Experience wonders of all sorts in the New South Wales coastal region, Shoalhaven.
By Anabel Dean – guest writer
The whales are elusive. They’re taking forever to emerge from the deep. Passengers on board the Port Venture are growing impatient. The sun is out, there’s a crisp breeze, time is ebbing away.
A cold front is storming towards us, but you wouldn’t know it. The sea is as flat it gets as we cruise across the vast blue curl of Jervis Bay, past Bowen Island on the starboard bow, surging towards the ‘Humpback Highway’ at the edge of the South Pacific Ocean.
“We’ve got to be patient,” counsels my friend Jane. “We might not see them because they’re not here for us. That’s why wildlife encounters are so special.”
Jane is a qualified veterinarian and biologist who has swum with whales in Tonga and studied orangutans in Sarawak. Nature is her thing.
“Encounters with wildlife”, says Jane, “take time, patience, luck, respect.”
The ship’s master, Anthony Robertson, is making a similar call on the microphone in the wheelhouse. “Just never, never give up,” he instructs.
Soon we are on the open ocean moving to a different rhythm.
Suddenly, there’s a seagull-like shriek, a passenger is pointing to infinity.
“Look! There, at 3 o’clock!”
We are alert, relieved, but no, it’s not a whale. It’s an albatross swooping with the swell, wings arched over waves. There’s an audible moan from onlookers.
It feels as if we are on a Luna Park amusement ride: up and down; down and up, hoodies flapping over faces.
“Always hang onto the railing,” Roberson warns. “Three times I’ve had people tell me ‘It’s alright mate, I know boats’ and three times we’ve crawled around on the deck afterwards looking for a tooth.”
“Hang on! What’s that?” It’s the same enthused passenger. This time it’s a freak wave or fishing boat. A wind gust. A flipper, a flurry, a plume. It’s all make-believe until, suddenly, there’s a captain’s roar from behind.
“There she blows!” His words send a shiver down the spine.
The ocean spectacle unfurling in front of our boat is what we’ve been waiting for, yet it begins with just a small heart-shaped puff of humpback spray. Two barnacled mounds rise in a fluid arc, slow in motion, though in fact, they’re semi-trailers thundering at speed along the horizon line. They’ve come from icy Antarctica, and they’re high-tailing it for warmer waters in Queensland to give birth at the end of what David Attenborough calls ‘the longest mammal migration on earth’.
Let’s just pause to think about that. Antarctica to Queensland!
The sheltered waters of Jervis Bay become a crèche for mothers with calves resting on the return journey at the end of the migration (which runs from around May to November), but there’s no time for play. And no breaching. Strict rules of observation require tourism operators to run parallel to the highway so the beasts, if diverted on a whale whim, must make the approach. This means we are ‘whale waiting’ and, since a dive beneath can last up to 10 minutes, there’s no telling where the blow will next appear. Never give up.
Finally, after several distant sightings, the whale is close enough for us to admire its magnificent tail fluke – uniquely splattered with black splodges on the white underside – before it ‘sounds’ and disappears below the waves. All that remains is a smooth slick-like print along the water with a vortex created by a descent into the depths: it’s called ‘a whale footprint’. And wow, did it leave a lasting impression.
Walking in two worlds
Back on land, we step into the ancestral footsteps of the longest continuous living culture on earth with Raymond Timbery, a proud Bidjigal Dharrawal/Monero Jaitmatang man.
He begins his interpretive walk in the grounds of the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum and Botanic Gardens where an acknowledgment of country connects us back to terra firma with a smoking ceremony.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” Timbery tells us, stepping lightly through a landscape enlivened by tall trees. Spotted gums are radiant in sunshine, but they are soon transformed into something else.
“I named my youngest daughter after this one,” says Timbery, tapping the creamy trunk of a 100-year-old tree. “These are family. They are the elders. They are the identity of our country. We are all connected.”
He talks about seeds and medicine, how to keep mouths moistened in hot summers, when to make fire and find shelter.
“We look at the bush as our Coles, our Aldi, our Bunnings,” Timbery explains. “We acknowledge the ancient seasons. Everything we need is here. This is life.”
Like many city dwellers, I’m new to the detail of Aboriginal ecological and conservation management, but the tide is turning. At the mangroves of Currambene Creek, we are almost back at our starting point, and nothing is the same as it was in the beginning. It’s not just a bush track, not just a swamp, it’s a story that’s been around for a long time. We still have a long way to go.
Sorceress of the Shoalhaven
Hyams Beach is a bedazzling jewel, internationally renowned for having some of the finest white sands on the planet. Still, there are 16 of these splendid beaches spanning a distance of more than 100km around Jervis Bay.
There’s White Sands Caravan Park, White Sands Hair and Beauty, White Sands Bed & Breakfast, even a White Sands fishing competition.
“White sand is a bit of a theme here,” jokes Jane.
The fine grains fill our shoes along the Round The Bay Walk when an overshadowing menace of clouds sends us scurrying to our accommodation.
Bay and Bush Cottages nestle a little way back from Jervis Bay, and our Callala Beach Cottage is a rare treasure.
It has all the smart furnishings – soft cushions and velvety chairs – but there’s a fantasy lingering in the kitchen. The first bite of a poached pear perched on a throne of segmented orange, top-knotted with a sprig of rosemary, and the nutty granola with clove-infused apple compote, transports us to another place. Time finally stops still.
Who is the French chef responsible for such delectable eroticism? Can we meet the sorceress who is, in fact, a Chef Patissier trained in haute cuisine for Les Relais & Chateaux?
Severine Meillard – a reincarnation of Juliette Binoche in the film Chocolat – is from Brittany, and has chosen to work culinary magic that goes way beyond the making of a cup of decadently rich cocoa in the quiet village of Huskisson.
Upon my request, she knocks at the door on our last night, tray in hand. She unwraps her offerings with the finger-tip intensity that befits an art form: home-smoked salmon, handcrafted buckwheat waffles, spinach cumin pancakes, walnut crusted avocado.
“We will do something like this if our guests ask, but it’s only early days,” she confides.
If I were to give an award to this woman who, on her day off, bakes brioche as light as fairy floss to pleasure a guest, it would be pretty simple – ‘Best Chef in the World.’
Raise a glass – and maybe purchase an alpaca
Almost a dozen cellar doors are making the most of cool coastal breezes and fertile soils along the Shoalhaven wine trail. The vineyards extend over a long distance – from Kangaroo Valley to Termeil – so we were glad to have the Wineknot tour bus with a designated driver.
There’s a beautiful spot in the vines to sample the wines at Cambewarra Estate and extra bang for your buck if you’re inclined to sit in a giant pink teacup (for high tea) or sample the regional tasting plate (oysters, olives and such).
On the Outskirts of Berry, at Silos Estate, there’s a cellar door experience (with local cheeses) in the old dairy shed (circa 1870), complete with alpacas. They’re for sale. Not on the plate, obviously, they wouldn’t fit! Last year the owner sold 18 of his beasts. This year? Nothing. After a few wines, it’s the sort of thing that we considered but luckily, alpacas don’t fit in cars. Not even those that are lined up at the electric vehicle charging station outside the cellar door.
Jervis Bay Wild – Whale watching eco-cruises from $65 per adult and $28 per child.
Djiriba Waagura – Djiriba Waagura interpretive walk.
Bay and Bush Cottages – Eight unique self-catering cottages in the midst of the Australian bush.
Feature Image: Shoalhaven Tourism
See more: New South Wales travel
Anabel Dean is a freelance travel journalist. You can follow her on Instagram @anabel.dean20
Anabel was a guest of Shoalhaven Tourism all thoughts and opinions are of her own.