Follow the light

Ben Stubbs traces stories of shipwrecks and whalers on a weekend trek in Ben Boyd National Park.

We're running late. It's not a deadline we're chasing, or a missed appointment. I'm not even wearing a watch. Our timepiece is the sun and it's dipping low in the sky like a coin already half in the slot. We put our heads down and shuffle across the black rock cliffs, hopeful we'll find a place to shelter before dark.

My father and I are out for a trekking weekend on the NSW far south coast, at the mercy of the "Nature Coast", as it has been labelled, retracing the trail of shipwrecks and stories along the Light to Light Walk. The path stretches 31 kilometres, from Green Cape Lighthouse, at the southern end of Ben Boyd National Park, to Boyd's Tower in the north.

It does not start well. We grip the rails tightly as 140 km/h winds funnel up from Antarctica and threaten to tip us off the edge of the 29-metre-high Green Cape Lighthouse into the boiling sea below. Trees and shrubs are prostrate in the wind. We watch seals surfing in and out of channels on the waves, oblivious to the bucking swell, and a humpback whale shoots a spout of water just beyond the breakers. We spend the night by the fire in one of the lighthouse cabins while the storm passes. We've left our car at Boyd's Tower after getting a lift with a park ranger. During the night we decide we will make a move the next morning no matter what the weather suggests.

Yet as we head off into the scrub, I see that even the wildlife is avoiding the elements. Our backpacks are heavy with gear; we hope to camp at Saltwater Creek tonight, 17.5 kilometres north.

The destructive nature of this coastline is displayed within a few hundred metres of the trailhead at the Ly-ee-Moon cemetery. On May 30, 1886, the passenger steamer Ly-ee-Moon was on its way from Melbourne to Sydney when it struck a reef in the dark and "within 10 minutes had split in two". Seventy-one people drowned off Green Cape, including Flora MacKillop, the mother of the Australian saint Mary MacKillop. It is just one of many tragic stories of shipwrecks off this coastline.

The wind gradually blows the storm out to sea and we keep walking.

We stop briefly on a curl of sand at Bittangabee Bay and then follow the trail the lighthouse keepers blazed along the coast after construction of the Green Cape lighthouse in 1883. This sheltered cove, seven kilometres north of the lighthouse, was used as a storage depot for supplies that were then taken by horse to the cottages for the keepers and their families.

We pass the yellowed ruins of a hut that was built by the Imlay brothers in the 1830s when the calm waters were used to herd and kill whales for their oil and blubber. There are still a few killers in the area, we're told - national park rangers have seen packs of orcas hunting seals recently off the coast of Bittangabee.

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The sun sinks lower in the sky, dripping into the trees like a Dali painting. We continue pushing through the bush towards Hegarty's Bay. Dusk brings the animals out as we walk. Enormous eastern grey kangaroos are guarding the trail like sentinels and we spy wallabies, lyrebirds, wombats, possums and kookaburras as we hike further into the bush.

Just as dusk fades, we round a corner and land on the powder-white beach at Saltwater Creek. In the last moments of daylight, we set up camp among the trees and get a fire going quickly.

The night is cold and the tent is small. "It's the closest we've been in a long time!" remarks my father, only inches from my face inside his own sleeping bag. It's so cold next morning that we brush ice off our tent and find that the taps at Saltwater Creek are frozen solid - and our bottles are empty. We have no choice but to walk the last 13.5-kilometre section dry.

The vegetation changes as we continue north; the waist-high heath and scrub is replaced by a dripping green rainforest carpeted in ferns.

At Mowarry Point I catch a glimpse of Boyd's Tower in the distance. It's still a long way off and the heavy packs are starting to slow us down. I arrive 10 minutes before my dad at the clearing on Mowarry Beach; he insists he's taking the scenic route, though I know we'll need some water soon.

The beach is untrodden and the ocean still warm despite the season. We head towards cherry-red boulders that litter the edge of the sand on the headland.

With our calves burning, we stop at Leatherjacket Bay for a breather. I can see Boyd's Tower getting nearer with every headland we round. The tower was built by Ben Boyd in 1847 and intended as a lighthouse but it wasn't given approval by the government and so became a whale-spotting tower.

The trail widens and Dad and I fall into step for the last kilometre. We clamber up the final hill panting, sweating and thirsty. I open the car and reach for the water bottles. I still haven't seen a clock but I know it's finally time to rest.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Sapphire Coast Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Eden is 494 kilometres, or a six-hour drive, south of Sydney. The closest airport is Merimbula, 25 kilometres north of Eden; Rex Airlines has daily flights from Sydney. Boyd's Tower is 33 kilometres south of Eden.

Staying there

The Green Cape Lighthouse has two cottages for rent, from $240 a cottage a night. Phone 6495 5000 or email fscr@environment.nsw.gov.au.

Walking there

The 31-kilometre Light to Light Walk can be started from either end. There are two camping grounds along the trail, at Saltwater Creek and Bittangabee Bay, with toilets and water.

More information

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 6495 5000, email fscr@environment.nsw.gov.au.

See sapphirecoast.com.au.

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