Green and great

Lance Richardson explores a region where wind, waves and water dictate the direction of life.

OK, says Mick Schumann, eyeing the crude circle traced in the sand. Here's how it works: 12 o'clock goes towards the sun and then you draw in 9 o'clock. Halfway between is north. Got it? Works every time.

Except if you're anywhere but the east coast of Australia, adds Wendy Yarnold, the other surf instructor. Then it never works.

''Yes,'' he replies. ''But it works here. And if you know north, you know the wind, and you know what you're up against.''

This is all that's important, really. A congregation of surfers at the end of Boomerang Beach indicates that this method gets a lot of exercise. We're one cove along at Elizabeth Beach in Pacific Palms, the ocean-facing edge of the Great Lakes system on the mid-north coast. No lazing on the lakes for me, though; I've set a weekend challenge of water sports and eco-living.

The fact that I'm a complete novice at all of these things - a ''gumby'', I'm later informed - makes the move to deserted Elizabeth a relief. Moments before, on Boomerang, an enraged surfer yelled: ''Who's that guy with the black board? I'm going to kill him.'' If you can't do an ''eskimo roll'', it seems, you'd better learn fast.

Schumann demonstrates on the beach and then we do ''the lizard''. His son ranks in the top 30 junior surfers in the world and as we move from shore to sea his commitment to seeing me stand on that board - even once - reveals a passion for the sport that is truly humbling.

''Don't turn your back on the ocean,'' is his last word of advice. Of course, I immediately do and I'm quickly brutalised by a wave and then a bluebottle. But I stand (for two seconds), which makes the lesson a gratifying success.

Water is the way of life in Great Lakes. Ocean, river or subtropical rainforest, pervading every aspect of a laid-back existence that makes the prevalence of holiday homes an unsurprising feature. Sitting in TwentybyTwelve Cafe and Foodstore - the best coffee around - we're surrounded by board shorts and bikinis. A neighbour scolds his friend for eating an enormous apple turnover from the bakery; the response is: ''It's my holiday.''

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It's all holiday here. All the time.

By 1pm the sun emerges from its extended morning conference with the clouds and I'm back in the water at Elizabeth - but with a different agenda. It's Nick Heiniger, a scuba instructor, and there are wetsuits involved. Though the weather renders diving impossible, we're to kayak round the rocks to Shelly and take advantage of its protected area for an afternoon snorkel. Oh, he remembers - it's unofficially nude, ''a couple of oldies letting it hang out''. This is not the normal course of proceedings but north-easterly winds call for extreme measures.

Sure enough, there are faintly obscene shapes ambling across the sand but they're too far away to see distinctly. We take an exhilarating kayak far out to sea and then pull up on the beach's northern, deserted end.

Snorkelling around the rocks is a descent into fantasy. Schools of garfish, blackfish, bream and old wives chatter. A sand ray is chased out of hiding, an octopus wraps its tentacle around Heiniger's knife but settles for a shell instead. Everything drifts among masses of seaweed blowing in a submarine gale. It's a breathtaking sight and I float, hypnotised, near a clearing just beyond the cove.

The kayak back to Elizabeth Beach is a sobering return. The wind has picked up and we struggle through sudden troughs that just as quickly peak into waves, threatening to overturn our kayak. A wind surfer struggles to launch from the beach. When he does, the sail fills out and sends the board soaring across the surface of the sea. It looks easy and yet ''too much for a gumby like me'', says Heiniger, who broke his neck trying once. I'll take that as a warning.

After all this, rest is a necessity. Continuing the theme of connecting with nature, I take a short drive to Bombah Point Eco Cottages, bordered on three sides by a national park and a wildlife refuge in its own right. Six cottages hide in 40 hectares of bush, behind solar panels, water tanks, vegie gardens and chook pens. Sustainability is the catchword here but luxury is no stranger either. Half of the glass on the property is off-cuts from the Olympic Village and the cottages have a lot of glass. I share a nightcap with a curious possum through the kitchen window, which seems to extend into an entire wall. Lace monitors scramble in the trees. The line between us and them is small, to be sure, but I'm the one with the spa and breakfast basket.

In the morning I head for Hawks Nest on my return to Sydney but not before a ferry ride and drive down secluded Mungo Brush Road. There's one last stop to be made, a recommendation. Dark Point is a traditional meeting place for the Worimi people. It barely registers from the road. But a scramble through brush, a steep ascent, and then - the dunes are immense, staggering even. Clouds have returned in an ominous shade of green and wind effaces the edges of everything in a sandy fog. I don't care. It's unexpected. I'm momentarily lost for words.

If only the wind could efface that road as well.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Great Lakes Tourism and Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Pacific Palms is a collection of villages, including Blueys Beach and Boomerang Beach, on the mid-north coast, a three-hour drive from Sydney via the Pacific Highway and Lakes Way.

Staying there

Green-star accredited Bombah Point Eco Cottages cost from $270 a night on weekends for a couple (two-night minimum). Midweek costs $216, no minimum stay. There are six cottages, which can sleep two to six people; it costs $30 for each additional adult. Excellent meal packages - from continental breakfast baskets to gourmet barbecue dinners - are also available for an additional charge. See www.bombah.com.au.

In Pacific Palms, Blueys Retreat has self-contained luxury accommodation and a restaurant close to the beach. Rates from $170 for a one-bedroom townhouse (two-night minimum). The retreat's freestanding house no. 18 is particularly good and sleeps six. See www.blueysretreat.com.au.

Things to do

Learn to do the ''eskimo roll'' with Great Lakes Surf School, between Forster and Seals Rocks. One-on-one private lessons cost $80 for 1½-2 hours. Phone 6554 6550, see www.greatlakessurfschool.com.au.

For diving lessons, dive charter, or scuba, snorkel, boat and canoe hire, phone Forster Dive Centre on 6555 4477, see forsterdivecentre .com.au. Dive sites range from colonies of grey nurse sharks to shipwrecks. The centre offers ''swim with the dolphins'' cruises year-round.

There are numerous events and festivals held on the Myall Coast, including the Myall Coast Festival in Tea Gardens on October 30, see myallcoastfestival.com.au and www.greatlakes.org.au.

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