Tents and sen­si­bil­i­ties on Broughton Is­land

THE FAM­ILY TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Adventure - JAMES JEF­FREY

BEL doesn’t hear the fighter jets com­ing. Snorkelling in the glassy wa­ter, my wife’s too ab­sorbed to no­tice them, a pair of grey ar­row­heads howl­ing past at an al­ti­tude of roughly three tele­phone poles. As the F/A-18s dis­ap­pear in the di­rec­tion of the nearby RAAF base in Wil­liamtown, Bel pokes her head out and no­tices the rest of us agog on the white sand. ‘‘Did I miss much?’’ she asks.

As the wa­ter is full of fish that look like boiled lol­lies and friendly stingrays rip­pling along like fly­ing car­pets, the an­swer, on bal­ance, is no. And, give or take the om­nipresent mut­ton­birds and the odd ex­plo­sion of ex­u­ber­ance from the kids, the fly-past is the only loud noise that we’ll hear on Broughton Is­land.

The largest of the is­lands dot­ting the NSW coast, Broughton is 14km north­east of Port Stephens and part of the Myall Lakes National Park. For us, this trans­lates into a short boat ride with a bunch of scuba divers, who drop off our friends and us at the only des­ig­nated camp­ing area (at the less than promis­ingly named Poverty Beach), be­fore head­ing off to com­mune with grey nurse sharks.

Sea ea­gles cir­cle over­head as we pitch our tents on one of the two wooden decks and on the soft, springy grass be­low. Our chil­dren, Daisy and Leo, run wild with their mates. The is­land is per­haps a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres across at its widest, but only a short run for them from ‘‘our’’ beach, up past Es­mer­alda Cove with its fish­er­man shacks and across the spine of the is­land to Prov­i­dence Beach, a star­tlingly white scythe of sand pa­trolled by sooty oys­ter catch­ers.

Oys­ters have never struck me par­tic­u­larly as the sort of beast that needs catch­ing, as such, but they’re strik­ing birds with their jet feath­ers and scar­let stiletto beaks. A small whale ver­te­bra is found and the en­su­ing ex­cite­ment is only slightly damp­ened by its queer, oily pong.

Be­tween the beaches, the is­land’s plant life has been steadily thick­en­ing since National Parks erad­i­cated the rab­bits and rats. This makes it a bit more of a slog head­ing along the trail to the peak of Broughton’s might­i­est hill, the de­li­ciously named Pinker Top. We feel very pleased with our­selves when we reach the sum­mit, so we pre­tend not to know what a small num­ber of me­tres we are above sea level. Mod­est al­ti­tude not­with­stand­ing, the view is a knock­out. Im­me­di­ately to our east is Lit­tle Broughton. To the west stretches the main­land and the Myall Lakes and, south, across wa­ter the set­ting sun has turned to beaten cop­per, Cab­bage Tree Is­land and Port Stephens.

Be­low us is the com­pact uni­verse of our tem­po­rary is­land home. Im­prob­a­bly, it turns out to be a breed­ing haven for the rare green and golden bell frog. Leo finds one in our camp­site on the first night, a dis­cov­ery that leaves him absolutely be­side him­self.

But it’s the mut­ton­birds — or shear­wa­ters — who star. This is their is­land and Broughton is the only one of Aus­tralia’s seabird nest­ing colonies in which you’re al­lowed to camp.

We get to see them in pretty much their full spec­trum of de­vel­op­ment. Some are al­ready re­splen­dent in adult plumage, some blun­der­ing com­i­cally into our camp­site at night in their baby down. Oth­ers are in be­tween, with feath­ers on top and fluff be­low, cre­at­ing the ir­re­sistible im­age of a seabird nest­ing in a Rus­sian fur hat.

As the younger chicks sob­bingly is­sue their din­ner or­ders from their bur­rows, we watch their par­ents hur­tle silently into the moon­blanched night to raid the pantry of the sea.

na­tion­al­parks.nsw.gov.au/ broughton

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