of that cold winter snap!!