Once a convict settlement
On the coast 420 km north of Sydney. This outpost started life in 1821 as a convict settlement at the mouth of the Hastings River, and was intended to house the hard nuts who’d committed second offences in other New South Wales penal settlements, as well as a few prize convicts straight from Britain whose reputation had preceded them. But within a decade the prison authorities decided this was far too pleasant a place for criminal celebrities. The penal colony was disbanded and those who were too hot to handle were moved to a hotter spot. After the superstar cons came the pioneer settlers. Unfortunately the old harbour proved unsuitable for large ships, and Port Macquarie never really took off. For 150 years or so the place remained a quiet backwater. Then an even more colourful crowd descended on Port Macquarie – tourists. They were attracted by the miles of sandy beaches, and the unspoiled terrain of forests and mountains inland. For the past 30 years Port Macquarie has continued to expand in a suburban sprawl along the coast, and is now one of the largest resorts in the region, with a population of more than 40,000. The area is popular, of course, for villa holidays rentals.
Apart from the superb beaches and unspoiled stretches of the hinterland, there’s not much to see in Port Macquarie. Reminders of the old days are few. One of them is St Thomas’s Church, at the corner of Hay and Williams Streets, which was built by the prisoners in 1828, making it the third oldest church in the country. Its stone blocks were laboriously hewn in traditional convict style. They are held together with a cement made of seashells, pounded into a powder by those crafty cons who quickly recognized a cushy number and volunteered at once for cement-making duties.
Also worth a brief visit is the Historical Museum at 22 Clarence Street, which contains a number of relics from the old days.
Port Macquarie has a large number of koala bears living near town. Unfortunately these woolly fellows have never quite managed to master road drill, so they keep getting involved in car accidents. As a result, Australia’s only Koala Preservation Society’s Koala Hospital (http://www.koalahospital.org.au/) has been established here. Unlike many hospitals, you don’t have to be a relative or even a drinking pal to visit the patients. You can visit between 8 am and 4.30 pm; donations welcome.
If you’re in the mood for a short sortie into unspoiled bush, visit Kooloonbung Creek Nature Park. It may be only 50 hectares, but the trails lead you deep into rainforest and mangroves of sweltering authenticity (but with the heartening reassurance that you’re never that far from an ice cold drink).
Just over 20 km west of town, on the other side of the Pacific Highway, is the pleasant woodland village of Wauchope (pronounced ‘War-hope’). Just down the road is Timbertown (www.timbertown.com.au), a reconstruction of an old lumber settlement where they re-enact life as it was in these parts during the mid-19thC.
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