Heaven (With Fish)

Barry Ashenhurst — 6 March 2012

It's a fact of geography, not to mention the result of a general lack of reliable rainfall and fertile soils, that most Australians prefer to live on the coast. It's better than living anywhere else,or that's the majority's view anyway. Leave the lush coastal strip and you're soon blinking at dry paddocks, criss-crossed by the trails of sheep wandering aimlessly in search of food. Indeed, nine-tenths of Australia is barren as old bone, a parched landscape in varying shades of green and brown that lacks the energy to be anything else. But from Newcastle to Brisbane the tired old geography gets a second wind and becomes primo real estate. Brushed by ocean breezes, invigorated by the salty air and the heady tang of appreciating real estate, the coastal region and the hinterland behind much of it rediscovers the energy to be green and lush again. Suddenly, you're in an inviting place to live, especially if you like the beach or own a boat. Australians are simple people. They live for one or the other.

The area I'd like to tell you about is the stretch known as the Great Lakes Region, about 320km north of Sydney and 170km north of Newcastle. Or if you'd like me to be more exact, beginning at the small township of Pacific Palms and extending to the twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry about 20 minutes further on. By some quirk of linguistics the name Forster is pronounced "Foster" by locals, but that hasn't ruined the beaches or stopped the fish biting.

The region for which the Great Lakes Council has responsibility certainly owns world class coastline but also encompasses the coffee-stop towns of Stroud and Gloucester in the Karuah Valley, the soon to be bypassed Bulahdelah on the Pacific Highway, and any number of cheekily named hamlets. Booti Booti, Nooroo, Wallingat,Tiona, Bungwahl, the vaguely African Topi Topi, and the delightfully whimsical Whoota, are all more or less typical small coastal towns, but some of them are barely towns at all, more like a few houses and a service station. 

Thanks to a new migration of Sydneysiders looking for a better place to live, and taking their cosmopolitan tastes with them, some of these dots on the map have discovered what a real café is. Stroud Street in Bulahdelah offers very fine coffee and the best home-made carrot cake you'll find this side of Double Bay -certainly more appealing than the working class staple of a poisonous pie served at lava temperatures or congealed gravy on chips.


Forster-Tuncurry is the Great Lakes' major population centre; a twin-town arrangement not unlike Albury-Wodonga, except that it's separated by Wallis Lake rather than the Murray River and a bunch of desultory cows. Between the two towns is Cape Hawke Harbour, essentially a narrow gap in the fence through which Wallis Lake shakes hands with the Tasman Sea. The bridge over the harbour joining the two towns was built in 1959 but as yet no-one has bothered to name it, possibly because it leads to Tuncurry - by general consensus, rightly or wrongly, Forster's poorer sister. Anew Woolworths has found its way to Tuncurry but Forster still has all the upmarket real estate, nicer homes and better croissants.

But life in these tourist towns is just fine. "We experienced areal estate boom during 2003 and 2004," says Darrell Roche of Professionals Real Estate in Forster. "Things have levelled out a bit since then but there's still plenty of room for urban development on both sides of the bridge. I think the business vibe here is pretty good," he says.

Forster-Tuncurry was described as "hot" in economic terms by a2006 KPMG report, and in recent times the area has experienced noticeable population growth as well as a drop in unemployment. The region suffered a downturn in commercial activity when the GFC hit- most of Australia did, you might recall - but here it wasn't crippling. Though the region is heavily dependent on tourism,residents today seem optimistic about their future and many insist they'd never think of packing up and moving on.

The temperament and inclination of this place is reassuringly traditional and could be considered very "Australian" - that is to say, there's a lot that's familiar here. Typically, the urban architecture isn't what you'd call pretty, and it's certainly not quaint like many Tasmanian coastal towns, but the pace is slower and choices are fewer. Caravan park holiday-makers are likely to know each other because they've been coming to the same park for years, even decades. Forster's Bellevue Hotel offers "Poker (Monday); Trivia (Wednesday); Karaoke (Friday)". Almost everyone drives to work (among government fact files you'll find the flabbergasting statistic that in 2006 only three people caught a taxi to work). More students leave school after Year 10 than Year 12. More workers in the area are employed as tradesmen and technicians than anything else. This is not Silicon Valley: in 2006, residents were just as likely to have dial-up as broadband. The majority of home buyers had a mortgage between $950 and $1400 a month, unlike their citified counterparts who think nothing of shelling out $1 million for a derelict pile of bricks, if it has even average water views and some passable plumbing.

The Great Lakes Council has a first-class website telling you everything you need to know about the area as a tourist, empty-nester, tree-hugger, tree-changer, sea-changer or anyone else itching to change something. It also offers a forthright summation of the area's business potential, and a breakdown on what the residents are doing with their lives, or would like to do, or wish fervently they hadn't done.

You will also find a catalogue of the service industries and enough accommodation and dining-out possibilities to tangle the mind. The Great Lakes Council website (www.greatlakes.org.au) is a great place to start. If that's a bit much, phone Great Lakes Council on 1800 802 692 and go from there.


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