Mucking around in boats

I'm sitting on the top deck of our 14-metre houseboat, while my crew sleeps soundly below, wondering whether I can bottle this serenity and take it home.

A wispy mist is lifting off the dark, glassy lake, revealing an exact reflection of the forested shoreline.

The picture is so still that when a solitary black swan glides past it creates an exaggerated wishbone-shaped wake, ripples whispering across the water. The only sounds I can hear are intermittent bird calls and the growl of the sea, coming from the other side of the mountainous sand dunes to the east.

As the parent of a small child, I've learnt to treasure a quiet moment such as this, to breathe it in like a restorative potion. You might think confining four sleep-deprived parents and two hyperactive toddlers to a houseboat for two days is a recipe for disaster. But so far there hasn't been a cross word uttered (except when I lost at Scrabble), the children haven't tried to drown themselves and, unlike me, they've played nicely.

This is the second morning I've woken to such a scene at Professors Cove, on Two Mile Lake, one of four connecting coastal lagoons that form the Myall Lakes. These designated wetlands of international significance are at the heart of the Myall Lakes National Park, three hours' drive north of Sydney.

We are so relaxed that even extending a lazy fishing line into the teeming lake seems too great an exertion.

The 47,000-hectare park is one of the state's most diverse. As well as the sheltered lakes, it encompasses 40 kilometres of sweeping surf beaches, hefty headlands such as Sugarloaf Point (with its famous lighthouse) and Yacaaba and large stands of coastal rainforest. The park also has several areas of significance to the Worimi people, dating back as far as 4000 years, and incorporates the offshore Broughton Island, home to Australia's northernmost population of little penguins. There's even one of the state's tallest trees, the 76-metre "Grandis", a 400-year-old flooded gum hidden away inland.

Exploring the park by houseboat is all about the art of slow travel. You have to allow time to absorb the scenery and take in the varied birdlife, from darters, with their snake-like necks, to pelicans, arranged in formation like squadrons of World War II flying boats, to sea eagles sailing gracefully overhead. So, with two days to play with, we set conservative goals.

Picking up our vessel at Bulahdelah at lunchtime, we first follow the twisting, tree-lined Myall River for two hours, during which we acquaint ourselves with steering the waterborne equivalent of a semi-trailer. With overhanging branches a constant threat, it's not easy, especially not for our German-born friend, Rob, who has to constantly rein in his inner Michael Schumacher.

It is with relief that we emerge on Bombah Broadwater, the southernmost lagoon, which combines with Two Mile Lake to form a liquid horseshoe behind the coast. It is here that we encounter the first of only two boats we see on our trip. As we arc across the lake, we pass a large palm forest and the old fishermen's village of Tamboy on its southern shore. Soon we are at Bombah Point, where a car ferry runs from 8am to 6pm every day. We wait for the all-clear and then cross into Two Mile Lake. Then, after rounding a couple of bends, we arrive at our mooring at Professors Cove.

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As houseboats go, our "Homecruiser" is at the top end of the range, with ample room for two small families. There are two double bedrooms and a shower and toilet along one wall, with two more double sofa beds in the adjacent lounge. In the centre is the galley, a gas-powered fridge and an eight-seat dinner table, while at either end are small enclosed decks. Above it all, with built-in barbecue, is a large covered outdoor deck, which becomes the venue for yoga, evening drinks and dawn vigils.

We are already so relaxed that even extending a lazy fishing line into the teeming lake seems too great an exertion. During a brief guitar session, my daughter falls asleep on my lap during the Beatles's When I'm Sixty-Four. The adults just manage to cook and eat a pasta dinner before retiring at a time when most people are heading out for the night.

The following grey dawn gives way to a blazing blue sky so beautifully amplified by lake waters that you could stand on your head and not know whichway is up. From then on, not a single cloud interjects as we continue at a snail's pace through a third lagoon, Boolambayte Lake, to the knobbly peninsula of Violet Hill. Here, we take the houseboat's tinny ashore and stretch our legs among purple-flowering casuarina trees.

We've made it to Myall Lake, the system's largest waterway, which could alone take up two days' cruising. To celebrate, we stop again, for lunch and a swim.

It's as far as we get this trip. Amid muffled protests of "there's so much still to see", we all observe a siesta. When we finally rouse, it's time to retrace our tracks and by late afternoon we are back on our mooring for a second soothing night at Professors Cove.

The word "Myall" is said to mean "wild" in the Worimi language but as we chug back towards Bulahdelah the next morning, fluffy clouds billowing above and mirrored in the lake, it feels as if we have experienced the Australian bush at its most benign. The calming ripples of our two days on board the houseboat continue for weeks after.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS
Houseboats Between October and April, a 14-metre Homecruiser (maximum eight passengers) on a weekend hire costs from $1930 from Getaway Luxury Houseboats, Bulahdelah.

Phone 1800 620 202, see getawayluxuryhouseboats.com.au. Luxury Houseboat Hire at Bulahdelah Marina also rents boats. Phone 4997 4380, see www.luxuryhouseboat.com.au.

Other accommodation
- There are few views in NSWbetter than those from the lighthouse keeper's cottages perched above Seal Rocks at Sugarloaf Point. The heritage-listed cottages, which won a Tourism NSW award last week, sleep up to eight.

Weekend rates from October to April cost from $370 a cottage a night (minimum two nights). Phone 4997 6590, see sealrockslighthouseaccommodation.com.au. - The nearby Treachery Camp, set behind coastal dunes, has cabins and tent sites. Phone 4997 6138, see www.treacherycamp.com.au.

- The excellent Bombah Point Eco Cottages are situated in bushland close to the lakes. Designed and run with environmental integrity, its six cabins are cosy and romantic, with spas and log fires. Nightly rates from$210 a cottage; see bombah.com.au.

- Nearby, at the Bombah Point ferry, is Myall Shores Resort, with a range of accommodation, a swimming pool, restaurant and bar. See myallshores.com.au.

- There are numerous campsites throughout Myall Lakes National Park. These include the popular lakeside Mungo Brush site, Yagon, just behind the beach near Seal Rocks, and more secluded spots such as Violet Hill and Shelly Beach.

- The park also has a number of excellent trails from the short but challenging Yacaaba Headland walk to the 21-kilometre Mungo Track, which follows the lake's edge, river and beaches to Hawks Nest. - For more information phone Bulahdelah Tourist Information on 4997 4981. See www.environment.nsw.gov.au/ NationalParks/parkHome.aspx?ID=N0026.

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