The long and winding road

Dugald Jellie takes the scenic coastal route from Sydney to Melbourne.

A baggy-billed pelican flaps by the turn-off to Mystery Bay and I know I'm on holidays. Cricket's on the radio and the highway's broken rhythm of caravan parks, bait shops and mangrove swamps has taken hold. I stop at oyster sheds by the Narooma bridge. I swim at Potato Point. I get sidetracked by a piece of cheddar.

It's the Big Cheese and it's a roadside attraction at Bodalla well past its use-by date. A realty sign spruiks: "Australian Icon - For Sale." A couple on P-plates pull up regardless, he in boardshorts, she in a bikini. They ask for a photo. I oblige. "Say cheese."

And I'm not even halfway there yet.

This is what I did last summer: drive from Sydney to Melbourne following the coast, travelling south on a lost highway, finding places on the map - Conjola, Brogo, Quaama, Kiah - that I think of as exotic pearls. Google directions say the route is 1035 kilometres, or about 13 hours and 55 minutes by car. It takes me three weeks.

By the time I make Moruya, sand is all through the car and I rejoice in the simple pleasures of a hot dashboard and driving in wet togs. Possibilities seem endless. I could follow the Princes Highway all the way to Adelaide, if only I could get around this Winnebago with a Canadian flag in the back window.

I travel alone, enjoying the introspective thoughts that come as new landscapes open up beyond the next bend. All the way I play little games: $20 fuel stops to prompt breaks, the quest for the perfect vanilla slice and rules about which brown "tourist drive" detour sign to follow.

With Mallacoota, a seaside resort near the Victoria-NSW border that's 24 clicks off the highway, television scriptwriter Deb Cox has much to answer for. Not least because she based her fictional small-town mayor Bob Jelly on my uncle, John, but because her SeaChange made salt-kissed towns like this now such a parody.

There's the waterside caravan park, the community radio ("101.7FM by the sea"), millionaires on tractors pulling abalone boats through town, a greybeard on a bicycle holding his pants up with rope and locals split over proposals to build a breakwater by the boat ramp. I read all about it in The Mallacoota Mouth.

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At the beach I hope for Diver Dan but find instead Jemma Wright, 24, and Mark Fitzgerald, 23, from Maroochydore - on the road for 12 months in a Toyota LandCruiser with a tinnie on the roof and their dog, Rex, a Tenterfield terrier, in the back. "We met a guy at the pub last night, he's been travelling around Australia for seven years," Jemma says. "You should talk to him."

Already the journey's pattern is set, of chance encounters with travellers up and down a blacktop ribboning through this forgotten corner. It's the road less travelled, the scenic route, with turn-offs all the way to land's end.

Like Bermagui, where mid-morning at the boat ramp is a carnival as boat trailers reverse into the drink, fish scales are flicked and seagulls squabble over the scraps. The catch is in and all are up for a chat at the cleaning table. "The forecast hasn't been too flash . . . three days since I've been out . . . it hasn't been real conducive, has it?"

"The missus will be pleased," says a 50-something man from Canberra who, with his half-dozen mates, fishes at Bermagui each year. This morning they caught 18 flathead and two nannygai from their boat, "Old Salt". They offer me a fish but I've no ice in the Esky.

Back on the road it feels like freedom. I am in no hurry, as is the way on the coast road. Flippers and a boogie board are on the back seat. I meet mates from Melbourne at the halfway point, south of Eden at a campsite in Ben Boyd National Park, where one friend lands school salmon on the beach and another cooks them up as a tasty pot of stew.

South across the border and at the end of a signposted track to Genoa Peak, I meet Esther Loos and Simon Wagner, both 23 and from France, parked by screeching cockatoos in Croajingolong National Park. They're headed north on a six-month round-trip via the Alice in a 1985 Mitsubishi Express they bought for $6400."It broke down three times," Wagner says. "The muffler had a hole at Mount Isa. A photographer from the local paper helped us." He rustles in the glovebox and fetches a copy of the North West Star. Their photo appeared in the social pages.

Other digressions are to jetty ends cradling warm packets of fish'n'chips. I do this at Ulladulla and Batemans Bay, and at Eden, where by the slap and tickle of water a crewman on a trawler says they're "off up the coast to catch a load of pilchards" and I dream of being a fisherman in another life. I wouldn't think such fancies likely on the Hume.

At Lakes Entrance, where Victoria's easternmost fishing fleet moors and I encounter the first traffic light since Merimbula, I find what I think are the best fish'n'greasies on the coast road. A local suggests "the French place", which I figure is L'Ocean Fish & Chips, a Friday night institution of laminated tables and fried flathead tails.

The Belgian proprietor, Guy Plateau, tells of his rice bran oil and gluten-free batter and brings out a visitors' book with signatures from Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, Los Angeles, Rome, London and Puckapunyal. I order battered flake, potato cakes, deep-fried scallops and a steamed dim sim, a cultural delicacy sorely missing from NSW fish shops.

Across a timber-planked footbridge in soft evening light, I meet a young Swiss man on Ninety Mile Beach with a backpack and plastic shopping bags. His name is Yannique and he's spent a month travelling from Perth. "Now I hitchhike to Sydney," he says.

I tear open paper and offer him hot chips. He caught the train to Bairnsdale today and tonight will sleep in the dunes. He is 18 years old. He looks quizzically at a blob of golden batter and I tell him to try it. He says it tastes good. It is the sweet flesh of his first deep-fried Tasmanian scallop and I hope he will always remember it.

It's these passing conversations that enrich the trip's long narrative. Mini-golf courses and picnic rest stops and forest walks are fine but it's the people I meet on the road who make the travel so memorable.

Like the young German couple paying $5 a day to relocate a Britz campervan to Sydney but who now eat Nutella on pumpernickel bread for breakfast by a beach at Cape Conran.

Or the man in a bus with a dog trailer full of Belgian barge dogs, who's driven from the NSW Central Coast for a dog show at Bermagui but now drinks a beer in a blue singlet and casts a prawn into the still waters of Wallaga Lake. "I usually feed the fish," he says.

Or Lexie Clark, the publican at the Bellbird Hotel - blink and you'll miss it - deep in the forests of East Gippsland. "The population here at Bellbird Creek is two, so if you stay the night, it'll increase by 50 per cent," she says, as a rainbow lorikeet natters from its cage. "It's all passing trade. Christmas time's your busiest time."

Or at the landmark red-brick St Mary's Church at Bairnsdale, where I meet a Norwegian family of five who've travelled in a six-berth Apollo motorhome from Adelaide. We talk of Edvard Munch, of Norway's oil money and, as the mother breastfeeds her nine-month-old, the country's generous maternity leave laws. "It's due to him that we're here," she says.

I could never imagine it. A blonde-haired family tootling up the coast road, via Orbost and Cann River, Bega and Nowra, all because of a little boy named Thor.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW and Tourism Victoria.

10 HIGHLIGHTS ON THE COAST ROAD

* Kiama's blowhole on a big swell. "The blowhole's working today," shrieks a child as white foam whumps in the air. "Nan, you missed a big one!" A natural spectacle and a cheap thrill.

* Hyams Beach at Jervis Bay. The world's whitest sand. BYO sunglasses.

* Stoney Creek Bridge near Nowa Nowa. The largest standing ironbark trestle bridge in Victoria and a marvel of railway engineering. Down a dirt track three kilometres off the highway.

* Central Tilba, a heritage-listed town in lumpy hills that could have been conceived by central casting. As pretty as a chocolate box, with the ABC Cheese Factory (est. 1891).

* Watching hang-gliders launch from Bald Hill, south of Royal National Park, as weekend motorcyclists, day-trippers and a Mr Whippy van all enjoy views down the Illawarra escarpment to Port Kembla.

* Fish and chips at Lakes Entrance, followed by a quick 18 holes of mini golf. Look for the giant pink golf ball on the Esplanade, up from the giant octopus at the seashell museum.

* Tathra Wharf, the last open-sea timber wharf on the east coast with a social gathering of tackle boxes, bait buckets and rods dangled over its timber planks.

* Mallacoota Inlet, where fallen ti-tree branches dip in the water of an estuary that looks a picture of calm and tranquillity - and awfully fishy. See also the curious World War II bunkers.

* Camping at coastal national parks. Favourite campsites include Pebbly Beach at Murramarang NP, Saltwater Creek at Ben Boyd NP and Mueller Creek at Croajingolong NP.

* Vanilla slices at Bodalla Bakery. Or try their lamington sponges. "The best pies and cakes on the South Coast," Joanne Evans says from behind the counter. She may just be right. Since 1870.

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