Drive south for the winter
The New South Wales south coast doesn’t stop at Batemans Bay, nor does it close down after Easter. We set out to find the cold-weather charms that lie south of the Clyde River.
I’ve fallen in love with driving again. It might be the tarmac winding through valleys and past shimmering indigo seas, or it could be the Peugeot 5008’s comfortable seats and agreeable road manners. But I suspect it’s mainly because I’m on the far south coast of NSW in late May and there’s hardly anyone around.
Although holidaying in the same seaside town every summer creates fond memories and a sense of belonging, the cooler months are the perfect time for exploring the countryside. A road tripper’s best friend is a brown sign marked ‘Tourist Drive’. Bypasses and dual carriageways might be exceptional for safely moving people vast distances in a hurry, but they’re at odds with a relaxed driving holiday. South of Batemans Bay, most towns haven’t experienced the population explosion necessitating major road upgrades, so much of the Princes Highway still feels like a tourist drive, especially in winter.
But what exactly is there to see and do in the far south coast’s ‘off season’? My family and I are on a week-long mission to find out.
When it was founded almost 30 years ago, Mogo Zoo set new standards for what a small privately-operated zoo could be. It’s not so small anymore, having expanded at intervals over the years and it’s undergoing another metamorphosis while we’re there, with renovations on a number of enclosures.
My wife and I have visited many times over the years, but this is our first visit in the cooler months and it’s an altogether more relaxed and less tiring experience when the mercury isn’t over 30°C. We’re here on a Thursday morning and, while we don’t quite have the zoo to ourselves, it’s not far off.
Original Gold Rush Colony
While my wife and I have visited the heritage town of Mogo for many years, we’ve never driven around the corner from the zoo to visit its other well-known tourist attraction. The Original Gold Rush Colony recreates the old town, which was founded during Australia’s 19th century gold rush and boasted 37,000 fortune-seeking residents at its peak. This attraction features a miniature mine shaft, barber shop, police station, jail cell, pub and even a fully operational crushing machine. There’s still plenty of gold around Mogo and you can try your luck panning in the creek that runs through the colony.
Bodalla Dairy Shed
There are few things ice cream can’t improve and the Bodalla Dairy Shed has added this delicious string to its bow to accompany its famous cheese. “We make it with unhomogenised milk,” explains owner Sandra McCuaig as she hands my daughter a cone. “A lot of companies don’t do that anymore.”
The ice cream is so smooth and thick it’s almost chewy and I’m surprised it only won the bronze medal at this year’s 2018 Royal Easter Show. Behind the dairy is a working farm where you can sometimes watch calves being fed while ponies, alpacas and chickens wander about the paddock beside the carpark.
Bermagui Fishermen’s Wharf
Simply getting to Bermagui is half the fun – whether you approach from the north or south, you have to follow a tourist drive with quaint bridge crossings, spectacular Bega Valley vistas and the occasional sea view.
Once we arrive, we head for Bermagui Fishermen’s Wharf. Coming up to its 10th anniversary in 2019, this retail space is proof a seaside town can be developed without losing its cosy seaside demeanour. Housed within its impressive timber structure is a boutique ice cream parlour, clothes shops, Asian and Italian restaurants and the ‘HarBar’ (a pun so tortured I quite like it). Its frontage overlooks the Bermagui River with clear waters full of fish – we even spot an octopus squirting along beside the wharves.
Also worth seeing in ‘Bermi’ is the historic Blue Pool, a seawater pool that was constructed in the 1930s under the auspices of philanthropist and resident Bill Dickinson. It underwent major renovations in 2011 and is well worth a photo, even if it’s too cold for a swim.
Mill Bay Boardwalk
If you haven’t done this boardwalk, you haven’t really visited Narooma. Park your car at the bottom of Centenary Drive (the turnoff is just past the northern end of the bridge) and then set off along the timber walkway, enjoying unique views of the town. Keep an eye on the water for fish, stingrays and sea lions, which are attracted to the fish-cleaning facilities at the boardwalk’s eastern end. Continue far enough and you end up at Wagonga Head where you can look across to nearby Montague Island.
Along with the Killer Whale Museum in Eden, this is the Bega Valley Shire’s worst kept secret. Upstairs is devoted to historical artefacts from the cheese company’s long history, including the original ‘factory’ – one of many in the area at the time – which is little more than a hut. Downstairs is the cheese tasting deli, a gift shop and benches where you can sit and enjoy a ‘Moo moo moo shake’ or cup of coffee.
The Tathra tale
Until recently, Tathra was familiar to mountain bikers, holidaymakers and pretty much no one else. It hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons back in March when the town came under threat from bushfire. “It’s kicked the crap out of tourism; the town is doing about half the business it normally would,” said one café owner, who is open before 7am to chase every dollar he can.
He described the blaze as a “fiery tornado” that ripped through the town, utterly obliterating some buildings and sparing others, almost at a whim. A total of 66 homes were lost and more than 150 were damaged in the blaze including an old motor park that was entirely destroyed.
One property damaged was Tathra Beachside Holiday Park, which belongs to renowned entertainer Frankie J. Holden. From its grounds, you can look up the hill to the ridge where brown leaves and blackened trunks still stand testament to the conflagration. It reached the shoreline on fireballs that rocketed down on 100km/h winds. Although the park lost a couple of cabins, Frankie doesn’t want to dwell on it or add to the negative media reports, focusing instead on how Tathra is bouncing back and very much open for business.
“This is a great time to come to the Sapphire Coast,” said Frankie, as we sat outside enjoying a coffee in the glorious morning sun. “A lot of people still have the misconception that, ‘Oh, the South Coast is cold!’ But this is a pretty typical winter’s day. We call them ‘blue sky winters’. You need your jacket on when you first get up, but by 10-am or 10:30 you take it off, then you put it back on at about 4:30pm.”
How much do you know about oysters? Love or loathe them, after two hours cruising Pambula Lake with Brett Weingarth (aka Captain Sponge) you’ll be ready to lease your own farm. For me, one of the most fascinating insights is how oyster farmers have resisted the homogenisation of equipment and methods and still have their own “peculiarities” in farming, depending on the estuary.
Just outside the Pambula town centre, this wonderful rustic precinct combines a stock feed store, nursery, art gallery, café and a farm with horses, alpacas, donkeys and even an ostrich. The Imlay brothers, who were pastoralists and gold miners, first settled the land in 1833 and are synonymous with the region. The main homestead that now houses the businesses was built in 1847 for the Walker family. The Longstocking Nano-Brewery (even smaller than a micro-brewery) was recently added, which serves up beer, cider and oysters. If driving duties preclude you from enjoying a full glass, $2 will get you a ‘sample’ (slightly larger than a shot glass) of anything on the menu. I tried the ‘Fatty Arbuckle’ dark ale, which is just the shot on a cold afternoon.
Departing from Eden, this catamaran heads out into Twofold Bay and explores various points along the shores. In addition to the bay’s natural beauty, it holds pockets of history from the region’s whaling past dating back to 1791. Many of the tales relate to Scottish immigrant Ben Boyd, a wealthy landowner whose grandiose plans included founding Boydtown in 1843, which he hoped would become Australia’s capital. At its peak, 200 people lived in the town but investment woes and Boyd’s mysterious death in 1851 saw it abandoned in favour of Eden by 1870.
The cruise’s on-board commentary also outlines the unique relationship whalers had with killer whales (orcas). These remarkably intelligent mammals would ‘herd’ migrating whales into the bay so the whaling ships could harpoon them. The orcas would then be rewarded with the carcass ‘off cuts’ such as whale tongues.
Green Cape Lighthouse
Erected on a remote windswept point in 1883, this imposing lighthouse (was once the tallest concrete structure in Australia, standing at 29 metres. Many of the materials to build it were shipped from England and brought to the site on a horse-drawn cart along a rudimentary rail system.
Today, Green Cape Lighthouse is part of Ben Boyd National Park and the old lighthouse-keeper residences have been turned into bucolic holiday accommodation. Visitors in winter who aren’t keen on chilly and blustery isolation might be more comfortable holding off their stay until spring.
Much of the 23km road into the lighthouse is gravel, so take your time and not your Ferrari. Tours can be arranged
with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and include loads of history, plus a climb of 116 spiralling stairs to the top of the lighthouse, which will be lit up in November to celebrate its 135th anniversary.
Where we stayed
Tucked away at the back of South Durras, Murramarang Beachfront Holiday Resort packs everything into a small and picturesque space. Its crescent of beach looks out to sea but also onto a headland to the north, which makes for beautiful sunset photos. Kangaroos and other macropods enjoy feasting on the grass and Norfolk Island pine needles that carpet the foreshore. Clustered around the park’s southern end are a swimming pool, games room, a takeaway shop, bistro and bar. Ample seating makes it a pleasant place to have a meal or discuss the day over a couple of sundowners.
This dog-friendly accommodation has a history dating back to the 19th century. The spacious, country-style cabins are perched on expansive hillside lawns in an enviable eyrie with views to Montague Island. A communal hut has table tennis, a yawning fireplace, cosy lounges and a barbecue and BYO bar area. Oakleigh is also a working sheep farm. Friendly horses Charmer (an ex-racehorse) and Tex (a spotted horse that looks like he’s never even seen a racetrack) are in the next paddock and will entertain a pat, especially around breakfast time. Chooks are let out of their pen each morning and come running up to our cottage, clucking and pecking at the grass.
When it comes to luxury cabins, I’ve yet to see one that comes close to Merimbula Beach Holiday Resort. Our clifftop ocean condo is palatial, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a gas fireplace in the living room. In fact, ‘cabin’ is a misnomer; it’s a house that happens to be in a holiday park. You’ll be glad of your NRMA Membership discount, especially in the high season, but in the cooler months it feels well worth the outlay.
These apartments are set into one of Narooma’s foothills and the east-facing rooms have an unobstructed view over to Montague Island (pictured above). It’s also a downhill stroll to the Narooma Golf Club which makes our dinner venue a no-brainer.
Words & photos by Kris Ashton.