Perfect lure

It is at the mouth of the mighty Clarence River and on the cusp of change. Shaney Hudson explores the sleepy seaside town.

The dolphins are cheeky. Three times now I've dived into the chilly Clarence River in an attempt to get close to them and twice they've disappeared. I'm treading water a little further off the beach than I want to be. I scan the surface, trying to work out where they're going to emerge next.

Then I hear the others yelling "right! right!" from the riverbank and I turn just in time to see dorsal fins sliding casually back into the water, just a few metres away. The dolphins have circled behind me, sized me up and sneaked off.

This pod of eight, distinguished by the matriarch's split dorsal fin, is a common sight around Yamba's waterways. At dawn and dusk they ride the waves with the surfers at Pippi Beach but they feed with the tide in the Clarence. A wall of fish washes towards them with the outgoing tide and this lazy dinner option is far more interesting than me.

It's this sort of unexpected, natural experience that sets the tone for my time in Yamba.

Tucked a few kilometres off the Pacific Highway and behind cane fields, Yamba is on the mouth of the east coast's largest river system. By some stroke of magic, the town has escaped the overexposure and large-scale developments that scar glossier locales such as Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour, the two tourist meccas that bookend its location on the north coast. Instead, Yamba has an organic feel, retaining an old-town sleepiness that many other beaches have lost.

Even so, the town is beginning to embrace its tourism potential. The first backpackers' accommodation opened last year on the main street, run by two generations of a local family in conjunction with the YHA. It's a bold change for Yamba but the locals seem happy enough, with many of them already regulars in the downstairs bar and cafe.

A number of locally run businesses are springing up and expanding to cater for this new market. You can cruise the Clarence on a catamaran and watch whales in winter; there's a surf school on the main beach and you can paddle across the river in a kayak to the nearby village of Iluka, a well-known fishing hotspot.

There are five or six beaches within easy walking distance of the town centre although Yamba's most famous beach break is Angourie. Immortalised in the 1970s cult surf film Morning Of The Earth, the right-hand break attracts surfers from around the world. Angourie has been made one of Australia's first surf reserves, a government initiative that recognises the history, culture and natural splendour of the break and seeks to preserve it for future generations of surfers.

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Yamba has been identified as having one of the best climates in the world by the CSIRO, a title it shares with Bunbury in Western Australia and San Diego in the US.

The guarantee of good weather doesn't extend to good surf and on the day we visit Angourie, the waves are closing out. Only one desperado on a short board braves the unfavourable conditions. At least he can say he had the break all to himself.

Given the surf isn't working, we settle for a dip in Angourie's lesser-known swimming holes. Simply known as Blue and Green pools, they are located in bushland down a short goat track. They were originally deep rock quarries, until workers ruptured an underground spring.

When we arrive, a group of teenagers is performing acrobatic flips from the side of the quarry, about 12 metres up. They earnestly assure me that it is safe to jump, pointing out the best ways to clamber up the sheer rock face. (Later, I'm told by a local it isn't safe at all: the ambulance apparently is called out weekly to collect the injured.)

It's not so hard to clamber up the face of the quarry but it is hard to work up the courage to jump. Eventually, screaming, I hit the water with so much force my costume is knocked off. I rise out of the cold depths to the laughter of the kids as they skedaddle on their bikes.

A train line used to run from the quarry to Yamba, across a bridge over the river to Iluka. More than 100 years later, a string of poles, the only remains of the bridge, breaks the river's surface. As we paddle past them on a kayak tour of the Clarence, we're warned they're unstable and will topple if touched.

We paddle across the river, past the protective channels and rock walls, to Iluka, a great day-trip. The small town is a relaxed ferry ride from Yamba or 40 kilometres by road.

The fishing boats line up at Iluka Harbour like sentinels in standard shapes and different colours, heading out at sundown to catch Yamba's famous prawns.

Peeled and with just a squeeze of lemon, this regional speciality melts in the mouth. Most chefs buy the prawns fresh off the boat daily.

A life-size mermaid statue sits on the edge of the seawall, her gaze turned out towards the heads with a hand raised to shield her eyes. It's a classic but sombre image. Just a few months ago, one of the prawn trawlers sank. The captain was lost, another crew member was rescued and a third swam for 10 hours to shore to get help.

As the sun begins to set, we watch the fleet head out to sea from our seat at the Pacific Hotel. Perched on a cliff and level with the lighthouse, the hotel gives a perfect panorama.

Behind us is a series of black-and-white prints of the town's old days. Tucked in a corner next to the hotel's award-winning restaurant, a collection of vintage surfboards adorns the walls, a homage to the town's surfing roots.

But what has our attention is the storm. A thick, purple bruise across the sky, it's threaded with lightning. As lightning bolts increase in ferocity, the crowd gasps, clearly anxious about the prawn fleet leaving the river mouth. We've come for dinner but no one seems to be in a rush to do anything but watch.

You don't have to go far to find natural splendour in Yamba; you just have to give yourself time to enjoy it. So, grabbing a schooner of beer from the bar, we pull up a chair and watch the light show.

Shaney Hudson stayed courtesy of YHA NSW.

FAST FACTS

Yamba is a seven-hour drive north of Sydney, a 90-minute drive north of Coffs Harbour Airport and a 90-minute drive south of Ballina Airport.

Yamba YHA, on Coldstream Street, has a bar-cafe and a pool. It's an easy walk to the beach. Beds in shared rooms from $25 a night; a family room with ensuite from $114. Phone 6646 3997 or see yha.com.au.

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