A camp to kill for
  |  First Published: September 2003

THE VIEWS straight out of your tent are magnificent: Clean, white, sheltered beaches with crystal-clear water only a step away. Fishing, diving and scenic splendour equal the best the country has to offer.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Before it was taken over by NSW National Parks and Wildlife, it was not one of the more favoured destinations for even the most ardent camper.

The long journey was a task in itself and available to only a select group. The accommodation was free, as were all meals, and security was second to none. Seafood was a popular choice on the menu and when you stepped out of the place and got lost in the surrounding countryside, as several did, you could be sure someone would come looking for you.

But that was some time ago.

Trail Bay Jail, just across the bay from South West Rocks, on the Mid North Coast, was once a prison where scoundrels of all types from around the colony were sent to work off their sentences with hard labour, quarrying granite from the headland to build a breakwall to create a safe anchorage in the bay. Then, in World War I, enemies of the British Empire, such as the Germans, Dutch and other ‘suspicious’ characters, were interned for the duration.

Though not anywhere near its original length due to years of heavy seas and storms, what is left of the breakwall still creates a calm haven in the bay in almost all conditions. Due to constant damage from the sea, work on the wall was suspended and a little further down the track, the jail was closed and the surrounding grounds later turned into the Arakoon State Recreation area.

You don’t actually camp in the jail – it is now a tourist attraction with equipment and archives from its working days on display. You can tour the cells, guard towers and grounds and get an idea of the conditions back then. It’s a very interesting look into the past. And take your binoculars – the view over the ocean from the north-west tower is sensational.

These days the grounds just outside the walls are where all the activity happens. The park is extensive but, for most of the year, only a small portion of the grounds are used – and that is just how the campers like it. And the rates are very good (more on that later).


The rec area doesn’t have any stars listed next to it in the accommodation guide, mainly because this is a Government-run facility through National Parks, who have their own rating system, but all the amenities and facilities are good to excellent.

The majority of the sites are in the shade of rows of huge Norfolk Island pines. There are large timber tables with bench seating scattered through the area, as well as heaps of open barbecues. Then there are the under-cover barbie areas with tables and electric hotplates. The views from some of these are spectacular, particularly as the sun sets over the bay.

There are plenty of taps with town water close by, so you aren’t carting water any distance. This is all in the non-powered tent section– there are powered sites with concrete slabs for caravans along the terraced southern section of the park, right next to the fenced area that contains the huge children’s playground and large covered barbecue-cum-entertainment area.

What you notice about this park is the quiet, particularly in the evenings and the early mornings. It is at the end of the road at Laggers Point, so there isn’t any passing traffic or town noise – just nature and the sound of sea on granite.

It wouldn’t stretch the imagination too far if, on a still night, you could hear the sounds of the inmates from days gone by behind the metre-thick granite walls near your tent.

But there wouldn’t be too much wailing and moaning, or the sounds of brutal floggings – this jail was built in the last decade or so of the convict era and a large percentage of the inmates arrived as low-security internees during the Great War. So rather than rattling chains and screams of pain, the sounds of the past would probably be German beer hall ditties or Schubert string quartet music.


The real attraction for campers is the beach, which is calm and tranquil in all but the most severe weather – a perfect family beach. Even when conditions take a turn for the worse, it then becomes a great surfing spot as perfectly-formed waves barrel several hundred metres along the beach right in front of the camp – and even then, there is still a calm lagoon area for the kids.

When you get tired of the beach you can head over to South West Rocks for shopping or to pick up supplies. It is only a 3km drive or you can walk along the beach, which as it finishes right at ‘the Rocks’ main street.

You might want to visit the famous Smokey Cape and its lighthouse, just a few minutes’ drive out of camp. There’s even a walking track but there are plenty of steep sections leading to some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Australia. From Smokey Cape there are spectacular views back to Kempsey and Crescent Head, as well as ocean views of Fish Rock, Black Rock, Green island and Smokey Beach.

If you own a 4WD, there are mountain tracks and forests to the west or kilometres of open beach from Smokey Beach south to Hat Head, then down to Crescent Head. You can purchase a permit from the Kempsey Shire Council or from Rocks Marine Bait and Tackle. A 12-month ‘financial year’ permit costs $20 and allows you to drive on beaches in the Hastings, Nambucca and Kempsey shires.

You could take a dive charter out to Fish Rock and dive the underwater cave with its population of nervous grey nurse sharks.

And you are at the centre of fishing heaven, with almost every aspect of angling you ever dreamed of right outside your door. The beaches have bream, whiting, flathead, tailor, dart and mulloway most of the year.

Just a few hundred metres beyond the breakwall on the open ocean is one of the best spots for marlin in NSW, not to mention wahoo, sailfish, cobia, Spanish mackerel and a host of other sport and game fish. Snapper and trag can be encountered over the reefs.

The breakwall and the rocks of Laggers Point offer bream, drummer, tailor, longtail tuna, mackerel tuna, cobia, Spanish mackerel and mulloway.

And if you look across the bay past South West Rocks, you stare straight into the mouth of the Macleay River, which has endless options for the estuary angler. There are boat ramps in the river and creek at South West Rocks and there is one at the jail camping area next to the breakwall, but it is 4WD only and for smaller craft up to 4.5 metres, due to the soft sand.

When you need to get freshened up, there are 16 coin-operated showers and there are 22 loos. Don’t bother bringing the dog because this is a State Rec Area –no pets are allowed.

There is a kiosk on site which caters for the regular needs of camping and also has a fine restaurant.

There are 13 powered sites with concrete slabs, as mentioned earlier, and 18 beachfront sites available for booking, but I dare say these are booked from year to year and generation to generation during peak periods. Although it could be tough getting one of these in peak times, during the off-season they are often vacant.

Then there are the 41 beach-back sites, the next row from the beach and surrounding area. It is not the largest camp on the coast, which also makes it very attractive because of the lack of crowds.

During peak periods, there are 70 extra sites that are not for booking, but for the traveller who just arrives. I might add that all parks must have some non-booking sites, but that is not to say they are not occupied in peak periods – these are the first in best-dressed sites.

Prices range from $15 to $27.50 per day for two people, plus $7 to $9 a day per extra adult and $4 to $4.50 per child, which won’t break the bank.

So if you are looking for somewhere different with great views and endless things to do, you could do worse than visit Arakoon State Recreation Area, Trial Bay. To book, give them a call on 02 6566 6168 or fax 02 6566 6507 for a great time.

The entrance to Trail Bay Jail, now a popular tourist attraction, on the hill above the camping area.

The views from many of the sheltered barbecue areas are simply spectacular.

The un-powered sites under the Norfolk Island pines are right on the beach and there are plenty of tables, barbecues and taps close at hand.

One of the attractions is the Smokey Cape lighthouse – a steep climb to the top but the view is well worth the effort.

The view from the lighthouse looking north to Green Island.

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