What to do now I’ve finished The Great North Walk? Keep walking north of course! This is a long post but there’s lots to tell and lots of lovely photos to share!
A while ago I read an article about a small community hidden in the sands called Tin City, and its been on my mind ever since. It is situated in the dunes behind Stockton Beach and the area was used in scenes in the original 1979 Mad Max film. On the day I finished the Great North Walk I looked northward and saw the towering sand dunes of Stockton Beach and resolved to pay them a visit someday.
Whilst researching my walks for this year I discovered The Federation Track, a route from Sydney to Adelaide plotted by a gentleman called Bill Avery. I saw that it had a northern offshoot called Federation Track North that used Stockton Beach as part of its route so I contacted Mr Avery to enquire further. Specifically I was asking about Tin City. He sent me a gpx route and mentioned he had some track notes that he would dig out and send to me. A few months later he sent what was essentially an entire unpublished chapter to a book! The notes were incredibly detailed and described the geology and history of the area in a way that I was able to use once I was actually walking. Thanks Bill! I hope all those notes get published as they are an amazing resource.
Anyway, I finally found a free weekend where I could start early and finish late. The weather looked sunny but windy and the tide times were favourable.
So I drove from Berowra at 4:30am and arrived at Newcastle wharf at 6am. I then caught the ferry over to Stockton and began my walk.
Well kind of, I noticed a cafe had just opened so I stopped for a breakfast roll and a coffee first! I walked along the roadway as far as I could then hit my first sandy track. I realised it would be a tough walk as I was sinking in the sand and flicking it everywhere. It was taking a bit of effort to move forward. I walked on the vegetated bits to make it a bit easier. Soon enough I descended to the beach.
I was worried. It was quite hard walking in the sand and I had already begun thinking about bail out points. I walked down to the waters edge where the retreating tide left firmer sand, but I still sank in and each step was work. I decided to walk over to the frontal dunes and walk on them as they were vegetated and a bit firmer. This was a good move as the views from up there were lovely. There were lots of wind shaped mounds of vegetation and the beginnings of the much larger dunes to come.
I settled into a rhythm of sorts. Sometimes I would be in the dunes themselves and other times I would be following 4WD tracks. There was the remains of an old fort that looked interesting but I didn’t linger. The frontal dunes became trickier to walk on so I headed back to the waters edge. I felt like I’d been walking all day but Newcastle was still annoyingly close. Out to sea was a huge ship, likely a coal carrier waiting to dock to pick up a load.
I found walking near the water to be hard as the beach sloped significantly and my feet were on an angle. I pulled out the hiking poles to make the walking easier and headed away from the water. There was an area of deposited shells that was firmer so I walked on that for a while. The scenery was becoming repetitive, like one of those old cartoons that cycled the same background over and over to give the impression of movement.
After three hours I came upon a shipwreck just offshore. The wind had picked up and was blowing the sand hard so I put my rain jacket on to shield me. I decided to stop for a bite to eat and found myself removing my shoes, rolling up my trouser legs and going for a paddle. Aaah! That felt lovely! A soak in the ocean was the perfect way to sooth the feet.
I began to get bored of the beach though so I headed inland over the frontal dunes to explore the swale behind them which contained many freshwater soaks (pools filled by groundwater), aboriginal middens and sparse vegetation.
There was also a surprising amount of garbage strewn everywhere. I wondered what the source could be? Deliberate dumping? Tidal deposits? Wind blown? Historical use of the area (sand mining etc)? 4WD tourism? Hoon camping? I don’t know, the garbage seemed to be a mix of ages. There was so much of it that it was rather disgusting that there had been no attempt to clean it up. Surely the tourism companies in the area had an interest in cleaning it up? The community would surely be willing to help.
I headed towards one of the freshwater soaks that had a substantial amount of water remaining. If I understood the geology correctly they were fed by a freshwater aquifer from below. The aquifer is being tapped by Newcastle for drinking water so the size of the soaks and the amount of vegetation is suffering. The Aboriginal people that had lived in the area would have relied on these places for fresh drinking water. There were quite a few little birds darting around that obviously relied on these pools too.
I spotted a wallaby skull and wondered how often they made it down to the sands. I was intending to turn off at the Oakfield track and walk a crosssection over the dunes to the greater areas beyond, then loop back to emerge near Tin City but I was unable to find the track and didn’t want to take a punt. The dunes were now huge and there were about twenty quad bikes exploring them and I didn’t want to risk getting hit. I think I did see the turn off – there was a pole near a soak but I decided to walk ahead a little. I didn’t find a clear track and decided against walking back to where I saw the pole. No matter, I was enjoying exploring the swale and did so for many more kilometres. I found myself completely in the desert at one point. I could have labelled my photos “The Sahara” and no one would have been the wiser.
I passed a couple of what looked to be the remains of old sheds and I read on Wikipedia that there were some supply shed build back in the day. I reasoned that these were what was left of them.
The wind was now fierce and the dunes had a lot of sand blowing off them. I remembered the scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where a kids was swallowed by the shifting sands. Another memory came from a movie I cannot remember of a horse being swallowed by the sands and I began to worry :). I did actually sink a little at one point….wait… where’s my horse?
I studied the ground carefully as I walked then threw caution to the wind and decided to slide down some dunes on my bum which was fun. Yes, I was dune surfing!
I started to go over some rather large dunes and knew Tin City was close. I took an awesome video as I came over a dune and got my first look at the sandlocked community. There was half a dozen or so shacks clustered together next to a dried up soak. They had solar panels and wind generators and likely tapped the aquifer below for water. This was real off grid living. I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to walk through the town but I figured people walk past my home every day so this was no different. As I walked though I spied a tractor and recall from the article that the residents had to bulldoze the sand away to ensure their shacks were not overwhelmed. When I reached the other side of town there was a fence of sorts and a sign saying “no entry”. I assume that was to stop 4WDs from intruding. There would be a lot of tourists driving by so these folks were not exactly getting solitude in this location, but they were definitely getting a unique life even if they only visited on occasion.
I climbed a dune and ate my lunch overlooking Tin City. The wind had picked up again and I had to move several times to find a little shelter while I ate.
I resumed walking behind the frontal dunes and found the dunes were even larger and the soaks were all dried up.
I found I was walking more and more on soft sand so I decided to head back to the beach and power on to Anna Bay. There was a series of signposts informing of the distance remaining. They were spaced every two kilometres and seemed to make those last few kilometres last forever. It was like looking at your watch every few minutes waiting for something to happen. It seemed to ages to travel the two kilometres between each sign, far more than the half hour it actually took!
I looked back along the beach and was pleased to see that Newcastle was now nothing more than a faint blue blur in the horizon. I had come a long way!
When I finally reached Anna Bay I made my way to a lookout and saw an amazing view of the terrain I had just covered. The dunes stretched much further back that I had imagined and the setting su made for a glorious sight! I noticed some folks posing for Instagram shots on the nearest dune. The literally got out of the car, snapped a photo then took off. What was the point of that? They hadn’t experienced anything!
Although this has seemed to be at first a long dull beach walk I was pleased to discover all the interesting parts of the dune field – the frontal dunes, the swale, the middens, the freshwater soaks. It was also interesting to see that so many folks were out enjoying the beach in 4WDs. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first but I realised that if I owned a 4WD I would be out here too!
I walked for 35 km in total plus an extra kilometre to the bus stop at Anna Bay shops. It took 9.5 hours. I’ll never walk the beach again but I’d love to go back and do a cross section to Tin City and back just to experience the full range of the geology.