FOR most of us, Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens are true pieces of paradise on the northern shore of Port Stephens.
One of the Hunter Valley’s not-so-well kept secrets, they’re acknowledged for their scenic beauty and for recreational pursuits, including fishing.
Why, even a former Australian prime minister, John Howard, once used to take his annual holiday break here, in this tranquil, relatively remote part of our world. Remember?
Long-time resident David Stoupe probably sums it up best when he says Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest – twin townships separated by the Myall River – “could be the land of the lotus eaters”.
He’s right. Those who come here are so contented, they often never leave.
Stoupe should know, he’s the former manager of Mineral Deposits Ltd (MDL). His employer transformed the sleepy hamlets in the late 1960s when there was extensive mining for heavy mineral sands.
The idea was to extract enough minerals, like rutile and zircon, to possibly have enough work to last 20 years. Rutile was used largely as a paint-base alternative to lead, while zircon was used to make refractory bricks and monazite to make colour TV tubes.
The estimate was wildly wrong. Overall, coastal mineral mining continued for almost 50 years, although the scars are often hard to detect today.
Stoupe’s memories, as well as many others, plus collected documents and newspaper reports, are in a new book released on Saturday called Hawks Nest – a bird’s eye view by noted local historian Janis Winn.
About 240 mineral mining employees were on the books from Hawks Nest to Forster at the peak of production. Mining apparently started operations in the Hawks Nest area in 1966 causing the working population to jump from 40 to 120 almost overnight.
In 1968, Mineral Deposits was also probably responsible for the area’s initial property boom. That’s when they erected eight dwellings for their staff overlooking Port Stephens at attractive Winda Wopper. There were two homes, one called the ‘director’s house’ plus cottages for senior staff.
A building boom in prime holiday home sites followed, lifting the district out of its inertia and Rip van Winkle existence. Roads were built, area facilities improved and the AMP Society then bought large land holdings inland between 1968 and 1970. Soon the first major motel was built at Hawks Nest.
The formerly quiet area was really on the move. Some former mining employees soon retired there, even opened businesses, lured by the lifestyle.
With development, however, came one transport problem. The two separated townships, now experiencing growing pains, were serviced only by a tiny car punt.
For example, in 1955 about 21,550 cars used the punt to cross to Hawks Nest from Tea Gardens and further west, from the crucial artery of the Pacific Highway.
By 1960, the number of motor vehicles using the ferry had jumped to 54,088 and a permanent crossing was urgently needed to replace the vehicular ferry.
This bridge, now popularly known as The Singing Bridge’ (for the sound of the south-west wind whistling through the railing) was finally built and opened in 1974.
It ended the area’s isolation forever.
One of the facts uncovered in Ms Winn’s latest book was the local existence once of a second ‘Tin City’ similar to the tourist attraction on Stockton Beach.
In 1966, about 30 beach shacks or huts existing unofficially on Crown Land near Dark Point (Little Gibber) were facing demolition. They were in the path of mining dredges and many were soon removed by their occupants. Before beach mining around here in 1969, the wind-driven, mobile dunes could reach a height of 50ft (15 metres).
Author Winn said this week she felt compelled to write her hefty, 294-page self-published book over the past 18 months so that local history “wouldn’t be lost”.
“There’s such an influx of new people here now that they wouldn’t know what went on before,” she said.
It’s the fourth local history book by the unstoppable Janis Winn (“I’m coming up to 82 years, you know”) who now hopes someone from the younger generation will take up where she’s left off.
And she’s well equipped for her history sleuthing, being a descendent of the pioneering Motum family who for years looked after the inner navigation light at Corrie Island
Her comprehensive local history goes right back to when the pioneering Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) set up in Port Stephens at Tahlee and at the ‘other’ Carrington, near the entrance to the Karuah River, in 1826.
Liberally illustrated, her book is subtitled as a history of local families and industries in Hawks Nest, but it’s a much wider history of Port Stephens, going as far south as Salamander Bay, where a major naval base was once planned.
At first glance I thought I might be disappointed in her latest work as it covers some familiar territory from her previous books. But I was wrong as the new book contains many valuable insights which might otherwise be lost.
Many people may know, for example, of the famous, now gone, Birdwood Mill (1917-1953), on the Myall River at Hawks Nest. Lesser known is that about 400 Aborigines once camped at the back of the mill and the tribe contained some very unusually tall natives.
And nearby, picturesque Little Jimmys Camp in colonial times was one of the best known corroboree camps on the NSW coast.
West from Hawks nest was once also proposed to have not one, but two, major cities. A survey was carried out in 1918 for a planned Pindimar City, including a cathedral.
Another concept, this time further west and by the designer of Canberra, Walter Burley Griffith, was to be called Port Stephens City. Both ventures collapsed.
Then there are stories of the busy past river trade with paddlewheelers, or droghers, hauling timber down the Myall River to port, NSW’s first fauna reserve on Cabbage Tree Island for Gould’s white-winged petrels, and details of some of the 82 shipwrecks between Seal Rocks and Morna Point.
I personally liked the yarn about the innovative use of the area’s car punt (before 1974) at night when the Myall prawns were running. A car would weigh down the front of the punt deck and with the leading flap submerged, the ferry would idle back and forth across the river scooping the migrating prawns onto the deck and later, into the cooking pot.
Hawks Nest – a bird’s eye view is being launched on Saturday (March 17) at Tea Gardens’ Baptist Church by Hunter identity John Chadban.
Selling for $40, the limited edition book is sold only in the immediate area, including the community centre, the tourist information office and the Hawks Nest newsagent.
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