Swimming with Seals in Sapphire Seas (on the Slow Road to Sydney)
As Linda and I left Victoria behind and entered New South Wales to begin our second week on the road (Monday 12thOctober), we unfortunately encountered our first really lousy weather day of the trip so far. With rain falling pretty much the whole day, we initially followed the highway from Mallacoota to Eden – where we stopped for lunch at a park overlooking Twofold Bay – before turning off onto the Sapphire Coast Drive for the remaining hundred kilometres or so to Narooma. Eventually we called it quits for the day after pulling into a free rest area just north of Narooma in Bodalla State Forest; and after slurping down a hearty vegetable soup cooked by Linda in the back of the van (so as to keep out of the rain), we turned in for the night and hoped desperately that the following day would prove to be more enjoyable…
And as if to answer our prayers, the sun had come out by the time we awoke the next day, so we quickly packed up and headed back into Narooma for a scenic breakfast beside the waters of Wagonga Inlet. From there we followed the waterfront around to the end of the road, where the waters of Wagonga Inlet wash into the sea, and where to our delight we encountered a small family group of around nine seals – half of which were floating and frolicking about in the water; while the other half were simply lying around sunning themselves on the rocks!
Captivated by their every move, we could have watched these seals for hours – and probably would have, if not for the fact that we had booked a boat trip out to nearby Montague Island for the afternoon. Or at least we thought we had. After having called up a local tour operator and left a voice message when there was no answer, we rocked up to the little wharf in Narooma thinking that we were going out on a tour with Lighthouse Charters, only to be told their boat was full, but that we might be able to get a spot on the boat beside them at the wharf belonging to Charter Fish Narooma. Except their boat was full too. Thankfully though they had a bigger boat right next to that, and were happy to move everyone over onto the bigger boat (there were only nine guests plus two crew altogether) so that we could join in the tour, and they were even happy to throw a few sets of fins and snorkels onboard in order to accommodate our request for snorkelling with the seals on Montague Island, as had been offered by the other tour operator.
So with everyone on board we set off for the twenty minute crossing to Montague Island, only to end up indulging in some whale watching instead after a pair of humpbacks (presumable a mother and calf) were spotted breaching a few hundred metres from the boat. And though we weren’t able to get too close to the whales, the smaller one (which was still as big as our boat!) did perform a couple of spectacular flying breaches with it’s whole body out of the water soon after they were first spotted – what a spectacular sight that was!
Eventually though we did make it to the landing at Montague Island, where we were met by a National Park ranger named Tom, who then took us all (including the guests from the other tour boat) on a fascinating and informative ninety minute tour of the island, leading us through a cavalcade of screeching seagulls – all of whom were noisily defending their eggs and/or newly-hatched chicks – and past a colony of altogether more sedate nesting crested terns, before taking us up to the top of the 134-year-old lighthouse (completed in 1881 for you history buffs, or those of you not very good at maths) while elaborating on the history of the island and it’s native inhabitants – namely seagulls, crested terns, shearwaters and little penguins; but also featuring colonies of both Australian and New Zealand fur seals.
And it was to the fur seal colonies at the northern end of the island that we headed upon returning to the boat, first motoring past the Kiwi fur seals (virtually indistinguishable from their Trans-Tasman cousins, except that they prefer not to be touching whilst basking on the rocks – while their Aussie neighbours are happy to lie all over each other – and presumably they say ‘tin’ and ‘pin’ instead of ‘ten’ and ‘pen’!). From there we rounded a low headland and came across the Australian fur seals (who by comparison appeared to be practising their scrummaging technique!) where we were soon getting kitted up and throwing ourselves into the water to frolic with the inquisitive seals!
It doesn’t take much to get them excited either. As we slowly idled past and dropped anchor the colony of seals lay passively watching from the comfort of their rocky perch, but once we had slipped into the water and started paddling over towards the colony their curiosity was immediately aroused; and from there all it took was a few good slaps on the surface of the water and they were falling all over themselves to reach the water and indulge in some serious horseplay!
The contrast between the seals’ movements on land and in the sea is truly extraordinary, for upon land they appear to be lumbering lard-arsed blobs of fat with no respect for one another’s personal space, yet the second they hit the water they are immediately transformed into streamlined, precision-guided torpedoes with fins, capable of not only reaching incredible speeds (especially when they first dive into the water and zoom straight down into the depths) and performing gravity-defying turns, but also the most graceful pirhouettes and floating rolls on the surface. They also seem to enjoy playing games of chicken, as not once but twice a seal would swim full speed ahead straight towards me, only to turn sharply away at the last second. What an experience!
After about half-an-hour of this playful aquatic interaction, it was time to say goodbye to our furry new friends – just about all of whom were now in the water enjoying a communal afternoon swim! Back onboard the boat we were treated to the sight of a pair of sea eagles flying overhead; and it was only then that Linda and I also remembered having seen both a leopard shark and a stingray prowling the bottom as we first approached the seals! Of course we then encountered more whales on the crossing back to Narooma (including another full body breach for our final sighting), not to mention a truly gigantic stingray (about a metre-and-a-half in diameter) that casually cruised underneath the boat as we tied up back at the wharf; but by now of course I’m really just showing off…
So I’ll fast forward to the end of the day, as we made our way along a winding gravel road off the highway just north of Narooma into Eurobodalla National Park, where we ended up with the pick of the campsites at the Brou Lake campground nestled between a shallow lake full of black swans and an ocean beach; where we first had a wallaby bound past along the lakeshore, then a kookaburra hopping about in front of the van feeding on little insects, and finally during the night while Linda was preparing another delicious meal (Asian stir-fry with rice) we received a visit from a friendly possum, who gave me a not-so-gentle reminder that one should never feed the wildlife when I offered it a piece of apple and it chomped down on both the apple and my middle finger! Now THAT’s a wildlife experience I would not soon forget!
Still basking in the afterglow of our incredible wildlife watching experiences the day before, we lingered long over breakfast on Wednesday, whilst watching countless black swans swimming out on the lake; a kookaburra that seemed as fascinated with Linda as she was with it; a wallaby that came bounding through our campsite as if on the run from the police; and even a sea eagle flying past with a prized catch of fish dangling from it’s talons… all of which would constitute an ordinary morning in this part of the world, I imagine!
It wasn’t until around midday that we finally left the campground at Brou Lake, though even then we had driven no more thirty kilometres when we were already making our first scenic stop for the day at Tuross Head, where we couldn’t resist taking the plunge and floating along in the current as the waters of Coila Lake emptied out onto Coila Beach! Meanwhile with freshwater showers by no means a daily event on our schedule, Linda was delighted to find a free outdoor shower beside the beach – taking advantage of the opportunity to wash her hair without any hesitation!
No sooner had we made it back to the highway than we were turning off once more onto a scenic drive that first followed the wide blue expanse of the Moruya River, before following the coastline up towards Batemans Bay – where I was finally able to find an Optus shop to sort out my internet connectivity issues! Pressing on only another ten minutes or so up the highway, we took the turn-off to Murramarang National Park, where we first bumped our way down a rocky dirt road to hike the short Discovery Trail near Durras Lake; before finishing up at the Depot Beach campground where we were immediately greeted by the sight of a mob of sixteen kangaroos grazing contentedly on the grass – two of which were mothers with joeys in their pouches! Needless to say, Linda was in heaven! A short walk along the beach later, and we were settling down for another night under the stars – with kangaroos and the odd possum for company, of course!
Continuing our northward migration the following day, we veered inland from the highway to take the long dirt road towards Pigeon House Mountain – in a remote section of Morton National Park known as the Budawang Wilderness. With it’s distinctive breast-like shape – including a pointed nipple at the top – it is not surprising that aborigines (to whom the mountain is known as Didthul) have long considered this a sacred place, particularly for women. After a long and bumpy ride we eventually made it to the carpark at the base of the mountain – and that’s where the real adventure began, as we tackled the steep uphill climb to the top.
Despite the trail being only about seven kilometres long (return), it is rated as a challenging hike simply due to the steep, unrelenting nature of the track. For twenty minutes we slogged our way uphill, before finally reaching the crest of the ridge at which point the track levelled out and allowed us to catch our breath as we walked along perfectly flat ground for the next ten minutes; only to then face another steep climb of about twenty minutes until we reached the base of the cliffs that extend to the summit. After once again stopping to catch our breath, we negotiated the countless ladders that lead up the near-vertical cliff-face, before finally reaching our goal at the very top where the views of the surrounding countryside extended out in all directions – from the distant coast (barely visible through the haze) to the near-impenetrable wilderness around The Castle and Monolith Valley.
Two-and-a-half hours after starting out, we arrived back at the carpark pretty well knackered and hankering for some beach-side rest and relaxation, and I knew just the place to go to – Jervis Bay, about an hour straight up the coast to the north. Unfortunately due to unforeseen roadworks that hour turned out to be closer to two hours, which combined with fatigue from the hike left us both well and truly exhausted by the time we finally arrived in the small town of Sanctuary Point – where my grandparents used to live and my Aunty & Uncle’s family still do – where we stopped for lunch, before checking into a caravan park just outside nearby Huskisson, where the waters of Currumbene Creek flow out into Jervis Bay.
The remainder of the afternoon was only ever going to be spent in one place – Greenfield’s Beach, just outside Vincentia in Jervis Bay National Park. It was at this beautiful beach that my family spent countless summer afternoons back when I was in school, after driving all the way down from Brisbane (around 1200kms) during the Christmas holidays each year. Whether I had forgotten just how wonderful this beach was or whether I had never fully appreciated it’s beauty in the first place, I couldn’t quite be sure; but walking across the pure white sand and gazing out across the clear blue water towards the ever-present headland of Point Perpendicular, I couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer beauty of the place. We certainly could not have wished for a finer place to while away the remaining daylight hours, before eventually dragging ourselves away and heading back to the caravan park for a well-earned sleep.
Friday saw Linda and I heading into Huskisson to meet up with my Aunty Anne and Uncle Ralph (who were meeting Linda for the first time) whom I had not seen in at least ten years. After a quick drive through nearby Sanctuary Point to see my grandparents old house where I had so often stayed in the past, we then headed back to Greenfield’s Beach – where Linda immersed herself in her book while I explored further afield by following the White Sands Walk past the neighbouring (and equally scenic) Blenheim Beach and then on to Nelsons Beach. No sooner had we returned to the caravan park for a quick shower, than we found ourselves back in Huskisson for another long-awaited reunion – this time with my cousins Rebecca and Emily, both of whom funnily enough are around the same age as Linda!
Although we had decided to leave Jervis Bay on Saturday, upon Anne and Ralph’s recommendation we hung around long enough to hire a sea kayak for a couple of hours, giving us the chance to paddle a couple of kilometres up Currumbene Creek back to where we had stayed at the caravan park; before turning around and heading back to the more open (yet still relatively sheltered) waters of Jervis Bay. And having worked up quite a hunger, I then couldn’t resist the opportunity to drop into the local bakery for a Husky pie – just as I had done so often in the past!
Finally leaving Huskisson on Saturday afternoon, we turned off the Princes Highway at Nowra and took the winding, scenic road up and over Cambewarra Mountain – from the top of which the views of the coastline were most impressive – and then down the other side to the scenic and tranquil confines of Kangaroo Valley. Crossing the ostentatious Hampden Bridge (which I had been expecting, but which came as a complete surprise to Linda in such rural surroundings) we then climbed the switch-backing road up Barrengarry Mountain to visit Fitzroy Falls, in another corner of the extensive Morton National Park.
Falling 81 metres in a single drop, the falls were certainly a stunning sight; though by no means were they the only point of interest as we followed the West Rim walk along the edge of the precipice, reading as we went the countless informative signs devoted to many of the local residents – such as wombats, echidnas, platypus, lyrebirds etc. (who knew that both wombats and jplatypus can dig burrows up to 30 metres deep; or that only echidnas and goannas possess claws able to tear through the walls of a termites nest?!?).
Having discovered on our way through Kangaroo Valley that our visit happened to coincide with the Kangaroo Valley Folk Festival, we returned to the chilled out little town only to then find to our dismay that rather than being a free event there was actually a $35 entry fee; so after a quick pint at a local pub we again turned tail and headed out to the nearby Bendeela campground. To say that this place was quite a find would be an understatement – for after driving ten kilometres or so out of town we arrived at a vast, free camping area (complete with toilets) managed by NSW Water of all people. There were even a couple of friendly nsecurity guards stationed at the entrance to the campground, who pleasantly greeted us and then handed us a small flyer, explaining that thirteen wombats had been killed at the campground in the previous fortnight and imploring us to drive slowly whilst on the premises to avoid adding to the death toll – which of course I was only too happy to oblige with; while Linda couldn’t hide her excitement at the possibility of yet another wildlife encounter…
She wasn’t to be disappointed either! For within twenty minutes of our arrival we were first visited by a lone wombat, who casually grazed nearby before deciding that the grass underneath our campervan would taste best – at which point he did his best to try and move our van out of the way to get to it! A short time later he was joined by a second wombat, before a third wombat then joined in the feeding frenzy as they indulged in a spot of synchronized lawn-mowing… and all the while we watched on in raptures! Of course it was only later that we discovered that the particular grassy bank we had parked on top of also happened to be home to not one but two extensive wombat burrows, both of which in all likelihood led directly underneath our vehicle!
The following morning we re-traced our winding route up Barrengarry Mountain, before turning off shortly before Fitzroy Falls to visit the equally spectacular Carrington Falls (which at 90 metres in height are actually 9 metres taller than their counterpart) in nearby Budderoo National Park. After following a short loop trail offering various perspectives of the waterfall, and then clambering about the stream immediately above the falls, we then headed to the nearby Nellie’s Glen where a much smaller waterfall drops in a wide sheet of water into a beautiful oval-shaped plunge pool surrounded by dense foliage, creating a stunningly picturesque scene – one that we would dearly have loved to indulge in a swim in, if not for the fact that the overcast weather of the previous day had continued.
Following the scenic Jamberoo Mountain Road past a lookout with what would have been a spectacular view on a sunny day, we then headed down the side of the mountain on a winding descent that took us into a dense patch of rainforest – which we would have explored more closely at Minnamurra Falls if not for the exorbitant $12 per vehicle entry fee… oh, to be backpackers on a tight budget! Our disappointment was soon forgotten however when we spotted an echidna crossing the road ahead; and upon closer inspection we found a second echidna beside the road, who as with the first burrowed as deeply as possible into the grass and then curled up into a ball upon our approach! Were there any native animals left that we hadn’t yet encountered on our trip!?! (Actually yes – koalas being at the top of Linda’s list!)
Returning to the coast at the pretty town of Kiama, we first stopped off at a supermarket to replenish our supplies and then headed to the rocky headland that overlooks the small harbour and is home to Kiama’s best known tourist attractions – with the elegant Lighthouse standing watch over the ever-popular Kiama Blowhole, where a small sea cave (more like a short tunnel) funnels the ocean swells into a narrow channel and then shoots plumes of spray up through a hole in the roof of the cave to the delight of hordes of onlookers, all of whom gather around the rocky amphitheatre with cameras poised!
From Kiama we followed the impressively-named Grand Pacific Drive up the coast, past the sprawling city of Woollongong with it’s ugly industrial estates and in the shadow of the imposing Illawarra Escarpment that drops straight down into the sea in places, such as at the Sea Cliff Bridge – where the road hangs out over the Pacific Ocean for over half-a-kilometre – and Stanwell Park, where a viewpoint high above the sea offers tremendous views back along the coast towards Woollongong, as well as a perfect launching area for hang gliders! And from there we weaved our way through the lush green landscape of Royal National Park, eventually arriving at the Bonnie Vale campground just outside Bundeena – both of which sit serenely on the sheltered shores of Port Hacking, directly opposite the Sydney suburb of Cronulla – where we found ourselves a nice shady campsite and settled in for the night; whilst planning to tackle the renowned 26km Coast Track through Royal National Park the following day. But that’s a story for another day…