A weekend at Port Stephens

Posted on Posted in Sydney

Having ventured quite afar into Shoalhaven – the southern part of Sydney, we decided to venture north this time to yet another naturally endowed bay in the fecund coast of NSW – Fingal Bay in the Port Stephens area. We decided to camp in the Fingal Bay Holiday Park, tantalisingly close to the Fingal Bay beach – a beautiful semicircle of a beach culminating in the locally famous Fingal Spit. But more of the destination later. The journey is worth mentioning.

Woy Woy and the Ettalong beach

Bundled in two cars, we took the Pacific Motorway straight out of Sydney on a sunny Saturday morning cruising through the Lane Cove and Ku-ring-gai Chase national parks, the Hawkesbury River, turgid with its blue waters, our first pit-stop for the day being Woy Woy in the central coast. Initially called Webb’s Flat, the name of this town was reverse-anglicised to its aboriginal name of Woy Woy meaning ‘Big Lagoon’ reminiscent of the Brisbane water lagoon here. Not far away lies the Ettalong beach poised at the entrance of the water channel that fills up the Brisbane water lagoon. While Ettalong is aboriginal for ‘drinking place’, Brisbane waters has been named after NSW governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, who also lent his name to the big city in Queensland. Quite an advantage in those early days where you could practically name any hill or forest after yourself if you walked the corridors of power 😛

Pristine waters of the Ettalong
Pristine waters of the Ettalong

The wave-less waters shimmering in the golden sun draws you invitingly. But besides the beauty, the history is enticing as well. The history – European that is – goes back to the formative days in 1788 when Arthur Phillip, having arrived with the First Fleet in Sydney, himself led a team to land on this beach in search of resources and arable land. The entire region north of Sydney to Gosford and Woy-Woy in those days were home to the Kuringai tribes (after home the Kuringai Chase national park is named). More than other resources, however, what became important to the First Fleet were the decades of leftovers from the diet of the Kuringai people – shells. In the early days, having no other source of lime to prepare mortar to build houses, the resourceful settlers used sea shells as an excellent substitute for the same. The settlers had found heaps of these shells near the Ettalong beach at what is today  called the Cockle Bay and the Cockle Channel in Gosford. In case you have got the connection, this is also the same reason why Cockle Bay was so named in the heart of Sydney – tons of midden or leftover shells that helped the first settlers immensely.

We lazed on the well trimmed carpet greens by the waters of Ettalong before heading to one of the many beautiful islands peppered in the large lagoon – this was the St Hubert’s island majestically joined to the mainland by a single stylish bridge, and having a slew of delectable houses, all water facing. We tried guesstimating the prices of the houses – arrived at nothing south of 8 digits, then collectively agreed that being vagabonds was far easier and therefore moved on northwards, leaving behind the swans and ducks and their dainty dwellings.

The other residents of St Hubert Island
The other residents of St Hubert’s Island


The next stop was the Entrance, a coastal town on the ‘entrance’ to the humongous Tuggerah Lake and serving as a holiday destination since the 1880. Pelican feeding seemed the most exciting thing to do in town here, and we joined the bandwagon as well. Initially. Until we got too tired of these super (slightly cartoonish) birds and decided to feed our hungry selves first.

At the Entrance - the black dots are all pelicans waiting for 'gobble gobble' time
At the Entrance – the black dots are all denizen pelicans 


Waiting for Pelican feeding at the Entrance
Waiting for Pelican feeding at the Entrance


Pelican Brief - feeding time is 3 30 pm daily
Pelican Brief – feeding time is 3 30 pm daily

Port Stephens

We breezed past Lake Macquarie and Newcastle and headed straight to Port Stephens, popular with its three bays placed like sentinels on the three edges of the peninsula. With a bit of crazy imagination, the map of Port Stephens looks more like a rhinoceros, the horn forming Nelson Bay, the snout Shoal Bay and the open mouth forming the Fingal Bay. And then there’s Shark Island like a clump of grass being fed to the hungry rhinoceros (instead of pelicans, yes)picture1


All three bays are blessed with oh-my-god views and severely long beaches, not to mention the fine camping grounds. Our party broke in two – while we chose unknowingly the Shoal Bay the other group chose the Box beach on the Fingal Bay. We both had our share of adventures as we were soon to find out. Our group walked on the golden sands of Shoal Bay enjoying the colors of the setting sun. But we soon came up to a pier jutting out onto the blue waters with clear instructions not to use it as a diving spot. But surprise, surprise, people couldn’t be held back from hurling themselves onto the waters from the pier. We were initially wondering whether it’s worth the fun – notwithstanding the ‘gut factor’ to go and jump into the deep seas. But then two children jumped and swam merrily, followed by three kids. Then four toddlers. Two grandmas. And even the big fat lady who couldn’t even walk! Enough – we were soon all diving one after another and taking turns to feel the adrenaline. It was refreshing to wipe off the sweat and grime of a hot summer day in the cool waters of the bay. Were we enjoying it! Until our other friends called us from Box beach. They were in a greater rush of adrenaline as their entire beach was swamped with jellyfish! A Bluebottle invasion, with one of our friends happily checking off one more from his bucket list – get bitten by a jellyfish – tick! On a more serious note it marred our party for a while, as the poor guy was fighting the burning sting on his foot (while we were all at least happy that the Box beach was not named after the box jellyfish!) A trip to the medical centre later, we were still walking in the twilight hues of the Shoal Bay under the stars, appearing one after another, (while staying miles away from the waters). It took us another couple of hours along with a sumptuous barbecue for the day’s hullabaloo to die down.

Even at over 35 degrees of peak summer, lenticular clouds are seen forming at the hilltops from Shoal Bay
Even at over 35 degrees of peak summer, lenticular clouds are seen forming at the hilltops from Shoal Bay


Dusk at Shoal Bay
Dusk at Shoal Bay

But that was not enough to call it a day. Late at night, we again went on to the Fingal Bay Beach and were rewarded with views that can only be mesmerising to the city dweller – that of the Milky Way on a moonless night! Far away from any of the city-lights, the pitch black sky seemed scattered with diamonds, the only disturbance being the periodic beam of a faraway lighthouse on the Shark Island (remember the grass fodder for Mr.Rhino!) It seemed amazingly romantic to sit in that darkness on the sands and hear the sea waves creating a periodic lull, perhaps answering to all those who ask while the winds stir your emotions. And then gazing up to see the immensity of our galaxy, with a highway carved on the sky blistering with infinite stars and justifying its nomenclature, be it the Milky Way or the Akash Ganga. In a moment of Newtonian realization I understood why our galaxy looked thus – what we see is the side view of a thick spiral galaxy thus looking practically like a rough rectangle. With our solar system basically situated at one of its extreme end, we get the privilege to view the entire galaxy in all its brilliance (imagine the last bencher having a sweeping view of the entire classroom). Science aside, I began to feel philosophical – the same feeling you get when you realise how insignificant is your existence in front of the cosmos. I imagined the aborigines, thousands of years ago, perhaps sitting on the same sand and wondering what were those twinkling lights from the heavens. Did they see the same night sky as us? Did they even understand what they saw? The questions didn’t matter. Whatever they were, the answers were awe, wonder, amazement and a humbling reminder of insignificance. I wondered whether it was anything different from today.

Embers of hope arise.

In dark the canvas of the night.

A promise from the eastern skies?

That tomorrow soon, there will be light…

 If the night was philosophical, the dawn was profound.  We woke up as early as 5 next day, waiting to see the sunrise. And it was a sunrise to remember – the morning sky warming to a tinge of crimson red while frayed clouds waited mischievously to scatter the early morning rays.

Waking up at 5 in the morn on Sunday? Justified...
Waking up at 5 in the morn on Sunday? Justified…


My friend standing at the tip of the Fingal Spit while a high tide gradually eats up the sandy cay leading to the Shark Island
My friend standing at the tip of the Fingal Spit while a high tide gradually eats up the sandy cay leading to the Shark Island


On the Fingal Bay beach - The good ...
On the Fingal Bay beach – The beast…


...and the Ugly!!! Bluebottle bonanza indeed - Looking at these tiny nodules of napalm scattered all over the beach in hundreds made me realise why a group of jellyfish is called a 'swarm"
…and the beauty! Bluebottle bonanza indeed – Looking at these tiny nodules of napalm scattered all over the beach in hundreds made me realise why a group of jellyfish is called a ‘swarm”

Barefoot, I walked along the  entire stretch of the crescent beach while the sun rose north and north, mercury rising bit by bit. On the way lay huge hills of sand, fairly whitish for which Port Stephens (and it quad biking and sand-boarding ) is famous for. After a fairly long walk requiring a lot of resolution to cover, I came to the tip of the beach – the Fingal spit leading to a sandbar that in turn led to the Shark Island. It seemed tempting to try to cross over to the isle on the cay, but the tide was rising and it would be too risky. Especially with the strong currents. And yes, the jellyfish. Not far from the spit lay hundreds of dead bluebottles, washed ashore and creating a kind of a battle scene in its aftermath. For a brief moment, I was happy to discard my primal ancestry and walk back to civilization. With the Sunday Breakfast. And  Eggs Benedict. And Salmon. And Bacon. And don’t forget the freshly ground coffee…

Walking the Fingal Bay beach
Walking the Fingal Bay beach


Sand dunes in the beach
Sand dunes on the beach


The perks of civilization!
The perks of civilization!

Fact file:

  • Distance from Sydney: 270 km
  • Travel time: 3.5 -4 hours
  • Where we stayed: The Fingal Bay Holiday Park is a good option right across the Fingal Bay. Other options include the Shoal Bay or Halifax Bay Holiday Park
  • What else: Traipse up a hill to see the Nelson Bay Lighthouse overlooking blue vitriolic waters, or pet the sharks at the nearby Irukandji Shark and Ray encounters. Or go further north to the beautiful Myall Lakes and Seal Rocks, and end up bunking office for the whole of the next week! Better still, forget the list and just go for a dip on any of the bays….until you get stung by a bluebottle
    Views from the hill at Nelson bay lighthouse
    Views from the hill at Nelson bay lighthouse


    Choices galore at the Lighthouse shoppe (Secrets of the Unicorn, anyone?)
    Choices galore at the Lighthouse shoppe (Secrets of the Unicorn, anyone?)

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