Meandering along the coast from seaside Batemans Bay into the windswept mountains of Tilba Tilba and offshore to Montague Island, this journey along the NSW South Coast combines gourmet delights with outdoor adventure.
I’m walking across the Sydney Airport tarmac with sunhat atop my head, jam-packed itinerary in my pocket and Rex plane ticket to Moruya in my hand. At the bottom of the stairs, I look up to see the Rex pilot, smiling and waving! I’m heading off on a three-day trip with three companions around the Eurobodalla region on the NSW South Coast.
Kayaking and oyster shucking in Batemans Bay
After a quick hour’s flight, we touch down in Moruya, at the smallest airport I have ever seen. We grab our bags, jump straight in the hire car outside and are on the road north to Batemans Bay. Pulling off near Batemans Bay Bridge, a salty sea breeze blows while I’m shaking hands with Josh Waterson. Josh is a guide from Region X Unspoilt Experiences who’ll be taking us out for an Oyster Tasting Kayak Tour. The four of us pack into double kayaks with Josh in the lead, heading downstream with a slight tailwind.
As we paddle along Clyde River, I gaze around at the huge azure bay, dotted with yachts and speed boats. And before I know it, we’ve reached our first stop – the Oyster Shed on Wray Street. Paddling up to the dock, we meet fourth-generation oyster farmer Jade Norris. His grandfather built the shed back in the 1950s. As we float in tethered kayaks, Jade tells us the story of the family business, their oyster farming practices and about the two oyster types that they grow (Pacific Oysters and Sydney Rock Oysters). We then try a few of each that were harvested just that morning. We also indulge in an ‘unrinsed’ Sydney Rock, fresh from the ocean and actually filled with a small mouthful of sea water (something you can only experience direct from the growers)!
As we sip steaming coffee from tin mugs, Jade’s dad Mark and husband Greg arrive in a boat with the morning’s catch and wave ‘hello’. Then we’re kayaking across the bay towards the oyster farm ourselves. We take time exploring the rows of racks upon which the oysters grow and the many docks where other oyster farmers are at work. As we circle back around toward the beach I spot several shore birds in the vegetation by the water. There’s an eagle circling far above us with her mind set on fish for breakfast.
Bodalla Dairy Shed and Narooma e-bike adventure
By now it’s midday and we’re back on the road south. Halfway, we stop at the South Coast town of Bodalla to visit Bodalla Dairy Shed. We take a tour around the dairy, sampling their famed ice creams. Then, we traipse down to the paddock where we bottle-feed two weeks-old calves.
Arriving at Southbound Escapes Narooma, we meet the lovely Sally Bouckley. She’s full of energy and has five e-bikes ready to go. Just a quick explanation of the electric-powered gears and we zoom (quite literally) away. As someone who’s never tried an e-bike before, when we hit the first hill, I’m floored by the ease with which I glide up it! We’re on a 21-kilometre return ride from Narooma to Dalmeny. This stunning cycling and walking track that hugs the coastline was built and funded by the community.
With the ease of the e-bike, I spend my time looking out at the gorgeous South Coast views as we cruise by. We pass along a boardwalk over turquoise waters and stop at a few great vantage points before heading back to Narooma. We spot a few seals lolling about near the rocks just a few metres away (more on this later).
At the end of our ride, Sally leads us to a quiet beach – where a surprise picnic waiting for us. (Though ‘picnic’ is putting it lightly). There’s hanging plates suspended from a frame, filled with quiches, cakes and sandwiches. We sit upon lush cushions, drink Champagne, and taste a sample of local food from right around the region; jams, cheese, baked goods, fresh fruit and scones. I sit contentedly, thinking what a special surprise this ride and picnic would make for a special occasion.
The Whale Restaurant and Southbound Apartments Narooma
Back at Southbound Escapes HQ, we check into our accommodation for the night – Southbound Apartments Narooma. As soon as I step into our corner apartment, I’m stunned by the view visible through the floor-length plate-glass windows. The main bedroom and balcony overlook Narooma’s naturally enclosed beach. There’s a bottle of local riesling in the fridge along with our cheese and crackers purchased from Bodalla Dairy. We relax and enjoy a glass of wine and treats on the balcony while watching the sun drop over a deep-blue ocean before taking the short walk up to The Whale Restaurant for dinner.
The small and dedicated team there is headed up by ex-pro-surfer-turned-chef Matthew Hoar. From the ever-rotating menu of seasonal local produce, I enjoy the house-made pumpkin gnocchi and share a taste of every dessert on the menu with my companions, including frangipane tart with rhubarb, various scoops of ice cream and an excellent sticky date pudding – all made almost exclusively with local South Coast produce and ingredients.
Mountain View Farm in Tilba Tilba and Indigenous history at Gulaga Mountain
After a well-earned night’s sleep, we wander downstairs for coffee and breakfast at The View Coffee & Bites, located right below our apartments. Three macchiatos later and we’re driving down the coast to Tilba Tilba. Arriving at Mountain View Farm, we’re greeted by farm owner Kathryn Radcliffe and Aboriginal elder Iris White. The farm is set in the foothills of Gulaga Mountain. The vast property is blooming with pink and yellow flowers. It’s peaceful and quiet, apart from the sound of horses neighing in the nearby fields.
We sip on refreshing juice made from native ingredients while Iris tells us dreamtime stories handed down to her by her grandfather. She tells us of the spiritual significance of the mountain and the landscape’s Songspirals to traditional owners, particularly the Yuin women. Known as the Mother Mountain, Gulaga is an especially sacred place for women. I’m enraptured listening to Iris, feeling the warm wind rush down from the mountain. I know then and there that this is the most special moment of this trip.
Touring Central Tilba with Tilba Talks Historical Walks
Later, we head inside to explore the farmhouse accommodation. Here, we sample a few more treats made on the farm; jams, pickles, chutneys, salsa, quiches, breads and tarts, all incorporating native ingredients. Five minutes’ drive away, we meet up with Zoe Burke in Central Tilba. She’s dressed from head to toe in stunning 19th century dress. Zoe runs Tilba Talks Historical Walks, a historical walking tour of Central Tilba’s oldest stores and attractions.
From the Wallaby & Wombat, filled with Australian-made woodwork, gifts and souvenirs, to Reva’s handmade jewellery store, to Gulaga Gallery & Bookstore (home to everything hemp from clothes to smoothies), most establishments along Tilba’s main street were built in the late 1800s. After a coffee at Tilba Teapot Café and some old-timey lollies from The Tilba Sweet Spot, we finish the tour off sampling the rich and creamy cheeses at the ABC Cheese Factory.
Tilba Valley Winery and glamping at Tilba Lake House
Next up is a visit to Tilba Valley Winery. We take a seat outside, on the wrap-around stained-deck verandah which overlooks the diamond-shaped vineyard below. Next to us are a couple with two friendly-looking dogs calmly roaming and the atmosphere is simply so laidback. We spend the afternoon enjoying a late lunch of hors d’oeuvres, seafood pasta and gourmet salads, sipping wine and port. I can’t help but purchase a few bottles to take home with me.
We check into Tilba Lake Camp, where we are each staying in our own bell tent or tiny house. For me, it’s a bell tent complete with plush double bed, power pack, lamp, hot water bottle and kettle. I spend some time feeding carrots to the horses before curling up with a book on a camp chair as the sun set behind rolling hills and far-away fields of dairy cows.
That night we head back up to The Drom (aka The Dromedary Hotel) in Central Tilba for a hearty dinner and drinks. It isn’t long into the evening before we’re chatting with the locals (it’s clear we’re the only out-of-towners as everyone seems to know everyone) and are warmly invited to join in the weekly game of darts. A few of the local pros teach us their best moves.
Back at Tilba Lake House, I wander back to my lodgings along a path lit by moon- and star-light. I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of silence but for soft wind rushing over the hills outside.
Montague Island Lighthouse and Walking Tour
I wake early, ready for this morning’s much-anticipated trip to Montague Island. At Narooma we meet with Wazza from Montague Island Discovery Tours. He’s taking us to the island, a 30-minute boat ride off the South Coast. We’re kitted out with wetsuits and flippers, then we’re atop rolling waves, gliding out past Narooma’s breakwater. I’m told to keep an eye out for dolphins and whales.
Approaching the island, the sounds of birdlife and the baying of seals fill the air. Home to a hundred-strong colony of seals, thousands of little penguins and more than 90 bird species for which the island is an essential breeding ground, Montague Island is both a protected nature reserve and sacred to the Yuin Aboriginal people, who call the island Barunguba.
At the dock we meet with Paul, our expert guide from NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Heading up the hill toward the lighthouse, I immediately spot two baby seagulls by the side of the track. It’s currently breeding season for several shorebirds and we’re squawked at loudly by protective parents as we make our way up the path. We take a 1.5-kilometre tour around the island, while Paul explains the significance of the island, both in terms of its unique biodiversity (he points out several penguin breeding boxes and revegetation sites) and Indigenous importance (Paul shows us from a respectful distance several sites around the island that are sacred to the Yuin).
We tour the beautiful lighthouse and former lighthouse keeper’s residence. Built in 1881, the lovely Victorian-era heritage cottage has been restored, and now accepts small numbers of visitors to stay overnight. It’s one of the more unique accommodation options on the South Coast, as if a bell tent wasn’t quirky enough.
Swimming with seals on Montague Island
Wazza is waiting back at the dock and it’s time to get wetsuits on and into the water. Back aboard the boat we skirt around to the north-west side of the island where hundreds of seals are lazing about on rocky outcrops. They’re diving in and out of the shallows and lolling about in the water. The colony is made up of two seal species, Wazza explains; darker brown New Zealand fur seals and much larger Australian fur seals. (The largest males weigh up to 300 kilograms and I certainly spot a few of that size!)
I have a mind to swim up to just the smaller seals to start off, though just a few minutes after I dive into the cool waves, my heart gives a start. An enormous swift shape swims directly up to me with deft speed. He circles around me a few times before stopping right in front of me… then peers very slowly and curiously at me with two huge puppy-dog eyes. I feel myself smile. ‘You’re just as friendly as a pup,’ I think. I snorkel all around the playful groups, who dart around me and each other as though it’s an extraordinary game.
All too soon I’m back on the boat, speeding away from the sounds of their barking and the proud mumma and papa birds’ squawking, while Barunguba’s white lighthouse fades against the afternoon sky.
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