ALWYN Garland has lived at Tin City in the heart of Stockton Bight for more than 35 years, but unprecedented environmental change along the Hunter’s coastline is threatening the existence of the Mad Max-style settlement.
A combination of relentless erosion caused by fierce storms and increasing numbers of vehicles driving over dunes have wreaked havoc on the once isolated community of fishermen and their families who set up camp about 10kilometres from Birubi Beach in the early 1970s.
The frontal dune that once protected the small community of 11 huts and kept them hidden from sight is now virtually gone.
The settlement’s part-time residents are trying desperately to reconstruct the dune, using logs that have drifted in from the ocean, and once again protect Tin City.
‘‘If we don’t do this, within the next 10years, we will really be in a bad way,’’ Mr Garland said.
A new plan of management for Stockton Bight, which is expected to be released by the end of the year, will focus on finding a balance between providing recreational opportunity for Tin City residents, four-wheel-drive owners and campers, as well as preserving the area’s cultural and aboriginal history.
Salt bush and other vegetation also need to be re-established around the pint sized city, which is prohibited from any new construction.
‘‘The sand used to blow along the front of the beach and end up back in the water,’’ Mr Garland said.
‘‘Now with the frontal dune gone, sand blows through the gap and into the low area behind where our huts are.’’
The corrugated-iron sheds on the edge-of-nowhere, resembling a Mad Max-type settlement, can now be seen clearly from the beach front where four-wheel-drives pass regularly and thousands of visitors get out and stroll over for a sticky beak.
According to National Parks and Wildlife, during the peak periods of December and January 2011-12 close to 6000 recreational vehicles visited Stockton Bight with 17,196 visitors exploring the dunes.
By December-January 2012-13 the number of vehicles had increased by more than 3500 and there were 28,600 visitors over this two-month period.
Mr Garland’s family have owned a hut at Tin City since 1978. The first hut was passed down by his uncle before being rebuilt by Mr Garland himself in 1981. Its current location is about 140metres north of the original hut.
The 66-year-old fisherman said he had watched the landscape change dramatically over the past decade with Tin City now just a stone’s throw from the ocean.
‘‘I used to drive down in the dark and I only knew where the hut was because of the contour of the frontal dune and the nearby salt bush,’’ Mr Garland said.
‘‘We used to have a small amount of birds and even rabbits that never worried us. The seabirds would nest here. ‘‘The birds have left now and some of the salt bush has also started to disappear, mainly because of erosion.’’
Fellow Tin City resident Greg Brown, who brings his two young sons to fish at Stockton, clears large amounts of sand away from his hut every six to eight weeks.
‘‘The way it is at the moment, the sea comes through quite easily and this is why we are trying to re-establish the beach front,’’ Mr Brown said.
National Parks and Wildlife have documented the frontal dune has eroded back 20metres closer to the huts since June storms last year.
Millions of tonnes of sand have been stripped from Stockton Beach due to an unrelenting series of east-coast lows.
‘‘The east-coast lows peaked in the ’70s, decreased in the ’80s and ’90s and we’ve had another surge during the last 10years,’’ Weatherwatch senior meteorologist Don White said.
Last winter’s battering resulted in the most dramatic change to its profile since the 1974 Sygna storm.
When a southerly hit the 22-kilometre stretch of beach from Stockton to Birubi in June last year, Tin City residents woke up to waves breaking on their huts.
Several follow-up storms, including one just a month ago, have prevented the beach from rebuilding itself.
Park rangers did not restrict resident access to Tin City during the floods last year because owners needed to access their huts to make sure they didn’t disappear.
University of NSW coastal geomorphologist Dr Rob Brander said the Stockton Bight erosion was symptomatic of La Nina, which has been the dominant weather cycle for the past five years.
He said in the short term, Tin City was obviously at risk and there was no way to predict what would happen weatherwise in the future.
However, he said geomorphologists hoped the El Nino weather pattern will take over from La Nina and coastlines such as the Stockton dunes will get less storms and enter a recovery phase.
Darren Stuart has been coming to Tin City since he was a boy. His family have owned a hut for 40years and he said its two biggest threats were currently sand and the ocean.
‘‘We always worry about turning up and having your hut swallowed by sand,’’ he said.
‘‘The sand has been more of a problem during the past 10years.’’
National Parks and Wildlife ranger Tony DeMamiel said the huts and their immediate surrounds needed continual maintenance.
‘‘The impact on the frontal dune from vehicles makes the coastal erosion that much more severe,’’ he said.
Four-wheel-drive access on Stockton Bight has been restricted to the beach front (in front of the frontal dune) and camping remains off-limits since June last year.
During peak periods such as Australia Day, there are up to 4000 people camping on the beach, which has no toilet or rubbish facilities.
More than 5000 four-wheel-drive enthusiasts rallied in the Hunter in February for an end to the restrictions in national parks, including Stockton.
Wes Whitworth has enjoyed four-wheel-driving on Stockton beach since he was a boy exploring with his father.
Now 30, Mr Whitworth believes education is the key for drivers, not preventing them from using the beach.
He said experienced drivers know not to drive on the frontal dunes and to stay away from the middens.
‘‘I think the four-wheel-drivers have become an easy target,’’ he said.
‘‘The changing environment of the beach is mainly due to erosion, not the four-wheel-drives.’’
Stockton Bight, known as the The Worimi Conservation Lands, is co-managed by the traditional Aboriginal owners, the Worimi people, and National Parks and Wildlife Service through a board of management.
A new plan of management for Stockton Bight, which is expected to be released by the end of the year, will focus on finding a balance between providing recreational opportunity for Tin City residents, four-wheel-drive owners and campers as well as preserving the area’s cultural and aboriginal history.
Ranger Mr DeMamiel said board members are hoping to finally solve the question ‘‘how can we enjoy this beach and landscape without loving it to death?’’
Worimi board of management chairperson Petrice Manton confirmed the draft management plan would look at all the issues and ‘‘create sustainability out on the park’’.
Plan looks at critical concerns
THE board of Worimi Conservation Lands is currently preparing a Plan of Management, which will guide how the 4200-hectare site is managed over the next 10 years.
There have been a number of meetings held with stakeholders including Alwyn Garland (representing Tin City), Rob Kelly (Four Wheel Drive NSW & ACT), Hugh James (camping, fishing), Steve Bernasconi (community and recreation manager, Port Stephens Council) as well as representatives from Worimi and National Parks and Wildlife.
The draft management plan is expected to be finalised by the end of the year before going on public exhibition for three months and being finally signed off by the state Environment Minister, Robyn Parker.
The management plan will address issues such as permits for Tin City residents and the reintroduction of camping in the park.
As a precursor to drafting a management plan for Stockton beach, National Parks and Wildlife Services met with the 4WD association six times during 2011, to obtain views about the future use of the area.
The association presented arguments for:
❏ Access along the entire tidal zone (swash zone and berm).
❏ Camping behind the frontal dune (NPWS is thinking of limited numbers and only at designated areas).
❏ Shared access to the Recreational Vehicle Area.
❏ Access to the high dunes where park title allows.
❏ Driving through the swale area on open sand (avoiding vegetation and middens).
Providing for the conservation of Aboriginal cultural sites on the co-managed lands will be an important part of the plan.
Shacks on the silver screen
TIN City was used for scenes in the 1979 movie Mad Max and has since been used for several advertising campaigns and modelling shoots.
Tin City residents have no legal documents to occupy the land, which is owned by the Worimi people, but have a current agreement with the traditional owners.
They are considered holiday residents and are not allowed to live at Tin City permanently.
The fishing huts have been passed down through families over the years.
Today, 11 of the shacks, known collectively as Tin City, remain but no new shacks may be built.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service started co-managing the Worimi Conservation Lands in 2007.