Things are looking up.
The moneyed sprawl of the North Shore-on-Sea gives way to scrubby-fronted Bundy-towel adorned fibros, interspersed with empty lots, like a decaying mouth, its teeth gone south. Run down, tired of the uphill crawl, The Entrance is bereft and our search for decent coffee runs aground. A lonesome jar of International Roast sits plaintively in a milk bar window, jostling for space with a jaded copy of Women’s Day and a dust monster. Oh. Wait. That’s the owner.
Catherine Hill Bay is a scrabble of gentrified and still aging weatherboards, overlooking a sulky, grey ocean. An idyllic haven, blighted by a one-time coal mine, its rusty limbs ghost-like on the horizon, the town is fighting a mass development threat. Catho is garlanded in protest banners, but the fear lingers in the air. One more victim of our gross excess?
The road threads north past crumpled wrecks, former livelihoods swallowed whole by the present, while carnie trucks swagger and boast, bivouacs of latent distrust and glorious abandon. Theirs is a rural retreat from the flashing lights and the easy sell.
Passing one drive-thru-life after another, Newcastle hoves into view, its outer suburbs greasy with failed promise yet clutching tightly to the Australian dream. It’s memory tarnished with the gritty inevitability of the rich seam of coal beneath its lands, Newcastle is slowly re-emerging, its chrysalis sparkling with well-crafted tourism slogans and the promise of a newer, less grimy future. It is, apparently, my Brand Newcastle…
The seaside town of Stockton, known for its untamed sands, shipwrecks and aircraft crashes, squats to the north, an empty shell of a former existence clinging to its vapid association with its big sister. Separated by a thread of dieselly water, Stockton can be reached by an arching bridge that sets you down next to a coal mine. Literally. Next. To. A. Coal. Mine. Well, that sets the scene.
Just past the military installation, complete with edgy looking concrete bunkers, the slipway, the bowlo and the cemetery, the streets of the town all lead to the water. The beach flashes meaningful looks at us, while the harbour is choked with lumbering coal tankers, their horns the symphony of a briny life. Three pubs mark the boundaries of social interaction, the local with outside tables bristling with insider knowledge, the old man’s pub, rheumy and sad, and the new kid, tarted up, all gloss and chrome and rules.
All eyes are on Betty as she rumbles in.
An intriguing mix of gentrified weekenders and scarred, wafer-thin weatherboard the two halves of life are sadly evident. The haves have the polished pebble, spiky succulent in a beige pot plant by the front door and an alarm set-up, while the rest have a scrabble of boards, rusting 4WDs, dog leads, wellies and scuffed sand shoes filling the yard, the paint is peeling and life spills messily onto the road.
The chick at the bottlo filled us in. She reckoned that Stockton was chockers full of drug addicts, alcos and thieves and we should get the hell out like she did, you know, over the bridge?
Parked up next to a mob with a gaggle of kids, an old fella who called himself Jumbo and drank mids with a dedication rarely seen and the flotsam of a holiday caravan park.
And caravan parks are a whole other story.