SOUTHERN BEAUTIES

The thrill of oceanic wildlife encounters and a trip to yesteryear await you in this gorgeous sea-side region

WORDS BY KARYN FANOUS, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOSEPH AND AARON FANOUS

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“There she blows!” was the excited cry as the humpback whale surfaced and sent a spout of water shooting high into the sky. And then another appeared, this time breaching and performing a spectacular back slap, sending out huge sprays of water.

It seemed as though the whales enjoyed putting on a show for us inquisitive onlookers. At times they came very close to the boat, and appeared to be just as interested in us as we were in them. At other times, they did ‘backstroke’ as they floated belly up and slapped their giant fins on the water’s surface. They are such enormous, majestic creatures.

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We were aboard a whale watching and diving tour with Narooma Charters. Having boarded at the jetty in the sheltered harbour waters, as we cruised out towards Montague Island, 9km off the coast, we were joined by a pod of dolphins. Our main aim was to scuba dive and snorkel with seals, so whales and dolphins were an added bonus!

Narooma was originally known as ‘Noorooma’, the Aboriginal word meaning ‘clear, blue water’, with colonial settlement beginning in the early 1800s. Around this time, dairy cattle and cheese factories were established and Wagonga and the small town at the head of the inlet was used as a port to transport gold from nearby Nerrigundah and the slopes of Mt. Dromedary (also known as Gulaga). This impressive mountain was named by Captain Cook because of its resemblance to a camel’s hump. Today, dairying continues along with timber, fishing, oyster farming and tourism as the region’s main industries.

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Narooma is a favourite holiday spot for us because of the chance to get up close to the seals. Spring is our preferred time of year, so we can meet up with humpback whales as they migrate south to Antarctic waters. Here at Narooma, the edge of the continental shelf drops off into the deep sea quite quickly, so it is not uncommon for whales to come close to shore. A variety of whales visit Narooma’s waters – one year, we were surprised by the sight of an Orca (Killer) Whale!

There is a range of snorkelling and diving sites available. Our favourite is to dive in the shallow waters off Montague Island amongst the colony of Australian Fur Seals. These cute and playful seals love to frolic around underwater with scuba divers: twisting, turning and somersaulting with ease. Back on the surface, they often lie on their sides with one flipper raised in order to cool down. This is strange to us land-dwellers, as in spring, we find the water to be breathtakingly brisk!

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It’s no surprise that Montague Island is a Nature Reserve. It provides a home for NSW’s largest colony of Australian and New Zealand Fur Seals, and is a breeding ground for over 40,000 sea birds. Around 12,000 Little Penguins, Australia’s sole native penguin, are amongst its residents. These adorable birds feed at sea during the day and return to shore at dusk.

The NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service conduct a variety of day and evening island tours covering Montague Island’s wildlife and Aboriginal and European history, including the lighthouse with its spiral staircase and stunning 360 degree view. If you are keen to see the Little Penguins waddling back to their burrows, then the evening tour is the one for you.

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Montague Island Lighthouse was built from granite and began operation in 1881. It was manually lit for 105 years until it was automated in 1986. The original light is now the centerpiece of Narooma Lighthouse Museum housed in the Visitor Centre.

An essential part of the Narooma experience is Surf Beach, adorned at its southern end by Glasshouse Rocks. These striking, jagged pinnacles are a dramatic feature in the bright blue waters. Little Lake sits just behind the beach and makes a great tranquil swimming and kayaking spot.

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On the next beach to south, there are more fascinating rocky outcrops – some folded into grey and white-banded zigzags, and one that rears up like a shark’s open mouth. We’ve nicknamed this one ‘Shark Rock’.

In Narooma Harbour you’ll find lovely little beaches. There’s also a very patriotic rock with a natural hole shaped much like Australia, not surprisingly named ‘Australia Rock’. It’s right next to Bar Rock Lookout on the southern headland at the harbour’s entrance. A very pleasant way to explore the harbor precinct is via the 850m-long Mill Bay boardwalk, which takes you along the pretty foreshores of Narooma.

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For those keen to wet a line, Narooma is well equipped for fishing. Wagonga Inlet and Montague Island are popular locations with fishing charters, with rock and beach fishing also on offer. There are numerous boat ramps and cleaning areas dotted around the town’s waterways. Flocks of hungry pelicans are likely to pay a visit whenever the day’s catch is being cleaned.

The Wagonga Inlet sprawls quietly behind the town, providing lots of water sports fun. A fabulous way to explore the inlet is on the Wagonga Princess, a 100 year old electric boat originally designed as a ferry. Made from Tasmanian Huon pine, she is full of character and charm. You’ll cruise around the beautiful inlet with skipper Charlie at the helm, learn about its history, step ashore for a rainforest walk, and enjoy Devonshire and billy teas.

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There are plenty of land-based activities as well. The Narooma golf course, with its picturesque cliff-side location, has some legendary holes to challenge its golfers. Alternatively, you can take a nostalgic horse and carriage ride around town, or go on a scenic picnic tour.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Wagonga Scenic Tourist Drive (27km; 1 hour return) through the forests around the inlet west of Narooma. The mostly unsealed roads are not suitable for caravans, so leave the van behind and take a picnic instead. We found a beautiful, secluded picnic spot along the drive and had a lovely time kayaking on the inlet. Along the way there’s a lush rainforest walk (30 minutes return). Grants Lookout gazes over the pretty Wagonga Inlet and Narooma, with Montague Island as the backdrop.

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Another beautiful drive is to head south along the Princes Highway. After 9km, turn east towards Mystery Bay, an excellent snorkelling location surrounded by Eurobodalla National Park. There is a lookout in the national park with an adjacent picnic area amongst wattles and banksias. The Mystery Bay Camping Area, right next to the beach, is a great spot to get back to nature. Campsites are unpowered and set in bushland.

Back onto the Princes Highway, head southwest to the National Trust listed Central Tilba and Tilba Tilba. These quaint heritage villages, around 20km south of Narooma, were founded on dairying and gold mining. Pastelcoloured period buildings line the main street of Central Tilba as well as house antiques, art galleries, craft stores, cafes, an old fashioned general store, and the Dromedary Hotel.

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There are a few shops that we find essential to visit each time we are in Central Tilba. We can never resist dropping in to ‘The Tilba Sweet Spot’, an old-fashioned lolly shop; ‘Mrs Jamieson’s Tilba Fudge’ with its creamy homemade delicacies; and ‘South Coast Cheese’ to stock up on vacuum sealed cheeses to take home.

Located in the old ABC Cheese Factory, South Coast Cheese is a destination in itself. Their specialty is handmade cheeses with enticing names such as Kalamata Garlic, Firecracker, Pickled Onion and Vintage Smoked. Not all of our purchases make it home because they are just too delicious! You’ll also need to have a milkshake made straight from the farm’s own Jersey cows. Cheese making and milk bottling can be viewed through the factory’s large windows. There are even cheese making courses available – so much to see and experience!

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Just 4kms to the north, Tilba Valley Wines produces a range of white and red wines from its vineyard overlooking Lake Corunna. Wine tasting, cellar door sales, and light meals are on offer. Seating options add a country feel. Guests can choose to enjoy lunch in the restaurant or a gazebo, on the verandah, by a pond, or by a log fire in winter.

Tilba Tilba is a small village just 2 kilometres south of Central Tilba. This is where you’ll find the delightful Foxglove Spires Garden. Described as having “fairy tale like charm and quaint English style elegance”, this glorious garden is filled to overflowing with gorgeous plants and flowers and hidden paths. Antiques, collectables, homewares and a café are also available.

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Mt. Dromedary, also known by the Aboriginal name ‘Gulaga’, meaning the ‘Mother Mountain’, sits imposingly behind the Tilba towns. Its cloak of rainforests protects sacred aboriginal sites. This mountain is of great significance to the local Yuin people. Najanuga (Little Dromedary), a smaller rocky outcrop, sits proudly to the east.

The mountain’s walking trail leaves from behind Tilba Tilba’s old fashioned general ‘Pam’s Store’. Once a huge active volcano, Gulaga now has a magnificent rainforest up top. Allow half a day to explore this striking landform.

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Back at the Surf Beach Holiday Park in Narooma, we enjoyed happy hour with our friends as we gazed over the ocean, breathed in the salty air, and discussed what adventures the next day may hold. There’s a lot to love about Narooma. Like us, you’ll want to visit again and again!

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