(Australian Associated Press)
I am, by and large, a happy camper.
I spent my formative years chasing wild deer away from open tins of baked beans; wading through streams in hopes of encountering leeches; and chasing the dream that is successfully locking one’s elder sister inside a dome tent using nothing more than a hair elastic.
Not so my beloved, whose concept of a back-to-nature experience involves swapping his morning Weet-Bix for granola.
And so it is in the spirit of compromise that we pack ourselves into our humble Yaris for a decidedly on-road adventure.
It will be our first weekend away in almost two years, and our last before we are due to wed in the spring. Both of us could use a holiday.
We are bound for the Thou Walla Sunset Retreat at Soldiers Point, Port Stephens. Less than three hours’ drive north of Sydney, it is one of a growing number of glamping destinations popping up along the NSW coast.
Thou walla – pronounced “dha walla” – is a Worimi word meaning “meeting or gathering place”. The Worimi people have lived in and around this area for centuries, and only a few weeks before our stay the state government declares almost six hectares of land at Soldiers Point an official Aboriginal place, in recognition of its special significance to the Worimi community.
Somewhere between a campsite and a laid-back seaside resort, Thou Walla offers 10 safari tents set amongst lush native gardens and promises an escape from the city for couples who don’t know their pegs from their poles. (There are also one- and two-bedroom villas and cottages on offer for those unwilling to go full canvas.)
Our tent is perfectly positioned. I’ve barely set down my overnight bag but with one look at the view – our flyscreen “windows” look directly out onto the marina and the water beyond – I’m ready to go exploring.
My fiance, who has already kicked off his shoes and settled in on the massive daybed on our private timber deck for a spot of Candy Crush, needs a little more convincing.
I hustle him away from the tent and we meander down to a nearby wooden pier to watch the sun set over the Karuah River and dangle our feet over the edge in silent contemplation.
It is the kind of peace I’ve rarely found outside midsummer trips to far-flung beaches and it is broken only by the sound of my partner’s stomach rumbling – a reminder we have a dinner reservation.
We make our way to The Point, which sits atop the marina just footsteps away from Thou Walla, and could hold its own alongside Sydney’s waterside dining offerings.
One hundred-and-eighty-degree views of the water compete for our attention with the food itself.
The Sea Breeze cocktail is sweet but not saccharine, and the Tasmanian salmon melts in my mouth.
My fiance finishes his cannelloni – baked eggplant, capsicum, spinach, pine nut and fetta in a white miso sauce – and then eyes his empty plate with a look I fear signals he is about to lick it.
I hiss at him that I still have time to call off the wedding and he wordlessly pushes it away.
By the time we have polished off dessert – a buttery rhubarb and apple crumble – we are so overstuffed that it’s all we can manage to stagger back up to our tent and fall into our king-sized bed.
Between the fireplace and the flat-screen TV, it’s easy to forget we’re supposed to be roughing it.
But a whiff of the compost toilet in our ensuite is enough to jog my memory, and the birdcall that cuts through the thin walls of our tent takes me straight back to childhood trips out bush.
And in the morning I wake to find fiance back on our deck, looking out across the river, with nary a smartphone in sight.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Soldiers Point is under three hours’ drive from Sydney, and only 15 minutes by car from the popular seaside resort town of Nelson Bay. The Port Stephens region is serviced by Newcastle Airport, which offers connections to east coast capital cities and some regional centres, including the Gold Coast, Dubbo and Taree.
STAYING THERE: Thou Walla Sunset Retreat offers safari tent accommodation as well as villas and cottages for those who want a more traditional weekender experience. With only 10 tents available, reservations are recommended (www.twsr.com.au).
PLAYING THERE: Hop on a quad bike or even a camel to explore the nearby Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, the longest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. These other-worldly dunes reach heights of over 30 metres.
* The author was a guest of Thou Walla Sunset Retreat.