Cruis­ing from north to south in NSW

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

THE WHALES HAVE THE SAME IDEA as us, only this time of year they’re do­ing the NSW coast in the other di­rec­tion. Gaz­ing out to sea from a head­land at Cabarita Beach, Tweed Heads, there’s no end to bushy plumes of blow and flashes of sur­fac­ing bulk as hump­back whales mi­grate north for win­ter. No mat­ter the di­rec­tion you head, a coastal NSW road trip of­fers up a mash-up of the usual and the un­usual, the breathtaking and the awe in­spir­ing, and what­ever takes your fancy. The 1000 or so kilo­me­tres be­tween Tweed Heads at the Queens­land bor­der and deep south Eden burst with op­tions and sur­prises.


The first sur­prise: Tweed Heads has (vir­tu­ally) guar­an­teed snorkelling with green sea tur­tles. Tiny, craggy Cook Is­land, a quick boat trip just 600 me­tres off­shore, is a year­round feed­ing ground. Jump­ing in re­veals an in­stant won­der­land of puffer fish, clown­fish, a wobbe­gong and squadrons of translu­cent squid. Oh, and tur­tles – at least four (a quiet day), flap­ping like winged dishes along a rocky reef floor three me­tres be­low. But per­haps you’d pre­fer pic­nick­ing with whales. Gam­bol­ing just be­hind the surf, hump­backs seem al­most part of the scrump­tious spread (chia pud­dings, sour­dough bread etc.) that Blue Gin­ger Pic­nics have ar­ranged on a shady dune at pris­tine Kingscliff Beach.


Hard as it is to leave Hal­cyon House, it is time to hit the road. Ris­ing phoenix-like from a for­mer Cabarita surf mo­tel, the five-star Hal­cyon is im­pos­si­bly stylish with­out uni­form style – here some Hamp­tons flour­ishes, there some Span­ish arches – hap­pily mix­ing what­ever feels right. Post­card-per­fect, al­most-un­oc­cu­pied beaches con­tinue all the way south, as clifftop views of curl­ing white-sand panora­mas from Pat Mor­ton Look­out (Len­nox Head) and Goanna Head­land (Evans Head) at­test, un­til we ar­rive into Yamba. Some 180 kilo­me­tres from Tweed, this laid-back town ticks the usual coastal get­away boxes: beaches, rock baths, sea­side walks, surf­ing, boat­ing, and seafood to un­der­take a road trip for – the prawns are fa­mous in these parts. But less-ob­vi­ous charms in­clude In­dian Fu­sion Tapas Bar & Restau­rant, where the dis­tinctly fu­sion­in­spired lamb shank (not diced as usual) ro­gan josh is just one sig­na­ture dish.


On the drive from Yamba to Port Mac­quarie, an­other 300 kilo­me­tres (three hours) south, we stop for mid-morn­ing cof­fee at Beach­stone Cafe, near Coffs Har­bour, be­fore ar­riv­ing into town at noon. The beaches of Port (as lo­cals call it) fea­ture dra­matic rock out­crops – and, in one case, camels. Look­ing be­mused as they sit

pa­tiently on Lighthouse Beach, tan coats har­mon­is­ing with the sand, four ships of the desert make the cobalt wa­ters of the Pa­cific look like an uber-oa­sis. Camel per­son­al­i­ties vary, says cameleer John Hardy, but this lot all seem pretty zen. In­deed, bob­bing gen­tly along­side pound­ing surf as my camel soft-shoes the sand feels al­most med­i­ta­tive. After a lunch of lo­cal fare at LV’s on Clarence, a pop­u­lar river­side cafe sup­plied by its own farm, Port’s Glasshouse Re­gional Gallery in­spires an­other kind of in­tro­spec­tion, show­cas­ing lo­cal artists and fo­cus­ing on land­scapes and ab­stracts.


Down the map an­other 220 kilo­me­tres, Port Stephens is Syd­ney Har­bour’s big­ger, wilder and rel­a­tively un­pop­u­lated cousin. After grab­bing lunch at Lit­tle Nel in Nel­son Bay, we head to the im­pos­ing To­ma­ree Head Ris­ing 161 me­tres at the har­bour mouth this is the best lo­cal bush­walk, pass­ing Sec­ond World War gun em­place­ments up to breathtaking bay and beach views – and on the ocean-side dis­tant Port Stephens Lighthouse (1862) at the far tip of a sand spit. Shar­ing (and com­plet­ing) the spec­ta­cle five white­bel­lied sea ea­gles soar on air cur­rents, high above the isth­mus be­tween har­bour and ocean.


Head­ing off early to­wards New­cas­tle al­lows for am­ple time in the Worimi Con­ser­va­tion Lands. This 25-kilo­me­tre stretch is our hemi­sphere’s largest sand dune ecosys­tem, and its In­dige­nous cus­to­di­ans add pep to their cul­tural tours with high-adren­a­line quad-bik­ing. Rum­bling down a sandy track to­wards end­less un­du­lat­ing dunes and a dis­tant sea, we fol­low our guide, Josh, in sin­gle file. Start­ing slow, we’re soon roar­ing and zip­ping along at up to 70 kilo­me­tres an hour. “Keep the wheels nice and straight, and don’t brake – give it a touch of ac­cel­er­a­tor,” Josh advises atop a moun­tain­ous dune. Sud­denly I’m on a self-drive roller­coaster – the daunt­ingly steep sum­mit, the heart-in­mouth cross­ing of the edge and then the wild ex­hil­a­ra­tion of zoom­ing down­wards. Depart­ing Syd­ney for the Shoal­haven re­gion, we overnight at Cul­burra Beach; al­low a good five to six hours’ leisurely driv­ing for this stretch, in­clud­ing cof­fee breaks.


One hour down the road, Jervis Bay Stand Up Pad­dle at Huskisson is an­other win­ning com­bi­na­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and out­door ac­tion. Peace reigns as we progress down Cur­ram­bene Creek to the bay delta, a three-kilo­me­tre re­turn trip. St­ingrays glide be­neath us in waist-deep wa­ter; a pel­i­can croaks softly as we pass thick man­groves. Our guides make an ef­fec­tive dou­ble act: Ma­son is a skil­ful and pa­tient SUP coach, while Ray is a font of In­dige­nous wis­dom, re­veal­ing the wide uses of lo­cal plants while giv­ing in­sight into what con­nec­tion with coun­try means. After SUP, it’s time to sip; Cupitt just out­side Ul­ladulla solves that. The bu­colic hill­top set­ting be­lies the en­ergy and en­ter­prise of the Cupitt fam­ily who built this buzzing win­ery-restau­rant-fro­magerie out of al­most noth­ing. Start­ing with just a 19th-cen­tury cow­shed – now the cel­lar-door – they’ve cre­ated a gas­tro­nomic idyll with an un­wa­ver­ing fo­cus on re­cy­cling and sus­tain­abil­ity.


It’s be­com­ing ob­vi­ous that the Sap­phire Coast, as the south is known, is a lit­tle more laid-back than the north. Head­ing out from Tilba Lake Camp, we pass through Ber­magui, tak­ing in Fish­er­man’s Wharf and its Blue Pool, be­fore ar­riv­ing into Tathra. The soul of this sleepy, beachy town might be found loung­ing on the deck of its 1862 tim­ber sea wharf, the last left in NSW. Or it might be push­ing ped­als on the ac­claimed moun­tain-bike trails be­hind the town. But if stren­u­ous feels su­per­flu­ous, there’s al­ways the op­tion of just en­joy­ing the rocky head­lands and turquoise-sea beaches. On­wards to Eden, an ex-whal­ing town fringed by coastal Ben Boyd Na­tional Park, 10,000 hectares of pre­served bush iron­i­cally named for a colo­nial spec­u­la­tor who sought to de­velop the area com­mer­cially. At the south­ern end, on a lonely jut of red­dish rocky head­land, Green Cape lighthouse (1883) of­fers ac­com­mo­da­tion in the keep­ers’ cot­tages, perched on the sea cliff above churn­ing break­ers and a wide, empty ocean.


On the other side of Eden at Pam­bula, the Cap­tain Sponge’s Mag­i­cal Oys­ter Tour tells of a key lo­cal in­dus­try. As Sponge’s boat tours his leases on the Pam­bula River –home to Syd­ney rock and an­gasi oys­ters – he en­ter­tains with oys­ter hus­bandry in­for­ma­tion, shows how to shuck like a pro and presents a de­li­cious sam­ple. Ex­ten­sive wa­ter­side Abo­rig­i­nal mid­dens show this wa­ter­way has en­joyed con­tin­u­ous use since be­fore recorded time. Given what we have ex­pe­ri­enced over the last week, it seems un­likely we’ll ever record a time when peo­ple aren’t out en­joy­ing the NSW coast.

Look­ing out to sea from Cabarita Beach. OP­PO­SITE: The tow­er­ing Cape Green Lighthouse and one of its charming Keep­ers’ Cot­tages in Ben Boyd Na­tional Park .

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A tran­quil scene at Cabarita Beach; The stylish and de­li­cious spread laid out by Blue Gin­ger Pic­nics at Kingscliff Beach; One of John Hardy’s camels at Lighthouse Beach, Port Mac­quarie. OP­PO­SITE (from top): Sam­pling the menu at The Stunned Mul­let in Port Mcaquarie; A sunny day on NSW’s sun-kissed coast; The de­light­ful Hal­cyon House at Cabarita Beach; Yamba’s ocean pool at Main Beach.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Quad bik­ing on the sand­hills at Worimi Con­ser­va­tion Lands be­tween New­cas­tle and Port Stephens; Ray­mond Tim­bery looks out over Cur­rum­bene Creek dur­ing a stand up pad­dle­board tour; Lunch and a glass of white at Cupitt’s Kitchen.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Gen­tle sun­shine floods into a room at Forty Paces Beach House at Cul­burra Beach; Green Cape Light­sta­tion Keep­ers’ Cot­tages; Oys­ter shuck­ing with Cap­tain Sponge. OP­PO­SITE (clockwise from top left): Hal­cyon House; pic­nic fare by Blue Gin­ger Pic­nics; a hearty lunch at LV’s On Clarence in Port Mac­quarie; An­chor­age Port Stephens; Quad bik­ing on the dunes; fresh NSW oys­ters; Look­ing out from a Cape Green Light­sta­tion Keeper’s Cot­tage.

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