Tag Archives: Newcastle

NEWCASTLE, NSW – the world’s 9th hottest destination?

Hunter Street, Newcastle. Better than Barcelona?

Lonely Planet listed Newcastle, the town a couple of hours drive north of Sydney, among its Top Ten Destinations of 2011. New York was #1 – no surprises there. Newcastle (#9) was listed ahead of London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona and, most gallingly of all, Sydney and Melbourne.

Before anyone gets too offended, please note that Wellington, New Zealand, a town many would regard as a pleasant stepping stone to nicer destinations on the Shaky Isles, came in at #4 on the list. Newcastle was placed between Delhi (#8) and Chiang Mai (#10). ‘

I had a day’s work at the Newcastle Kids’ Comedy Festival this week, so I took the camera with me and in a free hour or so before my hilarious storytelling sessions were due to start, did my best to find out what all the fuss was about. Continue reading

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – The Great North Walk through urban jungle


Sydney bushwalkers are blessed. Not only do we have the Royal National Park at the bottom of the garden and the Blue Mountains just up the hill, but we also have a respectable bush trek right at our front door. The Great North Walk (GNW to its friends) officially starts at Circular Quay.

It is beautiful and challenging enough to satisfy most of us. There are creeks to ford and rocky sandstone outcrops to scale. There’s the chance of glimpsing a rare bird or being bitten by a dangerous reptile, and if you want a serious adventure you can keep walking the track till you reach Newcastle, 250km away. A couple of days will be enough for me this time, maybe 40km worth.

On one of those perfect, bright, clear winter mornings I board the ferry Supply heading to Woolwich. I snap off the compulsory shots of the Opera House and the underside of the Harbour Bridge and just off Balmain I meet the first surprise of the day, four penguins bobbing in the water.

At Valencia St wharf I disembark and start walking. Okay, I’m quite not in the wild yet, I’m in Hunters Hill, but they could put a sign by the roadside, ‘Last latte before Hornsby’. At regular intervals I find tasteful little Great North Walk signposts, in heritage colours of course. The walking man symbol and arrows point me in the right direction, through leafy streets with Federation houses and water glimpses the owners pay big bucks for. I get to glimpse for free.

After an hour I’ve had enough of suburbia, but behind Boronia Park the route dives into the bushland along the Lane Cove River. Then things get very pleasant indeed. To my left are towering Sydney red gums and yellow wattles in full bloom; to my right I can see through the casuarinas to the mangroves lining the river.

Currawongs carol, wattlebirds bark and kookaburras clear their throats. Honeyeaters and silvereyes flit about feeding on the old man banksias. The sun sparkles on the water, a gentle breeze ripples the reflections of the smooth tree trunks on the far bank, and fluffy cumulous clouds float across the azure sky above. It’s enough to make a man wax lyrical.

The track undulates gently, occasionally testing my legs with a big heave up and over a clump of rocks. Sure, if I listen for it I can hear a distant hum of traffic on Pittwater Rd, but otherwise there’s little to dispel the impression that I’m in the wild.

I briefly emerge from the bush to cross Epping Rd, where four lanes of snarling traffic race down the hill and disappear up into Ryde. It’s no place of pedestrians, and indeed I’m the only one around when I duck under the bridge and onto the Fairyland Trail through Lane Cove National Park.

So far I haven’t met anyone else, so it’s jolt when a wiry old codger comes striding towards me. I step aside to let him pass. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he says, ‘there are 32 others behind me.’ And so there are. They’re a group of GNW regulars. ‘This is our playground,’ a wizened walker stops to tell me proudly, ‘No-one else ever uses it.’ That isn’t quite true. The Department of Lands estimates that 40,000 people a year walk at least a section of the track between Sydney and Newcastle. However, if you average this out over 365 days and 250km, clump them together in groups of say, three or four, it means you’ll only meet another group only once every hour or so.

I pass through Lane Cove National Park, surely one of Sydney’s treasures. Here local volunteers are doing battle with the noxious weeds. Wandering jew and privet are threatening to clog the riverbanks.

A Canadian couple is sitting by the track, taping their blisters. They started on the GNW a few days ago, heading south from the Brooklyn Bridge. Is it impressive enough for people who’ve hiked the mighty Rockies? I ask. ‘It’s just amazing!’ they gush. ‘This forest is so beautiful! We never expected so many wildflowers in winter. And what’s that bird we hear, sounding like a whip?’
‘Ah, that would be a whipbird,’ I reply knowledgeably.

A group of American scouts passes, with Australian scouts as their guides. An earnest young fellow pulls out a notebook. ‘Sir, I need to interview someone to earn a scout badge.’
‘Fire away,’ I say.
‘How old is the Great North Walk?’
‘Signposting the route was a bicentennial project in 1988.’
‘1988. Thanks. Can you tell me a little about the history of Pennant Hills?’
‘No.’
He writes this down. ‘Thanks for your time, Sir.’
‘No worries. Hope you get that interviewer’s badge.’
Hiking’s not just about scenery – it’s the people you meet.

I’ve walked over 20km, so that will do me for today. At Brown’s Waterhole I leave the GNW proper and cut along the Terrys Creek track, following signs towards Eastwood. Half an hour later I’m on the bus, heading home for dinner. Then I’ll sleep in five-star luxury…in my own bed.

Tomorrow, should I feel up to it, I can take the train back to Thornleigh and walk another 23km of the GNW. I know it gets wilder still up past Galston Gorge and along Berowra Creek, but I’ll still be able to catch a train home from Berowra station. What an asset to have on the doorstep!

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: The sign-posted route begins at Valencia St Wharf, Woolwich, reached by ferry from Circular Quay ($5.20 one way).
The Sydney section of the route has numerous other points accessible by public transport, including Bus 290 along Epping Rd and trains to Eastwood, Pennant Hills, Thornleigh, Hornsby and Berowra stations.

Further information: NSW Department of Lands provides Great North Walk maps and information booklets for $11 plus postage and handling.
Phone 02 9236 7720 or order on-line: http://www.lands.nsw.gov.au/crown_land/walking_tracks/great_north_walk

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COUNTY DOWN, NORTHERN IRELAND – Mourne no more

It’s a time of momentous change in Northern Ireland. The locals are amazed and elated; they never thought they’d see this day. Regulations banning smoking in bars are now operational! And the Troubles appear to be over.

The tourist board is delighted because visitors, including us, are filtering into the country. Less pleased are first home-buyers, since property prices have doubled. The place is becoming trendy.

The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea in County Down, about an hour’s drive south-east of Belfast. It’s officially an “AONB”, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

We stayed in the little village of Dundrum, on Dundrum Bay. At first glance there’s not a lot of outstanding beauty; a bus stop, a minimarket selling ten varieties of packaged bacon and three varieties of vegetables, a gaudy orange fish and chip shop. But a cluster of smart modern waterfront apartments and a chic beauty salon suggest that Dundrum is moving up in the world.

It’s easy to see why; the Outstanding Natural Beauty starts just outside town, and it’s a knockout. The Mournes loom from the far side of the shallow bay, where the tide moves at a gentle walking pace, draining to reveal sandbanks stretching across to Murlough Nature Reserve. Terns, gulls and herons dive and dart.

Nobody could tell us when the next bus would pass through Dundrum. Ten o’clock? Two o’clock? Thursday? So we set off to walk five miles through heather and along the beach to Newcastle, a larger town nestling at the foot of the mountains.

It was lovely country for walking. Gentle hills, stone walls, white cottages, black-faced sheep, and gorse. We tourists love gorse. Nothing looks better than patches of yellow breaking up the emerald fields, contrasting with the purple heather on the hillsides beyond.

We reached the famous Royal County Down golf course and the historic Slieve Donard Hotel. Guests were being shuttled in by a clattering helicopter, which whipped up sand to shower on us unfortunate beach walkers.

Newcastle was getting a facelift. The bayside promenade was being paved and decorated with sculpture and flash chrome lampposts. New green turf was being rolled out. A block further inland, Main Street was rainy, shabby and uninviting. There were few visitors at Newcastle’s two family entertainment centres. In Fun World a handful of games addicts fed coins into slots, pressed buttons and won Bart Simpson dolls. Outside Joyworld a flock of abandoned swan pedal craft bobbed on the artificial lake. But when we ducked into a café to escape the rain, locals smiled and we assumed their incomprehensible gutturals were friendly greetings.

More showers were forecast for the week, but the mountains beckoned over Newcastle’s shoulder. The biggest hump is Slieve Donard, 850 metres high, a three hour climb along the tumbling creek through the lovely Donard Forest, and up across rocky moorland with a spectacular view over the bay.

On the windswept peak, I came upon the mysterious Mourne Wall. It’s two and a half metres high, a metre thick, 22 miles long, made of very heavy stones. It would protect Ulster from a determined Mongol horde.

Two other hardy walkers, Dermott and ‘moy sarn Brendan’, climbed up out of the mist. We huddled against the Mourne Wall and ate our packed lunches. Mine was limited to Dundrum minimarket supplies, but in a howling gale even bacon on stale white bread tastes okay.

‘Foine wall dis,’ said Dermott, patting it. ‘Built by de Belfast Water Commissioners, to mark de catchment area. Course, laybroors did the real work.’

‘Why the rocks?’ I asked, ‘Couldn’t they have used a line of coloured pegs?’

‘Onemplayment schayme in the 1920’s,’ said Dermott. ‘Med the job last longer.’

Thunder rumbled and the heavens opened, and when I risked a glance out from under my Goretex hood, I noticed that water was bucketing down on both sides of the wall.

‘Man was strook daid by loightning here last year,’ volunteered young Brendan.

‘Best be going,’ suggested Dermott, and we squelched down through the heather to the shelter of the forest.

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Castlewellan

For the next few rainy days we walked or bussed from village to village. Mourne towns were nothing to write home about. Newry and Kilkeel offered limited attractions. The nicest village was Castlewellan, whose 19th squares were planned by a French designer.

Flash gold-on-black lettering outside a Northern Ireland hotel means, ‘We’ve just modernised our pub to make it look two hundred years old. Our food is more expensive than next door’s, but it’s better.’ Mourne cuisine has clearly undergone recent renovation. Mourne Seafood Bar served great fresh local produce – you can call Pacific oysters ‘local’ if they’re bred nearby apparently. We also ate very well at Magills in Castlewellan and The Buck’s Head in Dundrum. And it was all smoke free!

**********

No, it wasn't me made them pink!

At last the weather cleared enough to venture a cycle trip. Newcastle Tourist Office supplied a guidebook of cycle routes around the mountains, and referred me to Wiki Wiki Wheels Bike Shop. The tyres on my rented bike were fat and soft, but it was lovely day, so I soldiered on.

A rider on an ageing but effective road bike caught up with me. As happens in this part of the world, Kieran and I struck up a conversation and spent the rest of the morning riding together. Kieran had ageing but effective legs too, and I was soon struggling to keep up and cursing my wickety wickety wheels.

Those lovely rolling hills were suddenly steeper on a bike. Especially when my rear brakes failed on a long downhill run. The front brakes squealed alarmingly, and so did I as I flew down past a startled Kieran. Fortunately no lorries were passing and the road flattened out as we rolled into Kilcoo.

The Troubles are not forgotten there. At the crossroad, the tricolour flutters over ten white crosses bearing the names of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers of the 1980s. ‘Fear Not to Speak of Easter Week’ says the graffiti on the wall opposite, a reference to the Easter Rising of 1916.

‘We larned to live with it,’ said Kieran, ‘but it’s greet it’s over.’

At the end of the week we mournfully left Mourne, rounding off the visit with a night in Belfast. It’s not a candidate for World’s Most Beautiful City, but a great traditional Irish music session in the John Hewitt pub made it well worthwhile. All in all a very foine toime was had, though it was nice to move on to Amsterdam where we could understand what people were saying.

TRIP NOTES

Best time to go: July and August. For fewer crowds try spring and autumn. Winter is grey and rugged.

For more information: http://www.mournemountains.com, http://www.discoverireland.com and http://www.countydown.com.

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