Bar Beach is surprisingly beautiful and I only say that because Newcastle was once a heavy industrial port. This was confirmed by my guidebook and by a woman with eyeliner pooled under her eyes and a throaty cough. She was walking her dog with one hand and clutching her cigarette in the other.
“It used to be dirty.”
“Yeah, really dirty.” She squeezed a squeaky yellow ball; her dog did not pay attention.
“It’s much nicer since the steelworks closed. The ride up the coast is also beautiful.”
She was right. The three hour train ride from Sydney wound through eucalypt forests and along wooded lakes. The only drawback was that the Sydney metro system was not made for bicycles. In the older carriages, a narrow door leads into a small antechamber with a cabinet. It looks like it should hold an ironing board, but it has a hook for one bicycle.
Barret hung up his bike and I tied mine to a metal railing. I hoped people wouldn’t complain too much as they traveled between compartments. Despite the odd grumbling stroller pusher, it was definitely worth it. Saturday was a beautiful sunny day and we couldn’t wait to ride down Fernleigh Track, a disused railway line that had been repurposed.
We stopped at café along the route before continuing on to Redhead Beach. It was named after a giant sea-facing cliff that cast a large, cool shadow in the late morning sun.
By the end of the day we had cycled around 30 kilometers: from Redhead Beach to Bar Beach, down hip Darby Street, past the Newcastle Ocean Baths, and around Fort Scratchley. Downtown was mostly empty, but the bars were beginning to open like night flowers.
The ride on the train back down to Sydney was even more crowded with two-wheeled devices. Barret and I got off the train with the rest of the bicyclists at Morisset, a town on the skirt of Lake Macquarie. Instead of heading for the lake, we went in the direction of the Morisset Mental Health Hospital.
Small groups of tourists were walking in both directions down the forested road and a few locals ran parallel to the road on motorbike tracks. Their noisy engines were the only disturbance.
At the end of the 4km road was a compound of red brick buildings reminiscent of a small military outpost. There was as administration center for visitors, trade shops, a rec hall, a Grease Tank, and a Doctors Cottage. It was a Sunday afternoon and no one was around. I imagined all of the residents packed inside the small chapel that overlooked the lake, a cloud of mosquitoes waiting in the cool recesses.
It was an odd place for tourists to make a pilgrimage to, but then it was also the best place to have a close encounter with wallabies. They were all over the place, sleeping, lounging, and scratching their backs like they were doing the limbo. More wallabies poured out of the woods like water draining from a sieve.
I was so excited when I saw a wallaby with a baby in pouch. Finally, an opportune moment to stalk the perimeter just like the naturalist demonstrated on the Great Barrier Reef. I walked around the group “browsing” like a confused shopper just as a large family got out of their car.
As the family encroached, little furry ears pricked up. The wallabies began to hop away from me and towards the family with their hands full of white bread.
I walked past the one of the adults holding the bag of bread. “That’s bad for them you know.” It was the third time today I had told someone that. There were didactic signs tacked to several of the trees: bread + wallabies = death.
The guy with the bread shrugged and I walked back to my bike.
How to get to the Morisset Mental Health Hospital: Cnr Silky Oak Drive & Acacia Avenue, Morisset NSW 2264