Broughton Or Bust
It’s just a simple trip, surely!
There is evidence of early Aboriginal use of Broughton Island. Their trips to the island would have been in canoes made from the bark stripped from the Stringybark tree (E obliqua). The ends of each canoe were formed with plugs of clay and, when the canoes were in use, a fire always burned on a bed of clay at the back. Paddles made of seasoned hardwood were shaped like a large spoon and these paddles were used in a kneeling position from the middle of the 4.5 metre canoe.
So you would think that the journey today in eleven kayaks equipped with all the kit required nowadays for a grade three trip would be relatively simple. However…
Friday night, on the road to Port Stephens
Port Stephens should not be a difficult place to find. After all, Captain WR Broughton (after whom Broughton Island was named) was, in 1795, driven to it by bad weather. So, getting there from Sydney should be quite simple: turn right somewhere after Newcastle. It turns out, though, that there isn’t a sign saying ‘Port Stephens’ and, on this trip, the Port appeared only after considerable wandering, a couple of U-turns and even an inquiry for directions – the ultimate failure for real men! So, first timers, don’t forget the road map.
Saturday morning, Port Stephens
The first fleet landed in 1788 with its cargo of assorted thieves and associated minders. Attraction to the goods of others remains alive and well in Port Stephens today. Tony Niederberger and Stuart Trueman went to sleep on Friday night with their kayaks lashed firmly to roof racks. On Saturday morning, Tony found that his tie-down straps were missing but the immaculate Nadgee had not been taken; a cable lock between his roof rack and the Nadgee had deterred the thief. Stuart’s tie-down straps had been loosened and the Greenlander shifted but it remained on the roof racks. Betting has it that the Greenlander was too heavy to lift off.
Saturday morning, Shoal Bay in Port Stephens
James Cook recorded the location of the bay now known as Port Stephens in May 1770. He logged “Wind southerly in the day and in the night westerly, a gentle breeze and clear weather.” Things had blown up a bit since then and, on Saturday morning 221 years later, a 20-25 knot south easterly with a strong swell outside the heads made our hearts-of-oak beat just a little faster. Trip leader Stuart reports: Unfortunately due to the sea state and the forecast I had to advise that we shouldn’t go to Broughton but needed to seek an alternative. Much to my relief this bad news was taken well and a suitable alternative weekend paddle planned.
Yes – we knew our duty and voted unanimously for Plan B: a trip up Myall River, which discharges into the north side of Port Stephens. We would camp on the riverbank.
The trip from Shoal Bay to the entrance of the Myall River was a bit of a flog. Salo thought so too: I started at a good speed but paddling a test boat and a recent drop in fitness soon slowed me down. I hoped my slow speed would be seen as an objection to the decision to go up the Myall River instead of to Broughton Island and that my position at the back of the pack was a strategy to change their minds. However, this didn’t work so I just plodded along (but received plenty of sympathy and support along the way).
Saturday night, Myall River camping grounds
Adrian Clayton jotted down these thoughts about the camp: We stopped at the Myall River Camping Grounds on the right-hand bank of the river, approximately 4 km upriver from Tea Gardens. One Gary Morris (who under another name, I am told, is the manager of Midnight Oil) privately owns the grounds. It was Gary himself who collected our camping fees (a reasonable $5.00 per tent) so we can claim a minor brush with fame. The campsite was excellent, well maintained and spacious with only a few other campers about with whom to share it. I was particularly impressed by the general upkeep and the cleanliness of the self-composting toilet block (no smell!). Pulling the eleven kayaks out of the river in the evening and putting them back in the next morning was a relatively simple exercise.
The evening riverside campfire was fuelled by wood gathered by our industrious timber getters who had to search far and wide for sufficient stocks. Stuart Trueman demonstrated his resourcefulness by using the fork in a nearby Melaleuca to break a monstrous bough, which he had carried a fair distance on his shoulders, into suitable lengths for the fire. A previous fire had scorched the bough’s surface and much of the blackening rubbed off on to Stuart’s face giving him the appearance of a north-country chimney sweep, soft cap and all.
Corn muffins of an excellent quality were handed around after dinner. Salo explains: Having finally reached our destination I overheard that I was going to be abandoned the next day because of my poor performance. Well, starting to feel quite threatened, I quickly got out the corn muffins that proved to be quite a hit and brought a change of heart from the group.
Indeed, we rapidly discarded all plans for a Peter Pan-like “walk-the-plank” bonding session and the ticking crocodile disappeared rapidly downstream.
Sunday morning, Myall River
Adrian again: Overnight rain left the residue firewood from the previous evening sodden. Tony, using petrol from his prehistoric camping stove had three attempts to get the fire going. Richard followed with a douse or two of metho but it was the local pinecones that eventually re-established a respectable campfire. The early risers had the opportunity to observe a couple of dolphins pass by at a leisurely pace.
Sunday morning, Port Stephens
We returned to Port Stephens where the wind had dropped to less than 10 knots. Stuart suggested we circumnavigate the three islands outside the heads: Cabbage Tree, Boondelbah and Little Island.
The circumnavigation is quite spectacular, especially the section around Cabbage Tree Island. This is the only known nesting site of the very rare Gould’s petrel. The birds visit the island for about three months of the year only, starting in October. There are 300 breeding pairs left, safe for the moment on the John Gould Nature Reserve on the island.
On the return journey though the heads, we passed an old gun emplacement, a part of Fort Tomaree. Michael Stephens, a local historian, reports that: Port Stephens is a superb natural harbour with the two distinctive peaks of Yacaaba and Tomaree marking the entrance. Visible from the water are a number of concrete structures dating from the early days of World War II. 1942 was a worrying year for Australia as Darwin was bombed and a number of coastal cities were shelled, including nearby Newcastle. Fort Tomaree was constructed to protect Port Stephens. The main defensive weapons were two 6-inch (152 mm) guns, capable of penetrating 150 mm of steel at 14 kilometres. Their purpose was to sink shipping. The stated aim of Fort Tomaree was “to deny the use of the Port to an attacking force”. Troops were housed in buildings now taken over by Tomaree Lodge.
Gun emplacement, Fort Tomaree, and a six-inch gun as used at the fort – current location unknown
Sunday afternoon, back at Shoal Bay in Port Stephens
Plan B had been quite a success. Salo said it all: A great weekend with a good variety of scenery. Sundra added: Knowing that foul weather was upon us I had agreed to go with the diehards to Broughton Island on condition that I was to get a tow if I couldn’t make it to one of my favourite destinations. Well, to my great disappointment no one was prepared to take on this condition, as the final decision was to head up the Myall River. Actually this turned out to be rather enjoyable paddle with great company too!
The Trip Leader’s Report – from Stuart
A great turnout; 11 paddlers were on the beach ready to go to Broughton Island at 08:30. All were in well-maintained kayaks and well equipped.
I would like to point out what may be taken for granted by other members that, due to Club policies and training,
Everybody turned up in sea-worthy craft.
Emergency/safety equipment was impeccable. During the trip we had cause to use VHF radios, spare paddles, tow ropes, whistles & maps.
The group recognized that the sea state left little margin for error and agreed to continue, as a group, with Plan B.
I would like to say that I think it would take a long time to search for 11 paddlers from outside the Club that would turn up as well prepared. This preparation included not only equipment but also the ability to recognise the trip to Broughton was beyond the group. In addition, some would have managed the trip to Broughton with ease but decided to keep with the group for the weekend and not go it alone or go home.
However the general fitness of the group was a little below par, half the group looked a little ragged after coming back through the heads on Sunday. I have paddled with most of the group before and know that they were not at their usual level of fitness. I know it’s a temporary problem due to the hectic life we live, but it should be taken into consideration when planning to go on a trip.
Kevin Brennan, Adrian Clayton, Ian Manners, Paul Loker, Tony Niederberger, Richard McNeall, Kevin Melville, Tim Dillenback, Sundra & Salo John and Stuart Trueman.
A Final Note
When Captain Broughton was blown into Port Stephens in 1795, he came across what he thought were four convict escapees from Parramatta. I bet they were kayakers waiting for the wind to drop off before a trip to Broughton Island!