When I thought of Newcastle – or ‘Newy’ as it is colloquially known – I used to think of shirtless dudes who are possibly on meth and outer suburban architecture. So when my Baka (Croatian for Grandmother) told me that we were going to Newcastle to visit an Aunt, I was quietly unimpressed. However, upon exploring the ins-and-outs of Newy, I actually found that my prejudices were unwarranted. In retrospect, this should be unsurprising considering that until about a month ago I thought Newcastle was landlocked a few hundred kilometers south-west of Sydney. The city is far from a country town side-note, in fact its a pretty cool and diverse place which deserves more than a couple of days to comprehensively explore.
I arrived in Newcastle through the Williamtown Airport, which is pretty far from the city center. From there myself and my Baka rented a car and traveled to my Aunties place in the outer suburb of Edgeworth, by all observation a moderately destitute place with the usual combination of poker machines, used car yards and old people in singlet tops. In general the suburban sprawl of Newcastle seemed to take the form of either shack-ish fiberboard or up-market pseudo-mansions with little middle ground. My Aunties place being the former. This cultural construction, which is without flair, could be seen as objectively drab. However in actuality when you get that kind of urban environment and dump it on the picturesque Australiana that is the Central Coast of New South Wales, it takes on a quality which is fundamentally Australian and instantly likeable, even nostalgic. I think it’s interesting, because the same environment in a Victorian context alludes to images much more Dickensian, occasionally dotted with the equivalent of LA’s infamous gated communities (Camberwell I’m looking at you). Newcastle does not have that vibe, it is, upon anecdotal observation, a true manifestation of the Australian egalitarian, bathed in sunshine, bordered by native gums and not-so-virgin beaches. All of this makes sense in the historical heartland of Australia’s western culture.
After hanging out with my Baka and Auntie, I finally got out exploring central Newcastle in the afternoon after I arrived. The day had edged its way to a cloudless and dry 28 degrees, accompanied by refreshing ocean breezes, optimal holiday weather. I meandered my way from the giant Obelisk (purpose unknown), down to the foreshore to join some suit goons taking their lunch break on the wooden benches at the surf club, wistfully watching the local surf-rats do their thing.
I then continued down to Nobby’s Beach. Throughout my travels I’ve found that a nice beach is actually something of a rarity outside of Australia. But to have two beautiful sandy beaches within a stones throw of each other, and within 5 minutes of the CBD is unheard of. If you were a local, you would indeed be ‘frothing’. Swells were pretty legit on the foreshore, so Nobby’s was definitely the place for a more subdued swim, although some decent breaks were also coming in close to the rocks here as well, more suited to body surfing than anything else. After cruising around on foot for a bit, I made my way back to where I’d parked through the CBD, which was pretty enough, without too much of the gentrified standardisation found in many of Australia’s contemporary second cities. All in all I wandered around for about three to four hours. During this time I was only approached by one meth-head, who was very polite and fully clothed. Needless to say, pretty good compared to my initial prejudices.
Following this trip through the CBD, I took a short drive through the southern suburbs towards Central Coast. Probably the most outstanding thing to be noticed, was again the magnitude of beaches, with seemingly every suburb having at least one focal point of beach for their community, some of the standouts from a tourist point of view being Caves Beach and Blacksmiths Point.
Following this short drive, I diverted inland toward the Hunter Valley. Because I’m not a huge fan of drinking and driving, and also because I’m stupidly poor, I didn’t sample any of the alcoholic delights of the region. But the region itself was very pretty. The bush disperses to rolling hills, paddocks of vineyards and corrugated iron sheds with Jacaranda’s exploding accented color like Sakura in the Japanese countryside. The transition from beach-side serenity to wild and sparse hinterland within the space of less than one hundred kilometers is serene. The wonderful thing about this beauty is that it is not sensually overwhelming, like the Himalayas or bombastic like the Alps. The best description I can give, is that it’s comfortable and understated. Similar to the coastal hills and dotted vineyards of central California.
The next day, again after spending the morning hanging out with my Baka and Aunty, I made my way to Nobby’s for a lazy swim… and to tan my pasty Melbournean skin. The weather was clear and hot, with temperatures rising to about 34 degrees. As expected, the water was beautiful and the beach-side perfect for playing. Dozing on the beach with a book over my face and liberal amounts of sunscreen applied at half-hourly intervals is everything I ever dreamed of back when I was a suit goon. The day was blissful. At around about one o’clock I was suddenly shocked to attention when artillery blanks where fired with fiery velocity from an overhanging hill. The ceremonial barrage continued at regular intervals for about fifteen minutes, ejecting lingering pale and wispy smoke across the clear blue sky . Witnessing this military display while peacefully hanging out with ambivalent beach-goers was a punctuating experience, and perhaps a reminder that Australia is truly blessed. It’s citizens need only experience war through token displays of memoriam while they relax on the beach. I think that sense of Australianism, to enjoy the good things above all, is an indicative quality of the nation’s people. To experience it in such direct means is perhaps telling of the kind of city that Newcastle really is.
Visiting Newcastle gave me a new perspective of the country I live in. This, I believe, is the reason we travel. To learn new things and to open up dimensions of understanding. Far from the domestic sprawl I expected, I was treated to geographic beauty and true Australiana. Although by the end of my stay I was starting to complain about the heat, Newcastle is overall an awesome place well worth a visit and one to which I would happily return.