While Old bar will come alive with activities and events over the October long weekend as thousands flock to the annual Old Bar Beach Festival, it is important to remember that the Festival and its focus on the coastal culture and laid back lifestyle of the town simply reflects the experience that is available for visitors and locals 365 days a year. Focus finds out all about the venue and festivities for this award winning event.
People have been coming to unwind by the sea at Old Bar for over 100 years. Indeed, a number of past visitors have loved it so much, they now call this special place home.
Old Bar does, as the tourist guides suggest, offer a more intimate ‘village’ experience than many of its coastal neighbours up and down the Mid North Coast. With a population of around 4,000, it’s not too big – but equally, it’s not too small. Its village centre has all you need, and you will always meet someone you know at one of the cafés in the centre of town. The cafés spill out onto the street and give the town a relaxed alfresco feel.
Perhaps the feel of Old Bar can best be described as a place where a slow evolution is occurring, rather than the elbowing aside of an older style of holiday life by trendy newcomers. Even in the busy summer season, when the population of the town can increase by 50%, the pace of life remains easy and laidback.
This slower pace of life is definitely inspired by the local landscapes. The main beach at Old Bar seems to stretch for miles, so there is no problem finding your own spot on the white sands to swim, bodyboard, surf, walk or just laze about. It is patrolled in summer – always a plus with families. Rushby Park, located right on the beachfront, has a skate park, the local surf club, a takeaway, a community pool, covered picnic tables, BBQs, children’s playground and toilet and shower facilities.
There are also bushwalking trails through the 145 hectare park that can take you to both the river and the beach. Mudbishops Reserve at the northern end is ideal to launch small boats onto the Manning River and has picnic tables and amenities. This part of the beach is also a favourite spot for kitesurfers, which are always so thrilling and inspiring to watch.
Old Bar’s beach culture has developed not only from the beach, but more particularly its surf. The Taree-Old Bar Surf Club was formed in 1928 and was represented at one of the first surf carnivals held on the Mid North Coast at Port Macquarie in 1929, along with teams from Crescent Head, Port Macquarie, Black Head and Wauchope. Yes, surfing has a long history on the Mid North Coast.
While it is generally accepted that the surfboard was introduced to Australia in 1912 from Hawaii, there is still some debate over the issue of the first surf ski. There is a claim from the Mid North Coast that the first surf ski was actually made and used in Port Macquarie. Two brothers, Harry and Jack McLaren, built some rather large hollow skis for getting around their oyster leases, and in their spare time they surfed on them for pleasure.
But let’s fast forward nearly 100 years to what is not debatable: the fact that today Old Bar has its own strong surfing culture … reflected in the local surfers being known as the Bar Boys, a northern spin on the infamous Bra Boys of Maroubra. It should also be noted that Old Bar is the home beach of Australian international surfer Ben Dunn, who in 2006 was the youngest Australian since Mick Fanning to qualify for the ASP World Tour.
His dad, Martin, is one of the world’s best coaches, and Bethany Hamilton of Hawaii (who is renowned for making a professional comeback after losing her arm to a shark) has visited Old Bar for coaching by Martin. So just why is Old Bar increasingly becoming known for its surf and the associated activities of bodyboarding and kitsesurfing?
Old Bar Beach faces nearly due east and therefore picks up any available swell or wind, so there is always a wave on offer. The beach offers some excellent sand bottom breaks while offshore; Old Bar reef is capable of shaping larger swells. With its easterly aspect and an exposed beach, Old Bar has recently become a favourite with kite boarders, who congregate here in numbers when the wind is blowing cross shore. The northern end of the beach is particularly popular.
Old Bar is home beach for the current Australian Kitesurfing Champion, Lee Kavanagh. It’s also a great place to learn to kitesurf. You can grab a lesson or two from local company, Kite Muddies, who offer lessons at the local lagoon with water and wind conditions that are perfect for beginners. Bodysurfing has also become popular, with annual championships now being held as part of the Old Bar Beach Festival.
Saltwater beach and National park
Also considered part of Old Bar and its beach lifestyle is the neighbouring beach, Saltwater. This is part of Saltwater National Park, which is a short drive away through the tiny village of Wallabi Point. This beach is popular with surfers in the know, for here there is a long right and point break on its northern edge, very similar to Snapper Rocks.
There are also a number of secret reefs and sand breaks between Saltwater Point and Second corner. The headland offers good protection, so this is also the spot to grab a wave when the summer northeasterly is in. Saltwater is also home beach for the founder of the iconic surfing label ‘Hot Tuna’, which originated in Australia in 1969 and fast became a world leader in creative surfwear.
Saltwater National Park is also very popular with families and visitors. As a National Park it’s not large, being only 33 hectares in size, but it has much to offer the visitor. The park conserves rare coastal rainforest and wetlands but has two swimming beaches, a spectacular headland and a saltwater lagoon particularly suitable for small children. It has shady picnic areas with barbecues and amenities. On the western side of the lagoon you can also launch small craft such as kayaks and safely explore up river into the Khappinghat Nature Reserve.
The headland at Saltwater is a great place for whale watching during the major migrations up the East Coast in May and June each year. If there are no whales, there are often dolphins, and indeed people are known to surf with the dolphins at Saltwater. There are also a number of walking tracks in the park. If you are lucky you might spot a koala or a wallaby or flying fox, but you will definitely be entertained by the abundant and colourful birdlife. You can also explore some local history. Saltwater was an Aboriginal seasonal camp for thousands of years and remains a place of intense cultural and spiritual significance to the local Biripi Aboriginal community. There are some very special interpretative displays that highlight the Aboriginal sites and their dreamtime beliefs.
Yes, Old Bar is definitely a champion place to visit and to live. And finally, after a full day or two in Old Bar as you head out of town back to the Highway, don’t forget to stop at the local fish co-op on the southern side of the Bohnock Bridge to stock up on fish and local oysters. Definitely another winner!