A few weeks ago I was on my way home from doing a bit of grocery shopping when I heard the tell-tale chime of an email arriving in my inbox. I originally disregarded it as another Living Social offer or perhaps a footy tips reminder, but upon checking saw it was an offer to road test the new Ford Focus and do a bit of a fun road trip in the interim.
I’d only just recently read Brooke’s entry about her own experiences with the Focus, so I could hardly say no to such a generous offer.
I quickly wrangled in Annie from Wayward Traveler, Anthony from Art of Conversations, Mel from The Mellyboo Project, my old friend Dave, and my housemate-to-be, Steph. Our original plan had been to hit Jervis Bay and explore the Marine Park there, but the news that their sole hostel was out of commission put the kibosh on that particular destination.
Undeterred, Dave suggested we look at Tea Gardens.
While I’d been to Nelson Bay in 2010 to do a little swimming with dolphins, I’d never heard of this sleepy little riverside village by the name of Tea Gardens and its sister town, Hawk’s Nest.
Actually, that’s a lie. Apparently my housemate’s parents have a house there. I fail at listening.
With no other options and Dave pretty insistent that Tea Gardens was lovely, we did a little hostel research and eventually settled on a place called Lazy Paddles. In the end the decision came down to my dislike of their GeoCities style website versus Dave’s love of their $27 a night prices. In the end, his frugal spirit beat out my web elitism.
I’m so glad it did. Lazy Paddles was heaven.
But I’m not going to write a lot about the trip. If a picture paints a thousand words, prepare for a novel.
The Road to Tea Gardens
Dave and I got on the road at 7.30 in the morning – picking up Annie and Mel along the way. Anthony and Steph would be joining us later in the day.
It’s not a road trip without a stop off for snacks and such. While Dave had the foresight to bring along a small packet of Natural Confectionery sour worms, a stop at McDonalds along the way was a much appreciated chance to stretch our legs and fill our stomachs. I tried their new bagels and found them to be pretty acceptable.
That’s top quality food critique right there.
Loving Tea Gardens
The drive up to Tea Gardens was uneventful. We toyed with cool features like the car’s automatic reverse park and the sun-roof, lamented the difficulty in hooking up my iPhone to the car’s audio system, ate a wonderfully healthy breakfast of gummy worms and McDonalds, and giggled at obese farmers riding lawn mowers down busy streets.
Oh Hexham. A city of poetry.
The lack of a GPS in the Focus is something that Brooke mentioned in her own review of the vehicle, and it was an absence we certainly noticed as we got lost not once but three times on our way from Sydney to Tea Gardens.
My iPhone’s Google Maps application had trouble keeping up with the speed we were moving and we twice missed vital turns.
The journey was worth it though as we pulled up alongside the picturesque Myall River and watched pelicans paddle serenely by. The rain of Sydney had been left behind and the Port Stephens region greeted us with warmer weather and sunnier skies.
Lazy Paddles lived up to its name. There was a wonderful comfortable laziness about the place. The owner, a good-natured former traveler by the name of Larry, was lounging on the sun soaked front veranda as we arrived.
“You’ve got the place to yourselves,” he informed us, “Just take whatever beds you like”.
He gave us a whistle-stop tour that included a fridge loaded with goodies to be purchased on the honor system, two bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a backyard littered with kayaks for rent and bikes to be borrowed for free. I’m ashamed to say we availed ourselves of neither of these.
The girls and I laid claim to one room and Dave claimed the second for himself and the latecomers.
Eager to get out and try his newly purchased Hawaiian sling, Dave abandoned us in search of a shady lagoon. We’d hoped to borrow a couple of bikes for the ride out to Jimmy’s Beach, but our host had disappeared to take some Koreans on a kayak tour so we instead shouldered our cameras and embarked on a ‘quick walk’ that ended up taking the better part of three hours.
At least good photo opportunities were found.
Our walk took us along an idyllic waterfront lined with quaint cafes, boats tied up for the day, and more pelicans than poor Mel could handle. We crossed the Myall River at the romantically named Kissing Bridge and entered neighboring Hawk’s Nest, where we got to see lots of native Australian flora and fauna.
We spied a kookaburra sitting regally on a street sign, plenty of Bottle Brush lining people’s front yards, and even a few black cockatoo lurking in the bushes along the water front.
Before too long we’d spotted our destination, Jimmy’s Beach.
You’ve got to love a place where the beaches are named as if owned by some local drunk.
The softness of the white sand beneath our feet really can’t be emphasized enough. Far from the harsh and sometimes grainy sands of Sydney or Newcastle beaches, the sands of Port Stephens were an entirely pleasant surprise.
With the weather a tad overcast, we virtually had the beach to ourselves. Save the occasional lonely fisherman (or fisherwoman) we could have been the last people on earth.
The plan had been to meet Dave on the next beach over for a ride home, but as we approached the looming Yaccaba Headland we began to doubt the sanity of our route. With calves aching from labouring through the sand, we spotted a group of men drinking on the beach and Mel used all of her feminine whiles to get us some directions.
“Just head up through the dunes,” one of them slurred. His breath stank of Jim Beam & Coke.
The dunes in question did little for our aching legs, but they were a fun side excursion. It was almost like staggering through some distant desert, except we could still hear the purr of the ocean and it wasn’t quite as hot as I’d imagine the Sahara to be.
Much to our dismay, there was no sign of Dave on the other side of the headland. Turns out he’d found a lagoon much closer to home to test drive his spear.
We wandered along the beach a while longer before we spotted some sign of civilization and made our way back to the hostel where Dave was waiting with a case of Tooheys Extra Dry.
The Tea Gardens Night Life
It was around this time that Anthony and Steph arrived. Their own trip up had been substantially less rushed than ours, and they’d even found a chance to stop off at Goldberg’s in Newcastle for a cup of what Anthony considers some of Australia’s finest coffee.
Soon enough the beers were flowing and the conversation turned more and more towards the ribald. The cruisy vibe of the town was infectious. Locals and tourists strolled by about their own Saturday business and soon our party spilled from the veranda and out onto the lawn alongside the river.
While Mel shivered in revulsion at the sight of pelicans ‘fapping’ (her words), Dave commandeered my camera to try to snap a few photos of the beautiful sunset and the bottlenose dolphins playing in the river. He was successful on one front.
One carton of beer and some delicious fish & chips later, it was time to hit Tea Gardens’ only pub for the Wales vs France World Cup semi final and some local flavor.
While the girls were able to spot a few pieces of local male talent, I’m sad to say that the women of Tea Gardens turned out considerably less eye candy for the males in our party. Not that the heavily committed Dave and Magro would have looked…
More beers (and Welsh) hearts were sunk as the night wound on. The North Americans retired early and the Aussies partied on until late in the night. Magro befriended a few locals and I drew the eternal ire of Steph by spitting beer into her cleavage. I don’t recall my reasoning behind this.
My evening (including the above photo) is something of a blur. I recall staggering back to my room, texting Dave to inform him that my room full of sleeping North Americans was boring, and waking up at 6am terrified that I’d left my camera at the pub.
Our Own Private Beach
Sunday dawned very bright and very early. We took breakfast at The Boat Shed which served Sydney quality food at Sydney prices. I was somewhat underwhelmed by my own breakfast of scrambled eggs, but the malted vanilla milkshake more than made up for it.
My hangover was still raging as we piled into cars and headed out to the ominously named ‘Dark Point’ to do a little exploring.
I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in my time, but damned if Dark Point doesn’t stand out as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having lived out amongst the red earth of the Aussie interior, but I’d never seen quite so much sand as I did clambering up from the car park and across to our secret beach.
If I thought my previous day’s excursion had been akin to a desert trek, then damned if I wasn’t exploring the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune as we made the 800 odd meter walk across the sand towards the beach that would be our base of operations for the day.
As you can probably tell from the loneliness of my pictures, I lagged quite a way behind the rest of my group in pursuit of good shots.
The trek was not without its rewards. I saw a pair of boobies when I crested a dune and stumbled across a pair of canoodling lovers. No photos, sorry.
I passed a single fisherman on my way to where the rest had camped out in the shelter of some rocks. Dave was already out in the water preparing to do some spear fishing on the reef and the girls had stripped down to their bikinis to soak up some sun.
“We need to do this more often,” Steph mused in between implausible paragraphs in a Matthew Reilly novel, “Make it a summer of beach weekends”.
I didn’t hear a single murmur of dissent. Everybody was in heaven as the sun-baked away our hangovers and quickly turned my bald head into a hot plate.
Dave soon returned with his first catch of the day – a modestly sized black fish that he gutted and then Magro scaled. You can see video of the gutting and of the scaling on my YouTube channel. Go subscribe!
While Dave went about his murderous business on the reef, the rest of us ventured into the water. Squeals of ice induced agony were soon replaced by laughter and smiles as we acclimatized to the cool and began to marvel at the clarity of the water and the way the cool raised goosebumps on our skin.
From the way they positioned their arms over their chests, I think it raised a few other things for the girls.
Me? My penis had long since retracted into my abdomen.
All too soon it was time for us to leave. With Steph and Annie heading back to the city that afternoon, we shirked our way back across the dunes. Dave gave an impromptu strip show as he tugged off his wetsuit in the car park. The locals seemed amused.
Then it was back to Lazy Paddles to fry up the day’s catch, eat a little ice cream from the quaint ice-cream shop just a few shops down, and bid farewell to two of the three girls participating in the weekend’s festivities.
The remainder of our time in Tea Gardens epitomized the lazy air of the place.
We played a game of high stakes four player Scrabble. I won.
Dave sank a few long necks (and further and further into depression) as the Wallabies capitulated in their World Cup semi.
Larry brought us out a bowl of gummy bears to cheer Dave up.
Mel and Magro talked WordPress.
It was a wonderful way to end our weekend. As I alternated between scratching mosquito bites and grimacing at my sunburned scalp, I reflected on what a rare bit of luck it is that I’m in a position to go on trips like this.
I might not have a high paying job or a doting girlfriend, but what I do have is a carefree lifestyle and wonderful friends. The weekend in Tea Gardens – while an excellent opportunity to promote my blog – was a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of Sydney.