ICONIC VIEW: Looking south from the summit of Tomaree Head, through the landscape where the coastal walk is planned to go. Picture: Supplied

ICONIC VIEW: Looking south from the summit of Tomaree Head, through the landscape where the coastal walk is planned to go. Picture: Supplied

Tomaree Coastal Walk project treads its way through debates in Port Stephens

Tomaree Coastal Walk project treads its way through debates in Port Stephens

Tourism
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As the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service continues planning what it says will be an "iconic" 20-kilometre walking track along the coast, Port locals debate whether the pursuit of tourism with this project comes at a cost to the environment and little communities.

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WHEN Jamie Tarrant explores the Port Stephens coastline, he is walking in the footsteps of his forebears.

"It's special to me," says Mr Tarrant, a proud Worimi man and visitor services assistant with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). "On my European side is the Tarrant family, who have used these lands and waters for commercial fishing for the last four generations.

"From a Worimi perspective, and the European heritage, that mix, it's something special, to know what my forefathers and ancestors have utilised and experienced in the area."

As he talks, Jamie Tarrant is treading through a beautiful place called Big Rocky, and he points out a midden, indicating where many generations of Worimi people feasted on seafood.

"It's sort of one of the local hidden secrets," says Mr Tarrant of Big Rocky. "We all like a spot to keep for ourselves, but it's also nice to share that with the wider community."

There are designs to share this spectacular part of Port Stephens, with the Tomaree Coastal Walk. The NPWS is creating a 20-kilometre walk that follows the coastline south from Tomaree Head to Birubi Point.

The project's draft master plan states its "vision" is "to unlock the potential of Tomaree National Park as being host to one of the pre-eminent coastal walks along the east coast of Australia".

Read more: Local tourism in focus as overseas travel remains out of bounds

The NPWS' area manager Andrew Bond describes the area's natural beauty and cultural significance as iconic.

"This part of the coastline is absolutely stunning," says Andrew Bond. "It's got whales, its cultural heritage is absolutely fantastic, its viewpoints are terrific, and then you've got the historical heritage with the World War Two gun emplacements."

Port Stephens' beauty is already a drawcard. Tomaree National Park is in the top 20 of the state's most visited parks. The walk to the summit of Tomaree Head, offering panoramic views, attracts more than 200,000 visitors annually.

But the area's ever increasing popularity is putting more and more pressure on the existing paths, and that can lead to environmental degradation.

PARADISE THREATENED: Fishermans Bay residents, photographed in 2019, who are concerned about the potential impact of the coastal walk.

PARADISE THREATENED: Fishermans Bay residents, photographed in 2019, who are concerned about the potential impact of the coastal walk.

"We really have to build the facilities so we can accommodate that sort of visitation," says Andrew Bond. "It's probably a lot nicer going through a rough bush track, but the numbers of people we have mean that could be quite disastrous. So there will be formalised tracks."

The draft master plan states that facilities have not kept pace with the national park's role "as a community asset and a key visitor destination in Port Stephens", so, "to do nothing is not an option".

The plan is to upgrade some existing tracks, but about half the coastal walk will involve new paths being built. The vision also entails loop tracks to nearby attractions, such as the recently opened koala sanctuary, so that participants can undertake shorter walks. Many like the look of the Tomaree Coastal Walk.

"I think it's a great asset for the community here," says Cr Ryan Palmer, the mayor of Port Stephens. "It's an extremely positive project for the area, and it will be the envy of other LGAs [Local Government Areas] up and down the coast."

LOOKING AHEAD: Jamie Tarrant and Andrew Bond, from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, at Big Rocky, along the proposed coastal walk.

LOOKING AHEAD: Jamie Tarrant and Andrew Bond, from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, at Big Rocky, along the proposed coastal walk.

Leah Anderson, the president of Business Port Stephens and a board member of tourism organisation Destination Port Stephens, says creating the coastal walk will bring more visitor dollars to the area.

"The more people who come here, the more people shop locally," Leah Anderson says. "That's got to be good for improving our economy."

Yet what is good for the economy, some argue, is not necessarily good for the environment.

"I think the idea of a coastal walk is a great idea, I can see all the benefits, but I don't think somewhere as beautiful as these headlands should be chopped into, quite frankly," says Port Stephens resident and local history writer John "Stinker" Clarke.

John Clarke particularly opposes the walk cutting across the eastern side of three prominent hills between Tomaree and Fingal Bay. He believes the track should go to the west of the hills, because the price of offering a spectacular view on the hills' coastal side is just too high.

"It's like painting the face of the Sphinx. Do you need to?," Mr Clarke says. "You don't mess with things like that. It's too beautiful."

"You don't destroy iconic views. That view has been like that forever. And now they want to cut into it, so that some people can get a better view. Well, bugger that."

Tomaree Head at dusk. Picture: Scott Bevan

Tomaree Head at dusk. Picture: Scott Bevan

The NPWS' Andrew Bond says the eastern route offers the "wow" factor, and the plan is to mitigate the visual impact of the track.

Councillor Ryan Palmer says the walk requires "hero spots" to show off the views and attract visitors.

"I'd like to see as many hero spots as possible, but it has to be as safe as possible," Cr Ryan says.

Further along the proposed coastal walk, others don't like what is heading their way.

"It's going to have a massive impact on where we live," says Fishermans Bay resident Lee Smith. "This is going to change our lives here."

Lee Smith has a number of concerns about the walk, arguing the community doesn't have the infrastructure to cope with large visitor numbers, the route threatens the habitats of vulnerable birdlife, including the sooty oystercatcher, and the path would pass very close to homes, including his.

But Mr Smith says his objections are not a case of "Not In My Backyard", adding he supports the idea of the walk, but not just where it is planned to go in Fishermans Bay.

"I'm happy to share the view, to share the bay, it's open to the public right now," he says. "But I don't welcome 500 people a day, standing in front of my house. That's not reasonable."

Andrew Bond acknowledges the concerns and says there have been consultations with Fishermans Bay residents, and there will be more.

"But at the end of the day that is a public space, and the type of activity we're producing, it's not a theme park, it's self-reliant walking," Mr Bond says.

The opportunity for people to comment on the coastal walk's draft master plan and the review of environmental factors remains open, with the National Parks and Wildlife Service extending the exhibition period for both documents until November 3.

NPWS area manager Andrew Bond at Big Rocky, Port Stephens.

NPWS area manager Andrew Bond at Big Rocky, Port Stephens.

Andrew Bond says so far more than 120 submissions have been received.

"I don't think we've had any criticism that says 'No!'. Full stop," Mr Bond says. "So we're encouraged by that. If our public consultation process came back and said, 'No way', I'd be very disappointed."

Asked if building the coastal walk could bring visitor numbers that compromise the environmental beauty, Mr Bond says, "They're going to come anyway."

"Why I've got to build it is to protect exactly what they're coming for."

While discussions go on, and detailed designs are to be done, there is another factor that could influence the vision: money.

The NSW government has allocated $6.74 million for the project. Andrew Bond concedes that won't be enough to bring everything in the plan to reality.

"We have to cut our cloth within that $6.7 million at this stage," says Mr Bond.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service's Andrew Bond and Jamie Tarrant, a proud Worimi man, at Big Rocky.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service's Andrew Bond and Jamie Tarrant, a proud Worimi man, at Big Rocky.

Port Stephens mayor Ryan Palmer is hopeful the state government will invest more money in the project, when it sees what the coastal walk brings to the area.

The local state MP, Kate Washington, believes the coastal walk is "a really exciting opportunity for us", but says it has to be done with sensitivity to address people's concerns, and to ensure there's sufficient amenities and parking areas.

"I'm going to be seeing if there's any opportunity for more funds to get the best possible outcome," Ms Washington says.

The NPWS plans for work to begin on the coastal track early next year, and that the route between Tomaree Head and Birubi Point to be finished in 2022.

The plan is the walk will take pressure off Tomaree Head, providing other points of interest and special places for visitors and locals to explore, such as Big Rocky, without being overrun.

"It's a matter of opening up areas, to have that experience," says Jamie Tarrant. "As a local, we know what exists here, but to be able to open the doors, so to speak, to let people know what we really have.

"If you look in the context of this 20-kilometre walk, to be able to experience rock outcrops, then onto an open beach and back up onto another headland, I think it's an experience within itself."

Jamie Tarrant inspects a midden near Big Rocky.

Jamie Tarrant inspects a midden near Big Rocky.

As he looks around Big Rocky, Jamie Tarrant reckons this is a place worth sharing.

"To come here, listen to the birds, listen to the ocean, connect with nature, I think we all need that as a bit of a charge-up."

Andrew Bond smiles and murmurs, "I'd rather be here than anywhere else, frankly.

"It's just one of those gob-smacking places."

The story Tomaree Coastal Walk project treads its way through debates in Port Stephens first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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