I was married the 10th of September, 2011. The following week as newlyweds my wife and I stole away for 3 days up in Maleny where we had spent our first holiday as a couple three years earlier. We both came down sick by the second day, that was six years ago. We’ve had nights away, gone to many events and driven out of town for a day. In late 2012 I drove to Port Macquarie to see my best friend while Karen worked. We had dinner and played board games and drove back home the next day. But for me my honeymoon was my last holiday for six years until this October. This October I threw caution and savings to the wind and drove down to Newcastle. We set off early morning on a Saturday, driving from the north side of Brisbane to the Gold Coast and finally crossing the border and going past Coolangatta. These are familiar sights and places often visited so it was not until getting into New South Wales that the journey begins to feel adventurous and new. These are still roads I’ve travelled before but less so. The coastal area of New South Wales is beautiful and for me there is something that you get out of road trip that a plane flight can’t replicate. Driving really makes you feel like you’re getting to escape and you have wrested control of your destiny. All bullshit of course, the tedium of driving back is never far from your mind but still there is something beautiful in the lie as you grip the leather steering wheel of your 2003 Toyota Camry Sportivo and the horizon lays off in the distance.
We stopped at Ballina for breakfast to catch a glimpse of the Big Prawn. Travelling down the coast from say Brisbane to Adelaide or Brisbane to Sydney certain stops are well established due to distance from each other. Ballina is such a place, we parked at the latest Bunnings Store which now stands next to the Big Prawn. When last here in 2012 the Big Prawn of my childhood was in bad shape, a pale pink due to neglect it now stood proudly repainted and hovering above the parking lot. I assume that Bunnings paid for it and restored it but who knows. It is near a roundabout and a set of shops and petrol stations where often people will stop, refuel, grab a bit and leave. Given that Bunnings often have sausages on the barbie for various community organisations raising money I’d say the Big Prawn can only help to entice customers. Karen and I though walked off to the shops darting through thick traffic with no lights nearby to slow them. We stopped in a local bakery and ate egg and lettuce sandwiches the way they used to make them. As a kid travelling around on school excursions or holidays I lost count of the number of times I ate egg and lettuce sandwiches but these days people put too much mayo in the egg and it’s not the same. At this little bakery they were perfect. Perked up by our coffee we made our way back to the car and continued driving.
The next stop people will often head to at this point is Coffs Harbour and we were no exception parking at a massive shopping mall just down from The Big Banana. The Big Banana and The Big Prawn are representative of novelty landmarks that became popular in the 1980s for enticing business to small towns along the way of road tripping families. The Big Banana though is an actual tourist attraction where bananas are farmed, it serves as an “educational showcase” and a fun park. As a kid I went there in 1992 and quite enjoyed it. This time I drove past and stopped in at the mall to get KFC for lunch. I try to avoid fast food these days so maybe it was time passing but I found the KFC at Coffs Harbour better than most of the stuff I’ve tasted in recent times of my local area. As mentioned there is something beautiful about the NSW coastal area and I continued on without stopping for the rest of the day. As night time neared our petrol tank started to get close to empty. We live near the Brisbane airport which has several hotels nearby. It feels off by itself but not yet isolated from the places in town you want to get to. I booked late and didn’t have a lot of options and so picked the Mercure at Newcastle airport hoping it would be a similar thing. As we turned off the main highway the sign said Williamtown and I realised we were headed to a military community. RAAF Williamtown was obviously close to Newcastle airport, a massive four wheel drive on a two lane road came up behind me sitting on my arse as I drove the speed limit exactly. Terrific I thought we’ll be surrounded by hyper aggression our whole stay but of course I know military people better than that. We found the gas station and just down the road the Mercure hotel. The staff were excellent, the lobby had a few people that looked either military or ex-military. Next to the car park were buildings fro Boeing and other defence contractors. We were obviously staying in the same place they would for business trips. We went down and ate in the hotel restaurant and then went back to our room and caught some shut eye.
The next day on Sunday we set out for Newcastle. Newcastle is host to many a fine thing, it still exports coal to the rest of the world, historically it was a major steel producing town and boasts some beautiful beaches. I travelled through there as a kid but had no real memories of it. It is also to home to Fort Scratchley. I was interested in Newcastle for a few reasons, it was in range of our three day trip but would mean I had driven further than I ever had before (Port Macquarie) and with Fort Scratchley I had a place to go to that would take no more than a day to visit and take in. The stage was set, Fort Scratchley features the only land based guns in Australian history to have fired in anger.
Original construction completed in 1882 the Fort was intended to protect against a possible Russian attack. Instead the Fort would see action during the shelling of Newcastle sixty years later. Rather than a gung-ho recap of the incident the Historical Society reflect on both perspectives. The Japanese did their job, positioning themselves well and getting off 25 shells before managing to escape successfully. When the guns at Fort Scratchley bracketed them, they left and the shelling stopped. After the war it was home to the 113 Coastal Battery Royal Australian Artillery which was a unit of the National Service Scheme. The Army left the site in 1972 and the it now functions as a Museum since 2008 with a great deal of support from the Fort Scratchley Historial Society who have made it into a first rate place to visit. These volunteers are always happy to give you space or alternately inform you of any part of the site’s history. Additionally they man the guns that are still fired for ceremonial purposes. The two 6-inch Breech Loading Mark VII guns still get fired by them, these were the guns that were used by the Fort from 1911 to the Shelling of Newcastle and after until about 1962 when the Fort switched to Bofors AA guns. Additionally they also fire 80 pounder gun in its underground casemate and a Nordenfelt 1.5inch gun which may be the only working example left in the world. They also fire a Two Pounder Time Gun most days at 1pm which we were lucky to see on the day we were there.
If you have no interest in military matters the Fort is still high up on a hill with panaromic shots of Newcastle and is just a nice place to visit. Some things may surprise, in addition to the various displays of medals and small arms there are stories that move. A radio plays war time messages from the Australian Prime Minister metres away from a piece of shrapnel that tore through a young boy’s bed after his mother took him out of his room during the shelling minutes earlier. Alongside medals are a German helmet that had a bullet go through it fully implicating the horrors of war. Simple mementoes sent to home or from home from people facing death and missing their loves ones. Badges given to widows and mothers of slain young men never to come home. Peace time memories too of men who made a career out of the military either part time or full. Building the fort or upgrading it but always focussed on the men under their command. Treasured gifts given to them upon retirement handed over to the museum from families who know they will be valued here.
In addition the Fort is part of the history of the Australian Women’s Army Service during World War II, where several female soldiers learnt to operate searchlights, anti-aircraft equipment as part of the nearby 18th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. This would have been an opportunity for these women to learn a trade and be at the sharp end of a service that had to fight so hard to even get sent overseas. These opportunities were only made possible by the increasingly shortage of available manpower and we owe these women a debt of gratitude for leading the way. Over 30 women served at Fort Scratchley during the war mostly as radar operators.
We bid farewell to Fort Scratchley mid-afternoon as I made the decision to head to Sydney. Karen’s family lived in Sydney for year when she was 8 and so we headed off to there. Coming into Sydney there are so many beautiful mountains and the freeway travels over many valleys. When we got to where Karen grew up all the houses had been renovated and it felt unfamiliar to her twenty nine years on from where she was last there. It has often been a running gag for me that she missed World Expo 88 in Brisbane as part of the bicentennial celebrations. Between Expo and the Commonwealth Games of 1982, Brisbane went from being a “town” to a “city”. Often I will remark that the First Fleet Re-enactment in Sydney in 1988 was “a couple of tinnies in the harbour.” I’m trying to funny but Expo was a big deal and I’m sad that she missed it. Travelling to where she lived during that year though allowed me to have a sense of why she has fond memories of it and how much fun it would have been for a kid. On a whim we drove around looking for the nearby corner shops. When we parked in them and she saw they had barely changed she was thrilled and I will remember that moment with affection.
The day was Grand Final Weekend in Sydney for the National Rugby League, not knowing how traffic would be in town I decided to head towards Darling Harbour for dinner. I think I had an idea of going to the Casino but we never made it. Following directions as best we could the traffic proved not too hair raising and we found ourselves on track to drive over the Sydney Harbour Bridge which was a secret thrill for me. I can still remember my Dad taking us over it on rainy Sydney day in 1989. We made it to Darling Harbour but kept on getting lost and finding ourselves back in the tunnel crossing back to the other side. When we returned to Darling Harbour I spotted the car park area for the Sydney Convention Centre. Karen was none too pleased at the going $29.00 rate to which I replied “Honey we’re here.” Coming out of the car park I stood in the square and saw Centrepoint Tower.
We were here indeed. It had been nine years since I’d been to Sydney just before I met Karen and for a tank of gas I could’ve come here all along. In that moment the world became a little bit more full of possibilities. I told myself that while I still have things to save up for I am not much closer to them now than I have ever been and maybe six years between holidays is far too long especially if you don’t get to reach your other goals. We wandered down along Darling Harbour and eventually found ourselves a restaurant with staff who were very kind and the food was good too. We would’ve liked to stay but the long journey back to Williamtown beckoned and it was almost 9pm.
Sydney traffic proved to be light and easy to get through but as we came out of the citybounds onto the freeway that snaked through all those cliffs and over deep valleys there were few street lights. I flicked my high beams on where I could but often there were cars in front. Sometimes it was comforting to just park behind them and follow along but sometimes they went too slow and I decided to be a bit brave and strike out on my own. Cars came the other way not switching off their high beams and the road swerved on tilts as the darkness was ever present. More aggressive drivers went past. As time went on I could use my highbeams more and eventually the road levelled out to flat countryside for miles. The rest of the journey passed in relative peace despite remaining darkly lit but I will not lie that I had been tense there for a bit. If one of our tyres had gotten flat I would’ve had my wife stranded in the countryside for a few minutes while I changed it late on a Sunday night. I had been somewhat reckless but we had come through the other side getting to see Sydney as well. Perhaps sometimes you have to make a play for it all, we did. We drove through Newcastle well past midnight with young people out about making their way from night club to night club, some heading home. We drove down deserted roads and past orange lights and back across Stockton Bridge passing all the industry of Kooragang Island. It was quite a sight to see and share with Karen, just being somewhere I hadn’t been before, seeing something I hadn’t seen before. Needless to say I went straight to bed when we got to the Mercure.
It had been tempting to stop in at Fighter World near RAAF Williamtown on the way out where many former RAAF planes including CAC Sabre, F-111, Mirage 3, MIG-21, Hunter, Meteor, Vampire, Fokker Triplane and replicas of Spitfires and Bf 109s. A friend of mine who served at RAAF Williamtown advised me the café was nice. Alas we had a long drive ahead of us and I was feeling it. Monday was a public holiday but I planned to be back at work the next day. Fighter World will have to wait. Instead we ate breakfast at the hotel like we had the day before, an extra expense I felt well worth it as it allowed us to fuel up and get underway with full bellies and minimal hassle.
The trip back, as they often are, was more tedious, I wanted to show Karen Port Macquarie since she missed out in 2012. It was raining and would remain raining for the rest of the day. Driving to Port Macquarie would take us off the freeway and take up time but we stopped for lunch there and I showed her the Historic Courthouse that still stands in the town. We headed back to Brisbane shortly after where I stopped at Grafton to fuel up. It was now coming up to 5pm and the sun was setting shortly after we passed Ballina. It continued to rain, the road stretched out into the darkness again but now in the wet. I turned my high beams on and concentrated. We got past Bryon Bay and as we neared Coolangatta and the Gold Coast the roads became well lit but the rain came down heavier decreasing visibility. Most slowed down, water piled up on the road, hydroplaning was a possibility. Some drove aggressively but most wanted to get home in one piece. How ironic I thought if something bad happened while we were now back in familiar surroundings. Just short of 9pm though we pulled up in our driveway with Red Rooster and concluded our first holiday together in 6 years having driven 1897 kilometres since leaving our driveway on Saturday morning. I felt very grateful for the holiday and reflected that not everybody gets to have them which makes me only more grateful. I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap and a shout out to the Fort Scratchley Historical Society and the excellent work that they do.