NEWCASTLE AND BEYOND
Cheap, yet cool!
I’m sitting in the Northern Star Hotel on Beaumont Street, still smiling from the afternoon and listening to local Mark Wells from the supersonics playing a solo gig. I’m in Newcastle, as famous for its live music as it is for its coal. The Screaming Jets and Silverchair started their careers here and there are dozens of venues to see the big stars of tomorrow. If you’re up here on a Wednesday you could get to see huge international acts playing in the city between weekend gigs in Sydney and Brisbane.
The best thing about having a licence is the freedom to be able to take off for a couple of days
Not for any reason in particular - just for the hell of it. I decided I wanted to get out of town, and Newcastle, at two and a half hours away, is definitely out of Sydney. A mate lent me his surfboard for the trip - I’ve been meaning to have a go – and I’ve just had a surfing lesson down at Newcastle’s Nobbys Beach with Dan Frodsham. Dan spent five years on the world surfing tour and he’s now Newcastle’s highest qualified surfing instructor. He teaches everyone, as well as coaching professional surfers. I’m completely uncoordinated, so I figured this guy was my best bet.
Surf pro day dreams
Dan handed me a wetsuit and a blue foam beginner’s board. We walked down onto the sand and he ran me through some stretches and got me jumping up and down on my board. Five minutes later we walked towards the waves Dan pointing out the rip to the left of us.
I stood up first go! Wow! I thought this surfing gig was meant to be hard. Maybe I’m just a natural. I paddled back into the wave and Dan says, “Mate, you’re a natural.”
I was ecstatic at discovering this hidden talent. I pondered quitting my job and joining the pro tour. I imagined the sponsorship deals and quickly vowed I’d only endorse products I actually believed in. In the middle of this daydream Dan told me to get ready. Here comes the wave. I pushed down with my hands to lift my body. I could see the nose of the board dive and feel the back of the board rising. Then I’m holding my breath and trying to work out which way is up. I believe the term is ‘wipe-out’.
I saw my career as a professional surfer vanish over the next 10 minutes, wipe out after wipe out. Dan went over the instructions he gave me on the beach and I listened carefully, pushing away my pro tour fantasies and concentrating. Another wave and I was up and stayed standing all the way to the sand. Then it was back out into the surf where I caught the next wave and the next and the next. Easily the best 30 bucks I’ve spent in my life.
Cheap, yet cool
Newcastle is turning out to be cheap, yet cool. I’m staying at the Newcastle Backpackers’ on Denison Street. A sign out the front says ‘cheapest beds in town’ and while I can’t really know that unless I call every place in town, for $21 a night I give then the benefit of the doubt.
The backpackers’ is made up of two single-storey houses next to each other, surrounded by trees on a quiet street. When I went to my room, I discovered that my fear that the cheapest accommodation in town was going to be a hole was unfounded. The room was big, clean and tidy.
According to Dean from the backpackers, there are two main streets in Newcastle – Hunter Street, filled with pubs and bars, and Beaumont Street which is the city’s best eat street’. There are heaps of options, including excellent cheap fare.
I leave Newcastle the morning after my surfing triumph, but not before heading down to Nobby’s Beach again with my mate’s board. I’ve only learned how to stand up and stand in a straight line, but it’s still awesome. I’m on the road again on my way to Nelson Bay, 45 minutes north of Newcastle with words like ‘dude’, ‘monumental’ and ‘radical’ running through my head.
I turn off Nelson’s Bay Road and pull into Samurai bungalows, where I’m going to stay the night. There are four wooden bungalows nestled in three acres of bush. It’s like staying in a wildlife park with koalas, kookaburras and possums in the trees and there’s a family of goannas who like nicking the owners chooks’ eggs. Sandy and Matt, who’ve run the place for 12 years introduce me to Siphon the baby python. Not much of a baby at 2 metres long. It wraps its tail around my arm and hangs its head around my neck. I know pythons aren’t venomous. I know they rarely bite. But still it’s a freakin’ snake!
With my skin still creeping from Siphon, I drive 10 minutes into Nelson Bay for a bite to eat. I stop at John Dory’s Seafood on Magnus Street and for $7 I have some of the best fish and chips I’ve tasted.
It’s now time to choose from one of the many activities available at Nelson Bay. I’m loving this place - there’s parasailing, joy rides in a sea plane, jet skiing, jet boating, sea kayaking, deep-sea fishing, dolphin and whale watching, diving and snorkelling, quad bike riding, horse riding and more. I choose a dolphin watching cruise because I love watching wildlife documentaries.
I’m welcomed onto Imagine a 19m catamaran. Yves Papin, the French skipper, has lived in the Bay for 20 years and takes tourists out year round to see dolphins and some of the 5000 humpback whales that travel up and down the coast each year. With 60 dolphins living permanently in the bay, and another 40 entering it regularly, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see one. Yves steers the yacht in the direction of a flock of birds diving into the sea to feed. There are 30 other people onboard and we all strain to be the first to spot a dolphin.
Sophie, a young Japanese tourist, yells out that she’s seen one and for the next two hours we watch half a dozen dolphins, including a female with her 5 month calf. They slice through the water and disappear, emerging 20 metres away, as if playing hide and seek with us. Definitely worth more than $22.
I’m starving and tired after the cruise. I decide to buy some seafood and take it back to the Samurai Bungalows and have a quiet night. There are a few places on the marina selling fresh seafood and I drive back to the bungalows with 6 oysters and a lobster for an amazing $15. I eat it in Sandy and Matt’s bush kitchen in the middle of the grounds. Sitting here I can’t believe I’m only three hours away from Sydney I’m so chilled out I could be on the other side of the world.
Into the Sahara
The next morning, I drive 5 km to the Sahara Trails for my next activity – horse riding. Sahara Trails caters for riders of all abilities (including none, like me). Alicia, our guide, introduces me to my horse, Cisco. Be way of greeting Cisco lifts his tail and deposits his breakfast at my feet. Nice. Alicia gives me a few instructions on how to stay on the horse and up I go. We ride slowly through the paddocks and down a trail into the bush. This doesn’t seem too hard. I whisper to the Cisco that as long as one of us knows what we’re doing this should be easy.
Eventually the bush disappears and I see why this place is called Sahara Trails. We ride into Stockton sand dune, the largest sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere. All I can hear are the horses puffing as they carry us up six-metre high dunes. I could be in the middle of the Sahara. Or I could be Lawrence of Arabia. All that’s missing are some floating white robes.
The dunes open up and we ride down onto the 32 km long Stockton Beach. Alicia asks me if I feel like going for a canter. Sure. And off we go. It feels like I’m going faster than in my car. It’s scary yet exhilarating. I look over at Alicia and she’s moving in a graceful motion. I wonder why I’m bouncing all over the place and using all my might to hold on.
It’s time to say good bye to Cisco and to Nelson Bay. I get into my car - the seat has never felt softer - and make my way to the highway for the journey back to Sydney. Driving home, the fun is over and I’m already reminiscing about the weekend. For just over $300 I’ve learned to surf, hung out with snakes, dolphins and horses, eaten well and seen a part of the state I’d never been to before. I’m itching to get home and start planning my next cheap weekend away. Maybe I’ll go south next time. Wherever I go, I’ll make sure I take a surfboard. And I vow to keep surfing in Sydney. Who knows? One day I might end up World Champ.
- Backpackers Newcastle – Tel 02 4969 3436
- Imagine Cruises – www.imaginecruises.com.au
- Northern Star Hotel – Tel 02 4961 1087
- Sahara Trails – www.saharatrails.com
- Samurai Beach Bungalows – www.samuraiportstephens.com
Article first printed in 2006, please contact local vendors and businesses for up-to-date prices.
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