A challenge with altitude - surf to snow in a day

A kookaburra laughs zealously at me from its vantage spot in the twisted gums overlooking Mystery Bay. But the laughing bird is not alone in taking a cheap shot at your Akubra (and snorkel!) clad columnist. Soon an elderly gentleman, clearly a local, rugged up with parka and beanie and being dragged by his youthful border collie along the beach approaches. ‘‘Are you crazy?’’ he hollers, before poignantly adding, ‘‘are you a pommy?’’ I shake my head in response before gingerly taking another step towards the shoreline. The sun has just crept above the horizon and, although it’s a clear day, the temperature is barely above zero and in the water it’d be lucky to be 13 degrees.

Not exactly what you’d call ideal conditions for an early morning dip. So have I lost the plot? Well, not quite. It’s all in the name of a challenge. Due to the proximity of the South Coast beaches to the peaks of the NSW Snowies, for many years I’ve heard countless Canberrans say it’s easy to take a dip in the morning and have a play in the snow in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, I don’t know of anyone who has actually achieved it.So I’m attempting the fabled feat and much to Mrs Yowie’s exasperation, rather than wait until spring when the South Coast does a much better job of being a beach resort and when mountain weather enables skiing in T-shirts, I’ve insisted if it’s going to be done, it has to be right now in the dead of winter.

I get all sorts of questions from you tourists, like where’s the nearest beach, but never in my 30 years has anyone asked which cafe in town is closest to sea level

Further, to document my escapades, I’ve dragged Dave Moore, a mate (well at least he was prior to this trip) along to document my attempt at the surf-snow daily double. In fact, it could be argued that he’s crazier than me, for he joins me for a dawn snorkel. ‘‘It’s actually not too bad,’’ he boldly claims as goosebumps crowd for space on his shivering body. To add an extra dimension to my challenge, I’m also planning on having breakfast at sea level followed by a late lunch at Australia’s highest cafe  – Eagle’s Nest, perched above Thredbo at 1937 metres above sea level.

With the swim out of the way (yes, the kookaburra laughed at us all the way back to the carpark) we drive into nearby Narooma trying to find a suitable altitude-challenged eatery for breakfast. A cheery fella in the local servo reckons it’s the oddest question he’s ever been asked. ‘‘I get all sorts of questions from you tourists,  like where’s the nearest beach, but never in my 30 years has anyone asked which cafe in town is closest to sea level,’’ he chortles. Eventually with a bit of coaxing he points us in the direction of the Quarterdeck Cafe. And he’s on the money. Set on the quiet waters of nearby Wagonga Inlet, it’s just gone high tide and as we take our seat at the yellow and green 1950s retro-style tables, the briny is literally lapping at our feet.

The cafe’s decked out in all sorts of nautical paraphernalia and  brightly-dressed owner Chris Scroggy saunters over to take our order. He’s been running the knock-out cafe for the best part of a decade and says  he has more than 300 Hawaiian shirts. The cheerful colours of his shirt (apparently #237) warm us up almost as much as the piping hot cappuccino and Gilligan’s Island breakfast. With the clock ticking, I scoff my bacon, eggs and sausage in record time, wave goodbye to Scroggy and, like some sort of mis-matched couple from The Amazing Race, grab Dave who is still wiping the remnants of his egg Benedict from his chin and scamper at pace back to the Yowie Mobile. It’s already 10am and while some keen snow bunnies have probably already been on the slopes for two hours, we still haven’t left the coast.

With sand still between the toes and the air temperature having climbed to a temperate 15, we motor off towards the Snowies. Time is slipping  away and we reach Bemboka a bit behind schedule. Now it’s almost sacrilege to drive through this sleepy coastal hamlet and not stop for one of their legendary pies, but we’re on a mission and, much to Dave’s obvious disappointment, not even the prospect of the best steak and mushroom pie in the state is going to stop me.

As we negotiate the tight curves of Brown Mountain  with each 100-metre gain in altitude the Yowie Mobile thermometer indicates we are dropping a degree. ‘‘At this rate it’ll be minus 10 in the Snowies,’’ warns Dave, still bravely sporting his board shorts and rash top. By the time we reach Pipers Lookout atop Brown Mountain, it’s dropped to just seven degrees. The lookout is named after Bob Piper who was a bus driver who braved the icy conditions on these roads for six days a week for 28 years, until a fateful day in August 1947 when, while shovelling snow off the road, he collapsed and died. Thankfully, there’s no snow on the road today, but we stop for the obligatory photo. It’s a perfect day and the view to the coast is sublime. Dave says he’s driven this road dozens of times and ‘‘has never seen such a clear view’’. Perhaps we’ve got luck on our side after all.

Rather than taking the highway through to Cooma, I tell Dave we are taking a short-cut along the recently resealed Snowy River Way from Ando through to Dalgety. The road snakes through brooding plains and the snow-capped main range of the NSW Snowies looms large on the horizon.

I’ve always been disappointed that when travelling down the Monaro in winter you only catch the odd glimpse of snow on the main range. The expansive vistas are worth the diversion, plus the road is in really good condition.


The Snowy River Way soon yields another treat, the stark ruins of Jincumbilly railway station. Closed in 1975, the truncated remains of its 120-metre platform and a small enclosed room are all that are left. The room has no windows, just a peep hole, so maybe it was a storage shed or perhaps a waiting room, it’s unique design testimony to the howling gales that whip through these plains.

Half an hour up the road is Dalgety. This village was short-listed as a site for the national capital and as we drive into town, already the wrong side of midday, I half wish they’d put Canberra here, for it would have made my surf-snow double much easier to accomplish.

After the obligatory dip of the big toe in the Snowy River, I instruct Dave that it’s time for us to layer up. ‘‘You sure we’re not rugging up a tad early?’’ asks Dave as he waddles emperor penguin style back to the car and tries to squeeze back into the passenger seat. 

‘‘I want to maximise the time we have at Thredbo and it’s going to be warmer getting dressed on the side of the road here than in Thredbo,’’ I explain. Before we’ve even crossed the village’s iconic bridge, Dave winds the windows down to let in some air. ‘‘Yeah, we probably did go a bit early with our six layers,’’ I confess as I turn the heater off and wind down my window to let in an icy blast.

In Thredbo, we meet up with Peter Cocker from K7 Adventures – our guide for the afternoon who has been waiting  by the side of the road for our arrival for more than an hour. 

‘‘There’s blizzard conditions up top,’’ he laments.  ‘‘The Kosciuszko Express up to the Eagles Nest is on wind hold and most of the other lifts could stop any minute.’’  I quickly ask where’s the highest cafe we can get to so I can complete my challenge and within minutes Peter’s got us on the Merritts Chair Lift to Merritts Mountain Hut.

‘‘While not the lofty heights of Eagles Nest, it’s still 1630 metres above sea level and I doubt anyone else has had that gain in altitude between breaky and lunch,’’ says Dave as he snaps a photo of me slurping on an after-lunch hot chocolate and schnapps, which very quickly becomes an iced chocolate and schnapps, on the open deck.

With barely an hour of sunlight left and with every chair lift within cooee about to go on wind hold, we ditch the skis and opt for a more leisurely snow shoe down the slopes and around the golf course.  After we bid farewell to Peter (quite possibly the shortest guiding job he’s ever had), we scurry back to the day carpark where the Yowie Mobile is the last remaining vehicle, and under the cloak of darkness motor up the Monaro to Canberra.

At home by 9pm, Mrs Yowie and Sarah, my four-year -old daughter, are waiting for me at the door. Sinking into my lounge chair in front of our open fire, I begin to tell them of the day’s adventure. In less than 12 hours, I’ve snorkelled at a pristine South Coast beach, dipped the big toe in the legendary Snowy River, frolicked in the snow and dined at both sea level and at the top (well okay, nearly) of Thredbo.

I’ve achieved the surf-snow double! Yippee! Suddenly I start sneezing. Within minutes I’m coughing and spluttering. ‘‘Maybe next time you might want to do your surf to snow challenge in summer,’’ quips Mrs Yowie. I pop some cold and flu tablets and before long drift off to sleep.


Try it yourself – surf to snow in a day.

Mystery Bay Beach: Located a 10-minute drive south of Narooma. If you are taking a dip midwinter without a wet suit, expect the odd local to snigger disparagingly at you.

Mystery Bay Cottages: Give yourself a head start and stay overnight in these family-sized modern beach cabins. They are great for winter with wood fires and it’s just a hop, skip and jump down to Mystery Bay Beach (and even closer to mysterious Billys Beach). 121 Mystery Bay Road, Narooma. Visit www.mysterybaycottages.com.au

The Quarterdeck Cafe: Retro Cafe, Riverside Drive, Narooma; (02) 4476 2723; open Thursday-Monday for breakfast and lunch.

K7 Adventures: Offer all sorts of guided winter snow adventures in the NSW Snowies, including snow shoeing. Visit www.k7adventures.com or phone (02) 6457 7404.

Merritts Mountain House: European market-style restaurant located at the top of the Merritts Chair Lift at 1660 metres above sea level. Open during the snow season 8.30am-4.30pm. Ph: (02) 6457 6084 or visit www.merritts.com.au