Monday, 9am: We smell them before we see them. The pungent pong that wafts on the breeze momentarily is a good sign - it means there are fur seals about. We spot them, almost camouflaged against their brown rocky home. There are dozens and dozens of them. Some are sluggishly lazing about, soaking up some rays. Others are flopping around, slowly lumbering into the sea. This colony doesn't really notice - or care about - our presence as we rush past in our boat.
I'm on my way to Montague Island, a nature reserve 8 kilometres from the coastal town of Narooma, about five hours' drive south of Sydney. It's a breezy, sunny day and Captain Andy from Narooma Charters is regaling me with seafaring tales of giant fish he has caught (including a tournament-winning 528-kilogram black marlin caught off Cairns).
Clambering off the boat, I'm welcomed ashore by Steve Hutcheson, lively field officer and guide. Steve has the important task of maintaining the island, looking after the flora and fauna, stopping the rampant kikuyu grass and protecting the wildlife. Thanks to people like Steve and volunteers who help take care of the island, there's now a growing penguin population. Montague Island is also a haven for mutton birds, which flock there every year after a jaunt in Alaska. Then, around November 25, says Steve, they dig a burrow in the ground and lay a single egg. The eggs all hatch on almost the same day, so the story goes.
But there's more to this 82-hectare island than its punctual wildlife. Originally named Baranguba, local Aboriginal people would risk their lives travelling to the island on bark canoes to hunt mutton birds. They would stock up and then feast over on the mainland.
One tangible relic from the island's history is its lighthouse. Designed by colonial architect James Barnet (whose extensive work includes the design of 20 lighthouses, a wing of the Australian museum, and what was then known as the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane), it was built in 1881 and was manned until the late 1980s, at which point it became automated. While on watch, lighthouse keepers were only allowed to partake in two activities: smoking and reading. As a result, many lighthouse keepers were very well-read.
We walk to the edge of the island where there's a small cemetery. It contains the graves of original lighthouse keeper John Burgess' two children and an assistant lighthouse keeper. It's quite eerie standing here with the crashing ocean almost below us.
6pm: I wind down at Amooran Oceanside Apartments. There's a big glass door with a view out to Narooma Golf Club and the ocean beyond. My room is decked out with kitchen facilities but I grab some Thai takeaways from a nearby restaurant.
Tuesday, 2pm: David Bowie is accompanying me on my road trip. I'm driving to Bowral, about a 3 -hour journey from Narooma, and Bowie is coming through the radio. This is a reasonably lengthy trip to make when you're only in New South Wales for a few days but it's well worth it. The drive is very scenic, with vast fields and small quiet towns along the way. Interesting fact No 1 about Bowral: it is the birthplace of Mary Poppins. Last year the town set a world record when more than 2000 people brandishing umbrellas went to Bradman Oval and stood for 10 minutes in the shape of the famous nanny. Bowral is also home to The Bradman Museum, devoted to the cricketing career of the great Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman, who grew up here. It's a cute little town - one of the most well-known in the Southern Highlands - with a number of boutiques and gourmet restaurants.
5pm: I have a couple of hours until dinner, so I put my feet up at Gibraltar Hotel, my digs for the night. Outside my window is another golf view, the hotel's own 18-hole course.
7.30pm: The bread arrives in a cage. The butter? That's sitting on its own rock. At Biota Dining, the extra little touches make for a memorable meal.
Biota is a destination restaurant burrowed away in a Bowral suburb. I have ordered from the trendy menu and the extensive wine list and now sit back and admire the surroundings.
The cuisine at Biota is "produce- and technique-driven", according to their website, and this is evident in the artisan food and the open cooking displays. I can see into the kitchen, where the chef is putting finishing touches on a meal with tweezers, ensuring utmost precision in presentation. If you can't see into the kitchen, there's a camera filming the cuisine creations and you can watch the action on a television screen in the dining area. My entree is mackerel with cos lettuce hearts, grape juice, soy sago pearl, grapes and compressed nashi pear with wakame, sage and yarrah - a unique combination of flavours. If that's not enough of a mouthful, next up is the star: lamb rump with glaze, almond faro, sweetbreads and heirloom carrots washed down with a local merlot cab franc sauvignon.
Wednesday, 10am: On the way back to Sydney I get one last gulp of Australian nature at Illawarra Fly Tree Top Walk. As the name suggests, it's a walk through the rainforest 25 metres above ground. The narrow walkway is sturdy but it's still daunting to look down at the forest floor.
Possible wildlife encounters include snakes, wallabies and birds but today there are no sightings. Not even the resident wombat, Dozer, is at home in his little place in the forest.
At the end of the steel canopy walk I climb a set of stairs higher and higher and I'm rewarded with a panoramic view of the region and over to Lake Illawarra.
Noon: It's yet another scenic drive back to Sydney. Extra time would allow for a more leisurely journey exploring this part of NSW but a few days is enough to see some of the region's best attractions.
Kate Mead travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia and Destination New South Wales. Go to australia.com and visit nsw.com for more information.
Where to stay:
Amooran Oceanside Apartments, 30 Montague St, Narooma, amooran.com.au. Gibraltar Hotel Bowral, Centennial Rd and Boronia St, Bowral, gibraltarbowral.com.au. Where to eat: Na Siam, Shop 1/26 Princes Highway, Narooma. Montague Coffee, 2/40 Princes Highway, Narooma, montaguecoffee.com.au. Pilgrims, Settlement Arcade, Shop 8&9 Princes Highway, Milton. Biota Dining, 18 Kangaloon Rd, Bowral, biotadining.com.
What to do:
Narooma Charters, Wharf on Bluewater Drive, Narooma, naroomacharters.com.au. Visit Montague Island, montagueisland.com.au. Fitzroy Falls, 1301 Nowra Rd, Fitzroy Falls. Illawarra Fly, 182 Knights Hill Rd, Knights Hill, illawarrafly.com.
How to get there:
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Sydney from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Rotorua offering four different in- flight product choices including Seat, Seat + Bag, The Works and Works Deluxe. Connections are also available from Air New Zealand's other domestic ports and with partner airline Virgin Australia on non-stop flights from Dunedin. Visit airnewzealand.co.nz.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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