THE welcome sign casts a shadow reminiscent of Arthur Boyd's Ned Kelly as Angus Jameson's four-wheel-drive mounts another crest to reveal Tin City, a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max-like settlement amid the sand dunes of Stockton Beach just north of Newcastle.
And the first question one asks oneself is, how come such a place like this even exists?
And the second, how come it survives the ever-shifting dunes that constantly threaten to swallow-up this mostly corrugated-iron "city," and which would look more at home in the war zone of Afghanistan than on the doorstep of NSW's second largest city?
The answers: necessity and tenacity. Tin City evolved during the Great Depression when a dozen or so individuals and families banded together and threw up a collection of galvanised iron shanties, eking out a communal existence based largely on catching fish off their rent-free, away-from-everything beach and trapping wildlife further inland.
Most drifted off after the economy improved, but the settlement re-emerged again after WWII, and while some of the oldest residences succumbed to the shifting sands, a handful are still occupied to this day - their owners daily having to dig-away wind-blown sands that pile-up against their walls, and the local council having a moratorium on any new construction.
(And yes, you have seen it in Mad Max and some TV commercials.)
Angus Jameson's Port Stephens 4WD Tours is one of several companies that operate daily tours along the 32km Stockton Beach - the largest "mobile" coastal sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere - and incorporating a visit to Tin City amid those ever-wandering 30m high sand dunes.
And he shares with guests his extraordinary knowledge of the local history, nature and diversity of the dunes, and their incorporated Worimi Conservation Lands that embrace Aboriginal middens (piles of shells and food bones) 12,000 years old.
And ship wrecks. Over 100 vessels have foundered off Stockton Beach, the largest the 53,000 tonne Norwegian bulk carrier Sygna that was blown ashore by 185km/hr winds during an horrific storm in 1974, and one of the largest ships to be wrecked off the Australian east coast.
Parts of it can still be seen today, as can concrete anti-tank traps and barbed wire entanglements laid to prevent a feared Japanese invasion during WWII… and interestingly while the first "community" grew up with those shanties during the Depression, other buildings had actually been put up on remote Stockton Beach as far back as the late 1800s - stocked with provisions for ship-wrecked sailors.
At the beach's extreme north-east, around Anna Bay, there's a car park for visitors, kiosk, camel rides and a magnificent slope of slippery golden sand that's a magnet for thrill-seeker sand-boarders who career down the amazing 60-degrees.
And while you can opt for accommodation right on the beachfront in Port Stephens, places like the 5-star Amarna Resort on Dutchmans Bay Beach are certainly anything but beachfront Tin City: a 25-metre lap pool, 10-person spa, outstanding views, and luxurious furnishings are just the beginnings.
All one- and two-bedroom suites and three- and four-bedroom split-level penthouses here are fully self-contained with modern kitchens, large living areas, separate laundries and furnished balconies, making it the sort of place you'll probably not want to venture very far away from.
But if you do, it's just a 15-minute waterfront stroll to d'Albora Marina, Nelson Bay's focal point for dining and nautical activity.
Or just a short drive or slightly longer walk to Peppers Anchorage at Corlette Point, and which offers a spectacular location for breakfast, high tea, lunch or dinner.
Port Stephens and Nelson Bay, just 2.5hrs drive north of Sydney, also provide some of the readiest access to whale-watching the busy humpback highway that runs along our east coast from around May to November, and to pods of dolphins that enjoy Port Stephens' sheltered waters year round.
Other activities include snorkelling and scuba-diving, spotting for koalas at Anna Bay which has one of Australia's largest populations of the marsupial, Nelson Head Heritage Lighthouse and Reserve, testing your fitness walking to the top of Tomaree Headland to enjoy the expansive views of Port Stephens.