Port Stephens, Australia is a place that sneaks up on you, even if you are paying attention. The abundant wildlife and natural bushland are in constant battle with the telltale signs of civilization.
Any traveler to Port Stephens has to quickly get used to koalas lazily eating leaves in a tree in someone’s backyard, kangaroos sneaking a quick meal in a farmer’s crops or a porcupine-like echidna waddling across a pedestrian crossing at a local shopping center.
It’s a place where the unlikely worlds of the Australian bushland, beach culture and small-town life come together. But it all comes together nicely in Port Stephens.
Port Stephens is two and a half hours north of Sydney and an hour drive north of Newcastle in the Australian state of New South Wales. It’s an easy day trip for travelers who want to see the beauty and nature of the coast of Australia, but don’t want the hassle of the high-density crowds of tourists that they may find further north up the coast in Coffs Harbour or Byron Bay, or south in Sydney or Newcastle.
In truth, it’s not a town in its own right, but rather a region that is divided into five areas: the Tomaree Peninsula, the Tilligerry Peninsula, the Golden Bight, the Gateways and the Hinterland. Actually, Port Stephens itself is the bay in which the area surrounds.
Bush covers most of the 386 square miles (1000 square km²) of the area although there is numerous signs of civilization that range from farms to full-blown townships.
The area is rapidly growing, boasting a regional population of about 60,000 and is fast becoming a place where many people from Sydney are choosing to resettle or retire. As a result, life moves at its own pace in Port Stephens.
The people of Port Stephens are a stark contrast to others in the area. They are much more laid back than in Sydney and will take the time to have a quick chat with a visitor. When out and about you’re most likely to get a pleasant ‘g’day’ and plenty of conversation from one of the locals without much prompting, especially if they realize you are a visitor.
Nelson Bay is the cultural center of Port Stephens and has the largest marina and the largest information center in the area. While it is busier than the other townships, it still has a small-town feel to it.
Since the total population of Australia is equal that of the New York metropolitan area, Australian towns tend seem sparse compared to most American small towns. Nelson Bay is no different. It’s like Mayberry, USA, but with a definite Australian flavor. There is no heavy traffic like in Sydney and a visitor who is lost along the way will be gladly given directions to their destination.
The quiet, narrow streets of Nelson Bay have barbers, pharmacists, ice cream shops, bookshops and several places to buy the local paper or get a quick coffee, all within walking distance
Port Stephens has a long and storied history. Aboriginal tribes known as the Worimi first inhabited the region. The Worimi consisted of the Grewerigal, Gamipinigal and Maiagal hordes that lived on the waterfronts around the port and with two other hordes more inland. They were noted as being fairer in skin color and taller than the Port Jackson Aboriginals that lived closer to Sydney.
The existence of the Worimi in the area is evident in the occupational sites and artifacts left behind such as scar trees and shell middens.
The Aboriginals in the area today are intermixed with the population as they are in the rest of Australia, but many of their artifacts can be seen around the area such as old campgrounds and settlement areas.
Charles Grimes, Deputy Survey of the Colony of New South Wales went to Port Stephens in 1795. Later that same year, Captain W.R. Broughton turned the HMS Providence into Port Stephens and was shocked to find five whites living with the Worimi. These turned out to be five convicts who had escaped from Parramatta, which lies near Sydney. They had shipwrecked at Port Stephens in 1790. They were welcomed into the tribe by the Worimi, who gave them wives and took them along on their wanderings.
Port Stephens was a haven for convicts escaping from Sydney. This led to the establishment of a garrison in 1820, which today is known as Soldiers Point. The area continued to grow throughout the 1800s. During World War II, it served as a station for American troops in the South Pacific.
Major development has begun in the region only recently and for the most part many of the bushlands, forests and beaches in the region are unspoiled. Conservationists and many regional officials are very careful to keep the balance between nature and development.
As with many coastal communities in Australia, beaches are a main feature of Port Stephens. The beaches here in Port Stephens have all the panoramic views and powerful surf the same as most beaches in Australia, but without the crowds. Even in the height of summer, there is no struggling to find a prime place to lay in the sun, as there would be in Bondi Beach or the beaches in Newcastle.
One-Mile Beach in Anna Bay is a hidden oasis which can be found via a series of sandy paths that lead to the secluded beach. Most of One-Mile Beach is surrounded by bushland that belongs to the Tomaree National Park.
Those feeling a little bit more risqué may like Samurai Beach, the only place in the area where nude sunbathing is allowed. Zenith Beach in Shoal Bay sits in the shadow of Tomaree Peak and its quiet surroundings and majestic view offer you a place to reflect on the beauty of nature.
Shoal Bay in particular has a little bit of history with the World War II gun mounts found at the end of the rigorous walk up Tomaree Peak. Make sure, however to allow at least a couple of hours for the trip and bring a good pair of walking shoes. The climb is almost all uphill with very little leveling off. It is all worth it when you make it to the top though, as the view of the entrance to Port Stephens is second to none.
The most very unique feature in Anna Beach is the Stockton Sand Dunes. The Dunes are a 20-mile (32-km) stretch of yellow sand drifts that are at least 98 feet (30 meters) high, and 0.62 mile (one km) wide back-to-front. The entrance to the dunes is just past the main section of the Anna Bay Township.
At first glance, the dunes appear to stretch on forever. Looking out into the drifts themselves, it looks more like a scene from the Sahara than coastal Australia. Huge triangular blocks serve as a boundary between the expanse of the dunes and the ocean.
At this site rows of large cement pyramids were traps designed to keep tanks at bay. They were put there during World War II in case the Japanese decided to invade Australia via Port Stephens.
If you’re up for exploring the dune, you can go on one of the many four-wheel or six-wheel drive tours, or take a horse, quad-bike or a dirt bike. But if you really want the feeling of being out in a desert without having to deal with the dehydration and danger that comes with it, you can go on foot.
A word of caution if you choose that method, however. Although you may be on foot, that doesn’t mean others will be. Keep your eyes and ears open for one of the four-wheel or six-wheel drives or dirt bikes that may suddenly pop up over the dunes. And while you have to try a little bit to get lost in the dunes as in a real desert, trekking the dunes can take a little time and can be dangerous because of the vehicles that are traveling around them.
Many people skip the tours altogether and go sandboarding instead, which is similar to snowboarding. Sandboarders sail down the yellow loose sand any way they can, on everything from legitimate boogie boards to pieces of cardboard.
For the adventurous traveler, a jaunt down the dunes with a tour, on horseback or on foot many get you a glimpse of Tin City or the wreck of the Sygna.
Tin City, which takes a bit of patience to find, is just what it sounds like—several tin buildings out in the middle of the dunes—and is home to squatters.
There is also a wreck of a Norwegian bulk carrier in the Sygna dunes that was pounded and carried to its present location by one of the worse storms in Australian history in 1974. You can probably find these places on your own, but it’s best to take a tour.
Eco-tourism is a main attraction in Port Stephens, as it’s a good spot to spot local wildlife and to go whale and dolphin watching. Between May and November, some 5,000 humpback whales migrate in a path that takes them past Port Stephens and if one is patient enough, it’s possible to catch them in action.
Several tours cater to whale and dolphin watching; most are fairly reasonable and offer money back if no whales or dolphins are sighted. And if you don’t want to pay for a tour, simply sit at one of the beaches or lookouts in the area.
One good spot is Boat Harbour. The township, which sits right next to Anna Bay, looks out into the Pacific Ocean in the migration path for whales and dolphins. A good pair of binoculars makes the viewing much more exciting, but it still won’t have the same effect as being on the water in a boat on one of the whale-watching tours.
Around 60-80 dolphins can be regularly seen in Port Stephens itself. There is also abundant fishing in the area where the sportsman can tackle the challenging task of trying to rope in game such as flathead, whiting, tailor snapper, jewfish or blackfish.
The wildlife in Port Stephens is quite at home with the people who live there. Keep a sharp eye out for a koala in a tree or a kangaroo on the side of the road. To most Australians, kangaroos are as common as deer in North America. And, like deer, they are interesting to watch from a distance, but can be a hazard to drivers.
If you want to ensure you see the area’s wildlife, consider arranging a bushwalk through one of the many tour operators in the area, or visit the Tilligerry Habitat Activity Centre, which offers guided koala tours.
So, whether it’s a love of nature, a chance to see unique wildlife or the need to get away from the hectic pace of Sydney for a least a day or two, Port Stephens offers all three in abundance.
If You Go
Where to stay
Clydesdale Bed and Breakfast
An excellent Bed and Breakfast in Anna Bay. It is just a minute from both the Stockdale Dunes and One Mile Beach. Clydesdale is owned by Russell and Therese Antcliff and it is a place where you can get a nice, warm bed, a great meal and beautiful surroundings. But the real bonus is getting to know the Antcliffs. You get fantastic conversation from Therese and just about any information on Port Stephens that you may ever want to know from Russell. The best part about that is that it’s free, but the information is priceless. It is also pet-friendly, just in case you take your pet along.
Stockton Sand Dunes Tours
www.sandsafaris.com.au – Sand Safaris
www.saharatrails.com – Sahara Trails
www.users.bigpond.com/horseparadise – Beach and Bush Riding Adventures
http://www.portstephensduneadventures.com – Port Stephens Dune Adventures
Dolphin and Whale tours
www.nelsonbaydolphinwatch.com.au – Nelson Bay Charters
www.portstephens.org.au/imagine – Imagine Cruises
A few more interesting places
Tilligerry Habitat Activity Centre
East King Albert Avenue, Tanilba Bay
Tanilba House – Built in 1831 by convicts. It is one of the oldest historical monuments in Australia
Caswell Crescent, Tanilba Bay 2319