Hidden gem, NSW: The phenomenal Stockton Sand Dunes are much more than a desert playground

With travel to the Middle East off the cards this year, dreams of an Arabian desert experience may have been shelved. But a little over two hours' north of Sydney lies the phenomenal Stockton Bight Sand Dunes - the largest moving coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. Created tens of thousands of years ago, the otherworldly dunes are far more than a desert playground - its ancient layers holding the secrets of the Worimi people, the traditional custodians of Port Stephens.

Located in the 4200-hectare Worimi Conservation Lands, the remarkable dunes stretch 32 kilometres from Birubi Beach in Port Stephens all the way to Newcastle.

Andrew Smith, Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO, said the dunes are made up of three layers (waves). The current layer is around three thousand years old, but the first wave goes back a staggering 2.5 million years to the Pleistocene period, he said. "We've got significant Aboriginal sites there that we have a responsibility to protect."

The Worimi lived where the dunes stand in the second wave, but back then it wasn't the desert landscape it is today.

"They lived with an abundance of vegetation, shade, fresh food, water and resources on the edge of the ocean," Smith says.

Remarkably, there's an ancient language that's still out on the lands and language connects the Worimi to that through story, Smith says.

"The Worimi stood where the Birubi Beach Surf Club is now and ate, rested, swam, feasted and caught food. The top carpark used to actually have rock fish ovens, burial sites and ceremonial grounds. The coastline is also home to one of the world's largest great white shark nesting grounds and it's where they found some of the oldest shell fish hooks on Australia's east coast."

A whale dreaming story is also connected to the Birubi Beach site. Visitors can learn about the ancient stories through a new Aboriginal place signage project and will eventually be able to hear elders tell their story via digital screens.

"It's an intangible story that you can't hold, feel or touch; it's only something you can listen to with your heart," Smith says.

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There are countless ways visitors can experience the dunes today, co-managed by the Worimi land council and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. You can explore by foot, in your own 4WD, via quad bike tours with Sand Dune Adventures (who operate on private freehold sand dunes), on a camel ride or by sand boarding down dunes towering up to 30 metres high.

The dunes are also home to the little-known Tin City, a fascinating off-grid settlement which appeared in the original Mad Max movie. Michael Zoneff's family have owned a ramshackle hut in Tin City since the seventies but the historic community was first established a century ago by and for shipwrecked sailors and returned soldiers.

Zoneff's family used to access Tin City via an old army track through the bush back when hardly anyone owned a 4WD or knew anything about the dunes.

"When we were kids we'd have bonfires and cracker night. A Fijian family would make a lovo (underground BBQ). Now my kids get to enjoy it. There are no cars, no danger and they can explore freely."

"I love climbing to the top of the dunes where you can see the ocean spread before you, the lights of Newcastle in the distance and watch for wildlife including kangaroos and goannas. The dunes are constantly moving and changing."

Zoneff loves the feeling of freedom the dunes offer. "The hot summers and crisp winters. You don't feel fenced in. You can walk through the bush, go fishing and it's amazing at night beneath a blanket of stars."

DETAILS

A number of adventure tours are offered on the dunes. Vehicle access is via Lavis Lane at Williamtown in the south or Gan Gan Road at Anna Bay to the north. You'll need to buy a special permit to drive along the beach. If you don't have a four-wheel-drive, access is via Birubi Point at Anna Bay. See portstephens.org.au/see-and-do/the-dunes/

See also: The spectacular sea baths carved by convicts

See also: Best destinations for a short break in Australia

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