It was not the neighbourhood bird life that woke us this morning but the gaggle of girls up early and ready for their netball or whatever it is they have descended on Belmont for. The level of noise obviously was indicative of the speed and effort of their preparations because they were soon off and by the time we rose just after 8 am, the park was once more quiet.
Breakfast eaten, dishes done and the eski packed, we set off north to Newcastle, just twenty or so kilometres from here. We had passed through Newcastle early in March 2011 as we travelled down the Hunter River from a family history search at Maitland. Then we had found the city most unfriendly or rather very unaccommodating of caravanners, providing no obvious parking for anything bigger than the family car and no caravan parks close to the city. We had enjoyed the promenade along the riverside but had otherwise come away after the shortest of visits with a very negative attitude and so we were keen to change our outlook toward this city; the second most populous in New South Wales with a population of over 288,000 people. The sun was shining and it seemed we were set to enjoy better weather than we had for many weeks.
We headed directly to Camp Shortland on the southern bank of the Hunter River mouth. We found a park by the river at Horseshoe Bay and watched the many locals fishing, walking their dogs or do as we were; watch the large cargo vessels come and go through the seventeen metre deep shipping channel. We then set off on foot across the Macquarie Pier, a manmade causeway stretching from the mainland at Fort Sketchley across to Nobby Head, a rocky outcrop essentially and island.
The first European, a Captain Shortland (whose name graces several geographical features here) accidentally discovered the entrance to the Hunter River in 1797, when he was on the prowl for escaped convicts. He reported the deep water port and the abundant coal to his superiors and before you know it, Newcastle was a buzz of activity. In 1801 convicts were dispatched to dig the coal out and that same year saw the first shipment of coal from the port. They certainly didn’t muck around in those days.
Our next destination was Fort Sketchley standing high above Nobby’s Beach. We did not take advantage of the tunnel tours on offer from the volunteers on duty, but wandered around the grounds, reading the excellent interpretative panels and enjoying the views; out to sea to count the dozen or so large cargo vessels waiting their turn for pilotage into port, along the pier to marvel at how far we had walked and back across the city which from this vantage point and that where we had parked the car, really is quite lovely.
It was from this fort that defending forces fired on a Japanese submarine in the Second World War. The Japanese, contrary to popular view, were not intent on invading Australia (or New Zealand). They simply did not have the resources to do so. But they were keen to wipe out essential industry, Newcastle’s iron works one of them. The Australians missed and the sub snuck away before any damage done to either party. Despite the fact that this was all a bit of a non-event, it has gone down in history and given fame to Fort Sketchley.
When we came here last year, we travelled down river past the large steelworks, the starkness of the coal loading docks and all the other ugly paraphernalia that belongs to a city which is essentially an industrial hub. Today we saw a very different side to Newcastle and were glad we had taken the opportunity to revisit and review our previous opinion.
We returned to the vehicle and ate our lunch while watching more ships being guided into port, then headed into the centre of the city to the Newcastle Art Gallery. We enjoyed the annual Artexpress HSC Visual Exhibition which shows work by a selection of students in New South Wales; the standard of work was exceptional. Upstairs was an exhibition titled Material Beauty which is an eclectic collection of objects and materials in contemporary sculpture. We both agreed there was some excellent work, some absolute rubbish and some that raises the perennial question: But is it art?
We were also delighted to see work by Michael Shannon, part of a travelling exhibition on loan from the Ballarat Art Gallery. We had seen a large part of this artist’s work there months ago before we arrived in Melbourne and loved it, so revisiting these paintings was an absolute joy.
Next door at the Library was an exhibition of photographs; the 2011 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism. These covered sporting moments, the Brisbane floods, the Arab Spring, the Christchurch earthquake and a host of other subjects. This proved to be well worth the effort of climbing the stairs to the top floor.
By then we felt we had reached our physical capabilities for the day so turned for home and stopped at the Charlestown shopping centre, one of the largest in the area. We squeezed into the car park with a height restriction of 2.2 metres and joined the masses who preferred malls to the outdoors. We wandered about avoiding the temptation of 50% price slashing, instead stocking up on fruit and vegetables at Coles then headed back to enjoy the last of the afternoon peace before the sporty girls returned from their days activity. Needless to say when they did finally return, the noise was short lived. The day has obviously been exhausting and there is more to follow tomorrow.