For those of us who call this part of the world our backyard, the bushfire season’s relentless tally of ash, debris and shattered lives left many of us wondering what had become of our little slice of heaven, and how were the locals managing to make ends meet in such a trying time? Well, with the fires well and truly gone, roads re-opened and local businesses trying to recover lost ground, we reckoned it was time to get back to the beach. So, we hit the roads to do the ‘magic loop’ from Canberra to Nowra, along the coastline to Batemans Bay, and return. And we’re sure glad we did.
Most of us know that the fires burnt through the string of National Parks that trace the Great Dividing Range from the Victorian border to Kangaroo Valley and beyond. Along the South Coast, Wadbilliga, Deua, Budawang, Murramarang, Morton and Jerawangal National Parks were in the direct path of the bushfires and there’s still some work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS) to do before many of our favourite camping and bushwalking locations will be safe for recreational use.
But the Australian bush is remarkable.Just a few weeks after the fires passed through, vast tracts of native eucalypts were already sprouting new growth from their blackened stems. Similarly, many cycads and other fire resistant under-storey plants were budding green with the promise of a new start. Pushing past the fire zones into coastal townships, the resilience of the local communities was self-evident in the pragmatic and positive attitudes taken by so many people we dealt with, whether in the local fish-coop, the village supermarket, or out walking their dogs. The South Coast community lost a lot in the fires, but it retained its core strengths — its people, its impossibly dazzling beaches and some fascinating cultural and geological heritage.
So with five days up our sleeve, we thought we’d seek out some of the ‘Haven’s top picks between Nowra and Bateman’s Bay. We’re pleased to report: the South Coast is back in business — and it’s amazing.
A RIVER SOMEWHERE
The Shoalhaven River rises from the Southern Tablelands, flowing northward near Braidwood, winding its way towards Goulburn before emerging from the Great Dividing Range near Nowra, over 300 kilometres later. Here it flows into the ocean at Shoalhaven Heads. This estuary draws fisher-folk in their droves with the waters well known for producing tailor, salmon, rock blackfish, bream and mulloway. And the birdlife is equally interesting with the Shoalhaven home to several endangered and special birds. With this diversity on offer, the waterways are a great place to spend a few hours – or days.
With lots of choices available, we decided to stay at Greenwell Point which sports two caravan parks and numerous boat ramps leading to the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven rivers. The Greenwell Point Hotel is a great place to round-out a day on the water, with excellent meals bursting with flavour from the local ingredients. Go on Friday night for the meat raffles — the prizes are sourced from the local butcher and all profits are donated to the local public school’s parents and citizens association.
LIGHT-UP YOUR LIFE
There are three lighthouse sites within the vicinity of Jervis Bay. Cape St George Lighthouse is now a ruin after being used for target practice by the Navy from 1917-1922. Apparently the lighthouse was mis-located due to a bureaucratic bungle meaning it couldn’t actually be seen from the northern approaches to the Bay — and was barely visible from the south. So it was replaced by the Point Perpendicular Lightstation (built in 1898) which, while no longer used for maritime safety, is an iconic local landmark within the Beecroft Weapons Range with fantastic views and impressive Victorian architecture. This is a popular whale watching spot and a favourite site for local abseilers despite prominent warnings to stay away from the cliff edge! Further north at Culburra Beach, is the smaller Crookhaven Heads Lighthouse site which is accessible via a walking track.
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
Booderee National Park and the Beecroft Weapons Range boast some truly spectacular stretches of coastline. The 16 pristine white sand beaches of Jervis Bay are renowned internationally. While Hyam’s Beach is touted as having ‘the world’s whitest sand’, you’ll find that this reputation draws the biggest high season crowds. Meanwhile, further south-east along Jervis Bay Road, the Green Patch and Bristol Point campgrounds provide ready access to equally beautiful beaches — with a bit more elbow-room.
Nearby Honeymoon Bay is not to be missed for those who enjoy time in the ocean without being pounded by the surf. A crescent-shaped inlet with a 20 metre-wide opening into Jervis Bay, this site offers a 100 metre long beach with shallow water ideal for little travellers and those who simply want to chill-out. The Honeymoon Bay campground is open when the Range is closed. So you can generally stay there on weekends (Fri-Sat nights) and during specified holiday periods on a first-in best-dressed basis. Camping is pre-booked for the summer holiday period via a ballot system held each August.
While you’ll need to check the NWPS website for details about which walking tracks have reopened since the fires, it’s pretty easy to find some great places to step-off and stretch your legs. We opted to search-out Gosangs Tunnel in Abrahams Bosom Reserve, Currarong. The tunnel is 2.5km from the carpark and involves an easy walk to reach a 30 metre crawl/duck space formed from a weakness in the sea cliffs. From its narrow entrance among the shrubbery, the tunnel opens out to reveal a stunning ocean view from around 40 metres above the water. This is a great place to watch whales on their southern migration each spring. Just be careful of kids as there’s no safety rail.
But who was ‘Gosang’ anyway? Well, apparently William Go Sang was born around 1824 in Chew Chow, China. After coming to Australia, he married an Irish lass called Margaret McMahon in 1859 in the Shoalhaven region and spent his time working at the Coolangatta Estate winery that still operates near Nowra. Before he died at the ripe-old age of 97, William had six kids with Margaret and one of them was a well-known stonemason. So perhaps Junior had a rock-solid relationship with the geographic feature that still takes the family name? Sounds like a good legacy to us.
Aboriginal cultural heritage runs deep in this area. At Jervis Bay, a strong partnership exists between the Wreck Bay community and the NPWS at Booderee National Park to strengthen opportunities for cultural exposure and growth. Over the school holidays, indigenous guided tours are conducted in the Park while, year-round, the Booderee Botanic Gardens features a bush-tucker section encouraging visitors to learn about the native plants and how they’re traditionally used, while the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum tells the history of local indigenous people.
TOPS AND TAILS
Further south along the Princes Highway, Pigeon House Mountain is an unmissable landmark. While access to the walking track may be closed for a while due to fires, it’s still worth reflecting on the significance of this place in indigenous and European history. Archaeological evidence indicates that, for at least 2,000 years, traditional ‘saltwater’ Aboriginal people of the Shoalhaven coast have ventured into the forested hinterland to conduct spiritually significant ceremonies at this prominent natural feature which they called Didthol, a word meaning ‘woman’s breast’.
During his voyage of exploration, in 1770 Captain Cook gave the feature a European name as he sailed past, noting in his diary that it was: "a remarkable peaked hill which resembled a square dove house with a dome on top and for that reason I called it Pigeon House". While Cook didn’t get a chance to stop and enjoy the local beach, just eleven years after the 1788 First Fleet, Europeans scrunched their toes in the Shoalhaven sand when survivors from a shipwreck in Victoria found themselves trudging overland on foot to reach Sydney.
These days, down by the shores you’ll find the fishing village of Ulladulla where a stop at the wharf-side fish co-op is a must. In our view, few things top the taste of fresh fish straight from the trawler. And the local fishing industry could really benefit from our patronage at the moment. As we scoffed our delicious lunch of prawns, calamari and pineapple fritters, we learnt that recent power-cuts caused by the fires meant fridges failed which led to hundreds of kilos of fresh produce having to be turfed back into the sea at an eye-watering financial cost. Similar stories are no-doubt being told by innumerable other local businesses and primary producers across this region. All of which reinforces the importance of buying local.
LAY YOUR HEAD
We enjoyed a mix of National Park and commercial campsites during our recent visit. And, in this region, you’re spoilt for choice. Around Jervis Bay, coastal campsites were open at Booderee National Park and at Beecroft Weapons Range. Meanwhile, further south we chose to call the BIG4 at South Durras home. This allowed us to snuggle-up close to our cherished Murramarang National Park which had not yet re-opened. Here we enjoyed a very well maintained and operated park that offers roomy camp-sites, a well-appointed camp kitchen and numerous BBQs spread throughout. And, for the kids, the heated pool, jumping castle, go-karts, giant checkers, basketball hoop and big screen movie night kept our littlest crew member happy as a clam at high water. Not bad for the smallest BIG4 in NSW!
Looking for dinner inspiration? Then remember that the South Durras General Store sells local fresh seafood and meats every Friday, with any leftover meat stocking the freezer for late-comers during the week. With pizza among the takeaway offerings, there’s no reason to go hungry.
A hop-step away are some readily accessible bush trails including those at Wasp Head. To get there, follow the signs from South Durras to the Wasp Head picnic area. With great ocean views, an easy two kilometre walking track offers plenty of vantage points. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, veer along the off-shoot footpath to the right near the car park which leads down to the beach. If the tide’s right, you’ll be able to access the shore and work your way across to a beautifully weathered rock stack and hidden caves. Look closely at the cliff walls and you’ll find fossils among the sedimentary layers that are between 280–510 million years old!
Bateman’s Bay is a bustling town with all the amenities you would expect from a regional hub. Here, local fresh fish outlets like the Boatshed haul fish from the trawler to your plate all year round. And several local oyster barns promise delicious Clyde River oysters straight from the riverbed farms. For another taste of the district, every day the MV Merida cruises the Clyde River from Batemans Bay to the little township of Nelligen and back again. The vessel’s captain has plenty of stories to share about local landmarks and home-grown personalities. For example, have you ever heard of the Clarke Brothers? Operating in the Braidwood district, these bushrangers had a reputation for violence that made the Kelly Gang look like amateurs. When they were finally captured, the brothers were coached to Nelligen where they were chained to a tree before being shipped to Sydney for trial and execution. You can still visit the ‘prison tree’ today.
Whether you’re by the beach, on a wharf or in a boat, talk to the locals and you’ll soon uncover the close and enduring relationship that so many people have with this special patch of the NSW South Coast. With so much holding people together, it’s no surprise that the spirit of community is so strong. Wherever you turn, it seems someone is ‘paying it forward’ to make the recovery effort just that little bit easier for others. While I’m sure our recent visit and our contributions to the local economy made only a tiny dent in the recovery efforts, every little bit counts. So why not find your own patch of NSW South Coast to fall in love with? There are so many reasons to visit.