15 things to do in Kempsey (Australia)

This town on the Macleay River is a prized stop on the Pacific Highway.

But Kempsey isn’t just a place to picnic by the river and skydive to the mid-north coast, it will forever be known as two Australian cultural touchstones.

One of them is country music star Slim Dusty, who lives in town and hosts annual festivals and a superb museum.

Another is the trusty Akubra hat, made in Kempsey since the 1970s, synonymous with the rugged spirit of the Australian countryside.

To the east are endless surfable beaches and towering headlands bounded by rainforest and tranquil creeks, while the nearby town of South West Rocks boasts colonial history and the world-famous Fish Rock Cave dive site.

1. The slender dust center

slender dusty center

Kempsey is home to Australian pop culture giants.

Country music star Slim Dusty (1927-2003) performed in the Bush folk genre and was the first Australian to record an international hit with A Pub with No Beer (1957). Dusty’s career spanned six decades and a special moment shortly before his death was playing Matilda waltz at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In honor of the famous son, the Slim Dusty Centre opened in Kempsey in 2015, asking Slim’s family archives for its extensive collection of clothing, musical instruments, photographs and other memorabilia.

It is a cutting-edge multimedia attraction that paints a detailed and loving portrait of Dusty’s life and career, as well as Australian art and culture in a deeper sense.

2. Kempsey Museum

Settler's Hut inside the Kempsey Museum

In the early 1980s, Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt was commissioned to design the building for the Kempsey Museum, which also houses an Aboriginal art gallery and a visitor information center for the area.

The museum explores the history of Macleay Valley, dating back to before European settlement, and takes you to the present day.

The displays draw from a wide range of original objects on a variety of topics including Aboriginal history, natural history, telecommunications, shipping, boot making, local country music scenes, textiles, wood industry and military history.

3. Akubra Hat Showroom

Akubra hat

The hat maker has been in business for over 130 years and moved from Sydney to Kempsey in 1974. Akubra is part of the national identity, with its iconic wide-brimmed rabbit felt hats simply known as “Akubras”, and has long been associated with the grit and tenacity of rural Australia.

Akubra hats are built to last, even at high prices ($200+), selling hundreds of thousands of them a year.

If you’re looking for a high-end gift or souvenir as Australian as possible, visit Kempsey’s Factory Store.

4. Dunghutti-Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery

Glen Murcutt’s Kempsey Museum and Macleay Valley Information Centre annex is an exciting space dedicated to Aboriginal art.

The Dunghutti-Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery showcases the work of emerging and established artists from the Aboriginal Dunghutti region and the North Central Coast region.

Over the past 12 years, the gallery has amassed an extensive collection and hosts numerous exhibitions throughout the year to keep the exhibits fresh.

In the store, you can browse handcrafted Aboriginal gifts including scarves, homewares, upholstery, jewellery and stationery.

5. Hat Head National Park

Hat Head National Park

The coastline east of the Macleay River is extraordinary and needs to be in your plans.

There is a string of coastal national parks near Kempsey, the most recent of which is Harthead National Park, with its long, deserted beaches, mountainous dunes and towering headlands.

The park is located on a relatively narrow strip, but contains a stunning variety of habitats, from coastal badlands to wetlands, rainforests and badlands, navigated by walking trails.

It’s a bird watcher’s paradise, filled with fantails, black swans, egrets, honeyeaters, herons, kookaburras, and white-tailed sea eagles, to name a few.

The park is also located on the traditional land of the Dunghutti people, with shell pits, campsites, cemeteries and ceremonial sites scattered throughout the landscape.

6. Great Smoky Point Lighthouse

Great Smoky Point Lighthouse

The main attraction in Harthead National Park is the tallest lighthouse in NSW, situated on a narrow granite headland 111 metres above sea level, covered in coastal heath.

The Smoky Cape Lighthouse directs traffic to the mouth of the Macleay estuary in the South West Rocks and is known not only for its stunning location but also for its exquisite architecture.

Built in 1891, this lighthouse was the last to be designed by colonial architect James Barnet (1827-1904), emphasizing aesthetic value.

There are lovely cottages of breeders and breeders’ assistants in the complex that are rented out as holiday accommodation.

On the cape, you can look directly at the foggy beaches, spot a wide variety of birds, and see humpback whales in winter.

7. Crescent head

crescent head

Kempsey is the turning point for this lovely coastal village crammed into the headland of the same name.

Due to the weirdness of the local infrastructure, Crescent Head is unwelcome to most people driving along the Pacific Highway, as it requires you to turn south from Kempsey on Crescent Head Road to get back in your footsteps.

We mentioned the great surfing conditions on this coast, Killick Beach north of Crescent Head has legendary status for its long right-handed surf, ideal for longboards.

Of course, Australia’s premier amateur longboard competition, the Crescent Head Malibu Classic will be here at the end of May.

Behind the beach, lazy Killick Creek has clear, shallow water for swimming.

A must do is to climb to the top of Crescent Head, where there is a lookout for the best views of this coastline, fantastic sunrises and great opportunities for whale watching in winter.

8. Gurawa National Park

Gurawa National Park

This national park is essentially a single long beach that begins south of Crescent Head and curves gently outward for about 5 kilometers.

Take a short trip to Goolwa National Park to get a feel for what it’s like to be on a beach with no sign of modern human settlement.

There are natural campsites on the shore where you can swim or surf in the shallows, rated as the best on the mid-north coast.

Beach explorers will love this place, and the park’s ancient eucalyptus forests are home to many wildlife, from dozens of bird species to gorillas, turtles, dolphins, bandicoots and koalas.

9. Kempsey Riverside Park

Kempsey Riverside Park

Kempsey has a green waterside idyll on the west bank of the Macleay River.

For those traveling on the Pacific Highway, this is a prized stopover, complete with picnic tables and BBQ facilities for a peaceful stop on a long drive.

Lots of ducks and geese (bring bird food instead of bread), and a public jetty and boat ramp.

Over the past few years, the children’s playground has been upgraded with equipment such as a 6-meter climbing net and a 25-meter flying fox.

On the first Saturday of every month, there is a market in this beautiful setting with over 100 stall owners trading local fresh produce, plants, cut flowers, homewares, fashion, crafts, jewelry and tempting hot Food.

10. Helm Park Lookout

Helm Park Lookout

Opposite Riverside Park on the high east bank of the Macleay River is a small park with a landscape that stretches for kilometres from Kempsey to the distance.

Under the trees, Rudder Park has facilities such as a children’s play area, picnic tables and toilets.

The lookout faces west so you can enjoy a wonderful panoramic view in the evening as the sun sets.

11. Waigay Aboriginal Cultural Park

At the Macleay Valley Coast Visitor Centre you can book a guided tour of this 2.75 hectare park not far from Kempsey’s CBD.

The rainforests, dry woodlands, wet woodlands and wetlands that grow here are plant species that indigenous peoples have used as medicine and food for thousands of years.

An educational bush food tour, available by appointment, will help you see the bush with fresh eyes, but you can also show up Monday to Friday for a walk through the park at your own pace.

12. Thin Dust Festival

slim dusty festival

Slim Dusty was the inspiration for this four-day tribute to Australian music and culture, the first weekend of September.

A large number of musicians perform on the landscaped grounds of the Slim Dusty Centre each year, but also in venues around Kempsey.

These programmes complement the centre’s various events, such as bush poetry readings, talent competitions (on the horizon), talks with artists, and even whip-making workshops and whipping demonstrations.

13. Southwest Rock

Southwest Rock

Half an hour’s drive from the mouth of the Macleay River, this coastal town has plenty of reasons to visit. We will list just a few here.

First up, South West Rocks is right on the lovely Horseshoe Bay Beach, a little sandy cove tucked away on the shoreline, surrounded by Norfolk pines and grassy foreshores.

There are safe swimming spots, but there are also right-hand surf breaks for young and novice surfers to hone their skills.

For bigger, more open beaches, the huge Trial Bay Front Beach and Gap Beach (4WD access only) are short trips.

The internationally renowned Fish Cave is located just offshore and stretches for 125 meters.

This is the breeding ground for grey nurse sharks and there are several dive centres in town ready to take you there on an adventure you won’t soon forget.

One activity for everyone at South West Rocks is stand-up paddle boarding, and the sparkling, clear waters of Back Creek are perfect for that.

14. Trial Bay Prison

trial bay prison

We ran out of space at this old public works prison and internment camp on the eastern border of Trial Bay and there were so many kangaroos in it! Perched above the waves at Laggers Point in what is now Arakon National Park, these granite ruins are well preserved and date back to the 1870s.

Trial Bay Prison started out as an enlightened place where inmates learned professional skills and were able to swim, exercise and fish 36.5 hours a week without work.

It later became an internment camp for famous Germans considered “enemy aliens” during World War I, and was closed and stripped after the conflict.

You can discover this history on a tour of the prison and its museum, with dozens of interesting information boards to read along the way.

Climb to the lookout tower for stunning views from the headland, especially rewarding during winter humpback whale migrations.

15. Macleay Valley Coastal Visitor Centre

Visitor Information

Back at the Murcutt-designed complex in South Kempsey, you’ll find the region’s main tourist resource.

For travelers on long car trips, it’s a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy the serenity and lush vegetation of the enclosed park.

There’s a dog space at the back, ample parking for vehicles of all sizes, and a playground for the little ones, and even grazing horses.

Inside, the visitor center is filled with brochures, flyers and souvenirs, along with a friendly team with local knowledge.

Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Kempsey, Australia
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