Holidaying with the Masses at Nelson Bay

Zenith, Wreck and Box Beaches from Tomaree Lookout.

Zenith, Wreck and Box Beaches from Tomaree Lookout.

We have joined an exodus of sun seekers for the New Year holiday period. It is a two and a half hour drive up the coast from Sydney to Nelson Bay, a tourist hamlet which forms part of the wider community of Port Stephens.

Resort wear is the fashion here, at odds with the fibro and brick veneer that dominates this friendly, slightly jaded town. The locals are predominantly Anglo Saxons and a little too sun kissed (I noticed a skin cancer clinic on the drive in). Some are working a seven day week to meet the demands of the influx of tourists. The population ebbs and flows like the tide, depending on the time of year. On our day of checking in there were 2999 others following suit, and the same number checking out. A traffic jam ensued at the highway turn off.

How does the environment cope with this assault on its resources I wonder – washing machines, dryers, microwaves, air conditioners going full tilt as we seek sun and surf and shed the stresses of the city life we have left behind? And the rubbish that we holidaying folk leave behind.

A considerable chunk of the static population is made up of retirees. They are the ones with the freshly ironed shirts and token little dogs. There is a diabetes and an osteoporosis clinic in the precinct catering to their needs, plus motorized scooters and walking frames for sale.

People travel in packs here – extended families, holidaying groups of couples. I shudder at the compromise and political negotiations that must be navigated prior to each day’s activities. Holidays to me are about quietly observing, being a fly on the wall. Maybe this is just a writer’s lot. Or a residue from being raised in a large family where compromise was the order of the day.

On our first night we dine on fish and chips along the waterfront. As if on cue from the setting sun, a pod of dolphins with their perfect slippery shiny bodies dive and dip within an arm’s reach of our table. They appear smug, as if they own the place, relishing in the attention they are drawing.

From the balcony of our middle floor unit I catch the scent of other vacationers – cigarette smoke, sun cream, meat barbecuing. We are mindful to keep the balcony doors shut for this reason, and also to stop the noise rising from the swimming pool below. It has become a watery kindergarten during our stay. Incessant arguing and reasoning (or lack thereof) between parents and toddlers lends a weariness to the air. Fortunately the pool is out of bounds from 8pm – 8am so we can enjoy undisturbed sleep.

I can also see other families about their business from this vantage point. Two boys looking uncannily the same age are staying side by side in separate units. I wonder if they have met each other down at the water wonder world that the complex pool has become. I wish teenagers were just as easily entertained! They are both hopping and skipping behind the glass of their lounge rooms waiting impatiently in their swimmers for a grown up to take them to the beach.

The surrounds of our apartment in ‘The Cote D’Azur’ – our base for the week – are quiet today, Monday. The weekend crowds have gone home. My husband has already been for a run to Shoal Bay and back (further along the coast) including a dip in the sea, before I have worked out what day it is. How quickly memory recedes when routine is ditched.

We have prised two teenage boys away from the city to accompany us, our son and a friend. They are bent on squeezing as much sleep time out of the day as possible. We gave up trying to balance their expectations with our own. Two camps have thus been formed under our rented roof (and a very expensive roof at that), those who get up and out before mid-morning and the 2nd contingent after lunchtime. We converge at our ad hoc meal times, which happen later and later in the day as the week progresses and the more relaxed we become.

We are careful not to suggest any activities that the teenagers may be interested in (and that also don’t cost an arm and a leg), such as fishing, snorkelling, going to the movies across the road. But no, they have to arrive at their own decisions at this age, even when ironically they end up the same as our original ideas.

Their favourite beach, Zenith, is in the picturesque Tomaree National Park, a short drive from our accommodation. It is almost deserted. There is no vehicle access to the beachfront. I overheard my son comment to his friend that it looks like Fiji. Not that he has been there, only seen the advertisements.

We have found our favourite beach too, a bay further on from Zenith: Wreck Beach, where I counted only three people on the sand as we descended the bush track. The chaos of the overcrowded caravan park we drove past to get there felt another continent away. As was the slightly frayed umbilical cord of this peninsula that is Nelson Bay. The sea was too rough for a proper swim, so I sat on my haunches and allowed myself to be knocked over by wild surf. Joyous recklessness!

The staccato shrill of bush insects doesn’t allow for conversation as we navigate our way through native bush in Tomaree National Park to find yet more idyllic beaches – Box, Fingal Bay, and Big Rocky, a sublime 6km trek to get to and back from, where we passed only 2 other people.

Magnolia ‘little gem’, frangipani, crepe myrtle, oleander and Christmas bush have no trouble growing in this sandy soil. Their bright colours are tempered by a backdrop of native trees: black butt, smooth barked apple gum (with its striking salmon pink trunk) and melaleuca. I ponder at the possibility of anything growing here – it didn’t rain once during our stay. Nature turned the perfect beach weather on for our week away.

As we have found in other coastal towns, Nelson Bay hosts hybrid shops: the newsagent sells fishing gear and licenses and fresh fruit and vegetables; Delights Café also double ups as a computer sales outlet. Such is the need to be all things to all people, lest the transitory shoppers take their business elsewhere.

I keep forgetting what day it is. But our connection with the larger world will no doubt resume when we get back on the 9 to 5 hamster wheel. Which is way too soon for my liking.