On my first day in Sydney I was told: “There isn’t much to see between Sydney and Byron Bay.” I can only imagine the same person thinks that seeing Natalie Imbruglia getting it on with the Minogue sisters isn’t worth seeing either. I’m very glad I didn’t listen.

It is the humble opinion of this scribe that missing out on the stretch between Sydney and Byron is a bloody dumb thing to do. In fact, some of the best travel experiences can be had through these parts. Which is why I decided to break my journey in Newcastle. (Although I almost didn’t make it because to reach the city centre I had to negotiate a spaghetti junction overpass in my beat-up old Ford Falcon.) Next time I’ll take the train.

A few years ago this city had an eerie, Manchester feel about it. Industrial, football mad and a tad gloomy. But when Newcastle’s biggest employer, BHP, pulled the plug on the giant steel mill, the city was forced to have an extreme makeover. Today, Newcastle has transformed itself into a city of cafés, classy inner-city suburbs and great surf beaches. One thing hasn’t changed though – the locals are still mad about their local rugby team, the Newcastle Knights.

The town centre is pretty much just Hunter St Mall and King St, but from Civic Park to Nobby’s Head and Newcastle Beach there’s plenty to see and explore including some quality heritage architecture and some cool-ass ghetto-style vacant factories, complete with old school graffiti art.

I dumped my rust bucket at a hostel and stepped into the mall to check out the cafes and retail outlets. After a coffee at Seri’s Cafe on King St to energise me, I made the short walk down to the foreshore to get a feel for the place.

Newcastle is officially the unofficial capital of the central coast. As such, it can be regarded as the launchpad for trips all over the central coast area. Close to Port Stephens and the Hunter Valley, there’s a great deal to see.

On one side is the South Pacific and on the other is the Hunter River – making it a functional metropolitan city as well as a sleepy seaside town. I enjoyed the slow pace of Newcastle, especially during the week. Weekends, however, are a different proposition altogether. And after a slow afternoon, which included a quick dip at Newcastle Beach, I decided on a spot of people watching in the city – where I spied a midget skateboard down the main street.

At dusk it was time to get my drinking pants on and head out in to town. The weekends here are top notch – plenty of party-ready locals all out for a good time, cheap drinks, very decent music and a number of good clubs. Daniel Johns got his start here with Silverchair (before he moved to London with lovely Natalie Imbruglia).

Try the Beach Hotel in Merewether, which is actually two bars in one hotel, as the Beach Hotel contains the Reef Bar and the Beach Bar. Two different atmospheres: intimate and quiet – or loud and vicious. Check out the Prince of Wales Hotel (1 Morgan St) for great live music or for a late night, head to Fannys Nightclub (311 Wharf Rd).

To cut a long story short, after two or 16 drinks I decided it was time to go home. Truth be told the security guys actually thought it was time for me to leave as they felt my dancing was in danger of causing harm to the other patrons. What can I say – they just couldn’t handle the way I cut the rug, knocking several girls to the floor with my interpretive dance.

Waking up in my own bed was a shock (not that I would expect it to be someone else’s, just that I usually end up on the floor or in a garden bed someplace). Feeling like someone had left their dead cat in my mouth, I brushed my teeth and headed for the surf.

Nobby’s Head use to be an island, but in 1846 they joined it to the mainland by dumping massive quantities of sand there. Now with a lengthy sand spit, you can walk along to the sound of waves crashing around your ears up to the postcard-worthy lighthouse. Nobby’s is also a worthy surf spot.

If the sun and the surf are your cup of tea, and we all know the British Empire was built on cups of tea, Newcastle is becoming better known for its surfing beaches and is the ideal spot to see some of the best surfers in Australia.

After a quick paddle, it was time to pack up my gear and say goodbye to the new Newcastle. But not before a quick game of footy with my Aussie mate.

Port Stephens

Port Stephens is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Sydney, making it the perfect destination for those wishing to exercise the smog of the city from their systems. Aside from dolphin and whale watching, there are loads of other ways you can mess about here. The marine park just off Shoal Bay incorporates a sponge and coral garden, providing one of the most spectacular dive sites in Australia. There’s also parasailing, banana boating and water-skiing.

The area is home to the largest sand dune system in the southern hemisphere. Stockton Bright is 33km long and 2km wide and offers the perfect opportunity to fulfil any Lawrence of Arabia fantasies. Horse riding is probably the most authentic activity, as opposed to quad-biking, which is what I decided to do.

There is a vast choice of accommodation from the YHA in Shoal Bay to tree-surrounded stilted eco-friendly huts at Samurai Beach Backpackers. If you’re after a boozy weekend with young, free singles, this is not the place to go. But if you want a break from it all, Port Stephens is gold.

October 1st, 2007

While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.

Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.

After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.

Ugly mothertruckers

Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.

Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.

So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.

Roadhouse blues

Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!

The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.

So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!

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