Daniel Scott discovers Crowdy Bay is an inexpensive, charming site for first-time family camping.
'I think it's called gradual adjustment to your environment," suggests the child psychologist father of my daughters' friends on our first afternoon of camping at Crowdy Bay. We've led the foals to water, so to speak, by bringing them to one of the state's best coastal national parks, where we can practically trip over the wildlife.
However, so far the elements that fascinate the children are our cars and the toilet block at Kylies Beach camping area. Even when we bring out their mini camp chairs, they're quickly turned into a four-seat aeroplane.
To be fair, this is the first camping trip for our daughters, Mila and Freya (aged three and one), as it is for their four- and two-year-old chums, Jembe and India. While all the parents are seasoned campers, bringing children is a new experience.
Will they take to sleeping under canvas? Will the rain that accompanied us to Crowdy Bay blight our days? Is that group of teenagers occupying the prime camping spots at Kylies going to spoil the tranquillity with their doof-doof music? Will we freeze on this first weekend of spring? Perhaps the parents are adjusting, too.
Soon after we arrive the sun comes out (and the next two days are sunny). We find a secluded clearing in which to pitch our tents, where the only sounds are birdsong and the muffled growl of the sea. And, finally, after something of a struggle, my family's new three-room super-tent is up and furnished with a plethora of comforts, including a queen-size mattress, portacot and enough blankets to ensure warmth in Himalayan conditions.
With composting toilets and cold showers at Kylies, one of Crowdy's four drive-in camping areas, it's not exactly "glamping". However, at $10 an adult a night and with children aged under five admitted free, it's significantly cheaper than a tented camp.
"It's very affordable for families to come here," the Crowdy Bay ranger Cathy Mardell says when she drops by during our weekend stay. "It's the real deal and that's disappearing along the coast now.
"The level of amenities here means that it's comfortable enough and there's equity built in; it's not just available to people who can splash out on expensive accommodation."
On the other hand, you don't get an executive chef - just parents producing a please-all first-night pasta on a camping stove (asparagus, olives, cherry tomatoes and pesto, in case you wondered). For the kids at least, the novelty of eating around the campfire outweighs the questionable cuisine - fires are permitted, one reason we've chosen Crowdy Bay.
After dinner, we extract the last ounces of energy from our children by taking them spotlighting for possums in the camping ground trees. Then, before it's 7pm, they're inside the tents listening to bedtime stories by torchlight. Half-an-hour later, the adults reconvene by the fire and commune beneath an incandescent crescent moon.
It's Father's Day the next morning but my three-year-old shows no mercy, dragging me into the grey light of dawn before the kookaburras have stirred. Fortified by a mug of tea and warmed by the first glimmer of sun settling on our clearing, I begin to appreciate the punishingly early start.
It's not often you experience the Australian bush at the break of day, watching kangaroos licking dew off their fur or having to rescue your one-year-old from diving head-first into a long-drop toilet.
The rest of the day, spent exploring Crowdy Bay, is equally memorable. After a porridge breakfast we set out to do as much of the park's 4.8-kilometre loop walk between Indian Head and Diamond Head as the kids can manage. The two youngest are bundled into backpacks and the older two set off at a canter along the shortest, inland section of the walk, which runs through forest and coastal heath. It's a flawless spring day and soon we're treated to views over Dunbogan Beach, a long, white smile running north from Diamond Head.
Taking turns at parenting while the kids play in rock pools, the adults get the chance to complete the loop, following the trail along 100-metre-high cliffs back to Indian Head. The headland is as characterful as any I've seen in the state, with rock towers and spits crafted by unforgiving waves and wind. Of all the natural sculptures seen from the trail, The Arch, spanning two large offshore rocks in a bubbling froth of ocean, is the most eye-catching. You can see why Crowdy Bay so inspired the author Kylie Tennant (1912-1988), who lived for many years in a nearby hut.
The inspiration is mutual: several of the national park's features, including our camping ground and the beach it sits behind, are named after her. At the southern end of the loop walk is Kylie's Lookout, with sweeping views towards the Crowdy Head lighthouse, where a panel quotes Tennant's description of this shoreline from the novel Man on the Headland:
"League after league the headlands curve up the coast of the continent. The white fingers of the sea play on them, each bluff giving out its unique note, making its own music."
In the afternoon, we follow another short trail to Tennant's relocated hut, which stands in a lovely walk-in camping area between Kylies Beach and Indian Head. By now we're all more attuned to our surroundings, peering into the treetops in search of koalas and pausing to admire several huge eastern grey kangaroos basking in the sun.
Dinner on our second night is even simpler than on arrival but few things taste better when you're camping than potatoes baked in the fire. The biggest challenge is fending off the invasive swoops of a kookaburra and calming the children's hilarity after it steals meaty rissoles.
We wake to the warmest day since early April and take full advantage of it all morning, playing on Kylies Beach.
At lunchtime, we reluctantly pack up. It's less than 48 hours since we arrived at Crowdy Bay with our camping debutantes and our initial concerns have melted in the sunshine. It has been hard work at times keeping them fed, watered and amused but our only regret is not having longer to explore this superb, 10,000-hectare national park.
"I want to go for 10 nights next time," my eldest says as we drive away, before falling into a deep, contented sleep that lasts most of the journey home.
Crowdy Bay National Park hugs the coastline south of Port Macquarie and north of Taree, about 4½ hours' drive north of Sydney. On the Pacific Highway, the best access points to the park are via the Harrington turn-off to the south and via the Laurieton turn-off in the north. The best turn-off for Kylies Beach campground is at Moorland.
There are four drive-in camping areas with toilets and cold showers: Crowdy Gap Cultural Camp (10 sites), Kylies Beach (70 sites), Indian Head (60 sites) and Diamond Head (70 sites). There's a walk-in site at Kylies hut. Prices are $10 an adult and $5 a child (aged 5-15) a night ($5/$3 at Crowdy Cultural Camp); and $7 a vehicle a day. You need to bring drinking water, and the nearest shops are at Laurieton, just north of the park.
Phone the Hastings Area National Parks and Wildlife Service on 6588 5555; see www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks.