Keeping a keen eye on his domaine ... Russell Byrnes on Shaolin in the middle of Port Stephens. All images: John Rozentals.

DESTINATION: Port Stephens



A leisurely few hours aboard Australia's only genuine Chinese junk

It’s a bit of a gamble for the seriously balance-challenged to clamber around the Shaolin to gain a position on the front deck, but I make it and I’m mighty glad to have taken the chance.

Lazing in the sun on the quite smooth waters of Port Stephens, chatting with other guests and Shaolin’s owners/operators, Russell and Sandy Byrnes, snapping a few pix, keeping an eye out for dolphins, and gradually working up an appetite for a yum cha lunch. Life doesn’t get much more appealing.

Russell reckons that Shaolin, launched in Hong Kong in 1966 as Glorie Marie, is the only genuine Chinese junk operating in Australian waters, and it certainly has an interesting past.

It’s circumnavigated the world twice, been boarded by pirates, been used for drug-running, been used by the CIA as a spy vessel off the Chinese coast, sailed the Pacific searching for rare shells, and been through two cyclones, including Yasi, which saw it submerged off the Queensland coast.

For Russell and Sandy, who started operating Shaolin in Port Stephens about six months ago, maintaining and restoring the vessel is very obviously a matter of love.

And that’s what makes boarding the 23-passenger Shaolin so very special, simply because it’s an all-consuming passion, even down to Captain Bubbles, the parrot who occupies the perch next to the steering wheel.

Shaolin runs several two-hour cruises daily with prices at $40 per adult ($20 per child), with an optional yum cha lunch available on weekends for $15 per head. The latter is a delightfully appropriate addition to a splendid Chinese adventure on Port Stephens.

The next day, there’s another ‘maritime’ adventure to be had, this time aboard a couple of ships of the desert with Oakfield Ranch’s camel-trekking excursions along the sandhills and beach near Anna Bay.

We’re right at the back of the line but our camels, Chester and Girly, definitely want more prominent positions as we head along Stockton Beach.

The camels are nowhere near as surly as reputations would have them and the young guys who lead them are in total control and absolutely as keen as mustard for guests to have a great experience.

Owner Rod Samsom runs a tight ship, taking particular care to match riders with an appropriate camel. And to match the story with a much told joke, they’re all quite pretty.

Pay $25 ($20 children) for a 20-minute camel experience that includes a stroll in the ocean.


Shaolin Charters: Phone 0411 092 980 or visit www.shaolincharters.com.au.

Oakfield Ranch: Phone 0429 664 172 or visit www.oakfieldranch.com.au.

Port Stephens Tourism: Phone 1800 808 900 or visit www.portstephens.org.au.

Sandy Byrnes ... A passion for her business.

Captain Bubbles ... a key eye on every thing that happens.

Rod Samsom ... takes particular care to match camels and riders.

Idyllic landscape ... Camels trek the beach towards the mighty Pacific Ocean.