Port Stephens - Myall Lakes 1960 - the journey.

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Just 60 years ago I started my journey in coastal research. I had the good fortune of selecting the coastal strip between Newcastle in the south and Seal Rocks in the north as a study area for a fourth-year honours thesis in Geography at Sydney University. Professor James Macdonald Holmes was the notional supervisor. Sadly, he showed little or no interest in what the four students in the honours class actually undertook as a thesis topic. It was a matter of get on with it and see if you survived by producing a thesis which he would deem suitable for examination. That thesis had to be ready by the end of October,1960.

My fascination with coastal geomorphology began the year before. Trevor Langford-Smith got me started and introduced me to Joe Jennings at ANU. In May 1960 I headed off to Canberra where he gave me intense instruction in air photo interpretation of coastal landforms and I got to read Eric Bird’s recently completed Gippsland Lakes PhD. Well that was enough to set me off to the field armed with air photos, some topo maps, a spade, and an old VW! I wanted to start around Port Stephens where several years before I visited with an aunt who lived in Newcastle and ever since had dreamed to return to Nelson Bay.

This blog will focus on the journey while the next blog will outline some of the discoveries. I note that a previous blog, No. 39, 22 February 2016, touched on three characters that I met on this journey. They will appear again here but in a shorten version.

Being a city boy with little worldly experience of field work by myself, I knew this study was going to present challenges. One was to keep the car going on bush tracks. Another was to find places to stay and contact locals who knew the area. I planned to stay at four places: Nelson Bay, Tea Gardens, Legge’s Camp (Bombah Point), and Bungwahl (Myall Lake). This allowed observations on coastal landforms to be made first on the south side of Port Stephens back towards Newcastle, then north side of the Port and around Hawks Nest and Lower Myall River, before moving onto Broadwater and Myall Lake, and ending up at Seal Rocks. This was a 10-week journey full of new adventures, the odd mishap, and eye-opening things to absorb. It was a period of both anxiety and excitement.

First stop was Nelson Bay. I stayed with a Mrs Hill in a house (now apartment block) located opposite the park in the main part of town. It was June and few folks were visiting the area at the time. In fact I was amazed at the absence of boats on the water. Mrs Hill had two teenage daughters who were very keen on the music of Johnny Mathis; I soon became a fan not just of his music but also to learn of his athletic prowess as a high jumper (look him up). Despite periods of very heavy rain during that month I got to walk over the vegetated and majestic mobile dunes noting evidence of the area’s military history. Joe Robinson of Anna Bay told me stories of his experiences. That history embraced both great wars. Sand dunes still attracted military exercises including live bombing ranges involving Sabre jets located at Williamstown airbase. Vestiges of American army occupation could be found in the bush behind Nelson Bay and on the headlands such as Tomaree. Family history of old farmers like Joe and the Blanches and Upton’s including the work they did in draining the swamps was all new to me. This was a community of small farmers with diverse crops and livestock. Close by and in contrast were the large commercial oyster farms along Swan Bay and in Salamander Bay.

Onto Tea Gardens where a Mrs Smith ran a guesthouse. Another guest was a contract surveyor who kindly allowed himself to be borrowed for a day to survey a transect across the beach/foredune ridges at Hawks Nest. This landform type was the subject of debate around this time with papers in Australian Journal of Science by Davies, Bird and McKenzie. From Tea Gardens I was able to explore the north side of the Port. One rather wet day I ended up at the Tahlee Bible College and found myself “captured”; it was heavy religious stuff that was thrown at me including hymns! I “escaped” after having a good dinner as fast as I could to the quiet of Tea Gardens! The town itself had a fascinating history in river transport especially in the 19th century with logging. The Lower Myall River offered a pathway into the great cedar forests and later other timbers found upstream. I heard about the boat that each week visited shacks along the river. The “mailman” agreed to take me for the day. We encountered quite isolated “swamp” people living lives as fishers and prawners. I have already written about one person in Tea Gardens who was far from being isolated, the local GP, Hans Pacy. This character was a stimulating conversationalist as a naturalist and local historian. Without his help I would never have found the “Watling” map of Port Stephens four years later in the British Natural History Museum in London. He was also a medical writer and used his local patients as sources in a paper on “Morbidity in a Country Practice” in the Medical Journal of Australia (1958); and they still named a street after him in this town!

Next stop was Legge’s Camp. The Legge brothers set up a bush camp at Bombah Point on the Broadwater in 1909. This later flourished as a rather elite holiday guesthouse during the 1930s, an attraction for game hunters in the isolated dune country. At its peak it could accommodate up to 70 guests. Harry Legge was one of my unforgettable characters in the previous blog from whom I learnt so much about the history of Myall Lakes. He arranged for me to visit Roger and Anne von Bertouch at Mungo Brush. This little rock outcrop of rich volcanic tuff soil and rain forest occurred close to the upstream entrance of the Lower Myall River. Former schoolteachers, they were living an “alternative lifestyle” growing winter gladiolis. Anne was a writer who had just published a book called “February Dark”. The subject was prawning on the Lower Myall River around Tamboy, a book I devoured while staying at Legge’s Camp. She became a well-known art patron and gallery owner in Newcastle several years later.

The final stop was at Bungwhal, still very much in possession of a past involving logging and transporting timber by boat, or droughers, to Tea Gardens. Thomas Brothers ran on old sawmill. This village at the northern end of Myall Lake was an introduction to a small community with a little school and a single store. I stayed at the store with a young schoolteacher, the only one, and the Bramble family of kids who made up a good proportion of the school. It was a lively place but again great for me to meet people who were brought up and loved their home. Mrs Bramble made sure I was well fed and her husband gave excellent advice on tracks in the bush towards Seal Rocks. This is where the VW was put through its paces and got me to Treachery Head where I camped alone for a few nights in a fisherman’s shack.

Ten weeks of all this was enough. I had collected heaps of data, learnt a lot, and had to get back to Sydney and write it up. And then await my fate?


Bruce Thom


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020. For correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com