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NRMA Open Road Article            http://open

The November 2017 issue of NRMA Open Road magazine carried an article on Port Stephens which is available below.


At the top of Tomaree Head on the NSW Mid North Coast.  Out to sea, you can watch humpback whales swim by, breaching and blowing as they make their annual migration.  Closer in are panoramic views of Port Stephens and, down below, the small town of Nelson Bay looks tiny. From this 161-metre lookout, you can't hear a sound.

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In such a serene location, it's difficult to imagine that in World War II Tomaree Head played a critical part in the defence of Australia's east. That is, until you stumble upon a curved concrete wall where a gun was placed at the beginning of the war to protect the nearby steel-town of Newcastle, and the Williamstown airbase 3km away, from a Japanese invasion.  It's even harder to picture thousands of US and Australian troops landing amphibious craft on the sandy beaches where children now swim and play.


Seventy-two years after the end of the war, life is tranquil at Port  Stephens.  It's one of the most beautiful holiday destinations in eastern Australia, with gorgeous beaches,  whale watching, boating, surfing,and the largest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere.  You can immerse yourself fully in these attractions and pursuits or just sit back at one of the many cafes and restaurants by the beach.

But it's the area's fascinating wartime history, which you can literally trip over, that  will  have military history buffs coming back for more.  Remnants of WWII can still  be found at your feet if you keep an eye open.  In the sand, you can see the occasional shell casing and earlier this year. a dog on Stockton Beach found an unexploded mortar shell and began playing a game of ‘Fetch’ with it.    That is, until  her owners realised the terrible danger she was carrying and alerted the authorities.

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Views from Tomaree Head

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The Nelson Bay Heritage Walk put together by the Port Stephens Historical Society, is the ideal way to gain an understanding of the area's past.  It’s worth pausing at item 41 on the walk, a monument to Australia Remembers, which recognises the Australian, US and British troops who trained at Port Stephens and went on to fight in the Pacific.

If you're feeling even more energetic, the two-hour walk up the well maintained track to the top of Mount Tomaree is easily doable if you're reasonably fit but might be a steep puff if you're not.It's the main landmark in Port  Stephens and can be seen from almost every part of the port.

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Troop training at Shoal Bay

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Aircraft dumping bombs on Stockton Beach

Near the summit is the aforementioned WW11 gun, which was built in 1941 as part of the east coast defence system.  The guns were never fired in anger, but were once capable of hitting targets 13km from the entrance to Port Stephens.  Nearby barracks housed 500 personnel from the Army, Navy and Air Force.  The two guns, plus a radar tower, were installed on the summit to provide early warning of enemy aircraft or ships approaching Newcastle.  On June 8 1942, this vital town came under fire from a Japanese submarine, which targeted the shipyards.  Fortunately, the shelling did little damage and there were no deaths.

Fortifications were installed on Stockton Beach, to guard against possible attacks by sea.  Tank traps (large concrete pyramid-shaped blocks) can still be seen, while some have been moved to the Anna Bay car park to serve as monuments you can touch.  Stockton Beach was also used as a bombing and gunnery range.  Aircraft from Williamtown airbase would dump unused bombs on the beach before they returned to base and even these occasionally make an appearance on the surface.

All this military activity had an impact on locals more used to a quiet coastal life back in the 1940s.They were issued with a permit to live there and these were examined every time a resident arrived or left Nelson Bay. The beaches were busy, planes flew overhead, guns were fired and bombs were dropped.


The danger was much closer to Australia than many civilians realised at the time.  Japanese and German submarines sunk 30 ships in Australian waters, killing 654 people.  This included the Japanese submarine 121 that shelled Newcastle and later sunk BHP's iron ore carrier the Iron Knight.  They added to the grim tally of around 600 historical shipwrecks off the coast of Port Stephens and Newcastle since European settlement. The lack of complete records makes it impossible to count the number of lives lost with them.  In the late 1800s, shipwrecks were so common in the area that two sheds were built on Stockton Beach with provisions for any survivors who made it to shore.

To prevent further loss of life at sea, two lighthouses were built at key locations at Port Stephens.  The first “outer” lighthouse is on Fingal Island, about 2 km from the mainland.  It was built in1862, making it the second oldest lighthouse in Australia.  The second “inner” lighthouse was built in 1872 on a headland just inside the entrance to Port Stephens.  Unusually for a lighthouse, it didn't have a tower instead the light was illuminated through a large window.

The inner lighthouse was decommissioned in 2003 and is now open to the public.  A highlight of any visit to Nelson Bay is enjoying a coffee or light meal at the Inner Lighthouse Tea Rooms, which have spectacular views.  The cottage next door houses a small but fascinating museum with local maritime and lighthouse history.  Several posters on one wall list the names of all the ships that have been lost in nearby waters.


The old lighthouse is also home to the Coastal Patrol radio base.  Its volunteers are on standby 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Visitors are welcome and because it's a quiet afternoon when we arrive, the volunteers are happy to talk to us about the treacherous waters and some of the people they have rescued in the past.


We walk off our lighthouse lunch along the beach, which, thanks to our history notes, we know looked very different in the 1940s.  It's now late afternoon and the foreshore is buzzing with dog walkers, runners, swimmers and families of all shapes and sizes. The scene is an apt reminder that sometimes history has a way of making us appreciate what we have today. (Open Road)  


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