Arakoon Natikonal Park.

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You can tell the family that has everything – it’s on top of their car and they’re going camping. I recall reading that statement in Readers Digest aeons ago.

For me, the image conjured up was one of a mum and dad with a car-load of excited young-uns heading off for their annual holidays. Small canvas tent, gas stove, airbeds and suitcases tied into a wire basket precariously balanced atop their EH Holden – simple kinfolk pleasures. Sadly, those days are gone – or are they?

OK, the roof-rack might be replaced with a sleek, roof-top, water-proof carrier securely fastened on a modern people-mover. The family car could now tow a box-trailer, a camper-trailer, or even a caravan. The premise, however, remains the same – and million-dollar locations are waiting to be explored for the discerning camper. I know, because I’ve spent many memorable weeks at one such place.

The Pacific Highway heads south from Coffs Harbour. Twenty kilometres short of Kempsey, turn left then steer north-east, following the Macleay River to South West Rocks. Five minutes past the local services club is Arakoon, population 450, followed by the entrance to the Arakoon National Park. At the top of the hill, a breathtaking vista unfolds. To the right, the ocean rolls its endless whitecaps into the rugged shoreline below. To the left stretches a bay – a sand-ringed expanse of azure magic – protected from the pounding breakers. Up ahead an historical edifice, tall and dark, survives: forbidding as it is mesmerizing – Trial Bay Goal.

Trial Bay Gaol Camping Area, on the Mid-North Coast, is a favourite destination for many tourists. The Park boasts over one hundred campsites. Thirty of these are on a grassed section overlooking the inlet and only metres from the water. Most of the beachside positions are spacious, allowing ample room for a family-sized tent or a substantial caravan. Having set up the ‘digs’, the variety of activities available appears endless – so much, I hesitate as to where to start.

Fine weather or foul, the cove delivers the backdrop to your stay. The rhythm of the tides produces a changing landscape. At low tide an expanse of sand affords the ideal pitch for the budding Shane Warne or Steve Waugh; sufficient room for touch-footy if you can rustle up a team. In places the water is only centimetres deep – safe for the youngest campers.

At any time, there is space for the serious swimmer in the glassed emerald playground. Oft times, gentle waves push to the shore, giving young surfers and surf-skiers a ride of up to fifty metres. Catamarans can be hired to jibe and tack across this large sheltered haven. Over at South West Rocks, the Surf Life Saving Club patrols the beach during holidays. The mouth of the Macleay River is a popular spot for the angler, and a boat ramp in the camping grounds caters to craft from jet skis to boats designed for deep-sea fishing.

A cool but clear day provides the best opportunity to tackle the walking trails. These easy-to-follow paths range from 500 metres to a return hike of twenty kilometres. The local vegetation, wildlife and striking scenery will fill the senses on the Gap Beach or Smokey Cape tracks. For the history buff, tracing the path to the Powder Magazine and the Monument links a fascinating past of prisoners and internees with the present. Should the wind pick up, make sure you include some sort of flying toy in your kit, as there is no better place to – go fly a kite.

If the weather leaves much to be desired and you haven’t visited the gaol, wander up the hill. The centrepiece of Arakoon National Park is the heritage listed ruin – Trial Bay Gaol.

The building was an experimental Public Works Gaol constructed over ten years beginning in 1876. Its purpose was to house inmates who would construct a breakwall (part of which still remains) to form a ‘Harbour of safe refuge’. The project was the Government’s response to the loss of 90 ships and 243 lives in a period of three years. The plan allowed vessels plying the coast to shelter in the Bay during storms, the name of the inlet being named after one such shipwrecked boat – the Brig Trial. I shan’t share any more history, lest I spoil the surprise when you explore the remnants of this structure.

The Gaol Museum is open during business hours, and guided tours are held regularly. For the goulish inclined, why not pick a full-moon evening with the wind howling and embark on a night-time visit behind the time-wearied walls.

The amenities are not four-star, but I considered that was immaterial. If you need to wash the sand off after a day in the water, cold showers are conveniently placed as you leave the beach. For a hot shower at the end of long trek to Little Bay, modest weather-proof facilities are provided, although you will need plenty of twenty cent pieces for the privilege.

There are covered gas barbecue areas and smaller wood-fired enclosures to burn snags.Pay attention to the wildlife though – I did see a kookaburra help itself to a porterhouse steak while everyone’s back was turned.

Now, if all that activity is not your idea of a holiday – no problems, or pas de problemes as the cultured bi-lingual would say. Enjoy an early breakfast, and you might observe a pod of dolphins. Settle into a favourite book and, as the sun continues to filter through the pines, take morning tea on the restaurant verandah overlooking the water – a spectacular panorama across the bay to the Macleay River and the hills beyond. Oh – and why not tarry awhile and lunch with a gourmet meal prepared by the chef.

Pick up some fresh milk before leisurely strolling back to the camp site to continue reading, or knitting, or napping, or letter writing, or whatever. Still peckish? Why not drive five minutes to South West Rocks to enjoy an evening meal at one of several bistros. I suggest you do not eat out every night. Trial Bay Camping Area is one of the few places on the east coast where the sun sets over the water. Watching the mutable hues of sky, clouds and reflections is not to be missed.

What more can I add except to say that my wife and I, accompanied by our three children and their families, made the return trip to Arakoon not once, but eight times. To be truthful, we did experience a couple of storms – it is the coast, so you must expect the occasional gust of wind with heavy rain. Of course, a major weather event is the stuff that camping memories are made of; in the words of Banjo Patterson, we “tell the story o’er and o’er and brag of our escape”.

I have scrapbooked the annual sojourn to this treasured place and called it our ‘Southern Odyssey’. Why not visit this Park and savour the experience for yourself.
Story by Richard Rees.

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