IT'S ABOUT 3AM. I'm barefoot, half asleep, walking across the grassy embankment to the amenities block. I catch a glimpse of something on the path and freeze. There, staring back at me, are the bulging amber eyes of a green and golden bell frog, one of Australia's most threatened amphibians.
This is the kind of lucky break you can hope for on New South Wales' beautiful Broughton Island. Accessible only by boat, the island is home to an amazing array of wildlife, from ghost crabs on beaches to seabird colonies on rocky outcrops.
Our adventure begins in Port Stephens, just north of Newcastle. At Nelson Bay marina, we board a 50-foot catamaran, where our skipper, Frank, demonstrates an alternative use for a lifejacket whistle. "You can use it to poke an attacking shark in the eye if you need," he says with a chuckle. And so, safety briefing sorted, we're off.
Camping and wildlife in New South Wales
Port Stephens' offshore islands have a prehistoric look about them, untouched and wild. We sail between the isles, past towering cliffs and wave-battered beaches, while seabirds soar overhead. I'm gazing up at the ancient rainforest of Cabbage Tree Island when, suddenly, whales appear. A humpback whale breeches, then I see two whales spouting. This pair kindly escorts us all the way to Broughton Island.
About 14km north-east of Port Stephens, Broughton Island is a part of Myall Lakes National Park. The tranquillity of the island is a far cry from the busy marina we left this morning. In the 1930s, fishermen built huts in the most sheltered parts of the island – the last of these still stand one beach over from our camp. Each hut resembles a school demountable equipped with solar power and water tanks. They're surrounded by manicured lawns adorned with deck chairs and barbecues.
Our camp at Little Poverty Beach is a little less developed, but not without home comforts. We have come prepared with tasty supplies – fresh fruit, plenty of cold drinks and lamb chops for dinner. We camp on wooden platforms with anchor points for tents. It's prime real estate just a few steps from the sand and the views are splendid.
Islands of Myall Lakes National Park
Suzanne Callahan, a ranger for the Myall Lakes region, affectionately calls the island her "office" and is charged with taking care of all 148 hectares of it. On our second day, she volunteers to take our group to the island's highest point.
We wait for low tide then walk along the beach and across the rocky shoreline. The rocks are seeping freshwater from an aquifer deep in the centre of the island. "After rain you can fill a water bottle with it," Suzanne says.
We hike to the edge of the headland then clamber up the rocks and into the scrub, which is tall and thick, parting only for a narrow, steep goat track up the hill. An hour later, we reach the top, 90m above sea level and a fantastic vantage point.
From here, I can see Little Broughton Island and "the Looking Glass". This narrow waterway cutting through the island is a deep crevasse home to hundreds of fish, rays and a grey nurse shark nursery; scuba divers love it.
On the way down, we do some bush bashing to reach the other side of the island and its smooth sands and turquoise water. There we indulge in a well-deserved swim. I am neck-deep in water so clear I can see my feet digging into the sand below.
Whales, penguins and shearwaters
Terry Domico is a naturalist who's been working in the Myall Lakes region for the past 10 years. He takes us to the northern part of Broughton Island's largest beach, where little penguins are known to nest.
"These are wild animals, they're not habituated like other little penguin populations, so you need to make sure you're quiet or they won't come out of the water," Terry explains.
We sit silently among the rocks in the dark, waiting. Our patience pays off and we spot a pair of tiny penguins, no taller than 30cm, shuffling up the beach, then scurrying back into the water.
After sunset, the shearwaters return to nest and their coos can be heard across the island. On our journey back to camp we can't help but marvel at the island's birdlife. "It's the only place in New South Wales that you can camp on an active nesting site for shearwaters," Suzanne says.
Visiting Broughton Island
Getting there: Access is by boat only. For a guided tour, including food and gear, Imagine Cruises offer a two night camping experience. Other tour operators leave from Nelson Bay marina who will drop you on the island. If travelling by private vessel, you'll need to register your movements with Marine Rescue Port Stephens on marine radio prior to travel.
When to go: Whale watching season is between May and November, or you can see dolphins between November and April if you prefer the warmer weather.
Campsites: The campground is basic with three timber camping platforms and two grassy sites to choose from. If you're not on a guided tour you'll need to be self sufficient and bring all your equipment and supplies, including water for drinking and cooking. Bring some extra rope to assist in securing tents to anchor points if you decide to camp on a timber platform. $30 per night, for two people only. $10 per additional adult and $5 per additional child per night.
Find more info: www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/broughton
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