|Sand Castles on Stockton Beach - Quick Facts|
Port Stephens is around 220 km north of Sydney. Take Raymond Terrace bypass off the Pacific Highway and look for the Nelson Bay exit.
January: 19-27°C, July: 8-18°C
Nelson Bay, being on a peninsula and having favourable ocean currents, has an unusually mild climate. The water is suitable for swimming from November until April.
Shimmering in the midday heat haze, the pile of rusted tin scraps half buried by the white shifting sands of Stockton dunes looks, at first glance, like the ruins of some dessert outpost, left abandoned half a century ago. Get a little closer though, and the ramshackle heaps begin to take shape, like a mirage forming before your eyes, and out of the sand emerges a town of sorts, euphemistically known as Tin City.
Utterly devoid of any vegetation, with no roads, power or telephone lines or any other type of services, Tin City is a small cluster of shacks at the northern end of the Stockton Bight - 11 'fishing weekenders' occupied by squatters who pay no rent, land tax or council rates. Australia's last outpost of the great squattocratic tradition.
The tight-knit permanent settlement was first established as a squatter's village during the Depression in the 1930s. During World War II, the shacks were torn down to make way for an army base camp, and at the end of the war, the buildings were given back to the locals. Port Stephens Council allows the shacks to remain but no new ones can be built.If one of the huts falls down, it cannot be rebuilt and the buildings are accorded no official value, which means that they cannot be bought or sold. The only way to get your hands on one of these bits of beachfront real estate is to have it gifted to you.
The only way to get here is to forge a track across Stockton Beach's 32km of immense sand dunes that spill into the ocean on the seaward side of Tomaree Peninsula and Port Stephens. These dunes, which cover an area the equivalent to one fifth the size of Singapore, are constantly shifting, moving inland at a rate of 17 hectares each year. Not only do they hide the remote community of Tin City in their shadows, but bury and expose in turn 12,000-year-old Aboriginal middens, numerous shipwrecks, remnants of WWII fortifications, delightful freshwater lakes and a wealth of birdlife and shellfish.
Public 4WD access to the dune system is permitted via a day or annual permit basis, but be warned, the dunes are up to 30 metres high in places, very steep, sometimes dangerous andnot for 4WD novices. We hooked up with Port Stephens 4WD Tours, whose friendly guides, Chris and Rob, took us on to the beach and helped us uncover all the best bits hidden way beyond the high-water mark.
The tour begins at the water line, where pied oyster catchers daintily pick their way through the flotsam and jetsam of the surf searching for pipis, which they pry open with their long flat orange beaks. Chris and Rob point out the piles on the sand that mean pipis are lurking underneath, and after a few moments of frantic scraping and burrowing with our bare fingers we each pull up a pipi. There are thousands and thousands of the clam-like shellfish living in the sands of Stockton Beach, mainly thanks to the strict bag limits in place – while you are allowed to dig pipis for bait if you are fishing on the beach, remove even one beyond the high-water mark and you'll face an on-the-spot fine of $500 and up to six months in gaol. The stringent rules not only protect the pipi population, but also the human population, as the shellfish are particularly susceptible to contamination by the naturally occurring algal blooms in the water and can be toxic to humans, and must be tested before consumption.
Tossing our pipis back into the water to watch them burrow back safely into the sand, we head further along the beach, past ageing rows of miniature concrete pyramids (WWII tank traps) and the remains of several shipwrecks. More than 100 merchant ships have sunk in the waters off this beach, including the wreck of the Sygna a 53,000 tonne Norwegian bulk carrier that came to grief in a fierce storm in 1974. It is the largest ship ever to be wrecked on the eastern coast of Australia.
The tour then turns inland, tackling the towering dunes head on. Up and over we go, an exhilarating and sometimes nail-biting ride as we crest the gigantic sand hills. We stop to admire some beautiful freshwater ponds that appear mysteriously after rain and learn about the history of the Worimi people who, until the 1820s, called this area home for thousands of years, their huge middens, mountainous piles of pipi shells and animal bones, half-buried by the sands that move between one and four metres every year. We stop for a bit of morning tea and then hit the slopes for a fun-filled sandboarding session as we slide screaming down the 60-degree slopes, before dusting ourselves off to head back into Nelson Bay on the shores of Port Stephens.
Article by Lee Atkinson, August 2005