|Sydney was hosting the APEC annual confrence while I was there and as a side product of the resulting carnage everyone in Sydney got the Monday off as a bank holiday. Me and Layla hired a car on Thursday evening and I drove up to Nelson Bay, by Port Stephens for the long weekend. We had been hoping to miss some of the traffic by leaving Sydney at about 4pm but were soon ensnared in a traffic jam on a key motorway out of the city and so it took about five hours to drive the 150km to our destination. (It didnt help that we got slightly lost at one point as well) I was knackered by the end of the drive as my driving experience is pretty minimal, certainly not with driving for long periods of time in the dark and rain. (It took a while for me to get to grips with the windscreen wipers and the lights as well). We were staying at quite an upmarket resort in Port Stephens and so collasped gratefully into bed upon arrival.
Port Stephens itself is a peninsula of land north of Sydney and is an area of nice beaches, wineries and unusual wildlife. Our first day there was spent driving out to a place called "Seal Rocks", stopping at the "Rock" roadhouse on the way which was where some enterprising owner had turned their service station into a giant replica of Ayers Rock/Uluru presumably because people are more likely to fill up their cars beside Australia's famous landmark?
We decided to go for a detour on the way to Seal Rocks as apparently there was the tallest tree in New South Wales just up the road. After driving for a while it became obvious that we were going the wrong way and after some considerable detouring, (via a winery as we were in the area as well), we ended up on a narrow dirt road going into some forest. The tree itself was indeed very large at 73m and we wandered down to the viewing platform before carrying on with our journey.
We eventually reached Seal Rocks as the day was starting to draw to a close and were rewarded with some spectacular beaches, a lighthouse with amazing views where storm clouds and the dying sunshine made some memorable images. The sand was also squeaky (if you run your foot over it it squeaked) which is generally a sign of very fine sand and made for a slightly amsuing journey down the beach. By the time we got back into town we were knackered again and headed off to bed quite early.
The following morning we had booked to go on a whale watching tour. It had been cancelled the previous day which had seemed strange to us at the time as the weather had not been too bad; however once we were on the boat and had left the shelter of the harbour it became obvious. I had never before seen waves the size of the ones we encountered that day near to Port Stephens, at least never while being on a small boat anyway!
After watching the view of the sky become the view of the sea and visa versa for some time I started to feel a little queasy was not really having a good time. Then we found some whales though and they were so spectacular the me and most of the others on the boat managed to ignore the conditions and were thoroughly entertained. There were also loads of dolphins and as we were starting to leave to go back to port a pod started following us and running ahead of the boat, jumping out the water and interweaving seamlessly with each other.
When we got off the boat we headed down to a nearly beach to recover and have some food. We had just arrived at a beautiful beach when some extremely dark clouds started approaching and rapidly turned the sunshine into lashing rain. Soon we were back in the car being thankful that we had chosen the earlier whale watching tour as the car rocked in the wind and the windscreen wipers worked overtime to try and clear the water.
Clearly outdoor activities were out so we headed out to a macadamia farm that Layla wanted to see and Layla bought loads of nut related products from their shop. Then we went briefly to an advacado place before going to a winery and trying some of their wine, which finished up the day nicely.
On Sunday morning we did a tour down to Stockton Dunes, apparently the worlds largest moving sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere. (Australia is full of places which such statements, carefully worded to make an area sound more impressive - for example Fraser Island is the largest sand island but Stockton Dunes are the largest moving sand mass) What happened apparently was that early settlers cut down all of the vegetation by the beach and then the sand dried and was blown inland by the wind; the beach being replenished with sand from the sea bed. Now the dunes stretch several kilometers inland.
Due to my bad experience on Fraser Island I was looking forward to a good sand dune tour and this one turned out to be good fun. We were in small 4wd vehicles and the guide would happily race up and down the dunes at speed, including one dune where one side was almost vertical! I was amazed the car was able to make it down without rolling of flipping over. We also did some sandboarding down the steep dunes which was excellent fun and we stopped off to see a small town in the sand, apparently used for many film sets. Then there were the small ponds of freshwater which would have small patches of quicksand around them - the guide encouraged people to go and flounder in it for a while (it was not too deep).
It was also an aboriginal area and there were piles of shells in various places in the sand which were either burial sites or rubbish dumps. (They are quite hard to tell apart by looking at) Apparently in the local aborginal culture when a family member died the rest of the family would sit around the body eating the local shellfish and putting the shells onto the body. Other members would go the sea and get more shells and sometimes the period of mourning would extend until the grave had sarted to grow some plants, until when the family members would be expected to sit around the grave and continue eating shellfish. Afterwards the dead person would never be spoken of again.
The sandboarding tour had been excellent and afterwards we headed off to do a koala walk (yes, we really were seeing pretty much everything there was to see!). The koala walk was a slight disappointment in that we did not see any koalas, but it was still a nice walk down by the sea in places and we did see some giant parrots. Then it was off to another winery and a lookout before we decided to get some food.
Layla had heard that we could get cream teas somewhere in Port Stephens but on arrival we had just missed the opening hours so decided to get fish and chips and I suggested eating them by the beach. It went a little wrong though as the tide started coming in rapidly, we managed to drop some fish onto the sand and we couldnt find anywhere comfortable to sit. After moving locations though it was much better and we even saw some dolphins in the bay in the gathering dusk.
We left Port Stephens the next morning and drove back to Sydney via a national park with some excellent views over north Sydney, Palm Beach where they film Home and Away (there is a picture of me looking a little dodgy outside of the "Summer Bay" lifesaving club due to the cold weather and my hoodie) and also via a pub for some decent food.
It had been an excellent trip up to Port Stephens and a fitting place to see last in Australia. What was also good was that we had missed the visit of George Bush into Sydney!