John McNamee stirs up some fond memories in picturesque Port Stephens
TEEMING rain spattered the windscreen of the Moonshadow’s wheelhouse and swept across the upper decks as the 22-metre catamaran nosed out of the marina into the wide expanse of Shoal Bay.
Passengers huddled along the companionways trying to shelter from the sweeping squalls as the three-decked dolphin watch cruiser rounded the point of Tomaree headland.
No-one on board seemed to mind the stormy conditions and dozens, wrapped up in glistening spray jackets, were lined up along the foredeck rails straining overboard trying to catch a glimpse of the boisterous bottlenoses sweeping in and out of the streaming bows.
Squeals of delight, frenzied pointing and wild gesticulations greeted the arrival of the first of the grinning cetaceans, surging along beside the lunging craft, their blowholes streaming and gasping.
It doesn’t matter how many of these cruises you go on, or what the weather conditions, the thrill of watching the playful pods of dolphins interacting with the cruise vessels, never diminishes.
It’s a bit like the whole Port Stephens/Nelson Bay/Shoal Bay area itself….every time you go there it’s like going back to an old stamping ground. And it’s only a three-hour drive north of Sydney.
Unlike say, the Gold Coast where stormy conditions often limit your outdoor activities, if the weather’s bad at Nelson Bay (and it’s a pretty high rainfall area), there still seems to be plenty of things to do.
There’s something about the tranquillity of the place… you only have to gaze across the placid waters of Shoal Bay towards the far headlands to experience a deep feeling of contentment, whatever the conditions.
Friendly locals still walk up and down the beachfront, tourists amble around the place, enjoying a coffee or meal or just sitting on the little picnic tables along the grassy promenade.
Fishermen are always puttering along in their dinghies, pleasure craft are plying across the bay’s entrance or delighted tourists are trying their hand at the outrigger canoes which can be hired for a small sum on the beach.
The majestic old Country Club, recently refurbished, has sheltered areas for a long lingering lunch with fresh seafood delicacies always on offer and there are some discreet restaurants offering Italian and other meals with iconic Aussie Bob’s Fish and Chips a must visit.
In Nelson Bay itself, there’s the famous bustling dining areas around the spectacular marina and a great shopping centre with local butchers if you fancy a steak and sausages for a barbie back at your accommodation.
Speaking of accommodation, the impressive Shoal Bay Beach Club is top of the range and right on the beach and boasts both one and two bedroom luxurious apartments with all the modern trimmings.
A little further along the main street is the camping and caravan park area which is also extremely popular and handy to everything.
For day trips, not far away are the Worimi Conservation Lands or more commonly known as the Stockton Bight Sand dunes which stretch for 32 kilometres where you can go for long rambles or hire your own 4WD or quad bike for a real blast along the towering sand hills.
You can also take a day trip fishing or diving at picturesque Broughton Island (which can also be seen from the dolphin cruise boats) and which boasts surrounding reefs brimming with snapper and jewfish and sharks both harmless and predatory.
Other sightseeing craft cross the wide expanse of the bay to the isolated hamlet of Tea Gardens on the banks of the Myall River.
But I wasn’t up there specifically for the sightseeing. It had been more than 30 years since a few mates and I used to jump in the battered old Kombi and with ancient boards cluttering up the back, drive to Fingal Bay for a weekend’s surfing.
Fingal’s just a few kilometres outside Shoal Bay and in many ways still a bit remote although in the past decade or so, high quality homes have sprung up all around the area.
There’s always been a bit of a mystique about Fingal Bay for me as back in those days when I first surfed there, there were continual shark sightings. Not that they deterred us then. Even now, locals and ocean watchers have lurid stories to tell of sinister grey shapes circling among the unwary boardriders.
When I drove up to the car park overlooking the surf beach on my recent journey of rediscovery, there was still that haunting, brooding atmosphere about the place. As the swell surged across the sweeping crescent of the bay, over in the distance you could just make out the open ocean swells pounding across the notorious Spit, a seething, ominous cauldron which has claimed several lives over the years.
Fingal’s an exposed beach and about 100m offshore, under the cliffs, there’s a point break that’s often serving up good waves especially in autumn and winter.
When I was there the offshore northerly winds were causing a heavy swell and there was plenty of water moving about.
There’s both lefts and rights there inshore or at the point and I’d only paddled out about 50 metres before I was able to pick up some decent rides. As I bobbed up and down on the eight-foot mini-mal, memories came flooding back of the feckless days of youth!
It’d been raining quite heavily for a few days and I had the place to myself but I didn’t stay out too long as the low dark cloud looming across the bay and the occasional shrieking squalls didn’t allay my qualms about the lurking menace underneath my fins.
Luckily I’d booked a little cabin in the Fingal Bay Holiday Park (it was a batching holiday as the wife was abroad visiting family) and I could dart backwards and forwards across the road from the camping area to the beach in a few minutes.
It’d been a long time since I’d “roughed it” in a camping park…I’m afraid in my advancing years I’ve become too used to the five star beachfront luxury units and at first the basic conditions in the hut were a bit scary.
Don’t get me wrong, the Holiday Cabin which works out at under $50 a night, is impeccably appointed with microwave, TV/DVD/Video set, grill cooker, shower cubicle and toilet, queen size bed, and all the kitchen stuff you need such as tea-towels, scourers etc and plenty of crockery and cutlery.
There’s a little sheltered outdoor area with a neat mini-garden where you can sit and enjoy a twilight ale or two listening to the lorikeets screeching in and out of the luxuriant New Zealand Christmas trees, the kookaburras carolling their evening lullabies, and watch the rain thunder down among the gums.
As it was early autumn and just outside the school holiday period, the park was almost empty and despite the enforced solitude, I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the place.
There’s not much around Fingal Bay town itself… a couple of convenience stores, a restaurant and a 1950s-era service station complete with a greasy-overalled and jovial manager, plus the huge Sports Club up on the hill if you fancy a night out among the pokies, Keno and seafood baskets.
On the day I left, I went for a last surf under a brooding sky, and as I caught a fairly sizable right-hand “shorey” I had a nostalgic flashback of myself all those years ago, hallooing along with my mad mates on top of our monstrous balsa boards, the fearless kings of Fingal Bay!
Those were the days my friend!!!!
· Cabins of all sizes and numerous camping sites are available at the Fingal Bay Holiday Park, 52 Marine Drive, Fingal Bay, NSW, 2315. (02) 4981 1473 Tollfree 1300 600 203.
· Boat Hire and Cruise Bookings P/L, Dock C, d’Albora Marinas, Nelson Bay (02) 4984 3843.
· The author paid all his own expenses.
Fingal Bay in Newcastle is an exposed beach and point break that is often working. Winter is the optimum time of year for surfing here. Offshore winds are from the north. Windswells and groundswells in equal measure and the best swell direction is from the south. Waves at the beach are both lefts and rights Good surf at all stages of the tide. Sometimes crowded. Watch out for sharks!
Picture Aerial view of Tea Gardens, Myall Lakes National Park