Daniel Scott finds twin towns with fine sand and swimming lagoons are a perfect match.
Some people should never go fishing. Perhaps some scaly god has put a hex on me, bringing me nothing but humiliation at every attempt since I was a boy. I've fallen into a freezing river while angling in Scotland, my inability to grasp the art of fly-fishing has made a Kiwi guide cry and I've distinguished myself as the only punter in years to catch nothing but sunburn in the marlin-strewn Indian Ocean off Kenya.
Today, at sea on an Ocean Quest fishing charter off Forster-Tuncurry, the latter of which reputedly means "plenty of fish" in the local Worimi language, my jinx has spread to the entire boat. It's not that the 10 other fishermen on board aren't catching anything in these teeming waters. It's more that the summer swell has turned most of us a shade of green. Two particularly sorry individuals have had their heads hanging over the bow ever since we left Forster four hours ago.
You've got to love the cheerful spirit that endures on a fishing trip in difficult conditions such as this. Throughout the morning, skipper John Duggan keeps up a jolly banter while administering chicken and salad rolls and coffee to his beleaguered troops. Even more heroic is the teenage deckhand named Lucky, who doesn't flinch from his line-untangling and bait-preparing responsibilities despite his regular bouts of seasickness.
But I am most impressed by an older New Zealander perched beside me. Lashed by rain and also afflicted by serious retching, the smile doesn't leave his face and he never deserts his rod. His fortitude is rewarded as he hooks several good-sized snapper.
I, meanwhile, catch nothing bigger than you could win in a coconut shy at a funfair. Time and again I sense a pull on my line, jerk it up and reel in to find my bait mangled or missing. At least my personal fiasco doesn't dent the ardour of those able-bodied fishermen left aboard, who pull in enough snapper, leatherjacket and trevally to feed a small army.
As we pull back into the harbour, all aboard the Ocean Quest are offered another opportunity to head out on a calmer day.
"It's been refreshing," responds a pale, sodden Englishman, "but I'll take a rain check, thanks."
I've lived near the twin holiday towns of Forster and Tuncurry for three years and until now have neglected their charms. Scurrilous detractors might label them "God's waiting room" due to the large number of retirees living here but domestic tourists continue to flock to the area for traditional bucket-and-spade family holidays.
The coast here is blessed with fine sands and beaches of every kind. Tuncurry and Forster have safe town beaches, the former a netted rock pool and the latter with ocean baths. Curving south around Forster's shoreline are the Tanks - child-friendly lagoons protected by an unusual rock formation; glorious One Mile Beach, which dips down dramatically from a lofty dune at its northern end; small, quiet Burgess Beach; and, squirreled away at the end of a deeply rutted track, is McBrides Beach. There is excellent surfing north of Tuncurry, off Nine Mile Beach, and south of Forster, off Seven Mile Beach, and all along the coast to Seal Rocks.
But what really distinguishes these twin towns is their position on either side of the broad outlet of Wallis Lake. On sunny days there are few more alluring sights than the lake's emerald waters sparkling beneath the bridge that connects Forster with Tuncurry.
The location and the abundant supply of food from sea and lake were ideal for the Worimi people. Later, in the mid-to-late 19th century, settlers exploited the conjunction of lake and ocean for shipbuilding, fishing and to service the local timber industry. The towns became inextricably linked with the construction of the bridge in 1959.
Today the combination of Wallis Lake and the beautiful coastline makes Forster-Tuncurry an aquatic playground and I'm ready to explore. So, when the weather clears, I take out a kayak, paddling beyond the bridge at the lake outlet.
Within minutes the jinx that afflicted my fishing trip has returned. Turning across a small boat's wake, I capsize. Despite several attempts I can't climb back in. The tide is receding and I'm being washed back towards the busy lake, clinging to the kayak.
About 10 seconds later the kayak smacks against a bridge pylon and it's knocked clear of my grip. I make a frantic grab for the pylon. Big mistake. It's covered in razor-sharp oyster shells. Did I mention that Wallis Lake has a flourishing oyster industry?
Inevitably I panic, certain that all that blood in the water from my scratches will attract hungry sharks. A kind local man in a tinny spots me, retrieves my kayak and repatriates us both to shore.
That afternoon I follow a coastal path south of Forster that disappears into the thick bush of Booti Booti National Park. I puff along the cliff-top track and eventually emerge at the foot of the 440-metre steps to Cape Hawke Lookout. By the time I reach the top of the viewing tower I am so exhausted I have trouble focusing on the spectacular 360-degree views over Forster, the coast and Wallis Lake. But I'm put to shame by Mary, a pensioner doing her daily step routine: 10 times up and down the tower.
Back home I nurse a bruised ego overnight, collect my two-year-old daughter and join the popular Amaroo dolphin cruise, reasoning that bringing her along will keep me out of trouble. But Mila has other ideas, employing the boat as her own personal kindy-gym, swinging on railings and hopping between decks, while I follow in hot pursuit. The skipper, Matt Coombe, remains indulgent throughout and finds us a pod of 50 bottlenose dolphins just off Nine Mile Beach.
Next morning is a pearly summer's day in the twin towns. I take a deep breath and lead Mila aboard a Free Spirit Cruise of Wallis Lake. As we glide past the lake's extensive oyster leases it seems I've finally found a way of enjoying Forster and Tuncurry's backyard without risk of injury. Best of all, today's lunchtime tour is a kid's cruise and the staff help keep Mila occupied with building blocks, drawing and making sausage dogs out of balloons.
I sit back, enjoy an excellent chardonnay from the local Great Lakes Winery over lunch and watch the waterway - 23 kilometres long and nine kilometres wide - and its 27 islands unfold. During the cruise we pass osprey nests, a big pelican rookery and a large flock of black swans. I end the cruise more convinced than ever by the appeal of these seaside, lakeside towns.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Mid-North Coast Tourism, the Dorsal Hotel, Ocean Quest Charters, Amaroo Cruises and Free Spirit Cruises.
Forster-Tuncurry is about 300 kilometres north of Sydney, via the Pacific Highway and Lakes Way. Rex airlines has daily flights from Sydney to nearby Taree.
The Dorsal Boutique Hotel is the pick of the towns' accommodation, overlooking Forster's Main Beach. Rooms from $180 a night, see dorsalhotel.com.au. There are numerous motels and beach and lakeside caravan parks in the region.
Top-quality eateries are thin on the ground but Forster's Bella Bellissimo restaurant (Memorial Drive, phone 6555 6411) and Reef Bar Grill (1 Wharf Street, phone 6555 7092) have good locations overlooking Wallis Lake.
Ocean Quest Deep Sea Fishing Charters runs half-day trips from Forster for $100 a person. The same company has dive trips to the Pinnacles and Seal Rocks. Phone 6555 4053, see actiondivers.com.au.
Amaroo dolphin watch cruises depart Forster at 10am most days. Cost is $45 adults, $25 children. Phone 0419 333 445, see amaroocruise.com.au.
Free Spirit Cruises runs regular Wallis Lake trips, including 2½-hour lunch and dinner cruises, for $44 adults, $22 children. Phone 6555 2225, see freespiritcruises.com.au.
For more information, phone 1800 802 692. See greatlakes.org.au.