Driving the Legendary Pacific Coast (days 1 & 2): Newcastle, Port Stephens & Port Macquarie
The journey from Sydney to Brisbane along “The Legendary Pacific Coast” is without a doubt one of Australia’s most beloved road trips, and one I’ve driven several times throughout the years, although never once in its entirety. I have wonderful memories of slow summer drives up the coast, camping out in sunny Lennox Head, sleeping in the back of the car in Nimbin, or renting a beachfront apartment in Byron Bay.. And of course I’ve spent time in both the Gold Coast and Brisbane over the years, but I’ve just never connected all of these amazing places (and more) into a single action-packed road trip! So when I got an invite to do some research with the NRL on the Gold Coast (and I knew I’d need to transport my equipment by car), it was the perfect opportunity to finally drive the full Pacific Coast Touring Route from Sydney to Brisbane. With my Swiss research assistant Diana in tow, we set off mid-week to make the 3-day drive north and then spent the weekend working before taking a few days to explore on the way back home.
Despite making an afternoon exit from the office in the hopes of beating the city traffic, Diana and I find ourselves crawling along through Sydney on the 3.5hr drive from Wollongong to Newcastle, so much so that we don’t actually arrive until 6pm. Never mind that the entire point of leaving early was for Diana to actually see Newcastle for the first time.. Still, we enjoy cheap tacos at Beach Burrito (which I’ve been sorely missing since the Wollongong location closed last year) and then take an evening stroll along the Memorial Walk. It may not be quite as impressive in the dark as it is on a sunny day, but it’s still amazing to overlook the dark ocean and scatter of city lights below.
I was in Newcastle quite recently to see a friend, so at least I did have the chance to experience the Memorial Walk during the day, as well as some other awesome beaches and viewpoints, and it all made me extremely nostalgic for the trip I made here in 2012 while on my first ever solo backpacking trip around Australia right before I moved to Wollongong. I fried myself to an absolute crisp on Newcastle Beach during that trip, my wintery skin totally unprepared for the intensity of the sun sans protective ozone layer. Even with my lobster legs, though, I loved Newcastle instantly (it’s just a slightly less dero version of Wollongong) so it’s always wonderful passing through, even if it does happen to be in the complete darkness.
After our evening walk, we get back in the car and head inland to Diana’s boyfriend’s dad’s girlfriend’s house (it’s a mouth-full, we know) near Maitland where we’re staying the night. Jackie has been absolutely lovely to set up the spare room and make up the lounge for us, even offering us first pass at showers after our afternoon in the car. It certainly hasn’t been a long day compared to what’s on the itinerary for tomorrow, but we are both exhausted and easily fall asleep before 9pm.
After our incredibly early night last night, it’s rather painless to get up and out of Jackie’s before 7am, cruising on uncrowded roads for the 25min drive towards Worimi National Park and the Stockton Sand Dunes. Most people visiting Stockton Beach will drive straight onto the sand, but seeing as we don’t have a 4WD or the time/funds for a quad biking tour, I’m hoping we’ll be able to just walk onto the dunes ourselves (and hopefully in under an hour, because we’ve planned quite a few stops today). I did a touch of research last night and saw that there’s a 4WD access trail connecting to the suburb Fern Bay and, with any luck, we should be able to walk along this track straight onto the beach!
We navigate to Dune Drive in Fern Bay, parking as soon as we catch a glimpse of the access track rising through the bushes. In the end, it only takes us 8min along the gently rolling gravel road to pop out in the dunes, where we have the entire sea of sand to ourselves. We may have missed sunrise, but everything is still bathed in that beautiful golden morning light, and the contrasting textures of the rippling sand and speckled clouds in the sky make for quite a visual.
Tomaree Heads Summit Walk
After frolicking to our hearts’ content across the sand dunes, Diana and I head back to the car and travel a further 45min to Tomaree Head National Park, where we have a short walk planned up the summit. I’d never heard of this hike before I started researching for our road trip, but it’s obviously popular among locals, as it was the very first thing Jackie suggested to us when she heard we were heading out to Port Stephens. No more than 5 steps along the trail and I can already see why— the views of Stephens Peak and the Fingal Spit are absolutely breathtaking, and they only improve as we climb closer to the top over the next half hour.
According to a placard on the summit, both Tomaree Head and Stephens Peak once protruded as islands, similar to the small rocky islands floating offshore in the photo below. Over millions of years, changes in the ocean level and movement of the earth’s surface created the landscape we see now, where these two pointed hills overlook sweeping bays and a chaotic coastline. It may take tens of thousands of years, but it’s still amazing to think of how significantly the geography and topography of an area can change over time, and it does make me wonder what some of these places will look like in the distant future!
Standing atop the summit of Tomaree Head, we can see Zenith Beach, Wreck Beach, and Box Beach leading out toward Final Spit, and we enthusiastically decide that our next stop has to be to one of the beaches to get a different look at the scenery we’ve been so blown away by from above. From Box Beach carpark, it’s possible to walk 1km out to Wreck Beach or just 150m onto Box Beach, and even though it’s hard for me to pass up the promise of a secluded beach, we settle for nearby Box Beach in the interest of time.
Stepping out onto the sand, though, it feels unlikely that we’ve settled at all. In one direction, the coastline is dominated by irregular orange rocks and Stephens Peak, while the other direction affords views back onto the pointed Tomaree Head and an endless stretch of empty beach in between. I’m incredibly surprised to learn from an information board at the carpark that the colourful rock at either end of the beach is actually the remnant of volcanic activity some 350 million years ago, and that much of this varied and convoluted landscape is the result of folding, faulting, and fracturing of the cooled ignimbrite rock. Australia is not somewhere I’d ever thought of as having volcanos, but the geological diversity of this country continually amazes me!
After scrambling over the rocks at Box Beach, we hop back into the car and settle in for the 3hr drive to Port Macquarie. All day, we’ve been checking the time and making an enormous effort to stick to our schedule so that we could arrive in town with plenty of time to join the free guided tour of the Koala Hospital running at 3pm!
This incredible not-for-profit organisation is devoted to the rehabilitation (and eventual release) of injured, ill, and orphaned koalas all over the mid-NSW coast, but they are also dedicated to educating the community about all the perils that koalas face and how we as a society can help to slow the population decline. There are quite a few koalas being treated for chlamydia (a very common disease for koalas) and associated complications, but there are heaps of others who have lost limbs, fractured bones, sustained burns, or gone completely blind as a result of human-related accidents.
With every new development being built along the coast, hectares of gumtrees may be cleared, which means that many koalas are displaced from their homes and left with no food source. In search of neighbouring eucalyptus trees, koalas wander across the road (or even across train tracks), often with catastrophic consequences.
Concerned locals and tourists can bring injured koalas into the hospital every day of the year for care, but some koalas will never make it out of the facility. For those too ill or too disabled to ever survive in the wild, the Koala Hospital becomes their permanent home, providing them with ongoing treatment, a consistent supply of eucalyptus leaves and special dairy-free milk (you can see the feeding in a photo below), and plenty of freedom to live long, happy lives. On the tour, these are the koalas that we’re able to see (as those being rehabilitated need minimal human contact to ensure a speedy re-assimilation into the wild), and some of their stories are absolutely heartbreaking. Ocean Summer, for instance, was hit by a car while just a joey, lost her mother, and is now completely blind, while Elparra David suffers from chlamydia, bilateral conjunctivitis, and cataracts.
The tour lasts about an hour and is run by a very enthusiastic local volunteer, who explains to us that the facility relies on the work of nearly 100 volunteers and only 3 paid staff members. It’s expensive to care for the koalas, but the hospital doesn’t even charge for the tour, a further testament to their dedication to educating the community and raising conservation awareness rather than profiting at the expense of the koalas.
Both Diana and I are overcome by the experience, watching on with somewhat teary eyes as the sick koalas are fed their special lactose-free milk through plastic syringes while the guide explains what brought each animal to the hospital. What is particularly inspiring, though, is to see even the most disabled koalas thriving in their new environment: about 20m above our heads, little Oxley Kalee, who lost one of her back legs in a car accident, is snoozing in a gumtree just as she would do in the wild. By the time the tour is done and we’ve heard all about the amazing conservation work being done here in Port Macquarie, I’m ready to donate everything I own to help the koalas (unfortunately that only amounts to $2, but the sentiment is there).
After a magical afternoon at the Koala Hospital, which I’m rather reluctant to leave, we have to hop back in the car and make the final 90min drive north to Nambucca Heads for the night. In all the animal-related excitement, time got away from us a bit, so it means that we just barely miss the sunset as we pull into our hotel around 6pm. We’re situated right on the Nambucca River, a prime location to squeeze in the Foreshore Walk tomorrow morning at sunrise, so tonight it’s all about a quick pub feed and a very early bed time. Our first full day on the road has been an absolute dream, but there’s still so many incredible destinations and exciting stops to come!