We pull up at Tathra Beach alongside a tangerine Kombi just as the young couple gets out. She's all tanned limbs and floral dress; he's bare-chested with a mane of curly bleached hair. Memories swirl like a coastal breeze.
"It's a '75 model," says my husband Michael. "Same as our first one." Except our VW Camper was indigo blue, with wave-patterned curtains and a roof that popped up to let the sunshine in.
While some preferred the bright lights of the NSW north coast we were always drawn south, stopping at "The Farm", a secret surf break near Shellharbour where a shrewd farmer charged 20¢ to let the rag tag surfers enter his land. Staying overnight (better value that way), we'd build fires on the beach and rise with the sun for a swim or surf, flipping pancakes for breakfast before hitting the road.
We'd free camp all the way, sneaking into caravan parks for a proper shower, saving our pennies for hot fish 'n' chips and cold beers. Sometimes we'd indulge – a kilo of fresh prawns and a bottle of Ben Ean moselle our go-to celebratory meal. But really, it was the taste of freedom we hungered for.
Decades later we're nostalgic to recreate the same simple pleasures, a hired Apollo motorhome replacing the Kombi for a coastal road trip from Eden to Sydney. Sure, the Euro-style camper has an ensuite toilet and shower, queen-sized bed and push-button expanding mid-section, but we tell ourselves it's the sentiment that counts.
"Eden?" our Sydney friends chirruped, shrill as cockatoos, when we told them where we were headed. "That's a bit far?" Certainly too far for a weekend, but perfect for a five-day road-trip.
In Eden we follow the Whale Trail learning about "Old Tom", the canny killer whale who spent almost four decades helping fishermen catch his cousins – the migrating humpbacks and southern right whales. Don't believe it? Then check out Tom's jaw at the Killer Whale Museum where the rogue's striated and worn teeth – caused from helping whalers haul on harpoon ropes – are on display.
By the time we get to Pambula we are in the groove – Bob Marley dominates the playlist, Golden Gaytime wrappers litter the floor and the cabin is full of sand. When a chance detour leads us to Longstocking Brewery, seemingly tucked inside a garden centre, inside a dairy farm, we know that five days won't be enough.
Like seagulls we are drawn to boat ramps, pausing to watch fishermen clean their catch, scales flying like silver dollars as slack-mouthed pelicans wait for scraps. An old timer shows us his broken arm, flapping it like a damaged wing. "The silly bugger fell out of bed," his mate picks up the story. "The missus tucked the sheets in too tight and he got his legs tangled." They both laugh like drains at the retelling.
Merimbula is a late afternoon snorkel and a sneaky cocktail at Dulcie's Cottage, a bar and burger joint set in a 1920s weatherboard cottage. While the drinks are served inside, the oysters, prawn rolls and four types of burgers are dished up outside from a restored Carapark caravan. With connections to Sydney institutions such as Shady Pines, Frankie's and The Baxter Inn, Dulcie's takes hipster cool to the next level, while the RSL club next door keeps it south-coast grounded.
It's day three when we pull into Tathra, falling into an easy conversation with the young Kombi owners. That's the joy of the road; the random encounters, the connections, and the chance to tap a part of ourselves that we may have lost touch with.
Ringed by national parks and trimmed with beaches, bays and oyster-laden estuaries, Tathra is the kind of place that gets you daydreaming. About running away. Building the beach shack. Becoming a young fool again.
For decades, the coastal tract between Tathra and Bermagui has been a magnet for escapists and dreamers, all drawn to the region's natural beauty. Today it boasts it's own Food and Art Trail, a 43-kilometre ribbon that unfurls through native forests and alongside secluded beaches, with more than a dozen tempting food and art venues.
From Tathra we take the trail through Mimosa Rocks National Park, crossing wooden bridges and passing beneath spotted gums, before stopping at Ivy Hill Gallery, a cottage-turned gallery on a 40-hectare beef and sheep farm. "My aim is to be a conduit for local artists and the community," says gallery owner Carolyn Killen, who made the sea change about 15 years ago.
Works are spread across two galleries as well as the cottage garden, a rambling space with views over Mumbulla Mountain, a sacred place for the Yuin people.
On the day we visit the gallery is showcasing the work of Craig Cameron, an abstract artist who uses old refrigerator panels as his canvas. "I usually exhibit three artists at one time, including painters, sculptors and ceramicists," says Killen. "Cameron is unique in that he uses power tools instead of pencils to create his outlines."
Next stop is Mimosa Wines for tastings and lunch at Drystone Restaurant. While one part of me is happy to bask in the glory days, the other is partial to house-made gnocchi with sage butter washed down with a crisp 2014 rosé.
Afternoon sees us at Four Winds, a wooded 12-hectare property with a natural amphitheatre of grassed tiers leading down to a lakeside stage where the Summer Sounds festival is well under way. What started as a classical music festival has morphed into a year-long program of events encompassing music, dance, visual art and discussion groups.
Curated by Frank Madrid, the 2017 Summer Festival features surf rock, pop, traditional and indie folk, blues, tango, reggae and African rhythms, brought together for one day to celebrate music in nature. As a four-piece reggae band takes to the stage we lean back against a tree, toes tapping and watching those with more rhythm than us dance the day away.
As night falls we spy the Kombi couple – her floral dress flaring as she pirouettes around his hand – creating a bank of memories, which, only with the passage of time will they grow to appreciate.
FIVE OTHER STOPS ON THE COAST ROAD FOOD AND ART TRAIL
1 The Wharf Locavore – cafe and gallery housed at Tathra's historic steamer wharf. Wharf Road, Tathra.
2 Narek Galleries – art objects of ceramic, glass, wood textile and metal exhibited in a restored church in Tanja. See narekgalleries.com
3 Horse & Camel wine bar – wine, whiskey and antipasto snacks on Bermagui's Fisherman's Wharf. See horseandcamel.com.au
4 Bermagui Gelati Clinic – artisan gelato, ice cream and frozen yoghurt made onsite. 73-79 Lamont St, Bermagui.
5 The Bermagui Oyster Room – farm gate outlet and dine-in restaurant showcasing wild organic oysters from Wapengo Lake. See wapengorocks.com.au
Four Winds is a cultural hub near Bermagui offering a year-round program of events. Four Winds Road, Barragga Bay, NSW. See fourwinds.com.au
Motorhomes and campervans can be hired through Apollo Motorhome Holidays in every state in Australia. An Apollo Euro Slider costs from $160/day, including taxes and unlimited kilometres. See apollocamper.com
Tathra Beachside offers powered sites with easy beach access from $40/night. tathrabeachside.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Apollo Motorhomes and Destination NSW