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Port Stephens, NSW

Large harbour north of Newcastle edged by small villages and bushland.

Port Stephens is a large, well protected, natural harbour which covers 134 square kilometres and spans the 24 km between the mouth of the Karuah River to the headlands at Mount Tomaree and Yacaaba Head at Hawks Nest. The harbour shoreline is dominated by tiny villages - Tahlee, Bundabah, Hawks Nest, Oyster Cove, Tanilba Bay. Corlette, Lemon Tree Passage and Tea Gardens. On the south-eastern shoreline there is a continuous urban development which stretches from Shoal Bay to Soldiers Point and includes Salamander Bay, Nelson Bay and the small township of Port Stephens. The "port" is characterised by small bays and the estuaries of the Myall River, Tilligerry Creek and the Karuah River. There are quiet, white sandy beaches and scrubby bushland. Historically much of the land was owned by the  Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) but by the 1950s it became a popular holiday resort destination and desirable retirement location for people from Sydney and Newcastle. Its great appeal was that it was under-developed and therefore modestly priced and pleasantly sleepy. Today there are exclusive accommodation options at Corlette and Nelsons Bay and the "port' is and ideal place for recreational activities including game fishing, beach and rock fishing, sailing, cruising, boat and houseboat charters, bushwalking, horse riding, surfing, water skiing, swimming and parasailing. This entry should be read in conjunction with http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/hawks-nest-nsw, http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/tea-gardens-nsw and http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/nelson-bay-nsw.

Location

Port Stephens is not immediately definable as a single location although the town-suburb if Port Stephens, between Nelson Bay and Salamander Bay, is 213 km north of Sydney via the Pacific Highway and 58 km north-east of Newcastle.

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Origin of Name

In May, 1770 when Captain James Cook was sailing up the east coast of Australia he recognised the harbour as a potential port and named it Port Stephens after his friend, Sir Philip Stephens, First Secretary of the Admiralty and the parliamentary Member for Sandwich.

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Things to See and Do

The Ferry - Nelson Bay to Tea Gardens
One of the modestly priced pleasures of the area is the ferry trip across Port Stephens to Tea Gardens. Apart from being a delightful journey it also includes (and they are remarkably reliable - the website says 95% certain to see them) dolphins who seem to enjoy racing the ferry and gambolling in its wake. Not only do travellers get scenic views of the port they also get a free show from the local dolphins. Check out http://www.portstephensferryservice.com.au/web/timetable/ for more information.

Shoal Bay
Shoal Bay was named by Governor Macquarie during his 1812 exploration of the harbour. It was a simple description of the sand shoals which are commonplace in the area. Located to the east of Nelson Bay (http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/nelson-bay-nsw) it is known for its excellent fishing and for the popular dive site at Halifax Park. The main attractions in the area are Mount Tomaree and Tomaree Head which lie to the east of the small settlement.

Tomaree Head and Fort Tomaree - The Walks
At the east of Shoal Bay is Tomaree Head (161 m). It is the matching volcanic remnant to Yacaaba Head which lies immediately to the north. They are the entry points to Port Stephens. It is possible to walk to the top of Tomaree Head. Near the car park is the start of a walking trail. Although the walk is only 2.2 km return it takes between 90-120 minutes to reach the summit where the panoramic views are breathtaking.
The excellent National Park's website (http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/walking-tracks/tomaree-head-summit-walk) describes the view: "When you reach the summit, enjoy panoramic views of Yacaaba Head, Cabbage Tree, Boondelbah and Broughton Islands from the north platform. From the south platform, views of Zenith, Wreck and Box Beaches, Fingal Island and Point Stephens Lighthouse will be sure to impress. Be sure to check out the historic World War II gun emplacements. Take your binoculars as you might be lucky to see some dolphins."
Particularly impressive are the offshore islands: Boondelbah - located 3 km to the north-east covers 9 hectares. It is a nesting and breeding site for little penguins, white-faced storm petrels and a variety of shearwaters. Just to its north is Cabbage Tree Island (26 hectares) named after the cabbage tree palms in the gullies on the island's western side which are the only known nesting site of Goulds petrel. It is also the only island with a rainforest ecosystem in Southern Australia and was the first gazetted flora and fauna reserve in New South Wales.
Fort Tomaree was established on the head during World War II. Two large gun emplacements (sans guns) lie along the main track. If you wish to see the other relics walk beyond the initial path, past the hospital, to a secondary track. For more information check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/historic-buildings-places/World-War-II-gun-emplacements for details. It explains the importance of the site in the following terms: "The headland, part of Fort Tomaree, played an important role in Australia’s east coast defence system during World War II. Fort Tomaree included search light stations, a radar tower, torpedo tubes and barracks, where around 500 army, navy and air force personnel served. Most of the Fort’s buildings and guns have been removed; however the historic gun emplacements remain, a visual reminder of Australia’s military history."
Tomaree National Park covers 896 ha from the headland west and around the coast to Boat Harbour and Little Kingsley Beach. The beaches are suitable for swimming and fishing. The park supports considerable biological diversity: 230 bird species, 48 mammal species and 650 plant species.

Fingal Beach and Barry Park
To the south of Fingal Bay is Barry Park which has a rewarding Walking Track and Boardwalk which was developed by the Fingal Bay Parks and Reserves Committee with Coastcare funding. They removed the lantana and bitou bush and it is now an impressively restored piece of Australian bushland. "The track and boardwalk traverses a diverse range of distinctly different plant communities of Smooth-barked Apple, Coastal Banksia, Giant Honeymyrtle, Broad-leafed Paperbark, Coastal Tea-tree, in addition to rushes and reeds in the boardwalk area. The site also contains many different types of native orchid such as the Green Hood and Brown Hood Orchids. This is significant because this area is the only recorded place within Port Stephens where they are found.

Point Stephens and Point Stephens Lighthouse - Shark Island
From the northern end of the Fingal Bay beach, known as Fingal Spit, Point Stephens looms and Shark Island loom to the east. The island was the site of numerous shipwrecks and so a lighthouse - a stone tower and lantern - was constructed in 1862. It was designed by colonial architect Alexander Dawson and made of Sydney sandstone. At that time the Point was joined to the mainland by a narrow spit which was 200 metres wide, 5 metres above sea-level, covered with bushes and, by the end of the 19th century, with telegraph poles. A gale washed most of the spit away in 1891. However, at low tide, the remaining sandbar, the Fingal Spit, can still be crossed. The lighthouse was converted to solar power in 1989 and it is still operational today although it has no lighthouse keeper. The light can be seen 17 nautical miles out to sea. It has an elevation of 38 metres. It wasn't until 1960s that it was converted to mains electricity. Before that it had been powered first by kerosene and in 1922 by pressurised acetylene gas. For more information check out http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/NSW/Point%20Stephens/Point%20Stephens.htm.

Walk from Fingal Bay to Box Beach, Samurai and One Mile Beach
It is possible to walk from Fingal Bay around to Box Beach. Walking tracks continue around the coastline to Samurai and One Mile Beaches, where there are more paths to explore. Samurai Beach is an authorised nude bathing beach although it is common to see non-nudists swimming and fishing on the beach.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Stockton Beach
Stockton Beach is a remarkable collection of huge sand dunes which stretch for 33 km up the coast from the Newcastle suburb of Stockton. The highest of the dunes rises 30 m above sea-level. The beach was so long and firm that in the 19th century the early settlers used it for horse racing. Today it known for its excellent fishing and a fenced off Aboriginal midden contains bones and shells which date back 1240 years. It is also known as the nesting site for one of Australia's most endangered birds, the little tern. Hundreds of mutton birds are washed ashore in September and October of each year after dropping dead from exhaustion during their lengthy migration flight.
The section of Stockton Beach around the suburb of Anna Beach has become a magnet for enterprising entrepreneurs. The sand dunes can be enjoyed on horseback (Sahara Trails Horse Rides - http://www.saharatrails.com - a 90 minute ride across the dunes  – riders have to be over 16, tel: (02) 4981 9077), by 4WD (Sand Dune Tours - http://www.portstephensadventure.com.au/4wd_tours.htm - 2 hours duration and includes sand boarding, Tin City and the wreck of the Sygna) and Quad bikes (Quad Bike King - http://www.quadbikeking.com.au - they are located at 2130 Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown).

Worimi National Park
The Worimi National Park, which is part of the Worimi Conservation Lands, owned and co-managed by the local Worimi Aboriginal community, stretches south from Port Stephens to Stockton along the coast. It is ideal for riding horses along the beach; driving a 4WD between the dunes and the ocean; fishing, whale watching and inspecting the "Aboriginal and historic sites and don’t the gigantic Stockton dunes; the largest moving coastal sand dunes in the southern hemisphere." Check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/Worimi-National-Park for more details.

Soldiers Point
Soldiers Point was originally known as Friendship Point. The name was probably changed when a small garrison of soldiers were settled there in 1826 to stop convict escapees from Port Macquarie making their way across the narrow stretch of water to the settlement further south. Today it is a suburb of the Port Stephens Council and is predominantly holiday homes and retirement residences. Like most of the places around Port Stephens it is popular as a boating and fishing destination.

Tanilba House
It is not open all the time and it is sensible to ring before making the journey, but Tanilba House is one of Australia's earliest residences and as such is a hugely important historic home on the road out to Lemon Tree Passage. No one is sure, but it is believed that the word 'Tanilba' is a local Aboriginal word meaning "place of white flowers", a possible reference to the flannel flowers which once grew in the area.
Tanilba House was built for Lieutenant William Caswell, a naval officer. Caswell had emigrated with his family in 1828 and in 1831 he was granted 50 acres on Tanilba Bay. He employed convict labour and a slab hut was completed in 1829. It was expanded in 1831 and the foundations for Tanilba House were laid down in 1837. The house was built of locally quarried quartz porphyry stone and the mortar was made with lime produced by burning oysters caught in Port Stephens. The exterior facade is very attractive. The rooms are large with high ceilings and walls a half-metre thick - to cool the house in summer and retain heat in winter. There is a small gaol and an exterior kitchen: reminders of the days of convicts and servants. The house has numerous and genuinely interesting historic displays. Caswell was enterprising and the surrounding acreage was used for vineyards and a dairy.
By 1841 Emily Caswell could write of the house and the local Aboriginal community: "When we first came here all around we saw nothing but the blacks' fires and canoes, but now only a dozen are left of our tribes ... they bring fish and oysters for flour ... our blacks are harmless inoffensive people ... their children are stout and spend half their day in the sea ... each tribe had land allotted ... they used to fight among themselves very often and had 'corroborys' - jumping up and down; and mourning by smearing themselves with white clay, saying "Die - jump up white man".
The Caswells continued to own Tanilba until 1897 when it was sold to Elizabeth Holmes. By that time the house was in serious decay but Ms Holmes started to restore it. She then sold it in 1905 and until 1913 it was used as a weekender for fishing parties from Newcastle and Maitland. By 1920 it had been sold to Henry F. Halloran, a developer who added a conservatory, ornate fences and, most significantly, the adjoining "temple". The views out across the front lawn and the bay are impressive. Offshore lies Snapper Island, a nature reserve dominated by a huge Morton Bay fig.
The current owner is Helen Taylor. She has saved the house and so today Tanilba House, has a comfortable, rustic and lived-in feel to it. The house is open for inspections Wednesdays, weekends, and every day during school and public holidays, tel: (02) 4982 4866.

Tilligerry Habitat
Located at 2E King Albert Avenue, Tanilba Bay, Tilligerry Habitat is a 9 ha flora and fauna reserve along the sandy foreshore of Tanilba Bay. It is a volunteer and charitable organisation formed in 1993 to try and reverse the severe degradation of the ecology, and hence the koala habitat, caused by sand mining. An ongoing and, to date, highly fruitful rehabilitation endeavour ensued. They offer guided interpretative walks which take in the area's ecology, koala habitats, heritage (Aboriginal and European), bush tucker and birds. There are easy walking tracks through scenic swamp mahogany paperbark forest and wetlands. The 9 ha has native orchids and bush tucker plants in season, occasional koalas, echidnas and bandicoots. Tilligerry Habitat is open from 9.00 am - 3.00 pm Monday to Friday and 10.00 - 2.00 pm Saturday and Sunday. tel: (02) 4984 5677. For more detailed information check out http://www.tilligerryhabitat.org.au/about. A map of the entire reserve is available for download at http://www.tilligerryhabitat.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Front-desk-map-2015.pdf.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was occupied by the Worimi Aborigines.

* Port Stephens was sighted by Captain James Cook in May, 1770 who named it after Sir Philip Stephens, Secretary of the Admiralty. He observed smoke from Worimi campfires.

* The first Europeans in the area were five convicts whose boat sunk off Port Stephens in 1790. They were seen as reincarnated ancestors by the Worimi who aided them and accepted them into the tribe.

* The harbour was entered by the convict ship the Salamander in 1791 and charted by deputy surveyor-general Charles Grimes in 1795 who described it as low and sandy.

* Governor King ordered a survey of the Port by William Paterson in 1801.

* The port was personally inspected by Governor Macquarie in 1812 who found it "good, safe, and capacious" but decided there were too many shoals and the land was too barren to support a colony.

* Cedar cutters moved into the forested areas around the harbour in 1816.

* By 1820 the area's abundant supply of oysters was being processed and incinerated for lime at Carrington, Stockton and Fame Cove.

* The first permanent settler was Captain William Cromarty who was granted 300 acres of land adjacent the Karuah River.

* The Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) were granted half a million acres in 1826 and a base of operations was established at present-day Carrington with 80 settlers, 720 sheep and some horse and cattle.

* It was reputedly the AAC's failed attempts to grow tea that created the name, Tea Gardens.

* By 1830 more than 200 acres had been cleared, vineyards established and an extensive settlement with 600 employees, 11 permanent houses, workshops, military barracks, a smithy, a school, a shearing shed and slaughter house and other temporary buildings was the centre of the AAC operations.

* By the late 1820s passing ships and whalers were using Port Stephens as a source of wood and water. The approaches to the Port were dangerous and there were plenty of shipwrecks: 24 by the time the first lighthouse was built at Point Stephens in 1862.

* At any rate it seems Chinese assistants were employed as advisors in the endeavour and they also acted as gardeners growing vegetables for the company settlements.

* In 1862 a lighthouse was built at Port Stephens. By that time 24 vessels had been shipwrecked entering the harbour.

* Burning oyster shells was prohibited in 1868 as the stocks around the harbour had been seriously depleted.

* By 1872 a second lighthouse had been constructed at Nelson Head.

* The first survey at Nelson Bay was carried out in 1874.

* A school was established at Hannah Bay (now Anna Bay) in 1879.

* Schools were established at both Salt Ash and Nelson Bay in 1883.

* In the 1880s lobsters were successfully trapped in the harbour by Greek and Italian fishermen.

* By the late 19th century the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company was running picnic excursions into the area from Newcastle. They continued until the 1940s.

* In 1920 a country newspaper suggested that Port Stephens should be the capital of a new state north of Sydney.

* By the 1920s the cultivation of oysters for consumption, particularly at Oyster Cove, had begun. Today the Port is now the largest single oyster-producing area in Australia.

* During the Second World War Port Stephens was used as a base by the armed forces who trained 20 000 American and 2000 Australian servicemen.

* Today Port Stephens' economy is based on tourism, oyster-cultivation, fishing, prawning, dairying, timbergetting and mixed farming.

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Visitor Information

Port Stephens Visitor Information Centre, 60 Victoria Parade, Nelson Bay, tel: 1800 808 900

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Useful Websites

The local official website is http://www.portstephens.org.au. It has extensive information about accommodation and events in the local area.

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