Updated: Feb 11
In my opinion the east coast of NSW has some of the most beautiful beaches, camping areas, 4wd tracks with some amazing history anywhere along Australia’s huge coastline. The great Dividing Range towers over the coastline for hundreds of kilometres all thanks to volcanic activity millions of years ago.
There’s an absolute host of areas to explore on the way down the coast all with unique features and a different feel. There’s no real hard off road extreme 4wd action when doing this coastal run, just easy off the beaten track trails which gives you access to some pretty special places.
My starting point was the little village of South West Rocks, midway between Sydney and Brisbane. Today it's a stunning place that attracts visitors all year round with its white sand beaches, ideal temperatures and a list of outdoor activities.
SWR is flanked by beautiful National Parks protecting a wide variety of flora and fauna but also protecting significant history surround the area. Its thought that the name originated from a large cluster of granite boulders 200m off shore at nearby Trial Bay, that was once called Laggers Point. The area is surrounded by rock shelves that are visible at low tide that the locals call the Boulder’s, and in the early days they were a boat reference point.
A highlight of the area is a visit to Trial Bay Gaol where you can step back in time exploring within the walls of the old gaol. Construction began in 1873, took 13 years to construct and by 1886 prisoners began to fill the gaol. The inmates were there to build a break-wall to make Trial Bay a safe harbour stopover between Sydney and Brisbane. Unfortunately the planned schemed failed and prisoners were moved elsewhere.
But during WW1 the gaol complex became a safe haven for people of German descent who were feared to be enemy sympathisers. Still under the states orders they ran their own gaol with workshops, market gardens selling to the locals and most were allowed outside the walls during the day.
But in May 1918 a German war ship was apparently reported off the coast and concerns were raised that this ship was signalling back to shore. Named the Wolf, it appeared under camouflaged and un-nerved the whole area. Consequently the gaol was abandoned with all interns moved south too Holsworthy.
In 1918 the gaol was decommissioned, stripped and fittings sold. Today, the complex is open to public where you can explore all parts of the gaol, find the old ammo building up the hill and give respect to the German memorial on the headland. Ironically this was blown up by an unknown person when the war was in full swing, but was rebuilt in 1960.
To the south, Smokey Cape is a popular place to camp in the NP grounds where massive amounts of Cabbage Tree Palms dominate the landscape behind the coastal dunes. There’s a small fee to pay but its well worth it for the serenity, proximity to the ocean and vehicle beach access.
Towering above this area is the Smokey Cape Lighthouse and outbuildings. Smokey Cape was named by Capt Cook back in 1770 as he sailed past, ironically he saw smoke rising from the headland ( probably from the Dunghutti Aboriginal people ) and hence the name.
The Lighthouse was built 1891 and today the light still operates from the original lens and lantern. Heritage listed, the light and nearby buildings were some of the last built by Mr James Barnett.
Heading south to Hat Head through Hat Head NP, its another quaint coastal village that’s sheltered by a headland. There’s a few walking tracks over and across the other side giving stunning views up and down the coast, and if your there during the cooler months its an ideal spot for whale watching.
On the southern side of the headland, Hungry Gate campground is another stunning place to setup camp for a few days, shaded by hordes of coastal Paperbarks trees.
Only a short stroll to the beach, 4wd beach access ( permit needed ) and Connors walking track is close to explore.
My plan was to head further south and offroad, so by jumping onto Russells Trail from Hungry Gate gave me the chance to get offroad for a few miles. Not overly challenging across the sandy tracks but definatly a better alternative than heading back out to the highway.
Crescent Head isn’t too far away and its another place that sucks you in with a wonderful coastal relax feel. Creso ( as known to the locals ) has been a surfers paradise for many years with plenty of perfect breaks. There’s walking tracks up and around the headland plus plenty of good food and coffee in town, plus its a good place to stock up.
From Crescent Head theres some amazing campsites right on the coast to the south along Point Plommer Rd. The drive down to Point Plommer is nothing short of spectacular with stunning views all the way across the coastline as you meander through Paper Bark forests, past surf camps and beautiful beaches.
There are a few campsites along the way so it's a matter of finding the one that suits you. Ive been out here a few times and once you get past the Plommer camp grounds the coastal road deteriorates real fast. Its rarely maintained and I find the best option is low range all the way to the end.
The roads rough with corrugations, pot holes and mega holes often full of water from when the swamps overflow. Keep an eye out for sneaky tracks that give you total access to the miles of beach where more often than not, there’ll be no one in sight for miles.
Plommer road finally ends at Northshore which is on the northern side of the Hastings River at beautiful Port Macquarie where you’ll need to get the ferry across to Port.
Today Port Macquarie is thriving city that accommodates for all needs and is the perfect place to top up with anything your heart desires, plus there’s a boot load of history to explore in the city precinct.
After getting a fix in town its a stunning drive down the coast through little boutique coastal towns to Dunbogan, but be warned there’s plenty of spots where you can stop and explore from cafes, walking tracks, headlands and lookouts over the coastline.
From Dunbogan and across the bridge south you’ll enter Crowdy Bay NP and several information boards full of relevant info for camping, flora and fauna and history of the area. There’s nothing hard in the way of 4wding here at Crowdy, its a place to relax and unwind with plenty of walking trails, fishing and camping.
There’s a few campsite options through the park and all pretty similar with huge sites, drop toilets, some have fire-pits and most have walking tracks out to the beautiful coastline.
In 2019 huge bushfires ravaged the park burning everything in its path. Today, there’s what seems like millions of coastal grass trees popping up across the heathlands with their tall grass spears, huge gums are showing signs of life as well as the tea trees forests.
Unfortunately, the iconic and heritage listed Kylies Hut was burned to a crisp. It’s a short stroll from the campground to where the Hut once stood. Pre fires, the timber slab hut was built in 1940 by a reclusive local, Ernie Metcalfe, for Kylie Tennant as a writing retreat. Kylie fell in love with the area and with the story that surrounded old Ernie. She wrote many books from this hut including one on Ernie called The Man On The headland.
Crowdy Road follows the coastline all the way to Crowdy Head which is a quaint fishing village where coastal bliss is all around. The bay is very well protected and is perfect for a dip or a dive.
Spotted by Cook as he sailed past in 1770, he saw a group of Aboriginals on the headland and named it Crowded Head, over the years the name soon changed. Sitting high on the headland above the harbour is Crowdy Lighthouse.
Built in 1878 to guide ships through the Manning River it was manned by a lone light keeper until full automation in 1972. Nearby the foundations of the old lighthouse keepers cottage can still be seen. Beach driving is allowed in the area but you’ll need a permit.
This coastal getaway is suited to any SUV or 4wd all year round, and to be honest can be done in one whole stint or broken up into smaller sections spending more time discovering.
GET OUT THERE AND EXPLORE !!