My pockets are full of sand. My shoes are full of sand. The car is full of sand. Sand is currently prevalent in my life – but compared to the people who live in the amazing Tin City, tucked into the Stockton Sand Dunes between Newcastle and Port Stephens in NSW, Australia – I have nothing to worry about. I mean, look at it…. can you imagine, the vacuuming!
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Taking a Tin City tour was the number one reason we chose to go to Newcastle on a recent short break.
Newcastle is New South Wales’ second most populated city and just a two-hour easy drive up the motorway from our house.
While the idea of going on holiday so close to home felt a bit odd, as soon as I saw the pictures of the desolate sand-strewn shacks of Tin City listed as one of the sights near Newcastle it suddenly rocked up the ‘must-see’ list… a few weeks later we were standing in a car park in Anna Bay waiting for Ana from Sand Dune Safaris to pick us up.
You see, while Tin City is an open secret in the local area, and, the Stockton sand dunes that sits upon are open to drive down (if you have a 4wd) you can’t just rock up with your camera and have a wander.
You have to go on an organised tour – partly,. because these are people’s homes and therefore they probably don’t want loads of people arriving randomly when they are vacuuming and secondly, because the traditional owners of the land, the Worimi people, don’t want people making a mess of things.
Sand Dune Safaris have a license that let them show people around parts of Tin City legally and respectfully.
We were so glad we were on a tour – we learned heaps about the shacks that we’d never have known just turning up for a looksy and the tour was far more than just a Tin City tour.
More on that in a minute though as I guess that googling Tin City tours (or some other clever keyword) got you here so let’s talk a little bit about Tin City..
Why is Tin City on Stockton Beach?
It’s not secret that Tin City was built on Stockton Beach as a place to home shipwreck survivors. It’s rough out on those waters.
The sea at Stockton is unforgiving – and it’s estimated over 100 ships have sunk in the waters nearby.
When this happened, the rescuers needed somewhere to put the rescued sailors and so two tin shacks were built..
During the Great Depression though, more huts were built and a tiny community grew up. At one point nearly 40 men lived on the site – many of them returned soldiers.
Today, only eleven homes are left, but there’s still a community here.
Two of the homes are lived in full time – one of them by a gentleman called Alwyn who is in his 70s! The other by Robbie, who has the quirkiest house in the city.
The others are family holiday homes passed down through the generations. That’s the only way you can now own a Tin City shack – although apparently, fridges have been known to go on sale around these parts costing around $50,000 and, strangely they seem to come with some rooms attached!!
As I said, I’m not going to spoil anything else about the tour as Ana will tell you all about the unusual fabric the houses are built on to stop them disappearing and where they get their water from – but some things to look out for when you’re there are the beer keg chimney and the fun details in the unique house below.
It’s an amazing place – and as you stand there surrounded by sand stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction, it’s hard to imagine what living here must be like.
As someone on my TikTok page (@Differentville) asked ‘how much must you dislike people to want to move there’ – Mr Differentville, who generally doesn’t like people, was checking wifi signal and practically measuring up a plot!
The other feeling you get as you stand there, looking at the mismatched panels and ramshackle edges on the shacks is,’this looks like something out of Mad Max’ – no wonder it’s said to have been a location in the first film (but, as Adrian from the Mad Max Museum in Silverton points out in the comments below, it’s not quite true).
But it’s not just Tin City that’s interesting about this area. Every so often the illusion that you’re alone out here will be rudely shattered by a piercing rumbling whine in the air. It gets louder and lounder until eventually, a fighter jet from the nearby RAAF base Williamtown comes screaming over your head.
They regularly test flight patterns over the dunes – which used to be a bombing base back in the day – and every so often, the area gets closed off as they discover a leftover bomb or tank when the sands shift.
It really is a unique place to live!
Sand, Sand and More Sand
Not only is standing in the middle of the dunes with literally sand and sky the only thing you can for 360 degrees, quite a breathtaking experience, this is also no ordinary sand which is why it gets its own heading.
Tin City is located in the middle of the Stockton Bight, the largest shifting sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere.
The dunes created by the swirling sand measure 32 km and can be up to 30 metres high in places. Every year they move a little further north – and in some areas are starting to swallow up the trees that edge the dunes.
The height of the dune and the very high silica content in the sand also makes the area good for something else. Sand boarding. And this is also part of the Tin City tour with Sand Dune Safaris.
What’s Sand Boarding Like?
Sand boarding sees you sitting, or, if you’re brave/stupid and availed of good balance, standing, on a white plastic board – and, then pushing yourself towards the edge of the dune.
It’s steady at first, but then, as you pick up speed all you can do is shout wheeeeeee as you hurtle to the bottom (hoping that the tip about just digging your fingers in the sand behind you to slow you down is going to work.)
I admit, I wasn’t sure at first. But once I’d got myself moving and slipped off down the hill, all I wanted to do was do it again, and again and again – although I admit climbing back up the dune to get to your starting point is not as easy as sliding down it!
Once you’ve mastered the baby slope, there are two steeper slopes to slip down if you want to. I quit while I was ahead and still shouting ‘that’s brilliant’. Mr Differentville braved the second slope (excellent but scary was the verdict) – and managed to stand up on his board. At least most of the way down the dune anyway.
Check out the video of my first attempt here…
The Tin City tour last around two and a half hours and what I’ve talked about above is only part of what the tour offers.
You’ll also learn how do the pipi twist, get a crash course in Australian birdlife, hear tall tales of life on the beach – like the guy who decided it would be a really good idea to try and drive a Maserati down it – which ended pretty much as well as you might expect.
If you’re staying in nearby Nelson Bay, Ana is also full of ideas of places to eat and check out so pick her brains.
How to Get to Tin City, Stockton Beach
As I said, you have to take a Tin City tour to legally visit the settlement.
These go most days in the week, if there are enough people. Times vary as they are timed with the tides to give you the best experience.
Head to the Sand Dunes Safaris website for more information.
If you have a car, it’s easy to reach the tour pick up point whether you stay in Newcastle, Nelson Bay or Port Stephens.
Spending the Day Around the Dunes
And there really is a lot to do up here in the area around Anna Bay where we picked up our tour, you could…
Ride camels. Join a caravan of beautiful humpy ones on a walk along the beautiful beach with Oakfield Ranch. They have a ticket office at the same area as you pick up your Tin City tour and you don’t need to book to take one of the 20-minute long day time rides. If you want to wander along the beautiful beach at sunset though on one of their Friday or Saturday tours, you will need a booking. Here’s where to find out more.
Go Quadbiking across the dunes. If Ana’s dune driving wasn’t fast or bumpy enough for you, you can book a Quad bike tour of the dunes. Or, if you want to drive your own car around and have some fun, you can join a Dune Tag Along Tour which teaches you how to drive the dunes in a fun way – safely. Have a look here to see more.
Pet a Shark: As I said, this is shark country and there are two places nearby where you can visit and interact with rescued sharks and stingrays. Click here to book tickets to the popular Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounter in advance. They also offer upgrades to swim with sharks and other experiences on site – or via their website.
Check out the Planes: If the jets flying over peaked your interest, then check out Fighter World on the way back to Newcastle.
If you’re staying longer also have a look at our post on where to swim with wild dolphins in Port Stephens.
Why didn’t we do any of these things? Because we went on a Wednesday – and most of the other attractions tend to open closer to the weekends. The camel rides are open six days a week – but guess what day they take off?. Yes, Wednesday – well I guess it is hump day!
If you want to make a day of it in the area therefore make sure you book a day when things are open.
A Quick Note About Swimming.
The beach here is beautiful – and on a hot day the sea looks super inviting. Before you decide to dive in though, as with many Australian beaches, Stockton Beach while it looks idyllic on the shore, once you get into the water you need to watch for rips and other dangers.
It’s also shark country – the mummy sharks (doo de doo) leave their baby sharks (doo de doo) in nursery waters off Stockton Beach and, while they don’t usually feed at Stockton (apparently nearby Hawks Nest is the local canteen for Jawsalikes), if you do want to swim, do it between the flags so if you do get into any trouble someone might be able to help and if does all go all Amity out there, you’ll get warned!
Check out the full details on beach safety and the patrols here.
So there you have it – a quick guide to Tin City and the Tin City tours at Stockton Beach. So, have I tempted you to go? Let me know in the comments.
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