This town by the Macleay River is a prized stop on the Pacific Highway.
But more than a place to take riverside picnics and jump off for the Mid North Coast, Kempsey will always be known for two Australian cultural touchstones.
One is the country music star Slim Dusty who lived in the town and is honoured by an annual festival and a top-notch museum.
The other is the trusty Akubra hat, manufactured in Kempsey since the 1970s and synonymous with the rugged spirit of rural Australia.
In the east is an unending line of surfable beaches and towering headlands, bounded by rainforest and tranquil creeks, while the nearby town of South West Rocks has colonial history and a world-renowned dive site at Fish Rock Cave.
1. Slim Dusty Centre
Kempsey was the home town of a titan of Australian popular culture.
The country music star, Slim Dusty (1927-2003) performed in the Bush Ballad 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 one special moment not long before his passing was a rendition of Waltzing Matilda at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
A tribute to this famous son, the Slim Dusty Centre opened in Kempsey in 2015, calling on the Slim’s family archive for a trove of costumes, instruments, photographs and other memorabilia.
This is a cutting-edge multimedia attraction painting a detailed and loving portrait of Dusty’s life and career, but also Australian art and culture in a more profound sense.
2. Kempsey Museum
In the early-1980s the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt was commissioned to design this building for the Kempsey Museum, also holding a gallery for Aboriginal art and the district’s visitor information centre.
The museum explores the history of the Macleay Valley, going back to before European settlement and bringing you through to the present day.
The displays come from a sizeable collection of original items and deal with topics as varied as Aboriginal history, natural history, telecommunications, shipping, boot making, the local country music scene, textiles, the timber industry and military history.
3. Akubra Hat Showroom
This hat manufacturer has been in business for over 130 years, and relocated to Kempsey from Sydney in 1974. Akubra is such a part of the national identity that its iconic wide-brimmed rabbit fur felt hats are known simply as “Akubras”, and have long been associated with the grit and hardiness of rural Australians.
Akubra hats are made to last, and even though they fetch a high price ($200+), hundreds of thousands units are sold every year.
For a high-end gift or souvenir that is as Australian as can be, pay a visit to the factory store in Kempsey.
4. Dunghutti-Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery
In an annexe of Glen Murcutt’s Kempsey Museum and Macleay Valley Information Centre is an exciting space dedicated to Aboriginal art.
The Dunghutti-Ngaku Aboriginal Art Gallery presents the work of up-and-coming and established artists from the indigenous Dunghutti region as well as the Mid North Coast area.
In the last 12 years the gallery has built a superb collection, and the displays are kept fresh with numerous exhibitions throughout the year.
At the shop you can browse handmade Aboriginal giftware including scarves, homewares, upholstery, jewellery and stationery.
5. Hat Head National Park
The coastline east of the Macleay River is extraordinary and needs to be in your plans.
There’s a chain of coastal national parks close to Kempsey, and the nearest of these is Hat Head National Park preserving long and deserted beaches, mountainous sand dunes and skyscraping headlands.
The park is on a relatively narrow strip, but contains an astounding variety of habitats, from coastal heath to wetlands, rainforest and heathland, navigated by walking tracks.
This is a birdwatcher’s idea of heaven, teeming with fantails, black swans, egrets, honeyeaters, herons, kookaburras and white-tailed sea eagles, to name just a few.
The park is also within the traditional land of the Dunghutti people and shell middens, campsites, burial sites and ceremonial grounds are littered across the landscape.
6. Smoky Cape Lighthouse
Hat Head National Park’s prime attraction is the highest lighthouse in New South Wales, sitting 111 metres above the ocean on a narrow granite headland covered in coastal heath.
Smoky Cape Lighthouse guides traffic into the mouth of the Macleay River at South West Rocks, and is renowned not just for its breathtaking location but for its refined architecture.
Constructed in 1891 this was one of the last lighthouses designed by colonial architect James Barnet (1827-1904), with an emphasis on aesthetic value.
In the complex are adorable cottages for the keepers and keepers’ assistants, rented out as holiday accommodation.
On the cape you can look right along Smoky Beach, spot a huge diversity of birds and catch sight of humpback whales in winter.
7. Crescent Head
Kempsey is the turn-off for this adorable coastal village huddled onto the headland of the of the same name.
By a quirk of local infrastructure, Crescent Head is off the radar for most people travelling up the Pacific Highway as it requires you to retrace your steps, turning south from Kempsey on Crescent Head Road.
We mentioned the fantastic surf conditions on this stretch of coast, and Killick Beach to the north of Crescent Head has legendary status for its long right hand break, made for longboarding.
Of course Australia’s top amateur longboard competition, the Crescent Head Malibu Classic takes place right here at the end of May.
Behind the beach the lazy Killick Creek has clear and shallow waters for blissful swimming.
And something you have to do make the climb to the top of Crescent Head where there’s a lookout with the best views on this piece of coastline, for marvellous sunrises and great whale watching opportunities in winter.
8. Goolawah National Park
This national park is in essence a single long beach, beginning just south of Crescent Head and curving out gently for around five kilometres.
You can make the brief trip to Goolwah National Park to feel what it’s like to be at a beach with no signs of modern human settlement.
There’s camping in nature by the shore, and you can swim in the shallows or ride the surf, rated as some of the best on the Mid North Coast.
Beachcombers will adore this place, and there’s vibrant wildlife, from dozens of bird species to goanas, turtles, dolphins, bandicoots and koalas in the park’s ancient eucalypt forest.
9. Kempsey Riverside Park
Kempsey has a grassy waterside idyll on the west bank of the Macleay River.
This is a treasured stopover for people travelling on the Pacific Highway, furnished with picnic tables and barbecues for a restful sojourn to break up a long drive.
There are lots of ducks and geese (bring birdseed and not bread), and a public wharf and boat ramp.
In the last few years the kids’ playground has been upgraded with equipment like a six-metre climbing net and a flying fox 25 metres long.
On the first Saturday of the month there’s a market in this pretty setting, with upwards of 100 stallholders trading local fresh produce, plants, cut flowers, homewares, fashion, arts and crafts, jewellery and enticing hot food.
10. Rudder Park Lookout
Opposite Riverside Park on the high east bank of the Macleay River is a small park with a view that stretches out for kilometres, over Kempsey and into the distance.
Under the trees there’s a few facilities at Rudder Park, like a children’s playspace, picnic tables and toilets.
The lookout faces west and so gives you a wonderful panorama late in the day when the low sun catches the river.
11. Wigay Aboriginal Culture 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.
Growing here among rainforest, dry woodland, wet woodland and wetlands are plant species used by Aboriginal people for millennia as medicine and food.
An educational bush tucker tour, available by appointment, will help you see the bush in with fresh eyes, but you can also show up Monday to Friday for a walk in the park at your own pace.
12. Slim Dusty Festival
Slim Dusty is the inspiration for this four-day tribute to Australian music and culture, over the first weekend of September.
Each year there’s a big lineup of musicians performing on the landscaped grounds of the Slim Dusty Centre, but also at venues around Kempsey.
These shows are complemented by all kinds of activities at the centre like bush poetry recitals, a talent competition (On the Horizon), talks with artists and even whip-making workshops and whip-cracking demonstrations.
13. South West Rocks
This little coastal town sits half an hour away at the mouth of the Macleay River, and has a ton of reasons to visit. We’ll list just a fraction here.
First thing, South West Rocks is right on the lovely Horseshoe Bay Beach, a little sandy cove tucked into the coastline and fringed by Norfolk Pines and grassy foreshore.
There’s safe swimming here, but also a right hand surf break for young and novice surfers to hone their skills.
For larger, more open beaches the massive Trial Bay Front Beach and Gap Beach (4WD access only) are a short hop.
The internationally renowned Fish Rock Cave lies offshore, and stretches for 125 metres.
This is a breeding site for grey nurse sharks, and there’s a couple of dive centres in town ready to take you out there for an adventure you won’t soon forget.
One activity for all in South West Rocks is stand-up paddleboarding, and the shimmering, clear waters of Back Creek are perfectly suited.
14. Trial Bay Gaol
We ran out of space for this old public works prison and internment camp at the eastern limit of Trial Bay, inhabited by lots of kangaroos! Roosted above the waves at Laggers Point, now in Arakoon National Park, these granite ruins are in a good state of preservation and date from 1870s.
Trial Bay Gaol was initially an enlightened place, where prisoners learned professional skills and were able to swim, play sports and go fishing when not working a 36.5-hour week.
It later became an internment camp for prominent Germans deemed “enemy aliens” during World War I, before being closed and stripped when the conflict ended.
You can uncover this history on a tour through the gaol and its museum, with dozens of interesting information boards to read on the way.
Climb the watchtower for a magnificent view from the headland, especially rewarding during the humpback migration in winter.
15. Macleay Valley Coast Visitor Centre
Back at that Murcutt-designed complex in South Kempsey you’ll find the main tourism resource for the district.
For travellers on long car journeys it’s a chance to stretch your legs enjoy the peace of the enclosing park and its lush vegetation.
There’s an off-leash area for dogs just behind, ample parking for vehicles of all sizes, a playground for wee ones and even grazing for horses.
Inside, the visitor centre is loaded with brochures, leaflets and souvenirs, and a friendly team steeped in local knowledge.