From Bermagui to Eden, Michael Gebicki explores the oft-overlooked Sapphire Coast.
In Merimbula, there is an octopus that can open jars. Pop a prawn inside a glass jar and Ollie the octopus unscrews the lid to get at the goods. This is told to me matter-of-factly by my dining companion at the town's Wharf Restaurant, and I almost cough up my John Dory. A jar-opening octopus strikes me as wondrous.
What's more, Ollie is in one of the restaurant's aquariums beneath the dining room. In less time than it takes to shuck an oyster, I'm below decks and eyeball to eyeball with the astonishing Ollie.
He's surprisingly modest in size, curled up in a corner. Despite his coquettish, retiring demeanour, it turns out that Ollie, typical of his ilk, is formidably intelligent and stealthy as a Predator drone. On dark nights, Ollie has been known to hoist himself out of his tank and slither his way into others within the restaurant. After eating the contents, he departs the scene of the crime and returns to his tank. In the morning, staff have found several tanks containing nothing but a few scraps of fin and shell and Ollie batting his big eyelids in a "who, me?" sort of way.
Tell someone in Sydney you're off to Merimbula or Bega for the weekend and they might think: "Hmm, deep NSW south coast. Nice beaches, freezing water, bad coffee and possibly no pillow menu." And in this blinkered vision, the world of small miracles that is the NSW Sapphire Coast - stretching from Bermagui to Eden - goes unsung.
When I beach my kayak the next morning on the edge of Wapengo Lake, on the southern border of Mimosa Rocks National Park, a man with a moustache is watching me on horseback from the water's edge. "Watch you don't step on my mangroves," he says as I haul my vessel through the shallows, which is not quite what you'd expect from a big fellow on a horse. This is Mick, a farmer whose property borders the lake. NSW Fisheries officers asked him to revegetate the narrow corridor I'm using and the mangrove saplings he planted are still fragile.
I'm paddling for the day with Jess Waddell, who builds his own kayaks and knows the Latin names of the fish that swim beneath our hulls. Waddell grew up in this area and, after a youth spent on a surfboard, left to study environmental science. Now he's back, turning his passion for water sports and the region into a business, Mimosa Blue, which takes small groups paddling on the forest-rimmed lake.
Ideally, we would have paddled out from the lake through Bithry Inlet and north to Mimosa Rocks but the surf is frisky, so we ride the dying waves on the sandbar for a while, then paddle along the lake shore, swept along by the giant hand of the incoming tide.
We're all alone. It's a gorgeous day in a glorious part of the world but, until we meet Mick, we might as well be on the dark side of the moon.
Tourism on the Sapphire Coast struggles, despite the region's postcard looks. You can fly to Bali from either Sydney or Melbourne in less time than it takes to drive to Bermagui or Eden, the northern and southern gateways to the Sapphire Coast. High summer brings a flood tide of tourists but outside those months and a flurry over the Easter school holidays, visitors are in short supply.
Under Mick's watch, we abandon our kayaks and hike to Picnic Point, where a creamy surf is frothing across the sand.
Waddell's partner, Bianca Heinze, has laid out freshly brewed coffee from Valley Edge, the roaster at Cobargo, and home-made chocolate muffins, and we're serenaded by little wattlebirds and fairywrens.
From Picnic Point we drive along Aragunnu Beach Road to Mimosa Rocks, the volcanic headland that gives its name to the national park. Behind the beach is a camp ground but there's nobody around to disturb a browsing swamp wallaby.
The sea is foaming across a bouldery beach, remnants of ancient lava flows. Behind the beach is a ridge formed by an enormous shell midden, which Waddell speculates must have accumulated over several thousand years.
That afternoon we paddle the length of Wapengo Lake, starting from the Tathra-Bermagui Road, where Wapengo Creek feeds into the lake. We can hear the tinkle of bellbirds as we thread through the grid of black racks that mark the lake's oyster leases.
Oysters are big business on the Sapphire Coast. There is scarcely an estuary or inlet not laddered by oyster beds. Shane Buckley is hard at work in his shed when we paddle in. He is one of several oyster farmers in the lake and he reckons this is one of the best of the local estuaries: "There's just a couple of freshwater creeks that enter it and, for the most part, the catchment lies in the surrounding national park."
The inlet also has a strong tidal flow, which is what you want, since oysters are filter feeders. Too much fresh water flowing into an estuary or lake can cause problems with algal blooms, and fresh water that flows in through pastures or built-up areas can carry contaminants. Monitoring water quality is one of the biggest parts of an oyster man's life.
"Time to test the goods," Buckley says and produces a platter of two dozen just-opened oysters. We down them with just a squeeze of lemon. After eating Sapphire Coast oysters, in situ and fresh, you're spoilt for life. These are Sydney rock oysters and this is about the southern limit of their habitat. Pacific oysters, also known as Tasmanian or Coffin Bay oysters, grow further south but anyone who prefers the larger and faster-growing Pacific version had better keep that opinion to themselves in this part of the world.
Each estuary is a unique marine environment and this is mirrored in the taste of its oysters. Over the past two days, I've sampled fresh oysters on the tour at Wheelers Oyster Farm at Merimbula and Broadwater oysters from Pambula Lake, and each has a distinct flavour. It's as satisfying and surprising as wine tasting.
Another industry that casts a long shadow on the Sapphire Coast is whaling. Until the 1930s, Eden was one of several whaling stations along the NSW coast, yet the industry here was unlike anywhere else. The whalers of Eden had help from a killer whale named Tom. He was the leader of a pod of killer whales that would drive migrating whales into Eden's Twofold Bay, harassing them, forcing them to surface and even slapping the water with their tails to draw the town's whaleboats into the hunt. The reward for their grisly endeavour was the tongue and lips of the dead whale. Eden is the only place in the world where killer whales are known to have worked with whalers to hunt other whales.
Stories about Tom and his fellow killers assumed almost mythic proportions. Tales are told of Tom assisting sailors spilled from capsized whaleboats, swimming alongside until the sailors were hauled aboard a chase boat.
Whale numbers dwindled and the last whale was caught in Twofold Bay in 1926. Four years later, Tom's carcass was found floating in the bay and his skeleton forms the centrepiece of Eden's Killer Whale Museum, one of the finest local-history museums you're ever likely to see.
Today, 75 years after whaling ended in Eden, the whale of fortune has turned full circle. "I can't remember ever seeing or hearing of whales anywhere around Eden when I was a young girl, and it's not the sort of thing you'd forget, is it?" says Jenny Drehkhanhn, the tour guide who shows me around the museum.
"But in October , there were days when you could see 50 in a single day." As if to underline her point, my phone rings. A friend staying in the lighthouse at Green Cape, south of Eden, has just seen 11 humpbacks in the past two hours.
These days, whaling in Eden is in the hands of Ros and Gordon Butt, who operate whale-watching cruises aboard their catamaran, Cat Balou, between mid-September and late November.
Set on a rise close to the Killer Whale Museum in Eden is Cocora Cottage. Once the town's cop shop, it has been restored by two genial refugees from Sydney. There are two guest rooms here, with big bathrooms and spa baths, decorated in the same opulent but unfussy period style as the rest of the house. Slabs of fruit cake appear in the afternoons in the lounge room. On the floor above is a breakfast room with big windows and a huge deck, from where you can watch Sammy the seal in the harbour and possibly sight Holland America's MS Volendam, a regular caller, delivering several hundred passengers for a day of adventure and exploration.
I notice there's even a pillow menu at the cottage, though fresh air, brisk walks and oysters work their own insomniac magic.
Michael Gebicki travelled courtesy of Sapphire Coast Tourism and Destination NSW.
Driving time from Sydney to Merimbula is about 6½ hours; from Melbourne it's seven hours. Rex (Regional Express) operates daily flights between Sydney and Merimbula from $297 return and between Melbourne and Merimbula for about $296 return.
Tathra Beachhouse Apartments is a complex of modern units with well-equipped kitchens, a pool and spa, and is opposite the surf beach. From $110 for a motel-style unit. Phone 6499 9900, tathrabeachhouse.com.au.
Cocora Cottage B&B has accommodation from $150 for two people a night, including breakfast. Phone 6496 1241, cocoracottage.com.
Fat Tony's Bar and Grill serves steaks and seafood at the forefront of the modern-Australian menu. 1/15 Bega Street, Tathra, 6494 4550.
Merimbula Aquarium Wharf Restaurant has indoor and outdoor dining with lovely sea views to go with the seafood menu. Merimbula Wharf, Lake Street, Merimbula, 6495 4446, merimbulawharf.com.au.
Restaurant Mystique, within the Halfway Motel, has a well-balanced and imaginative menu and a fine choice of local wines. 118 Imlay Street, Eden, 6496 1178, halfwaymotel.com.au.
Sapphire Coast Tourism operates visitor centres at Bega, Bermagui, Cobargo, Eden and Merimbula. Phone 1800 150 457, sapphirecoast.com.au.