by Guy Lerner

Looking up and squinting into the sun, the hollow wave of the dune was an imposing barrier to be sure.

Suddenly and without warning, the engine roared with anticipation, lurching me forward, spinning the wheels so quickly I could almost feel them wince.

But the rubber held fast, gripping the powdery sand as if it were solid tar. Up we went; an impossible sight, cold blue metal against the soft golden curves of the land.

The engine gave one last startled cry, and then eased. We’d made it to the top of the dune, and looking down and across at the ocean stretching out for miles all around us, I had no idea how.

The elation of cresting your first dune is difficult to describe. My young son and I were loaded in a Freelander four-by-four, a modest – but very obviously capable offroader – exploring the sand reserves of the Stockton Dunes in south-eastern New South Wales, Australia.

It is the largest moving sand mass in the southern hemisphere, and looking south from our vantage point, over endless, open dunes, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

Spires of Newcastle
As the crow flies south, about 18 miles or so, the dunes eventually give way to the grey industrial spires of Newcastle, that ugly black town of shipping yards and oil refineries that blights an otherwise pristine coastline. Fortunately we were now on the Anna Bay-end of the beach, a few miles south of Port Stephens and still very much in the “blue water paradise” that this part of the world has been dubbed.

The dunes are up to a mile wide in places, and cover an area of over 2500 hectares. Getting lost is easy, but keeping on track is even easier.

The dunes are well used, so if you do happen to stray off a well-beaten track, a short venture in any direction should quickly hook you up with another one.

We’d come here for one reason only, to surf the dunes. Few places in the world offer such easy access to a natural sand mass so close to a major city; Sydney is a mere three hours’ drive south of the dunes.

For about five bucks a permit can be purchased from the local grocery store that gives your offroad vehicle (and you if you’re in it) unlimited access to the dunes year-round. And if you don’t have an offroad, well, that’s too bad.

Our drive that midsummer’s day took us past the entry posts that signal the start of the dunes. I was guessing some formality-obsessed nitwit put the posts there; why else would you need to tell people where the road ended and the sand began? Regardless, I appreciated the sense of beginning they gave me, a sense of: “you have now left civilisation, welcome to the wild.”

A Peculiar Monster
I was advised well that sand is a very peculiar monster, and that great care should be taken when tackling it by car. But almost as soon as the Freelander felt the first grains on its wheels, it sprung to life, shouting, “This is what I was built for!” The car had a mind of its own out there, twisting this way and that, but always following the general direction I was steering it in, and never unresponsive to my jabs on the brakes. My son couldn’t contain himself either; this was surely the craziest thing his dad’s ever done, and he loved every minute of it.

We tested some low dunes first, little more then nature-made speed humps. The engine purred its disinterest, like a cat tempted with a plastic mouse.

Next came the dips as the land gave way beneath us, and we descended into the valleys formed by the sprawling arms of the dune system. This was more like it, and I had to be strict with the sticks to keep us in line and in balance.

We were picking up speed now, racing to the bottom of the slope. Above us to the west the dune walls stood motionless, inviting us to test their resolve.

Picking a path through the least intimidating (read well-marked) terrain, we sped towards a reasonably innocent looking dune, thinking it would make an ideal launch pad for our makeshift board.

Arriving at its foot, the baby dune was suddenly all grown up and mean-looking, and I almost gave up the idea of risking it at the first attempt.

My son’s yelp soon put pay to that. He jumped out the car and started running off in every direction at once. He’d never known a place like this, so open and unusual. I was a novice too; the only other time I’d come across natural dunes was in the Cape reserve of De Hoop in South Africa, where humpback whales arrived in their hundreds every spring to nurse their young in the waves below.

This was no De Hoop; the whales do migrate along the Australian coast in the winter months, but don’t hang around for spectators. But Stockton is an altogether different animal, massive beyond compare even to the well-proportioned dunes of De Hoop.

An Improvised Sand Board
I left the Rover idle and grabbed the sunshade from the boot. This, let it now be told, was our sand board (I did say it was makeshift). I’d used it once before, and am yet to be convinced that the expensive contraptions that pass as sand boards nowadays hold a candle to my two dollar shade. Running after my son, I reached him halfway up the slope, and carried him to the top. I gasped at the sheer immensity of the wilderness around us; from up here even the Freelander looked like a poor Matchbox imitation.

Grabbing the shade with both hands against the stiff breeze, I splayed it out at our feet and hooked us in towards the back, lifting the front lip forward for support.

One heave, two, and we were away; sliding down the slope at speeds they don’t warn you about in the holiday brochures. Amazingly the board kept us on a straight path through the sand, bending only slightly as we hit terminal velocity.

Without noticing it we were making a beeline for the car. In a few seconds we’d become very well acquainted with the paintwork, or the undercarriage, or both. Instinctively I dug my feet into the sand to avert disaster, and got a mouthful of sand for my efforts.

Still, we managed to stop just short of a tyre burn, a narrow escape if you ask me, and somehow kept upright in the process. What was it that Woody said to Buzz when he feigned flying: “Now that was falling with style.”

I hardly had a chance to regather my wits about me when I noticed my son was gone. Then I saw him again, a small red speck against a sea of yellow, stopping only briefly to see if I was following. By now the clouds were gathering, and our travel companions were warning us against the coming storm, but that mattered little when the dunes were there for the taking. I raced after him, sunshade in hand, up, up and away, to infinity and beyond.

More information on the Stockton sand dunes can be found here: