Whale tales and true

In this sleepy seaside town, Ben Stubbs discovers a historical remedy for illness that's more than a little fishy.

Aplaque in the Eden Killer Whale Museum tells the story of Mrs Stubbs (no relation to the author) of Towamba, who had a terrible pain that couldn't be cured. It was 1892 and there was no such thing as paracetamol or naturopaths, so she travelled to the NSW port of Eden to try the cure-all that had everyone talking.

Dressed in a loose-fitting gown, she was taken to the waiting area at the wharf with other patients. The quack cut a lady-sized hole in the side of the dead whale on the dock, and Mrs Stubbs was ushered inside, careful not to trip on the lip.

Mrs Stubbs sat on a chair inside the whale for an hour, while the internal gases and the 40-degree heat went to work. She emerged from the whale with no pain at all. The man sitting next to her, to his joy, no longer needed the walking sticks with which he arrived.

In the late 19th century, this was as radical as alternative medicine got and, on the shores of Eden, the whale remedy was the best of the lot. The only side-effect was the "horrible dead odour" emitted by the patient for the next week, though it seemed a small price to pay.

The cure-all whale carcasses are long gone by the time I visit. The town remains a fisherman's port and has escaped the over-development that has tainted much of the far south coast of NSW. Unlike "little Melbourne" in nearby Merimbula, the absence of things - no rush, no fuss - is the attraction in Eden.

The town has become something of an eco-haven for tourists drawn to see the great whales on their migrations following the East Australian Current, though it wasn't always such an environmentally friendly place.

We drive through the town, quiet even for a Saturday, past the two roundabouts that control the minimal traffic, and head out along the Princes Highway. Our first stop is the tiny district of Boydtown, south of Eden.

It was once home to 200 settlers; now there is only a scattering of tourist accommodation along the perfect curl of yellow sand hidden in the trees. As we approach the manor on the beach, I'm surprised to learn this was once touted as a location for Australia's capital city.

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The town's namesake, Ben Boyd, was a well-heeled Scottish adventurer and entrepreneur who sailed to the colony of NSW in 1842 looking for his fortune. He bought 1.01 million hectares and constructed an Elizabethan manor on Twofold Bay. Many locals know Boyd as the "Christopher Skase" of the 1840s. One of his most daring investments was made during the Eden whaling boom, when he built a lighthouse and constructed a fleet to bring in the whales for processing. As whale profits declined, Boyd sought his fortunes elsewhere.

His manor house has been converted into a tranquil boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant, the Seahorse Inn. His influence can be seen all along the coast and the national park is named in his honour.

We follow Boyd's trail, , driving around the curve of Twofold Bay through the dense Ben Boyd National Park and along soupy dirt roads to the abandoned Davidson Whaling Station that fronts the turquoise water at Kiah Inlet. The strong smell of ocean salt and eucalyptus is intoxicating.

We wander past sunbaking water dragons and the Davidson homestead to the water's edge. The smell wouldn't always have been so pleasant here among the trees. We pass the rusting try pots where whalers boiled hunks of blubber and captured the oil, used for perfume and margarine, skin cream and bike seats.

Whales were plentiful in the deep water around Eden in the 1800s. It is said to be the point where the East Australian Current meets the Bass Strait current and many blue, southern right and humpback whales stop here to feed in the krill-rich water.

Whalers would stand on the headlands around Red Point watching for a migrating pod; as soon as one was spotted, the whalers set forth in their little wooden boats with oars to harpoon beasts up to 30 metres long. The odds weren't quite as lopsided as they seem, for the whalers had a secret weapon named Old Tom.

Old Tom was a killer whale with a bond to the whalers of Eden. He was likened to a sheep dog that would round up prey for his masters. When Tom and his pod of orcas spotted a baleen whale, they would corner the animal and splash about to alert the whalers. Once the harpoon met its mark, Old Tom would often grab the rope between his teeth to speed up the return trip into Kiah Inlet. As a reward, the orcas would receive the tongue and lips of the whale. The relationship continued for nearly 60 years until Tom's death in 1930.

Old Tom's skeleton is displayed in the museum, where the grooves can be seen in his teeth, carved when he grabbed the harpoon rope and dragged the whalers back to shore.

The museum holds stories of shipwrecks - such as the Ly-ee-Moon that wrecked off Eden's coast, killing Mary MacKillop's mother in 1886 - and the Aboriginal history of the Katungal people, who thrived on this rugged coastline for thousands of years. The museum also touches on the latest attraction of Eden: whale watching. Australia signed the anti-whaling treaty in 1947 prohibiting the hunting of all whales and now the tourist operators of Eden thrive on a much more sustainable whaling activity.

Next morning we head out early from Eden's harbour into Twofold Bay on the vessel Cat Balou. Ros Butt and her husband, Gordon, have been running whale-watching tours since 1986 and she says it's not unusual to see 40 or 50 southern right and humpback whales a day in September and October. They run tours year-round, and we cruise past seals sleeping on the rocks and schools of fish boiling to the surface near the mussel farms around Snug Cove.

The tall ship Young Endeavour is doing manoeuvres and, as it unfurls its sails in the stiff breeze and heads out of the bay, it reminds me of the seafaring history of Eden and the period to the days when George Bass sailed into Twofold Bay in 1798.

We cruise past Boyd's Tower on Red Point, which now looks like a mediaeval ruin, and head back into Eden for lunch. I buy a newspaper full of fresh flathead and chips and drive up to the fisherman's memorial for a picnic on the headland.

As I get out of the car I feel a twinge of pain in my back. I wonder if the whale remedy pursued by Mrs Stubbs from Towamba might have fixed it once upon a time. Fish 'n' chips and a Panadol will work just as well now.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Sapphire Coast Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Eden is 494 kilometres or a 6-hour drive south of Sydney along the Princes Highway. The closest airport is Merimbula, 25 kilometres north of Eden; Rex Airlines has daily flights from Sydney.

Visiting there

The Killer Whale Museum in Eden is open Mon-Sat, 9.15am-3.45pm and Sun, 11.15am-3.45pm. Entry $7.50 adults, $2 children; see www.killerwhalemuseum.com.au.

Cat Balou runs Twofold Bay excursions all year and whale-watching September-late November; see catbalou.com.au.

For more information see sapphirecoast.com.au.

Staying there

Snug Cove B&B has rooms with balconies overlooking Twofold Bay from $160 including breakfast; see snugcove.com.au.

The Seahorse Inn in Boydtown has 10 luxury rooms from $175 looking out to a private beach; a cocktail bar; and restaurant. Private excursions of the region can be arranged from the inn; see seahorseinn.com.au.

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