The word ‘great’ in a title always worries me, as it leaves room for exaggeration. We live in an age when everything is great, fabulous, amazing, amazingly fabulous, or fabulously amazing, so when I heard about the alleged attractions of The Great Lakes on the New South Wales mid-north coast, I couldn’t help wondering how much exaggeration might be involved.
As far as I can tell here, though, an ordinary man finds as much satisfaction boating, fishing, whale-watching, or flopping around with the family as might a rich man. With lakes, beaches, rivers, rainforest, national parks, mountains, and glorious walks at your elbow, you’re nothing but a malcontent if you can’t find something here to blow your skirt up.
WHAT MAKES THE REGION?
The Great Lakes region is said to begin at Tea Gardens and end more or less at Hallidays Point. The three main characters in this play, Myall Lakes, Wallis Lake and Smiths Lake, are contained within a wobbly rectangle, bordered on one side by the Tasman Sea and on the other by the Pacific Highway.
Myall Lakes comprises Myall Lake, Boolambayte Lake, and the Broadwater, all of which are contained within and surrounded by the Myall Lakes National Park.
Wallis Lake is easily the largest. With a surface area when full of 10,000 hectares, it occupies most of the space between Pacific Palms and Forster, which for some reason is always pronounced ‘Foster’, while Smiths Lake is the smallest, and gives its name to the pleasantly shaded community up the road. However, it is not connected to or ‘formally part of’ the Myall Lakes.
The two main towns of the region are Forster and Tuncurry and finding them would only be easier if they brought the towns to you. Coming from the north, turn off the Pacific Highway and on to The Lakes Way at Rainbow Flat and just keep going. If approaching from the south, take The Lakes Way off-ramp a few minutes north of Bulahdelah and keep going. Alternatively, punch the whole slap-doodle into a Navman and do what you’re told.
From the southern off-ramp to Forster is 59km or about one hour, plus a few minutes if you take the bridge with no name into Tuncurry. I haven’t seen Forster and Tuncurry described or promoted as ‘twin towns’, but they remind me of Albury-Wondonga in that you cross a bridge to get from one to the other.
Road conditions in the area are a problem only when unforeseen circumstances interfere. The Pacific Highway is constantly under construction or reconstruction — sometimes they’re even reconstructing the reconstruction — but most of The Lakes Way is reasonable caravan road.
The great flood of 2021 forced potholes to multiply at an alarming rate along here, and for much of its length this road faces east, so be careful in the morning if you’re driving into the sun.
Some of The Lakes Way is winding, steep in places and narrow, especially at the Bulahdelah end, but from Bungwhal onward the road gently undulates and is well sealed. Farmland greener than ever provides a soothing view through the armoured windows of your Jeep, LandCruiser or Patrol.
Approaching from the south along The Lakes Way, if you care to take it, the first diversion on the journey is Seal Rocks. Not much more than a small shop, a caravan park, two fabulously awesome beaches and the lighthouse at Sugarloaf Point, the tiny town has a flavour of its own. It’s worth tasting, if only for a quick dip in the Tasman Sea, which is within a nine-iron shot of the Reflections Holiday Park.
My wife and I once watched shark-shy salmon desperately packing themselves into the shore-break at Seal Rocks, their numberless bodies turning the small, tumbling waves almost black. We didn’t know they were salmon until fishermen told us — Margy and I wouldn’t know salmon from a Roman sandal.
Every populated coastal region has a hinterland. This one reaches back to an area well known to campers, bushwalkers and caravanners for its access to Barrington Tops National Parks. You wouldn’t visit Bulahdelah from Forster-Tuncurry as it’s on the way there, but you’d certainly day trip to Nabiac or Gloucester.
Nabiac has colourful cafes and fascinating exhibits in the National Motorcycle Museum. Gloucester, meanwhile, is situated on The Bucketts Way, about 50km north-west of Nabiac, but from there you can motor up to the aforementioned national park, proving again the effortless diversity of this attractive district. We have a soft spot for Gloucester, with its beautiful public park and a main street uncontaminated by global fast-food outlets and their odious architecture.
Along the coast from Seal Rocks to Forster, finding somewhere pleasant to park the van isn’t much of a challenge, and the variety is as good as the brochures promise.
A quick check with the Forster Visitor Centre showed there are about 12 caravan parks between Seal Rocks and Hallidays Point. You can have basic in Tiona Holiday Park in Pacific Palms; middle of the road in Lani’s Island in Forster; or the fancy in the BIG4 in Tuncurry. The Ruins Camp Ground in Booti Booti National Park, meanwhile, is popular, and accepts caravans, but has no powered sites.
Where you haul up will be determined by how close you prefer civilisation — supermarkets, restaurants, shopping centres and so on — how much fancy stuff you expect in a caravan park, like entertainment for the kids, and whether you prefer the ocean to be on your doorstep or so far away that it takes a whole minute to drive to it.
MORE 'GREAT' THINGS TO DO AT THE GREAT LAKES
STUFF TO DO
If you’ve never been to this part of the mid-north coast, I suggest you plonk the caravan where you’ve booked in and head for the Forster Information Centre at 12 Little Street (Ph: 1800 802 692).
In my experience, information centres are invariably staffed by friendly men and women who know more than Google Earth about local lay of the land. These people are brilliant. They can save you a lot of mucking about if you ask the right questions, such as, “Where’s the nearest surf beach?” or “Where’ can I take my dog for a swim?” (A good place to check out local surf conditions is the Forster Spot Guide at magicseaweed.com).
In short, these guys know everything and should be the first locals you talk to.
BOATING AND FISHING
Having dragged a caravan all the way to Forster, you’re unlikely to have a boat with you, which is a pity as you could surf in the ocean in the morning and ski on freshwater in the afternoon. But there’s no need to feel cheated — you can hire a small boat, a houseboat or a kayak from one of several companies. Among them are Forster Marina, Forster Houseboat Hire, Blue Peter Boat Shed, Aussie Boatshed Forster, and Forster’s Boatshed Number One. Many of these businesses are located on Little Street.
As a sample of the nautical goods and services in the area, Forster Marina has six and eight-seater aluminium canopy boats fitted with all the safety gear. If you need fishing tackle you can buy it from the company shop.
Forster Marina, and others, have ‘pontoon party boats’ that take up to 12 people. These vessels accommodate wheelchairs and strollers. The boats come with safety gear, a gas barbecue, tables, chairs, a bin, a flushing toilet, an anchor, and a map, so you don’t end up in someone’s oyster orchard.
Eastern Humpback whales are driven by primal urges, really big ones, that push them to scoff as much krill as they can in Antarctic waters all summer before executing a u-turn and heading north to sub-tropical waters where they mate and give birth. The migration sees these animals travel as much as 10,000km, and luckily for us their route takes them along Australia’s east coast.
There are plenty of whales to go around. We admire them from beaches, headlands, boats, and even aeroplanes. A headland is cheapest but boats the most popular. Some people claim that whale watching is a spiritual experience. Being a heathen I wouldn’t know about that, but in Forster, Amaroo Cruises, Reel Ocean Adventures and Free Spirit Cruises can take you where whales and dolphins live and once there you can discuss the spiritual thing with the animals themselves. Whale watching season is from June to early November.
To book, ring Amaroo on 0419 333 445; Free Spirit on 0427 592 899; or Reel Ocean Adventures on 0412 104 921.