Staggering onto the bus, my vision begins to darken somewhere in North Sydney.
Before I know it, a dull sensation of pain runs through my head as it bounces off of the bus’s window – we have arrived. It seems I must have fallen asleep somewhere after Hornsby and snored peacefully throughout the majority of the trip north on the Pacific Highway, my eyes opening occasionally to take in the rolling swathes of unmolested forests and manicured paddocks dotted with livestock.
The inside of the bus is warm, stifling almost, and the suspension is dealing poorly with the gravel tinged off road we suddenly find ourselves on.
The sun is shining through the scrub outside the window, spindly trees rising thickly on either side of the vehicle as it begins the decent down to sea level. The road narrows to one lane and the corners become more precipitous, winding tighter as we drive down.
Suddenly, and quite without warning, we crest a small rise, past a farmhouse cut deep into the undergrowth and we spot the ocean glistening in the distance, a few buildings dotted around the distant coastline and the whole cabin seems to fill with the sudden tang of sea salt. “Tiona,” says Nicole, the driver, happily. “Let the adventure begin.”
A whale of a time
The first stop on our road trip is the Tiona Tourist Park, 290 kilometers from Sydney on New South Wales’ beautiful mid-north coast.
Once a tiny fishing village caught uneasily between Wallis Lake and the sea, Tiona and the surrounding coastline has blossomed into a playground for Sydney’s nouveau riche, with huge holiday homes springing up in the last 20 years along the wooded hillocks that look out over the Tasman.
As Nicole drives us into Sundowner Tiona, a smattering of cabins greet us with their uniformed sides backing onto the car park. Thankfully they do not tell the whole story.
We pull up to an area deeper into the park, heavily shaded by palm trees and I think I can spy a body of water through a roughly cut trail “Here we are,” says Nicole. “It’s time to make camp!”
We begin to unload the bus and with every tent roll and sleeping bag that comes out, my heart sinks further. I’m no rugged outdoorsman and will freely admit to rather spending a night in a five star hotel room than under the stars, so the prospect of pitching a tent fills me with dread. A trepidation that is utterly misplaced.
The tent’s manufacturers claim that they take only 30 seconds to pitch bizarrely live up to their promise, leaving us a good hour or so to sip ice cold beers and marvel at the natural beauty of the lagoon.
We decide to take lunch on nearby Seven Mile Beach, one of the area’s most well known beaches. As we walked up the path and emerged above the sand dunes and onto the beach people began to gasp and squeal in delight, and for a second I furiously sweep the surf, fruitlessly scanning for the cause of the excitement.
In a shimmering cascade of white water it becomes gloriously apparent. The flanks and tails of a mother and baby humpback whale glint in the sun as they breach less than 200 meters out from the sand, the closest I, or anyone else, had ever seen the beautiful mammals before.
With a full stomach and the sun still high in the late afternoon sky, Noel, Sundowner’s sandfishing expert walks a few of us through the art of catching elusive sand worms for bait, while others swim in the warm water or simply lay out in the warmth digesting their meal.
As evening falls we return to our campsite, via The Green Cathedral, a site unique to Tiona. Walking through a thicket of fallen palm frongs and writhing tree roots we come suddenly upon the consecrated area, 15 rows of rough hewn pews running towards a cross overlooking the becalming waters of Wallis Lake, shrouded in the beautiful, lush tree canopy. First constructed back in 1922 the feeling of history in the place is palpable.
Even when the wind blows as night falls, the beauty of the park cannot be diminished and I return to my tent full and contented, thoroughly having been bought round to the idea of camping holidays. And it was only night one.
Onwards, ever onwards
After a quick breakfast and a surf we pile back onto the bus and set off for the next 100 kilometer part of the road trip to the provincial hub of Port Macquarie. Set on the affluence of the Hastings River, this bustling seaside town is our next destination.
Straddling the fresh water canals of the Hastings and the briny deep of the Tasman, the area is famed for its delicious seafood, and combined with the huge amounts of arable land, the surrounding countryside has become one of the best places in the state to find fresh, delectable produce.
Indeed, Port Macquarie is the boomtown of the mid-north coast, with great restaurants and bars dotted across the shore to compliment the huge amount of tourist activities on offer.
Having arrived late in the day, we make camp in Sundowner’s Port Macquarie Tourist Park, which may have lacked Tiona’s beautiful scenery, but more than makes up for with its buzzing atmosphere. Located right on the iconic Port Macquarie foreshore, a minute’s walk from all the best the town has to offer we are keen to get amongst it, particularly because it is a Saturday night.
The wonderful array of nightspots clearly reflect just a how big a rural centre Port Macquarie has become and makes it an ideal spot to spend a few days.
I wake up nursing my third hangover in as many days, facing the prospect of a day on the water. The quick walk from the park into town fortifies me somewhat, though, and after an amazing bacon and egg roll from LV’s, we climb aboard a boat to cruise the Hastings River.
Within minutes of disembarking, river dolphins can be seen prancing in front of the boat’s prow, churning through the water ahead of us. Having seen whales only two days before, the sight of the dolphin pod elicits the same response in us all and I find myself nearly hanging over the boat’s railings to get closer to the beautiful spectacle. These dolphins are amongst the most graceful creatures on earth.
As we come out into the river’s mouth, the dolphins sadly leave the boat which allows me to reflect more upon the beauty of the surrounding country side. The canals of the Hastings River are as beautiful on a sunny day as anything to be found on the French or Italian Riviera’s, and I again find myself in awe of the region’s natural beauty.
Sadly, it comes to an end and we all cram back onto the bus and head back to Sydney.
Byron Bay is the first place most people mention as a good stopover on a roadtrip to Queensland, and while the mid-north coast might not be a great chunk into the journey, the sheer beauty of the region, the magnificent beaches, and the wonderful town of Port Macquarie beg to be considered as a place to at least spend a night, if not much longer.
One of the highlights on the calendar in these parts is the annual Festival of the Sun. The festival has grown and grown in the last couple of years in terms of exposure and has garnered a great reputation as one of the most chilled out and comfortable camping festivals in Australia.
With the festival taking part on the grounds of the Sundownder Breakwall Tourist Park in the heart of Port Macquarie the crowd numbers are limited to 3,000 with all the artists’ playing on the one stage, which adds to the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
This year’s lineup is easily the biggest in the festival’s history to date with the wonderful Kimbra headlining, ably assisted by Dead Letter Circus, melodic rockers The Datsun’s and many, many more artists from all around Australia.
Dec 14-15. Port Macquarie. Tix: $160 incl camping
What to do: Surfing lessons with Wave’s Surf School in TIona costs $89pp/per day (wavessurfschool.com). Take a cruise down the magnificent Hastings River with Port Venture Cruises, $20pp. (portventure.com.au). Grab a bite to eat at LV’s on the pier (All mains between $14-$20).
Where to stay: The Sundowner Tiona Tourist Park and the Sundowner Breakwall Tourist Park in Port Macquarie (sundownerholidays.com) campsites available from $25 p/n.
See more: midnorthcoasttourism.com.au