Coastal treats

Coastal treats

Coastal treats

The thunderstorm had crept in without warning. That morning, it had been a great blue-sky day in Jervis Bay in New South Wales on Australia’s South Pacific coast. I had sailed out on Dolphin Watch’s boat from the quay at Huskisson, had seen dolphins frolicking in the bottle-green waters and enjoying the sunshine. After that, I’d taken a paddle board and gone for a wander down the creek close by.

But now, as I lay in bed inside my tarpaulin safari tent at Paperbark Camp, the thunder was as loud as a battery of cannons going off together. The rain constantly drummed on my tent in the middle of a rainforest. A brilliant flash of lightning lit up the entire forest in white light, perhaps brighter than the mid-day sun. And in that split second, right outside my tent, I saw a kangaroo in mid-hop, its eyes shining. That entire afternoon, I had walked around the rainforest trying to spot the kangaroos that live there and hadn’t seen a single one. But whatever doubts I had about them dwelling there had been cleared in the brilliant flash of lightning.

Paperbark Camp, a mix of luxury camping, ecotourism and great food, was where I stayed during the tail end of my drive from Melbourne to Sydney.

The long route

If you’re in a hurry, then you could drive from Melbourne to Sydney in about 9 hours down the Hume Highway (850 km). But I had no time constraints and had taken the better part of two weeks to do the same trip. I had taken the meandering Pacific Coast route, and now my car’s odometer told me that I had driven 2,400-odd km since leaving Melbourne behind.

This route isn’t one of Australia’s promoted tourist routes like the Great Ocean Road or the drive from Brisbane to Sydney, but it has plenty of little hideaways that are more popular with local tourists.

From Melbourne, I had taken my time visiting the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, both known for their vineyards and wineries. The Montalto Winery at the latter is the perfect place for a sunny weekend afternoon if you appreciate good food, great wine and eye-pleasing sculpture. Every year, the winery hosts a sculpture competition where pieces are displayed on its grounds and the winner’s sculpture becomes a permanent installation.

From there, I had spent another two days on Wilson Promontory, which the Aussies affectionately call ‘The Prom’. But this is not a place for tuxedos and dancing shoes. The Prom is a walker’s delight, and with camping grounds, furnished cabins and many pretty beaches and beautiful walks of all sizes and difficulty levels, this is a place for great outdoors. And because it’s a narrow spit of land with hills, there are many viewpoints for spectacular sunsets and sunrises.

But for me, the highlight in the state of Victoria was Metung, situated in East Gippsland and surrounded by the still waters of the Gippsland Lake — a 400-sq-km inland lake system. When I arrived, the receptionist at the hotel where I stayed told me that since it was a lovely day I should go out on a boat. I asked him where this boat was leaving from. He laughed and told me that the hotel had motor dinghies that were for guest use. All I had to do was start the motor, set the throttle and steer it like a car. That evening, I spent a quiet hour on the lake, met some dolphins who swam alongside for a while, breeching often, saw two sea eagles, even a sea turtle.

When I woke up at dawn the next morning and threw open the curtains of my lake-facing room, I saw that the water was like glass without even the slightest ripple, and the sun breaking through the clouds that were cloistered on the horizon made a golden picture. My first stop after I crossed over from the states of Victoria to New South Wales was Eden, which sits on Twofold Bay and an area that used to be inhabited by whalers. The very scenic four-hour drive took me through a mix of twisty roads through the hills and on unsealed roads through rainforests. Often I came across kangaroos, one even friendly enough to let me get close and pet it. Eden and its surrounding environs are home ground for the story of the unlikely alliance between whalers and the orca killer whales that played out during the first half of the 20th century.

The leader of the orca pack was a whale named Tom. Tom and a pod of killer orcas would herd baleen whales into Twofold Bay and block their escape route. Then Tom would swim to the waters outside the whaling station and thrash his tail about to attract attention. The whalers would get into their boat and Tom would grab the mooring rope and tow the boat out to where the baleen whales were herded.

The whalers would then harpoon the baleen whales and slaughter them to draw out their blubber and oil. They would leave the lips and tongue for the orcas, who considered that part of the baleen whales a delicacy.

This story is told at the Eden Killer Whale Museum. It also houses the skeleton of Tom, and you can see the groove in his tooth that was worn down by biting the mooring rope and towing the boat out to where the baleens were herded.

Molluscs for meals

North from Eden continuing towards Sydney, I caught sight of a sign advertising oyster tours at Pambula. So the next morning, I was on the boat with Captain Sponge for an oyster tour. Those were two hours well spent because Captain Sponge, who used to be a sheep farmer, is really passionate about his oysters, and he took me around the lake explaining the intricacies of oyster farming and the local ecology and aboriginal history. The highlight, of course, was plucking oysters straight from the lake, shucking them and eating them. They were simply delicious. Plain or with a dash of lime.

Australia has its fair share of stories of entrepreneurs who came and learned profitable trades. A famous one is of James Squire who came aboard a convict boat in shackles. While serving his term, he also started brewing beer. He was caught stealing ingredients and the judge ordered 150 lashes and three barrels because the beer was so good. James Squire eventually won his freedom and his brewery became popular, but he never forgot his humble start, and even today, the ales from his brewery have names reminiscent of this hard beginnings. Interesting stories like these made my drive from Melbourne to Sydney one of my most memorable visits to Australia.