Deaths and diamonds

Australia is quietly remembering a series of events that the country hopes never to repeat.

It’s 76 years since the Australian mainland, airspace, offshore islands and coastal shipping were attacked at least 97 times during World War II.

I know it’s not the most cheerful subject for a travel reviewer to tackle. But, as usual, there’s a story behind the headlines – and this one is fascinating.

So here goes, (with apologies to military historians) ……

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Remains of Customs House, Darwin – Wikimedia

Between February 1942 and November the following year, Australia and its shipping was the target of bombs, shells, torpedoes and bullets  from Japanese aircraft and submarines.

Aircraft flew 64 raids on the city of Darwin alone – and 33 attacks on other Northern Australian targets, including the towns of Broome, Townsville and Port Hedland.

In all, it’s said that the air attacks killed about 900 people; destroyed civilian and military facilities; and cost 77 aircraft and several ships.

The diamonds

And now for the story behind the story: in one incident, a Douglas DC-3 airliner operated by KNILM (KLM) and carrying eight passengers was shot down over Western Australia.

The plane, which was headed for the coastal town of Broome, crash landed on a beach at Carnot Bay, but was subsequently strafed and then bombed the following day.

Four passengers died.

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Broome

The fate of part of the plane’s cargo – a package of extremely valuable diamonds – has become somewhat of an Aussie mystery.

I remember my late father’s explanation that the diamonds – destined for Australia’s Commonwealth Bank – were “nicked by fortune hunters who swarmed over the wreckage”.

Apparently, the downed plane did attract a strange cast of visitors in the aftermath of its crash – and more than £20,000 worth of diamonds were later handed in to authorities. In May 1943, three men were tried in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for theft of the diamonds.[5] All were acquitted – and no one else has ever been tried for the loss of the diamonds.

During the air campaign over Northern Australia, the Japanese lost about 131 aircraft.

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Darwin Post Office – Wikimedia

Submarine attacks

It’s also heading for 76 years since Japanese submarines attacked Sydney harbour and the city of Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, as part of a wider blitz of shipping in Australian waters.

Two midget submarines penetrated Sydney harbour defences and sank the depot ship, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 seamen.

On the night of June 8, 1942, a submarine bombarded the eastern suburbs of Sydney and another fired shells into the coastal industrial city of Newcastle.

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The guns at Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley returned fire.

See our review of this historically significant fort – and the night it sprang into action.

Aussie stories

How the Pasha Bulker storm almost sent us deaf

The ‘Pasha Bulker storm’ has a certain ring to it.

In our case, the ‘ring’ sounded like five fire engines wailing inside our house.

Australians have been remembering the day, just over 10 years ago, when an east coast low grounded the coal ship, ‘Pasha Bulker’, on a beach at Newcastle north of Sydney.

The storm that drove the 76-tonne bulk carrier ashore brought flooding, gale-force wind and high seas – and claimed nine lives.

And almost sent us deaf

No power

After navigating tricky flooded roads, we made it safely to our Newcastle home, only to find that the electricity supply had been cut.

Without lights, TV or stove, we adjourned early, completely forgetting about the house burglar alarm that (you guessed it) was electrically-operated.

The back-up battery ran low during the night, triggering the alarm at about 3am, when a near-deafening siren bounced us from our bed.

Disoriented by the ear-shattering wailing, we ran from room to room in the dark, desperately trying to remember where the alarm’s main controls were located.

“Get a torch and check the closet”. Of course, even at a time like this, Sue made sense.

The control box was locked.

Through curses, I remember briefly appreciating the logic of that. Otherwise a thief could simply open the controls and disable the alarm – exactly what we wanted to do.

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“Where did you put the key”?

Me?

The alarm had been installed nine years before, yet somehow this was now my fault.

I forlornly tried to smother some of the sound by putting a cushion over the ceiling speaker. It didn’t work.

As we continued to frantically search for the key, Sue’s look suggested that, if given a choice, she would willingly smother me.

As is often the way, the key had never been used – so it had been misplaced.

In frustration, we used a mobile phone to call an emergency locksmith – and sat in the dark with pillows over our head awaiting his arrival.

He silenced it in seconds. Our ears continued to ring for hours.

We didn’t dare face the neighbours for quite some time.

Tragic and costly

Although our personal experience is humorous in reflection, the Pasha Bulker storm was a tragic and costly event.

East Coast Lows have been a key feature of Australia’s eastern seaboard for centuries, with the first case studies published in 1954.

However, in June 2007, much of the Newcastle area was in the grip of one of Australia’s regular droughts and the thought of heavy rain was remote as people prepared for a three-day holiday weekend.

Then came a reality check.

It started bucketing down on the Friday morning and, within a few hours, the area was being pummelled.

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A friend lost her car to rising water outside our office while another colleague was forced to transfer her wedding location when the bushland setting became a river.

However, the grounding of the Pasha Bulker stole the show, made international headlines and weaved itself into the already-rich folklore of Newcastle.

A decade on, visitors to the city are sometimes puzzled by a red lump of metal on a pathway adjoining Nobby’s Beach.

A piece of public art, the metal was taken from the rudder of the Panamanian bulk carrier and is significant indeed for those who lived through the Pasha Bulker storm and its aftermath.

 

 

Aussie stories

Windsor, Australia: contrasts

Finding a greater contrast would be difficult.

Drive one direction and it feels like you’ve entered a time warp, whirling back to the early 1800’s.

Head the other way and you’re soon in a futuristic landscape of sweeping concrete and steel.

Welcome to the Windsor district of eastern Australia, an area that offers a snapshot of colonial times, with many grand examples of 19th century British architecture.

At the same time, the area also features Australia’s biggest public transport project, the sleek, multi-billion dollar Sydney Metro NorthWest rail link.

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Sydney Metro

Courtesy Plenary Group

This stark contrast between the old and the new, is a reminder that, although Windsor is a wonderful link to Australia’s colonial past, it is also on the edge of the Sydney beltway – a bustling, modern commuter channel.

But it was the Windsor of the 1800’s that we came to find.

Our ancestors were humble farmers in the area when it was Australia’s third city, a settlement established to provide fresh produce for the fledgling penal colony of Sydney.

Many of their graves can be found in the pioneer cemetery at nearby Wilberforce, which stands in the shadow of Australia’s oldest church, dating to 1809.

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Sue’s ancestors, in particular, hold a special and prominent place in the local community, descending from Australia’s first group of free settlers.

Thomas and Jane Rose and their four children – originally from rural Dorset in England – had arrived in the colony in 1793 and started farming in the Windsor area about 1802.

‘Rose Cottage’, their house at Wilberforce, built in 1811, remains the oldest slab timber dwelling on its original site in Australia.

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After exploring the pioneer cemetery, we headed for one of Windsor’s best known landmarks, the Macquarie Arms hotel, which claims to be the oldest pub in mainland Australia.

Sitting high above the Hawkesbury River, the pub certainly has an olde worlde feel, complete with resident ghosts – or perhaps that should be ‘spirits’.

First licensed in 1815 and operated continuously ever since, apart from the period between 1840-1874, the Macquarie Arms was built by convicts who are said to have constructed tunnels between the building and the river for secretly transporting illegal rum.

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Courtesy Macquarie Arms Hotel and Gary Bell Pub Sketches.

Whether it is really the oldest pub on the Australian mainland seems to depend on who you ask. Apparently, colonial Sydney was brimming with ‘sly grog’ shops and hotels from about 1800 onwards.

One thing is for certain: the old pub is just one of many colonial buildings in Windsor still in use.

These include the local court house, designed by famous colonial architect Sir Francis Greenway and built in 1822; several historic churches; Windsor post office; and any number of grand Victorian mansions.

And, to prove that the area was indeed a land of opportunity, there’s Thompson Square which was named after a convict pioneer who went on to become a magistrate at law.

Next on our list was a visit to Rose Cottage which is truly a priceless piece of Australian heritage, followed by a tour of the adjoining Australiana Pioneer Village which strives to promote the area’s history.

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The village combines historic buildings and demonstrations of traditional crafts.

Both these attractions are maintained by hard-working groups of volunteers.

Windsor is on the north-western outskirts of Sydney, about 56 kilometres from the city centre.

Aussie stories Sydney

A forgotten train

Australia Day is held each January: a time for Aussies to, once again, reflect on the country’s achievements.

However, at about the same time, an important milestone in the field of Aussie transportation usually slips by unnoticed in our home city of Newcastle, New South Wales.

It’s headed for 190 years since the railway came to Australia – not far from where we’re now standing.

On December 10, 1831, the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened the continent’s first rail line on high ground overlooking the fledgling British settlement that is now the bustling eastern sea port of Newcastle.

A gravitational railway

Australia’s first railway was established specifically to carry coal Newcastle’s A Pit to ships awaiting loading in the Hunter River. Cast iron rails carried wagons on what is technically known as an ‘inclined plane gravitational railway’.

Today, this would probably be called a ‘cable railway’, where a trip downhill is powered by a wagon coming back uphill on an adjoining track.

On a gravitational railway, the weight of the loaded descending cars is used to lift the ascending empties. A well known Australian example is the scenic railway – shown in the main photo on this page – at Katoomba, west of Sydney. This railway was also initially used to haul coal.

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Another example is the Monongahela Incline, at Mount Washington, Pennsylvania, in the US (shown above)

After the railway arrived in Australia at what is now Brown and Church Streets, Newcastle, it was another 23 years before the first steam-driven railway appeared between Melbourne and Port Melbourne.

From then, the railway systems of the various colonies developed rapidly.

Meanwhile, the humble beginnings of rail at Newcastle also played a key role in the development of the nation’s coal industry and Newcastle as Australia’s biggest coal port.

A load sent from Newcastle to India was Australia’s first export shipment – and in December 2016, for example, coal shipments from the port of Newcastle hit a record 15.9 million tonnes.

Credits: Main photo courtesy Flickr, Wikimedia and Charlie Brewer; Mt Washington photo courtesy Wikimedia and pennsyloco

Aussie stories

Stark reminder of bridge collapse

On a picturesque section of Australia’s Mitchell Highway, travellers often stop at an unusual roadside sculpture made largely of twisted metal beams.

The ‘Gateway’ sculpture is a rare reminder of a tumultuous day – almost three decades ago – that cut a key rural road link in New South Wales, the most populous State in Australia,

On January 6, in 1989, a truck carrying machinery for digging trenches was travelling along the Mitchell highway when it approached the town of Wellington, in the State’s central-west.

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As it crossed the Macquarie River on the town’s fringe, the truck and the 70-year-old highway bridge collided – sending the roadway plunging into the water below.

The truck also dropped into the river, but miraculously no one was killed.

In a few moments and a gigantic cloud of dust, Wellington was cut almost in two – and a major traffic artery to the State’s north west was severed.

Politicians quickly converged on the site to determine what could be done to reopen the major thoroughfare.

Lengthy diversions were soon set up around the area and Wellington residents used the adjoining railway bridge to get between the town proper and the area of Montefiores, across the river.

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After some emergency work, cars were eventually able to drive across the rail bridge.

We were far away when the bridge dropped – but Wellington is our hometown, so we travelled there in the weeks after the incident and experienced at first hand the isolation and frustration caused by the closure of such a vital road link.

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Although Wellington’s commercial sector suffered from the loss of passing traffic and isolated rural areas, wily entrepreneurs were able to tap into widespread publicity by producing T-shirts to mark the bridge collapse.

Meanwhile, a low-level pontoon bridge was installed about 500 metres downstream by engineers from the Australian Army, thus re-opening the highway link.

Vehicles continued using the low-level crossing until the Macquarie bridge was replaced in December 1991.

Wellington is located 354 kilometres north-west of Sydney via the Great Western and Mitchell Highways. The ‘Gateway’ sculpture can be found about eight kilometres south of the town.

As a direct result of the collapse, authorities undertook a comprehensive safety audit of similar bridges throughout the State of New South Wales.

Photos of the collapsed Macquarie Bridge and the temporary rail crossing are courtesy of The Wellington Times and Marie Hoffman

Aussie stories

Earthquake memories: a Christmas feature

It sounded like a train passing outside the office.

And it felt like one had passed clean through the office.

Anyone who has been in a big earthquake will, I’m sure, remember the feeling of helplessness as the movement and shaking becomes more and more violent.

I certainly remember feeling that way in Australia’s Newcastle earthquake.

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The quake – Australia’s deadliest – killed 13 people when it hit the east coast industrial city of Newcastle mid-morning on December 28, 1989.

I was on the third floor of an office building in the heart of the city. It was the first day of work after Christmas and many were away on holidays.

The 40 or so people in the office mostly froze in their seats at 10.27am as the walls shook, swayed and cracked around us – and the rumble of the quake gave way to the crunching sounds of breaking masonry.

Neither the lightweight desks nor flimsy partition doorways offered much protection, so we rushed from the building down damaged stairwells into streets littered with bricks and swelling crowds of bewildered office workers.

No one had dared take the lift and, in the confusion, there wasn’t time for a headcount.

So it was that, after making it out of our office unscathed, I joined two colleagues in venturing back to free a woman trapped in the restroom and help a tradesman who had been working in the ceiling and had been temporarily knocked unconscious.

Minutes later, the building was declared structurally unsound.

Some inner-city buildings had disappeared in piles of rubble. Others had lost their facade, or had huge jagged cracks through the brickwork.

Royal Newcastle Hospital had been evacuated, with patients taken to the adjoining beach; the Returned Services Club was flattened; and people were trapped inside the damaged Newcastle Workers Club, where nine people eventually died.

The Newcastle earthquake caused damage to over 35,000 homes, 147 schools, and 3,000 commercial and/or other buildings, with significant damage caused to 10,000 homes (damage worth over $1,000) and 42 schools (structural damage), within the immediate Newcastle area.

Damage to buildings and facilities was reported over an area of 9,000 square kilometres.

With public transport halted , pay telephones mostly out of operation, mobile phones yet to come into general use, no electricity in much of the inner-city, and roads blocked by debris, I then walked out of the heart of Newcastle.

A few hours later, the Australian Army arrived to seal off the most dangerous areas.

On the way out of the crippled city area, I discovered yet another unAustralian impact of the quake – without electricity, even suburban pubs that had escaped damage were unable to serve cold beer.

Our home in the Newcastle suburb of Charlestown had suffered several thousand dollars worth of damage and large parts of the metropolitan area became a sea of scaffolding for many months as the city underwent massive reconstruction.

Aussie stories

Scientists and travellers sharing

Visitors to an Australian underground attraction, from time to time, find  themselves side-by-side with a scientific investigation.

A hunt is on for ancient fossils, animal bones and teeth deep within Wellington Caves, in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous State.

Paleontologists from Flinders University, in Adelaide, are digging and sifting through silt deposited in the limestone caves, which are a popular tourist attraction and  known world-wide as a rich source of megafaunal bones.

The dig, which may extend 10 metres into the silt, is helping develop a picture of surface life in the area through the centuries.

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Findings from the project are being taken to Adelaide for detailed examination at Flinders University, which is highly regarded in the field of palaeontology.

No interference with tours

The work isn’t interfering with tours of Wellington Caves, which are a leading tourist attraction in the central-western area of New South Wales.

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The first known source of marsupial fossils in Australia, the caves have provided specimens to collections world-wide.

Megafauna fossils discovered there are said to date back two million years and include marsupial lions and giant kangaroos, wombats and goannas.

The caves are about 353 kilometres or four hours and 40 minutes from Sydney on the Mitchell Highway – or 504 kilometres (five hours and 41 minutes) from Sydney via the Golden Highway. They are on the southern outskirts of the town of Wellington.

Wellington Caves were opened to the public in the 1870’s.

A hill of bones

The display caves are complemented by a former phosphate mine, from where megafaunal bones are visible in the mud walls.

Mining in the early 1900’s apparently revealed the ‘Bone Cave’  which shows, embedded in the walls, the bone fragments of prehistoric creatures who existed long before man.

The cave burrows into what has been described as ‘a hill of bones’ – said to be the largest deposit of its type in Australia

There are handrails in the Cathedral and Gaden caves, which are accessible to people with reasonable mobility. In the Cathedral Cave, there are 150 steps, while the Gaden Cave has 120.

Neither cave has wheelchair access.

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However, there is a ramp to the former phosphate mine, which can be used by both wheelchairs and strollers.

Fossil photo courtesy www.wellington-nsw.com/Phosphate_Mine.html

Aussie stories

How we became ‘Age-Friendly’ reviewers

We literally fell into reviewing  how friendly hotels and travel products are for people of all ages – at a time in life when most people don their slippers and think about relaxing.

But, the experience has changed our lives in ways we could never have anticipated.

After lengthy careers in journalism, communication and administration – during which we had also managed to travel extensively and both write and photograph  our experiences – we retired in 2013, with absolutely no plans to return to full-time work.

However, we soon began to be approached by friends, former work colleagues and scores of people we had never met.

They wanted to pick our brains about how age-friendly travel; hotels we had tried and loved; and tourism destinations were.

It seems they trusted our word, partially because we were not making money out of the process and also because there were so few sources of information that appeared to understand the needs of senior travellers.

It was a shock! We’d never realised just how many people in their 60’s and older were thinking about travelling independently off the typical tourist routes; staying in hostels; using low-cost airlines; adopting the latest travel technology; taking to social media; and organising family reunions at far-flung places.

And they wanted our frank opinion about many of their ideas – pressing us for first hand reviews on what we had tried; why; and what had worked and what hadn’t.

Common questions, for example, involved the comfort of seating in the various airlines – and the wisdom of splitting flights into manageable pieces by including layovers .

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After numerous approaches, the idea for our website, memorabledestination.com was born – providing objective reviews of the senior-friendly travel, travel products and accommodation we’d experiencedsuitable for this growing trend of independent ‘grey nomad’ travellers.

So, for years now we have helped many hundreds of seniors with holiday planning, while learning a lot about accommodation and travel providers that offer products suitable for independent retirees.

Our website and social media channels have gone from strength to strength and we have met some wonderful travellers, accommodation and travel providers.

We’ve grown to love the task and find it heart-warming that so many seniors are determined that travel is not just for the young.

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Many of those who read our reviews do not fit neatly into the perception that retired people are primarily interested in so-called gentle travel such as cruising and luxury coach trips.

While they may not be lining up for white-water rafting or adventure racing, many seniors want travel that is off the usual tourist trail and involves lots of integration with the locals.

They usually don’t want the same type of itinerary that is standard fare for younger travellers.

A two-way process

And, it didn’t take us long to realise that there were not many channels for the travel and accommodation industry to reach these seniors.

We found that, often we were involved in a two-way communication process – suggesting accommodation that we had tried and tested while also informing accommodation and travel providers how to entice the retiree market.

This role is fine with us. We don’t mind helping the industry itself in any way that we can.

We believe that the strength of our reviews lie in the fact that we are direct and honest – sometimes brutally so.

Being retired ourselves and not aiming to carve out a career, we have no axe to grind. So, we tell it like it is!

We had already been doing this for many years on Trip Advisor, where we are long term contributors, and our website was simply an extension of this.

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We wear our ‘grey nomad’ label with pride – and we get a real kick out of helping others like us.

We also believe that accommodation and travel providers who offer products that appeal to seniors, should be acknowledged.

We’re probably the oldest travel writers on the planet, but like our readers, we certainly don’t let that stop us. And, we’ve found that such enthusiasm is a little like the fountain of youth.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, visit memorabledestination.com and subscribe to get news, reviews, deals and special offers emailed to you free of charge as they happen.

 

Aussie stories

In our backyard

After 22 years, it still astonishes us.

We live only 20 minutes from the centre of a big Australian regional city, but our front door looks onto farmland, rolling green hillsides, towering gum trees and astonishing birdlife.IMG_0559

Newcastle is a bustling tourism and industrial city on Australia’s eastern coastline, about two hours from Sydney.

The second biggest city in the state of New South Wales, it sits around a busy working harbour, with plenty of river and beach scenery.

Newcastle is also framed by hills and Lake Macquarie, the largest saltwater coastal waterway in Australia.

When our neighbourhood was developed in the city suburb of New Lambton Heights, local authorities had the good sense to set aside a section of bushland and rainforest as a community park immediately above our house.IMG_0558

Some landowners followed suit and, to date, have preserved a ribbon of former farmland.

This sums up what is In Our Backyard : a backdrop of towering gum trees, running streams and native birds mingling with the vibrant colours and scents of the lavenders, bottlebrush shrubs and camellias in the many big gardens.

We look out on native bushland from front and back and our street ends in fields and paddocks, creased by rocky outcrops and thick scrub.IMG_0562

It’s an honour to live amongst such natural splendour and even more so because we can still enjoy the attractions of the city literally right at our doorstop.

But, it is the community park that really adds the icing to the cake.

A refuge from the heat of the Australian summer and an ideal place to walk the dog or kick a football with the grandchildren, this parkland is our own little Wonderland – something treasured by the neighbourhood.

There is an open grassed area containing a picnic table and swings for the children.

But, the formal park area is surrounded on three sides by a green wall of white ‘ghost gums’, vines, creepers and strips of rainforest so dense that you cannot see more than two metres into the bush.IMG_0557

The area is dissected by a small creek that bubbles past, also unseen but audible clearly amid the tangle of nature.

We often visit just before sunset when the final rays of the day streak down between the trees and the bush turkeys come to the fringe of the scrub to scratch for food.

It’s a delight to sit quietly absorbing the beauty and solitude and listening to the chorus of birds farewelling the day.

Australia is truly blessed with natural birdlife and our backyard is fortunate to attract many species.

The ‘ping’ of Bellbirds; chatter of finches, sparrows and honey eaters; and coo of bush doves is ever present.

On most days, we catch sight of brightly coloured Rosellas and numerous species of bush parrots and, if we are lucky, there are also Kookaburras, whose distinctive laughter echoes back and forth through the area.

The area In Our Backyard also offers a superb front row seat to the legendary Australian sunsets, when the skies put on a show the equal of anywhere in the globe.

Our Backyard is special to us, but I doubt any words could adequately do it justice.

Aussie stories

Review: Hunter Wetlands Centre, Australia

A wetlands centre at Newcastle, Australia, continues to play an important role in bird conservation.

The Hunter Wetlands Centre Australia has helped reverse a decline in Magpie Geese across the north-eastern areas of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state.

Although black-and-white Magpie Geese are abundant in Australia’s northern regions, they became less common in the south, where habitat reduced. P1010403Keen to tackle the decline, Hunter Wetlands Centre obtained 41 Magpie Geese in 1987 – and increased the flock steadily over the next five years.

The geese at the centre bred for the first time in 1992 and new juveniles can now be seen almost every year as a clear indication of the success of the re-introduction program.

Helping threatened ducks too

The centre also works to conserve threatened Freckled Ducks.P1010411Helping save these vulnerable bird species is just one of  many achievements at Hunter Wetlands Centre, which is set to celebrate three decades of operation in 2015.

Set to celebrate 30 years

In those 30 years, the centre, which is located in the Newcastle suburb of Shortland, has come from a former landfill rubbish site to an internationally recognised wetland education facility.P1010402At one stage, more than 2,200 trees were planted as the site was rehabilitated and landscaped.

Hundreds of bird species

A total of 217 bird species have been recorded at the centre.

This includes 72 typical wetland species, including 67 waterbirds and nine migratory waders.

Honking geese a hit

When we visited the centre, the colonies of Magpie Geese – with their distinctive honking call – were just one of the many fascinating attractions.

P1010409With grandchildren in tow, we headed firstly for the visitor centre, which contains in interpretative display area and a popular cafe.

Live reptile display

The live reptile displays and interactive reptile talks went over a treat – even if we were a little tentative handling the snakes.

Next, it was time to watch the bird feeding and explore the adventure playground before we held our own picnic close to the wetland area and the ever-popular geese.P1010415Plenty to see and do

Hunter Wetlands Centre boasts plenty of activities, including walking trails and guided walking tours; canoe hire and guided tours; Segway tours; a bush tucker garden; bike hire; and special activities in school holidays.

It also stages a popular ‘Breakfast with the Birds’ program each Sunday, as well as night visits to the wetlands area and canoeing with experienced guides.P1010404Love to return

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the centre and hope to return at some stage to review one or more of these innovative activities.

The wetlands centre is also rapidly gaining a reputation for its nursery, which boasts the capacity to produce over 100,000 plants a year.

How to get there

Hunter Wetlands Centre Australia is located at Newcastle, New South Wales. The centre is about 10 minutes from the heart of the city and is about two hours north of Sydney. You can get there by car train and bus.

Check these directions.

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