Tents and sensibilities on Broughton Island
THE FAMILY TOURIST
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.