10 October 2009

To Port Macquarie the interesting way

I recently spent a couple of days with an old friend from university days on her farm outside Macksville in northern New South Wales. The arrangement was that she would drive me to Port Macquarie in time to catch a 5.00 pm flight to Sydney and thence to Melbourne.

The day before this was to happen she asked whether I had ever driven down the road that runs just behind the sand dunes from Crescent Head to Point Plomer, thence through the Limeburners Creek Nature Reserve to the Settlement Point Ferry across the Hastings River just upstream of Port Macquarie. I hadn’t, and it seemed like an opportunity too interesting to miss because every year until I left university I used to spend three weeks in the Christmas-New Year holidays at Port Macquarie. One could stand on the high ground above the Town Beach and gaze across the Breakwater to the North Wall and beyond to the 16 km long North Beach that runs unbroken from the North Wall to Queens Head and Point Plomer in the distance. It had always seemed a place of mystery and imagination – so close and so familiar, and yet no-one I knew had ever been there because in the absence of a boat or a four-wheel drive it might as well have been on the other side of the moon. And as this 1958 colour slide shows, there wasn’t much to cross to the other side for.

My friend rang the Tourist Information Office at Port Macquarie to ascertain whether the road was open and was told that we would get through alright as long as we had “a real four-wheel drive”. That started to sound a bit serious but we decided to give it a go – my friend’s farm truck was indeed “a real four-wheel drive” with a low range setting.

Crescent Head to Point Plomer was easy – sealed road for part of the way, and properly formed gravel for the rest. The road runs through the scrub behind the long narrow Goolawah Lagoon, and after a few kilometres it arrives at the Goolawah Reserve at the Racecourse Headland. Beautiful beach, miles from anywhere, camping permitted on either of two reserves, for which you pay the caretaker the princely sum of about $6 per head per night. Maximum stay – 16 weeks. No facilities – nearest showers Crescent Head – just the right to camp right there on the almost deserted beach.

The place is not exactly crowded – the nearer vehicle is ours.

On the Port Macquarie side of Racecourse Headland, there is another beach offering a good view of the headland,

and Point Plomer comes into view:

There is a standard camping area there, with on-site manager and the usual facilities.

After Point Plomer it starts to get interesting. You enter thicker vegetation and a sign tells you that you are entering the Limeburners Creek Nature Reserve, and that the road is “not suitable for 2WD”. That is a piece of advice that is always to be taken seriously and this particular 10 km section of road is no exception.

It is not steep or slippery, but there are two types of hazards (apart from substantial rocks projecting out of the road) to ensure that this is 4WD territory whatever the weather. First, there are very deep depressions in the road and not much opportunity to skirt around them. They take up the full width of the road and are of comparable length. When they were full of turbid water after rain, you would have no idea how deep they were and I think an unskilled driver could get into trouble.

For us it was perfectly dry and we faced the other problem – deep drifts of very fine white sand. The road ahead looks innocent enough, but when it is dry the fine white sand which makes the beaches in that area so attractive almost turns to a slurry or fluidised bed when you drive on the deeper drifts, and anything other than a low-range 4WD would bog up to the axles.

Along the way there are a few opportunities to pull the truck to the side of the road and walk up a short track to the beach, for a clear view of Port Macquarie, with the familiar bulge of Nobby’s Headland towards the left.

At the end of about 10 km of inching forward at a few km per hour, you suddenly burst out of 4WD land and come to a fork in the road which gives the options of driving to the North Wall or driving to the Settlement Point Ferry (or beyond to Crescent Head the boring way).

They pack them on to the Settlement Point Ferry, which is on the old alignment of the Pacific Highway, the main coast road from Sydney to Brisbane. There used to be a lot of those coastal punts on the Pacific Highway, which made travel time highly uncertain. On one Christmas holiday some friends of my father took me fishing at Blackman’s Point at the junction of the Maria River with the Hastings. On the return journey we waited 3.5 hours in the queue for a punt to take us to the Port Macquarie side of the Hastings.

The punt ride offers some splendid views up the Hastings to the junction of the Maria.

A few minutes after disembarking one is standing at Town Beach looking across to the North Wall (compare with the 1958 photo) and up the North Beach to Point Plomer.

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