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Searching for My Perfect Beach, Part Two

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Part the Fourth of My Never-ending Story: GPS, Driving, Nelson Bay and Corlette.

(If you want to begin at the beginning, CLICK HERE)

Tuesday dawned sunny. I awoke refreshed, had my breakfast, packed, ordered the Uber, and checked out of the hotel. The Uber arrived, ready to take me to the rental car office at the airport. (I’m becoming an Uber pro.)

Let’s just say the rental car venue at Sydney International Airport did not look much like this! But the staff were friendly. And the car was wonderful.

At the airport, I arrived at a remarkably downmarket set-up – a glorified shed containing three women in a row behind a trestle table each with computer and phone.  The one on the left quickly found my reservation, and then reported that my request for the GPS unit had never got from head office to them.  She assured me I really did not want one of their old, not-updated units, and that Google Maps on my phone would be better by far. 

(Now this is exactly what my travel agent had said weeks earlier when I first asked her to add GPS to the rental agreement. But I absolutely knew that, navigating with my phone perched somehow on the dashboard, while driving on the wrong side of the road, would guarantee the phone falling to the floor, followed closely by a rollover at the edge of some steep cliff and an end to my adventure!)

Standing in the Sydney office of Thrifty Auto Rental, I knew I’d be using my phone. So did the lady on the left.

The Toyota Yaris Cross GX, great car, fun to drive, and mine looked EXACTLY like this one except it was black. Thanks, Thrifty, for a great vehicle. Photo © Toyota Australia.

I said I did not know how to link my phone to their car (true, I am a computer klutz) and she assured me that their ‘man’ would do it for me and get me all set up.  So, I signed on the bottom line, went outside and waited for my car.  It arrived, a very nice Toyota Yaris Cross mini-SUV hybrid, with all the bells and whistles except GPS.  The ‘man’, a 15-something Asian/Aussie guy, proceeded to set me up with Apple Car Play while I tried to explain my phone was a Samsung S8.  Eventually, with much re-fiddling and back and forth he got my phone’s contents on the car’s screen for all to see, but not the actual phone display itself.  I reluctantly agreed that I would manage by simply reading from my phone. And tried not to think about rollovers on steep cliffs.

Forgetting to so much as check that the rearview mirrors were properly aligned, I texted Patsy I was on my way, and headed off out the gate, over the spikey thing that shreds your tires if you so much as think about reversing, and into the middle of Sydney traffic chaos. With an insurance plan carrying $5,500.00 deductible. On the right-hand side of the road. Wheeee.

Then I panicked because Google was taking me to a tunnel which led to a toll road.  I had no Aussie money, did not know how their toll roads worked, and did not want to get stopped at a toll gate.  So… I performed the first of several irregular maneuvers to avoid that route (the other drivers were amazingly forgiving).  There were several more such incidents, and I finally parked and phoned the rental agency to ask about how they dealt with tolls – it is all automatic and they will bill me once notified by the toll collecting agencies.  What was I worried about, really?

I proceeded on my journey, eventually arriving at Patsy’s front gate.  I made a quick pitstop while they got their luggage into their car. Then we set off, Patsy in my car to help me and John in theirs. Over the next 2 hours, Patsy and I were so busy talking that we made numerous incorrect moves and travelled a completely different route to John out of the city.  Eventually we met up at the planned lunch spot – great food at a place called Saddles – and set off again. Once more, with Patsy saying she knew the way from here and with Google shut down, we took a weirdly incorrect route arriving at their condo 10 or 15 minutes after John.  I was unsure how I was going to get myself to Brisbane without Patsy’s help.

The view from our table, and another failed selfie, at Saddles, our lunch stop. Photos © P Sale.

The condo was right on the Shoal Bay beach, with a berm, some trees and shrubs separating it from the waves.  Weather was breezy and overcast but dry. We sat around reminiscing before heading out for dinner at a nice restaurant where all the staff seemed to know them, and no question of me opening my wallet. (I was beginning to see how these two days would pan out.)

View from the balcony on Wednesday morning. The twin peaks of Yacaaba and Tomaree are nearly visible behind the trees. Photo © P Sale

On Wednesday, there was some sunshine and I woke at 6.30 to sort through some email and prepare for the day. We headed out for breakfast/brunch around 9 to yet another great restaurant where John had prearranged to park his car in the hotel guest-only area for a while to charge its battery. My breakfast was mildly disappointing because I had forgotten that Aussies do not use maple syrup liberally – they sprinkle a few drops on, like it was some precious liquid imported from far away.  The French toast was dry.  But the conversation continued great and the car got charged. And I was able to pay for the meal.

The beach at Shoal Bay, with the row of condos invisible behind the trees and scarcely a soul in sight. Photo © P Sale.

Despite the solid line of condos invisible behind the berm, the beach was almost deserted: 5 people tossing a ball around near the path I used to get across the berm, two people walking towards me from far down the beach and two others barely visible at the far end – I’m talking a couple of kilometers of empty beach with fabulous semi-coarse sand, and waves crashing at the shore break.  The water was beer bottle green under the cloudy sky but the air was warm despite the brisk breeze. I walked. I relished the view with the volcanic domes, Yacaaba and Tomaree, terminating the two spits of land that enclose the quite large Port Stephens Bay (of which Shoal Bay is one part). I found myself singing into the wind and for a while could not even place the tune – I was singing sounds, not words. Eventually realized it was ‘Whiter Shade of Pale.’ Not sure where I dredged that up from; Procul Harum was never one of my groups. 

As I walked along, I finally passed the two young guys – the only people I met as I walked.
© P Sale.

I felt healthy and happy in my solitude. Sea birds shared the beach with me. I eventually passed the two people walking towards me – two young guys, maybe a father and son – but never caught up to the second pair because they turned around heading back towards the more obviously built-up end of the beach – a place I felt no need to visit.  Then I retraced my steps. 

Sometimes a cloudy day can provide the best skies. And the footpath back to the condo.
© P Sale.

Not long after getting back to the condo the heavens opened briefly clearing the skies and delivering a double rainbow just before we left for dinner.

Double rainbow at Shoal Bay to close out a wonderful day. Photo © P Sale.

For dinner, I was taken to Rick Stein’s restaurant – technically Rick Stein’s at Port Stephens, or Rick Stein’s at Bannisters at Port Stephens, or just plain Rick Stein’s (I guess Rick is a pretty successful chef) — some distance out of town for an exceptional evening of seafood.  The oysters were to die for, and we had to have oysters in the Port Stephens region. John paid yet again.

Once back at the condo a full moon sailed across the bay to close out a stunning day. Tomorrow I would depart after the most wonderful reunion I could have imagined.  We had not come close to running out of things to talk about, but it was time to continue my quest for beaches.

Full moon over Shoal Bay. Photo © P Sale.

Got up Thursday morning and packed my stuff back into my car.  We went again to our breakfast place to further charge John’s car for their trip back to Sydney. (Notice how, if you want to go all electric, you can find a way even if there are not enough charging stations yet.) This time, instead of French toast, I had the crepes with fruit and yogurt and lemon curd. A truly satisfying but light meal for my very difficult journey to come. Then John and I did some window shopping while Patsy bought a tree – yes, a tree, before we collected the now-charged car and headed back to the condo, where the tree will grow old, producing annual olive crops on the balcony.

On Thursday, after breakfast, I said my goodbyes to Patsy and John, insisting on saying ‘till next time’ but knowing in my heart that the three of us may likely never be together again. (But then I had that thought the last time we were together as well.) If a friendship needs a bookend to close it out, the last couple of days had been that.  Four Rainbow Lorikeets had come to visit me as I quietly sat on the balcony before breakfast — they stayed barely long enough for a photo before moving upstairs where, I suspect, they get fed.  Used to have 18 or so of this common but colorful bird on our deck railing every day when I lived in Sydney, so they mean ‘home’ and ‘good times’ to me.

Rainbow Lorikeets at Shoal Bay. Photo © P Sale.

I had discovered on Wednesday evening that my trip today was to be less than 10 minutes long! My two sets of friends were very close to each other geographically without even being aware of that (but they had never been part of the same crowd). And would you believe… on Thursday morning, I activated Google maps, put in my destination, started my car, and the phone screen was mirrored on the dashboard display like I had wanted back in Sydney.  This trip keeps getting better.

I took off with my phone mirrored on the car’s display as the lovely young lady at Google Maps guided me the ten minutes to Diane’s house.  Up a hill, with plenty of trees and a view over the rooves of the neighbors down to the bay.  Technically I was now in Corlette instead of Nelson Bay — further from the beach and slightly lower real estate prices. Diane is one of several peace corps volunteers I’ve known who never returned to the U.S. Originally from North Carolina, after many years in Australia, she speaks with a unique, Australian southern accent. She was a technician in the department when I was first at Sydney and then moved to the Australian Museum as a technician in the crustacean department. One of those women who should have got a PhD but never did. She subsequently married Rod, an electrical engineer Aussie and lived happily ever after. Rod built their first house in Sydney using passive solar approaches which made their home comfortable all year with minimal heating in Sydney winters.  They then bought the farm (over 1000 acres of not very good land) where he built a second solar house. The Corlette house, built by others, is uninsulated and apparently a bitch to heat and cool.

I arrived in time for lunch and was secretly delighted to see a copy of my book prominent on the coffee table. When I teased them about buying it just to impress me, Diane grabbed it and flicked through the pages right under my nose for me to see. Diane is one of those people who write comments and underline as they read. My book was thoroughly annotated! 

Diane talked a blue streak through lunch and then we went on a bit of a drive around, first to figure out just which beach I had been on at Patsy’s, and then to see some of the sights.  Took me up to an old 1875 lighthouse station – long since gone – also the site for a gun emplacement during WWII, and now the site for the Inner Light Teahouse (closed) and a communications tower hub.

Seen from high up at the WWII gun emplacement at the inner light site, Yacaaba and Tomaree guard the entrance to Port Stephens Bay. Head between them, missing the small island, and you are on your way to South America.
Photo © P Sale.

Rod and Diane checking to see if the Tearoom was open (it was not). Photo © P Sale.

Got a higher view of the enormous bay that encompasses the region known as Port Stephens – source of most of the oysters in Sydney restaurants. We finished our tour with a quick walk over the crest of the ridge to see Zenith Beach, on the open coast, looking out towards South America.

Zenith Beach, at the foot of Tomaree faces out to the open Pacific. Small, peaceful, nearly deserted. Photo © P Sale.

More conversation back at the house, a stroll in their garden filled with native trees and shrubs, and then more talk over dinner at a Greek restaurant where Rod and I both had octopus – tasty and tender. The following morning, I was off around 10am for my four-hour drive to Coffs Harbor.  Again, the car and phone mated, and I was guided confidently by that lovely young lady in the app. (Come to think of it, she was not a lovely young Aussie, some of her pronunciation was distinctly off. Likely an American wannabe.) (Also, come to think of it, if the car and the phone mated, what role did the USB cord play?)

My route, mostly on the M1 or A1 or Pacific Highway – all the same road so far as I could tell – has been taking me through beautiful, rolling scenery with very old, softened hills, lots of forests and open rangeland dotted with cattle or horses. The land was particularly lush and green, but probably getting ready for a searing summer to come.  Temperatures in the mid 20os C, and the road almost exclusively a divided freeway, two lanes in each direction.

So far, I am really impressed with Aussie drivers who are polite, considerate, and not prone to driving like you lose your masculinity if you don’t cut every other car off at the pass.  This was even true in Sydney when my halting first half hour included multiple last-minute changes of lane to avoid destinations I needed to avoid.  One semitrailer put his high beams right into my rearview mirror when I had slowed right down in front of him with indecision.  Another semi driver sat briefly on his horn as he passed me, and one other driver gave me a couple of quick toots.  Otherwise, they flowed gently around me and allowed for my incompetence.

Today I had an unimpressive lunch at a Service Center and got hopelessly backwards in a second Service Center trying to get my car to the gas pumps.  I think it may be something to do with left-hand vs right-hand driving, but I seemed to be attacking the approach to the pumps by heading towards exits. (First time filling up, cost me $50 for about 30 litres, but the car seems to be running on fumes – thank you, Toyota hybrid technology.). Got safely to my hotel in Coffs Harbor around 3.30 in time for a walk on the beach before dinner.

Part the Fifth: Coffs Harbor and Some Perfect Beaches

The two-room apartment at Smugglers on the Bay was clean, well appointed, but the hotel had a run-down appearance and there was a for sale sign on the street.  Very laid back, with a reception area that was usually closed, a small swimming pool usually occupied by families, and a beach invisible behind the berm.  My room, on the 2nd floor overlooked the pool and out to the ocean, invisible behind the trees. The bathroom had a wonderful shower – in fact all the hotels I’ve stayed in have had superior showers, all with hand showers which I really appreciate, although, come to think of it the hotel in Auckland had a shower (and bathroom) barely three feet wide. Coffs provided a full kitchen, even an oven, plus the mandatory 2-meter-wide TV showing basically nothing.

Korora Beach looking south, a bit scruffier, with finer sands than at Shoal Bay, but
nearly deserted and quiet. Photo © P Sale.

Unusually colored rock at Korora Beach, and abundant kelp along the shore. Photos © P Sale.

On checking in I had time for a quick look at the beach, Korora Beach, before heading into town for dinner. Not as good sand as at Shoal Bay, but a nice sweeping arc, and empty of people. I walked to the far end where the rocks were in amazing colors of blue and slate where wet from the waves. 

Back at the hotel, I got directions to the mall to find a grocery store and to the main strip of restaurants in town.  By now an old hand with using my phone as GPS, I headed out, parked at the mall, and realized I did not know the brand names so did not know which store was the food store.  The helpful person at the Information booth pointed me to Woolworths, called Woolies, of course, which I had assumed was a clothing store specializing in sweaters, also called woolies when not called jumpers. I bought my few breakfast needs and went on to the restaurant strip. Settled on the Italian place where I had a simple meal of scallops cooked to perfection and served on risotto, plus a glass of wine. Then I wandered down the strip to the coffee shop for a ‘flat white’ which sounds demeaningly racist but is simply coffee with foamed milk. Then home to plan the next day of adventures.

Saturday dawned sunny and warm yet again. After my simple breakfast in my room, I headed to the beach with suntan lotion, hat, camera and towel.  It was almost deserted – a family frolicking in the surf at one end, a couple of people walking their dogs, and me.  I picked a place near a log, lay down, dozed to the sound of the shore break, and quickly realized how intense the sunlight is here.  My plans for a morning became plans for an hour, which was probably too much.  I then explored the more interesting, smaller beach among the rocks north of Korora. Then back to the room for a shower.

Smaller beaches, tucked into the rocks can be wonderful places to explore. Photo © P Sale.

In the afternoon, I headed for Muttonbird Island, an island riddled with muttonbird (shearwater) burrows and linked to the mainland by a breakwater that protects a harbor. It seemed to offer a walk on the shore and nearby. Providentially, the Yacht Club at the foot of the causeway along the breakwater, had a restaurant. So, I had lunch. It was fish and chips and the fish was succulent with a batter that was not too oily.  Plus the obligatory glass of wine – I’ve fallen in love with Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends in which the astringency of the Sauvignon Blanc mellows out the sweetness of the Semillon.

Waiting for lunch at Table 47 at the Yacht Club, Coffs Harbor. Basically another pub with a QR code on the table that I refused to use, but outdoors and a view of a beach. Photo © P Sale.

Suitably fortified I strolled the causeway, noticing how much my knees were aching.  The island was a drab dome of a thing and the path went straight up as a paved path about a meter wide.  Had to stay on the path to avoid falling into collapsed muttonbird burrows.  No muttonbirds because they are out at sea in the daytime and I think it is too early in the season for eggs to have been laid yet.  I have many memories of sleepless nights on Heron Island back in the late sixties and early seventies, but it would have been neat to have a quick reprieve of the caterwauling calls of a colony of these birds. 

A drab dome of a thing, but I did get to see the Solitary Islands (barely) and views of the
marina and town. Photos © P Sale.

The island afforded great views over the marina and the town, and out to sea and the Solitary Islands, the southernmost point on the Australian coast for coral reef formation.  Lord Howe Island, further offshore is slightly further south and the official limit of reef development in the southern hemisphere. I paused, rested and photographed, then returned to shore and a refreshing drink of real orange juice before getting in the car and back to the hotel to clean up before dinner. That evening, I was back on the restaurant strip, and Tastes of North India produced me a meal which was pretty damned good. Tomorrow will be another driving day, this time to Yamba, where the forecast is for 29oC.

I’d explored one beach and a drab island. I’m sure there is lots more to do in Coffs Harbor, but I still enjoyed my visit and packed up and left Sunday morning.  I had decided to break the 2-hour trip to Yamba by heading into the heart of Yuraygir National Park to visit Wilson’s Headland.

Yuraygir National Park is 65 km long north to south and seldom as much as 10 km wide. It traverses an undeveloped coastline with no road running its length. There are several roads into the park from the west, all dead-ending, and the only way to enjoy the full 65 km grandeur is to hike the coastal trail. Instead of doing something that ambitious, I was going to dip into the park at a couple of places. Today would be Wilson’s Headland, picked because the website showed a road to it and because it was more or less half-way up the length of the park. Headlands usually have beaches to either side of them.

I punched ‘Wilson’s Headland Picnic Area’ into the GPS and headed out. Once I turned off the A1 highway, I followed an ever-diminishing, winding road for about 20 km and ended at a parking lot big enough for 8 vehicles.  An old truck and another SUV were there. I had been on-line the night before, knew the cost for day permits, saw how to purchase annual permits, but had found nothing about buying day permits.  So I had assumed there would be a booth and a young student offering day permits and information somewhere along that 20km road.  Didn’t happen.  I asked the couple preparing to head out from the SUV about getting a permit. Turned out that the guy was involved in some ways with the local government and suggested I just put a note on my dashboard explaining I had not been able to get a permit.

Parked at the Wilson’s Headland Picnic Area, with a note on the dashboard saying I had not been able to buy a permit. Photo © P Sale.

That conversation expanded into a wider one in which I divulged I used to live in Australia and was a marine scientist, at which point we began a game of who do we know in common – there seemed to be plenty of them.  I think I could have easily joined up with them for their walk along the beach (not yet seen) but I wanted solitude, suspected they did too, so did not make the obvious suggestions. I regret now, that in my effort to not invade their privacy, I did not even get their names. Because they shared an experience I was not expecting.

The small wetland at Wilson’s Headland. Photo © P Sale.

We did walk together across a small wetland area and as far as the steps down to the beach – a good 500 to 750 meters – where I paused at the top of the steps to photograph what was a seriously spectacular beach.  The beach I had come to see. The beach of my dreams.

Technically, I was at the far northern end of Wooli Beach which stretches around 10 km south to the tiny town of Wooli.  And yet, this was my beach, one that had clearly been waiting for me to find it.

Now that is a beach. The stair at Wilson’s Headland where I found my beach. Photo © P Sale.

I had no reason to believe that beach would be south of Wilson’s Headland, but there it was, suddenly revealed as we topped a slight rise, stretching south from just below us for what seemed like miles to the far horizon – an unbroken wide arc of sand, waves crashing on the shore, dunes, scrub and forest to the west.  And as we stood there taking it in, a new wave began forming, rose up, curled and began to break. And then, an eagle ray breached as the swell crested and broke. Wow!

Perfection.  I need say nothing. Just stand there, mouth open in awe. Photo © P Sale.

We walked down to beach level, my yet unnamed ‘friends’ wandered south on their walk, and I turned to the closer northern end of the beach and the headland itself. The water looked inviting, but I pressed on into the rocks of the headland to discover more little beaches beyond.  I saw no more breaching eagle rays. I debated stripping off for a swim but did not do so. Need to care for camera and hearing aids, and no way to dry off except standing around in the sun (which would have dried me off in about 75 seconds) got in my way. So did awareness that the sight of a naked, older professor would not enhance this spectacular place.  I took more photos, headed back to the car, and set out on my way to Yamba.

If I was writing fiction, I would have placed that event close to the end, the climax.  But this is a factual report of my quest, and I found my perfect beach early! I’ll talk about this beach, and the sighting of it, towards the end of the saga, so that I sort of get it into the right place in the narrative. But I found my perfect beach on Sunday, 3 December 2023!

Small beach at the base of Wilson’s Headland, a counterpoint to the stunning beach beyond.
© P Sale.

One thing has become clear to me on this quest.  I get lots of enjoyment from watching, rather than doing.  Seeing that magnificent beach was full reward for making this trip to Australia.  I did not need to roll in the sand, or body surf with the rays. Am I lazy, overly imaginative, or too timid to act?  Don’t know, and right then I didn’t care because I was having fun in my own peculiar way.  But I suspect an even richer experience would have happened with someone more active present to goad me into action.

To be continued…