TAKE A BREATHER
Leonie Coombes enjoys the crisp, clean air of NSW’s Eurobodalla and Sapphire coasts
SOME places are beneficial to the body and soul. Vital ingredients are space, sun, natural landscapes and an abundance of what English novelist D.H. Lawrence called ‘‘ unbreathed air’’. He coined the phrase while staying at Thirroul, near Wollongong on the NSW south coast, 90 years ago, but it applies so aptly to regions farther south.
The Eurobodalla and Sapphire coasts of southern NSW merge in a fusion of lakes, ocean and luminous green dairy country. Commencing at Batemans Bay and extending to Eden, this painterly landscape attracts some travellers simply because the Princes Highway is a much more leisurely route to Victoria than the hell-bent Hume.
But there is a better reason to visit the towns and villages of this pristine region. The beauty of the 200km coastline is uplifting. The bluster of chill winds on empty beaches, glassy lakes, boisterous surf and lush hills combine to make you feel joyfully alive: a free antidote to whatever ails you. All you have to do is get out of the car and revel in it.
If searching for a parking spot sounds anomalous to this description, avoid the area in mid-summer. The population trebles as visitors converge on holiday houses and camp sites that are vacant for most of the year. But by February, accommodation is plentiful and there is still warmth in the air.
Outdoor dining is almost obligatory in such unpolluted conditions. On the sunny deck of the Pickled Octopus at Tuross Head (just south of Moruya) fresh seafood and a bottle of wine can be enjoyed while soaking up a lake view. Birds glide, boats putter and water laps. Lots of it. A dump of rain in the days prior to our arrival makes islands of outdoor settings. Dwellings normally above the high-tide line are close to being houseboats.
A few hundred metres away a backhoe on the beach is digging a channel to free the trapped water. Locals line the foreshores, watching this slow-paced drama with an interest that tells its own story.
Not much happens down here. Yet that is not entirely the truth. Tourism is a huge contributor to the local economy. In the rural hills as well as beside the water there are small enterprises run by people pursuing their personal passions.
Mogo Zoo, for example, is more than a business. This privately owned sanctuary, started 17 years ago by animal lovers Sue and Bill Padey, is home to hundreds of endangered animals. Chimps, deer, pandas, bears and tigers are among the creatures lucky enough to find a place here. Best in show are the fluffy white lions, whose pussycat antics attract appreciative murmurs from the crowd. But if there were a Paris Hilton award it would have to go to the impish cotton-top tamarins, handbag-size primates with flokati-rug coifs in a variety of colours.
Mogo Zoo makes me feel pleased for its inhabitants. Funded entirely by takings from entrance fees, a cafe and donations, the sanctuary remains viable with the help of every visitor.
Equally cheerful is Foxglove Spires at Tilba Tilba. Here a retail nursery is adjoined by a large private garden that can be enjoyed for a small entry fee. This romantic, rampant haven is almost delinquent; it sneers at secateurs, but that is the essence of its appeal. Foxglove Spires is only just held in check by Sue Southam and her husband, Peter, who have transformed this estate over 23 years from grassy, treeless paddocks to a paradisiacal woodland that’s a bit on the wild side.
Fruit, vines and ornamentals overreach one another, encroaching on paths, vying for attention. Architectural arbours are a feature and will have you planning grand additions to your own humble patch. An on-site cafe called Love at First Bite offers good coffee and meals to newly inspired gardeners about to bite off more than they can chew.
Before rejoining the highway, wander through the atmospheric timber stores of nearby Central Tilba, a charming National Trust-classified township set in cheeseproducing dairy country.
Enter a time warp at Bates Emporium where a gentleman grocer and his wife preside over a long counter. Stock includes stationery, millinery, crockery, drapery, patent medicine, hardware and necessary things for tourists, too, such as freshly made fudge. In other shops, browsing art, handicrafts, jewellery and toys fills an idle hour. Sunny, old-fashioned teahouses provide refreshments.
When the sun sets, nearby Narooma and Bermagui are both inviting options for an overnight stay. The 2001 Billy Connolly movie, The Man Who Sued God, did cinematic justice to pretty Bermagui but the town was first made popular by Zane Grey, the American novelist, filmmaker and notorious philanderer, who came here with a large entourage for big-game fishing in the 1930s.
Though his friendliness and generosity won the hearts of the local people, today his fishing exploits look like crimes against nature. Tagand-release would have felt like ‘‘ caughtus interruptus’’ to Grey, who manfully hauled marlin, tuna and sharks by the dozen from the waters around Montague Island. Fortunately that area is now a sanctuary and a trip there is a must, so Narooma is a convenient overnight option before setting out.
Amooran Apartments, despite the cryptic warning implied in the name, is modern and faces the right way. Its sweeping ocean views make a mellow start to the day. After breakfast head down to Narooma wharf. The four-hour tour to Montague Island leaves at 9.30am and it is advisable to book ahead. An exhilarating, hang-on-tight rollercoaster ride over the treacherous bar at the harbour entrance begins the 9km boat trip but the remaining 20 minutes are a breeze.
Known as Barunguba to the Walbanga and Djiringanj people, and still used for ceremonial purposes, the island has something for everyone: a historic lighthouse, craggy beauty and varied wildlife. Arrival at the island is preceded by wind-borne odours wafting from the large colony of Australian fur seals, lolling on rocks in the sun or dropping into the ocean. The steep walk up to the circa-1880 lighthouse is broken frequently by the National Parks guide to view the breeding grounds of little penguins, shearwaters and gulls.
The comfortable lighthouse keepers’ cottages here can be booked through the Narooma information centre for an unforgettable break. Guests are expected to participate in light projects such as weeding; hardly a chore in this unique environment. It is an experience that would resonate with anyone captivated by the way of life of those stalwarts who manned these lonely places. On Montague, the grave sites of three people who died here, two of them children, a century ago, bear witness to the hardship.
Another historic lighthouse, Green Cape, is situated down a 25km gravel road deep in Ben Boyd National Park on the Sapphire Coast. It overlooks Disaster Bay, named in 1802 when eight men accompanying explorer Matthew Flinders disappeared here. It is still a great place to lose yourself and keepers’ cottages are available for short breaks.
Such scenic isolation offers powerful poten- tial for a Zen interlude. To be at one with the wind, waves and massive granite rocks is perhaps the higher purpose of the lighthouse itself now that flimsy but functional steel towers have taken over the task of supporting the modern light.
The wave-pounded coastline of Ben Boyd National Park can be explored on foot. Graded easy, the light-to-light walk is a threeday, 30km trek from Green Cape to Boyd’s Tower. If that sounds too strenuous there are many short walks along the way.
Something better than a lighthouse lunch can be enjoyed at Wheeler’s Oyster Farm near Merimbula. Under a new pavilion made from stone and recycled timber, platters of plump delicacies go down well with a chilled white. Tours of the oyster farm reveal thought-provoking insights into the sex life of oysters, which multiply by the millions. Most of their offspring perish but the question hanging in the air is this: what do oysters eat that makes them so darned virile?
I mull this over on the way to Eden, the jewel of the Sapphire Coast. Prominent for its whaling industry right up to the 1930s, Eden has since converted. ‘‘ Save the whale’’ is proclaimed with religious fervour and the tourism industry says amen. When these giants make their frequent appearances in Twofold Bay, the local Killer Whale Museum even sounds a horn, calling the faithful to stare. This homage is earned. The whale population is one of the drawcards that has made Eden a regular port of call for large cruise ships.
The whales are cruising, too. Humpbacks stop here to feed on krill during their southern migration to Antarctica. It is thought that the far south coast is their only feeding ground on this long journey, confirming the importance of maintaining a balanced ecology in these rich waters.
Life, in fact, is all about balance. A luxurious overnight stay at the Seahorse Inn, five minutes out of Eden on the peaceful shores of Twofold Bay, should compensate for any exposure to the elements in previous days. This gracious boutique hotel is constructed from the ruins of the home of Ben Boyd, a Sydneysider who came here in the 1840s hoping to make his fortune. He failed, but in these lavishly appointed rooms his love of the good life echoes.
‘‘ The good life’’ sums up the Eurobodalla and Sapphire coasts. The simple pleasures of fresh food and wine, sparkling air and sandy beaches with no footprints have the power to clear your inner desktop. Just take a deep breath and go. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Tourism NSW. www.visitnsw.com.au www.amooran.com.au www.seahorseinn.com.au www.naturecoast-tourism.com.au www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
The good life: Clockwise from left, the bucolic beauty of Central Tilba; Australian fur seals on Montague Island, near Narooma; boats moored at Tuross Head; lighthouse on Montague Island