30 January to 10 February 2020
Blacksmiths to Newcastle, 23km
Sometimes on our journeys the stars align in the most perfect way and so it was that just when we needed a solid roof to protect us from the coming rain as we made our way up the New South Wales coast, Stefan’s friend, Mossy was finalising the purchase of a flat in Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney.
And it really couldn’t have been more perfect timing because it wasn’t just a little bit of rain. About a metre of rain was forecast for the entire east coast over the coming week and that was going to be no fun in a tent! So Mossy very kindly let us stay at the flat whilst he made arrangements to get it ready to rent out on Air BnB and we readily agreed to be trial guests and help with deliveries of new appliances and facilitating decorators.
For the first few days we were more grateful for the flat’s air conditioning than its roof. The temperature was really hotting up and our nearby beach was proving very popular. On a particularly busy Sunday we had a visit from Stefan’s dad. It was so hot and sticky that Jim was struggling with sunscreen streaming into his eyes. That or he was so overwhelmed with emotion to see us again!
Waking up the next day to much cooler temperatures we felt better able to tackle the memorial walk up and along the cliff from Bar Beach and passed the concrete evidence of Australia’s WWII defences down to Newcastle Beach.
Hand hewn out of the rock, the Bogey Hole is one of Australia’s first ocean baths. It was far too rough for swimming in when we passed. The Ocean Baths built in the 1920s looked more inviting but the water was still pretty cold. At Nobby’s beach the no swimming flags were flying though we watched some surfers ignore the warning whilst we had coffee.
We happily spent a week and a half in Newcastle, letting cleaners and decorators in and taking delivery of a new TV, fridge, kettle and toaster. Our immediate neighbourhood, around Darby Street, turned out to have a real coffee culture and was full of old buildings and quirky shops.
The two days when the decorators needed access to the flat meant extended days exploring the town. Newcastle is a busy port and Stefan became a little fixated with the comings and goings of the enormous tankers escorted in and out of the Hunter River by tugs.
In the early 20th century Newcastle developed a steel industry that would become the area’s biggest employer for over eight decades. That history is celebrated with a dramatic recreation of the steel making process, complete with steel pouring into the ingot car.
Newcastle was chosen as the location for the steel plants because of the abundance of coal in the area. Given the urgent national conversations raging about Australia’s coal industry it was a little strange to us to find coal and the arch overlord, BHP, celebrated quite so prominently. Even stranger given that the closure of the steelworks in 1999 and the loss of 50,000 jobs caused Newcastle to fall into serious economic decline.
Elsewhere in the museum there was a captivating exhibition of very early photographs taken by some of the early naturalists who came to Australia. Part art, part natural history record they feature scientists posing with whale flippers, giant rays and other fantastic beasts.
More recently in 1989 Newcastle was at the epicentre of a devastating earthquake that killed 13 people and injured many more. Another exhibition of photographs celebrated the roles of the first responders.
Another rainy day we took shelter in the art gallery where we found an exhibition called Between Two Worlds, a collection of artworks by Australian artists of Chinese heritage, a mixture of video, sculpture, paintings and photography exploring themes of migration and identity. It was an eclectic collection but brought together what we have learned about the Chinese community in Australia.
On our last, and very foggy morning in Newcastle we headed just outside of town to visit the beautiful Blackbutt Reserve. After all the rain the water holes and creeks were full of water.
And nestled in the trees was a brilliant (and free!) wildlife park which gave us some close encounters with more koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. We were there for Clyde and Sally the wombats’ feeding time. Their keeper gave a little introduction to them before asking if her (mainly toddler) audience had any questions. Stefan put his hand up and as a result we learnt that wombats have few natural predators (and an armoured rump that can repel them) and can weigh up to 27kg. The toddlers all seemed very satisfied with this information!
In the amphibians’ house we found some brilliant looking frogs
and there were birds aplenty. The finches were unbelievably colourful even amongst the budgies and, in captivity, I was finally able to capture a black cockatoo. They are simply too aloof in the wild!
Newcastle might not be high of the list for tourists to Australia but we can thoroughly recommend it. Its beaches are better and less crowded than Sydney’s, the coffee is (dare we say it) better than Melbourne’s and there’s something for everyone in its museums, galleries and parks. There’s a great wine region nearby and if watching big ships is your thing there is nowhere better than the waterfront. Plus we know a great Air BnB if you ever find yourself nearby…