When I told friends in the UK that I was going to Australia they immediately asked if I was going to Ayers Rock, The Great Barrier Reef or New Zealand. I politely suggested that that might be attempting too much for a three week trip and said that I’d be concentrating on Sydney and Melbourne and a few bits in between and around the two cities. I think this was a wise decision, since I already felt like I had been driving forever as I sat down to catch up on my notes at Lakes Entrance on the Victoria coast, having only just made it across the border from New South Wales, and with a considerable distance to go before my target of The Great Ocean Road, the other side of Melbourne. Yes, this is indeed a vast country, but there is plenty here to make an English traveller feel at home – driving on the left, “Give Way” signs and fish and chip shops to name but a few. And there are lots of familiar names from the “old country” – I drove down the East coast from Sydney through a place called Scarborough, making a Yorkshireman feel right at home – and I spotted Newcastle on my map on the coast to the north of Sydney, placing the big city itself somewhere around Teesside, I would say. There are local names as well, of course – Woolloomooloo, famous for 8 ‘o’s, and Kangaroo Valley and Wombat Creek are of fairly obvious origin, but I can’t help thinking that a few place names were dreamt up in rather a hurry – such as Breakfast Point and Dinner Creek which I passed earlier in the afternoon. I was half expecting to come round the next bend to see a sign for Elevenses Avenue or Afternoon Tea Drive. But no, in fact the drive down beyond Eden on the far south coast of New South Wales and into Victoria was punctuated by very little – mile after mile of forest road, with evidence of recent bush fires on either side (rather worryingly). Even the signs recommending regular stops became rather metronomic once the slogans (‘Feeling Tired? Powernap 5km’, ‘Drowsy Drivers Die’ etc) started repeating themselves. Nevertheless, I arrived safely, having had a sensible stop for fuel and coffee and have the luxury of a free evening and no early morning activity planned to catch up on some note writing.
It was over a week since I had arrived in Sydney and I had already been to the Blue Mountains before heading for the coast. I skirted the south of the city on the way back from the mountains and joined the coast road near Royal National Park, which allowed me to drive across the new bridge near Coalcliff. The spectacular Sea Cliff Bridge hugs the coast, but on concrete stilts just out into the sea, the remains of the old road being visible just across the short span of water to my right as I drove south. The $49million bridge is an impressive feat of engineering and was a great way to start my long coastal adventure. I arrived in Kiama on a sunny afternoon and stopped to have a look around, as my friends had recommended turning off the highway here. It’s a pleasant seaside town with busy cafes and shops along the front. I parked up and wandered along the headland to the pretty white lighthouse and had a look at the “blow-hole” – a natural hole through the rocky headland through which the crashing waves send up an impressive spout of water, drenching unsuspecting tourists at the lower viewpoint. At least that was the theory – on my visit the sea was calm and the spouting was rather restrained, so no-one in my photographs from the upper viewpoint got a good soaking. I headed off to the visitor centre and picked up guides to Kiama and further down the coast to Merimbula and Eden where I was headed next. The Kiama guide showed an interesting looking sea stack called Cathedral Rock near the shore just back north of the town, so I set off to have a look at that and decided that it would make a nice sunrise subject for me to photograph (being a landscape photographer), so I planned an early night in Kiama in order to get up at 5am. The early start was worth it with some nice soft sidelight on the rocks as the sun came up, with waves crashing on the shore to add some drama.
From Kiama I headed south following the coast away from the main highway through two smaller beach towns, Gerringong (where the beautiful Werri beach seemed popular with early morning surfers and dog walkers alike) and Geroa, before cutting inland to Berry, which was an excellent morning coffee stop. Berry is a gateway to the Southern Highlands to the west, which I was planning to visit on my return leg following the Hume Freeway on the other side of the mountains, so I didn’t linger too long and pressed on down the Pacific Highway, stopping here and there to admire coastal views. Pebbly Beach was a lovely stop, though not at all pebbly, having glorious soft sand and dramatic rocky headlands with bright green seaweed providing lots of foreground interest for my photographs. Pebbly Beach is famous as a good place to spot friendly kangaroos, but as it was late morning by the time I got there, the crepuscular skippies were nowhere to be seen. Bateman’s Bay is a popular seaside spot for day trippers from Canberra, and had an attractive enough harbour with pelicans hanging around on posts at the jetty. The nearby seafood restaurant was packed and the fish and chip shops had huge queues – it seemed that most of Canberra had picked the same day as me to visit, so I grabbed a picnic of fruit and nibbles from the supermarket and continued on my journey south. By the end of the afternoon I had made it to Merimbula where I found a motel with a laundry and friendly staff (the Best Western). I headed straight down to the jetty and booked my place on a whale watching trip the next morning at 8am. The motel obligingly brought my breakfast a bit before the booked time so I don’t have to wolf it down before setting off for the harbour. Australian motel breakfasts are worth a special mention if, like me, it is your first visit and you have only had experience of long road trips in the USA before. Not only can you have your breakfast delivered to your room at a designated time, but you can have proper tea in a tea pot. Plus, there is a kettle in the room and you are offered some fresh milk at check-in so decent English style tea is available at any time. Result!
I arrived at a quarter to 8 as advised and found that the boat was already packed. October is a good month, as the humpbacks are migrating south toward the Antarctic for the summer and pass the New South Wales coast from late September through to early November. We were all issued with a life jacket, and set sail promptly. Once we were through the narrow gap from the harbour area out into the open sea at Merimbula Bar, a huge sandbank where the currents are treacherous, we could take off out life jackets and wander about the boat – but always holding on: “one hand for your camera, one hand for the boat” our skipper advised. On board we had a photographer conducting research for the marine parks service – photographing tails and trying to identify the migrating whales. Although I’m a photographer, I’m not a wildlife photographer, and I have great admiration for those that are, as I found it a great challenge to get anything vaguely in the centre of my frame when bobbing around in a boat looking for whales launching themselves out of the water. I was pleased, however, to get a halfway decent ‘double-tail’ shot which the research photographer missed, but that was the only decent image from a few hundred attempts (thank goodness for digital cameras). As well as evidence of two different pods of whales, we saw a few dolphins and a seal popping its head out near the boat to say hello on the way out, which was nice, but on our return at full throttle we picked up a group of dolphins keen to travel and jump in the boat’s wake for quite some distance, which was rather special. The crew apologised that the whales had not been as friendly that day (they had had a few great trips in recent days it seemed) but I had been more than happy to have seen these huge creatures in their natural habitat for the first time. We returned to Merimbula late in the morning where I collected my bag from the motel and set off down to Eden for lunch and a look at the Killer Whale Museum, home of “Old Tom” – apparently the only killer whale skeleton on display in the Southern Hemisphere – which seemed a fitting last stop in New South Wales before the drive down to Lakes Entrance for the Victorian leg of my coastal journey.
For more images from Australia, visit the Australia gallery on marksunderland.com.