TAKE A BREATHER

Leonie Coombes en­joys the crisp, clean air of NSW’s Euro­bo­dalla and Sap­phire coasts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

Pic­tures: Leonie Coombes

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

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