Saturday, 23 July 2016

Singleton: The 04:31 to Scone

There are a million places I would rather be than standing at Singleton Railway Station at 4:31 am on a freezing Hunter Valley morning in the middle of winter. So as I count down to my 100th and final Railway Reminiscing post, let me tell you the tale of the 04:31 to Scone.

This rushed shot makes the destination board look like the train is going to cone instead of Scone. Taken at Singleton Station in May 2016.

Just an hour into our trip home from a recent holiday, I decided to turn off the highway to see what was happening at Singleton Railway Station. An early morning Hunter Railcar service ex Hamilton Station in Newcastle was due in at Singleton at 04:31 am. But thanks to Tom, (the GPS unit on my dashboard) the direction he mapped coming from the east to reach Singleton Railway Station took me on a pre-dawn tour of every one way street and lane way in town. Complete with speed bumps and having to dodge parked cars and wheelie bins that were lined along the roadside for the garbage man to collect, I arrived at Singleton Station just in time to step onto the platform and see the 04:31 to Scone pull into the station.

Having only a split second to aim the camera and shoot wasn't exactly what I had in mind when hoping to collect a shot for my book 30 Years Chasing Trains, but it did leave me feeling sorry for the two young chaps that had been waiting to board the train. They looked rugged-up enough to be headed to the snowfields, when the truth was they were probably just on their way to work. Waiting for the train in 3 degree temperatures was likely just a part of their weekday routine. I do however have to give them credit for doing their best to avoid being in my photo. I can only imagine what the sight of me leaping excitedly through the waiting room door armed with a camera and yelling "it's here" to my wife, (like she would have cared on account of the cold anyway), would have done to startle the young blokes as they waited for the train. Maybe now I can get a job working as a Paparazzi. It seems I have already mastered the art of stalking up on someone, frightening the living daylights out of them and then capturing the moment on film. So to whomever you are guys, I'm sorry. I had no idea anyone was there.

This timeless night time scene was captured from the platform of Singleton Railway Station in May 2016.

So with my wife having abandoned me for the warmth of the car, (maybe on account of the cold, maybe on account of being embarrassed to be seen with me), suddenly I was all alone on the platform at Singleton Station at 04:33 am. With the 2 car Hunter railcar set now trundling off into the darkness towards its destination of Scone, I adjusted the camera to take the above shot in black and white. In all the years I've been chasing trains and taking photos, I have to admit that there's no more lonely a feeling that you can capture than an empty railway station platform in the moments after the train has departed.

Singleton Railway Station slumbering in the wee hours of the morning, May 2016.

Walking quickly back to the warmth of our car, where the engine was now running and you could almost hear the air-conditioning fan blowing hot air at top speed, I turned to take one final photo of Singleton Railway Station. Who knows when, or if for that matter, I will ever find myself in Singleton again? A few moments later, (this time choosing to ignore TomTom and simply following the street signs), we drove slowly along the sleeping main street through Singleton and were soon back on the New England Highway once more.

See also; Muswellbrook: Chasing those 5am coalies

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Stockton Beach: Worimi Sand Dunes Adventure

Just north of Newcastle you'll find the town of Anna Bay, the gateway to the Worimi Conservation Lands and the famous Stockton Sand Dunes. They say no visit to Port Stephens is complete without a sand-boarding adventure. So leaving our shoes in the car at the departure point at Birubi Beach, my wife Denise and I climbed aboard one of the giant 4WD buses to be taken out into the dunes for a morning of sand-boarding.

That's Denise preparing for her first downhill run at the Stockton Sand Dunes, May 2016.

We jumped aboard an early morning 4WD Tours R Us tour bus without needing to phone ahead and book. There are many different sized tours on offer, ranging from 4WD quad bike tours to see the shipwreck of the giant 53,000 ton bulk carrier the Sygna that ran ashore trying to reach Newcastle's port in 1974, to 4WD bus tours to visit the abandoned Tin City that dates back to the late 19th Century and was used in the filming of the original Mad Max movie back in 1979. We opted for the seat-of-your-pants sand-boarding adventure.

Sand-boarding from top peak was a rush. Stockton Sand Dunes May 2016.

Sand-boarding involves being driven south along the beachfront before being driven over the dunes to the largest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. With sand boards supplied, there is nothing more to do but march yourself up to a height you feel comfortable with, and slide back down to the mobile base camp. After a first-run to get comfortable with how to control your speed, I slugged it back to the very top of the largest dune on offer, and let it rip!

Birubi Beach at Anna Bay is where the ocean meets the Stockton Sand Dunes. Photo May 2016.

After an hour-and-a-half of walking back to the top, our legs had well and truly had enough. Content to catch the next 4WD shuttle back to Birubi Beach, we left just as a large Korean tour group was arriving. Although the dunes stretch almost the entire way along the 32 km long Stockton Beach towards the mouth of the Hunter River in Newcastle, the best way to view the Stockton Dunes is from the entrance to the Worimi Conservation Lands at Anna Bay. For the casual viewer wanting to see the dunes for free, a leisurely stroll along the beach will bring you right alongside these massive dunes. However, to feel as though you are surrounded by sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara Desert it is best to take a tour. The sand-boarding tour cost us only $28 Australian per person, and in my opinion was worth every cent! Visiting the Stockton Sand Dunes was something I had always talked about doing, but the sand-boarding adventure was the cherry-on-top.

What I liked: As far as enviro-type tours go, this one was extremely affordable and fun.

What I didn't: Be warned, if the wind picks up you're going to be fighting to keep the sand out of your eyes and mouth. Even on the best of days, the sand is going to find its way down your pants.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Nelson Bay: Tea Gardens Ferry adventure

Nelson Bay is the largest town dotting the shores of Port Stephens. While on holiday in this magical neck of the woods just 63 km north of Newcastle, my wife Denise and I spent a few days taking advantage of the amazing weather to explore town and take a trip on the ferry to the tiny hamlet of Tea Gardens.

The best pies by far! Red Ned's is a must-do in Nelson Bay. May 2016.

The town of Nelson Bay is full of unique little stores on leafy tree-lined streets overlooking the shoreline of Port Stephens. My favourite local find was Red Ned's Pies, located in the heart of Stockton Street in Nelson Bay. The gourmet pie shop with the life-size mannequin of Ned Kelly standing guard outside, bakes over 50 varieties of pies daily. Starting our day with a lobster, prawn and barramundi pie was a wise decision. Afterwards, it was just a short stroll downhill to the d'Albora Marinas, where seeing the daily fish feeding from the wharf at 11 am is a must-do for all ages.

The d'Albora Marina lies at the bottom of Stockton Street, photo May 2016.

While there are many whale and dolphin watching tours that depart d'Abora Marina each day, it is easy-enough to dodge the crowds of overseas tourists that clamor aboard the cruise ships for a day on Port Stephens, simply by walking to the eastern end of the harbour and taking one of the two local ferry services that operate between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens.

That's Ray tying up the MV Wallamba on the public wharf in Nelson Bay, May 2016.

Both the Tea Gardens Ferry Service and Ferrylink operate regular year-round trips across Port Stephens, weather permitting. Best of all, both charge only $20 per adult for a return cruise.

I love this shot from the wheel of the Wallamba approaching Hawks Nest taken in May 2016.

Once aboard, captain and owner of the MV Wallamba Ray Horsfield invites me to join him at the helm and points out some of the features of Port Stephens as we make our way across the harbour. At two-and-a-half times the size of Sydney Harbour, the hour long ferry trip between Nelson Bay and the fishing village of Tea Gardens on the other side, is still a lot quicker aboard the vintage timber ferry than circumnavigating Port Stephens in a south-west-north-east fashion by car.

Tea Gardens's Singing Bridge, photo taken May 2016.

The tiny villages of Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens were once separated by the Myall River until a 304 metre, or 998 foot long bridge was constructed in 1974. Nicknamed 'the singing bridge', it gets its name from the musical harp-like sounds created whenever a strong southwesterly wind blows through the metal bridge railings.

Arriving at Tea Gardens wharf, as seen through the exit door of the MV Wallamba, May 2016.

The town of Tea Gardens resembles nothing of any English Countryside Inn or Manor you may have pictured during the trip across Port Stephens, mainly consisting of a scattering of restaurants, cafes and a pub of the banks of the Myall River. We were lucky enough, or unlucky enough depending on your point of view, to have visited Tea Gardens on Mother's Day, when it seemed that every Mother in a 40 mile radius had flocked to Tea Gardens for a long lunch out with the family. Coupled with the local football team having won their rugby league match that weekend, there was plenty of honking from passing cars followed by shouts of "up Tea Gardens!" All up it only made the atmosphere of the day all that bit more interesting.

Nelson Bay's Inner Lighthouse, taken in May 2016.

Arriving back in Nelson Bay, Denise and I bid the MV Wallamba farewell and head to the Inner Light Tearooms at Nelson Head for a true afternoon tea overlooking the entrance to Port Stephens. The lighthouse cottage dates back to 1876, and interestingly there is no lighthouse tower. Instead, the light was housed in the octagonal room seen on the left of the building in the photo above. The modern-looking spaceship to the right is the headquarters for the Port Stephens Marine Rescue. So after enjoying tea and cake on the deck at the rear of the lighthouse cottage, Denise and I climb the stairs to meet the kind folk who man the marine rescue desk. With our accommodation on the shores of Shoal Bay visible below, it was soon time to head back for our last night holidaying in Port Stephens before heading off to explore Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. But as usual, that is a story for another day.

What I liked: The price! Twenty bucks for a couple of hours cruising to Tea Gardens and back is simply good value. It's a laid-back, budget-savvy tour complete with million dollar views!

What I didn't: The public wharf was a little hard to find, although I suppose the pricey full-day charter boats will always command the most prominent wharves at the marina.

See also; Shoal Bay: some Port Stephens magic and Newcastle: The historic beach city