Another Eden: The Sapphire Coast of New South Wales

by Chris Newens  |  Published April 17, 2015

Paradise is an overused word. Usually, what it describes is a once lovely location now overrun by resorts. Not so the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Here are long beaches, lush forests, and almost perpetually blue skies; and it is totally unspoiled.

Bermagui Beach (Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr)

Bermagui Beach (Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr)

“Just think, there are beaches in Spain where you have to rent space!” the fisherman says to me his arms stretched wide to the ocean. “And they’re not an eighth as beautiful as this place.”

He is right. We are alone on Nelson’s Beach in Mimosa Rocks National Park, on a gently curving bay parenthesised by orange-grey cliffs and primordial forest. The rolling ocean in front of us is as blue as the sea in a kid’s drawing and above are two wedge-tail eagles, circling in the cloudless sky.

If it weren’t for the fisherman, whose name I learn is Jeff, I could believe myself a thousand miles from civilisation. Apart from Jeff’s rod and fishing tackle there is not a single man-made thing in 360 degrees of looking. There is just chalky driftwood and sand pocked by animal tracks: kangaroo, wombat, goanna.

Yet I am no more than a fifteen-minute drive from Tathra, a tranquil seaside resort where the beer, the coffee and the cooking are as good as anywhere in the world. This is the Far South Coast of New South Wales. It is also known as the Sapphire Coast, though not because it is abundant in the precious stone. The sapphires here are more priceless than any gem; they are the sea and the sky.

Fishing Trip

Like so many good journeys, this one had begun in a bar near the sea. I was in Sydney’s Rocks district: the historic heart of the city, which despite the best attempts of modern commerce still retains an element of frontier romance.

I had spent the day at Sydney Fish Market, one of the best fish markets in the world, and was now in the Harbour View Hotel loudly singing its praises to some recently met friends. Then, halfway through a monologue I was giving about how big King Crabs are (very), I was interrupted by an eavesdropping local.

“You want good seafood, mate?” he said. “You’ve gotta get yourself to Bermagui.”

“Sorry?” I said, glad of the interruption — my King Crab story was going nowhere.

“Bermagui,” the man said again, “it’s a town on The Far South Coast, does the best fish in the whole country, best fish and chips in the whole world.”

“In the whole world?” I said. “You know I’m English, right?”

“Yeah?” said my new friend, “So? You invented cricket too, but you’re crap at that and all!”

“Fair enough,” I agreed.

“Thing is, Bermagui,” the man continued, “the continental shelf drops off like a great abyss, right next to the shore,” he whistled and with his hand made a sinking motion. “Means they can do deep sea fishing without going out too far. It’s one of the only places in the country where the local fishing fleet really is a local fishing fleet. Everywhere else sends their fish to Sydney first to be redistributed. Blahdy stupid, but that’s the law. Except in Bermi. In Bermi, fish goes straight from the boats into the frier, and you eat it looking out at the sea it’s just come from.”

“Sounds nice,” I said.

“Best in the world,” said he.

‘The Best Place in Oz’

I set out for the Far South Coast three days later, and not just because I’m a mad fish and chips enthusiast. After his Bermagui seafood rhapsody, the eavesdropper, whose name was Brian, had begun to sing the praises of the Far South Coast as a whole. It was a place of wonderful deserted beaches, he said, wilderness, National Parks, historic towns… “The best place in Oz!”

The gateway to the Far South Coast is Batemans Bay. Brian had forewarned me, however, that it is also the least interesting, most visited place of the whole region. I passed straight through, ignoring the strip malls (and the annoying absence of apostrophe in the town’s name) out to the beautiful forest roads beyond.

I was driving a battered up old ute (short for utility vehicle and Australian-English for pick-up truck). It had been my companion throughout my travels in the country, and though there are pretty good bus links between the main towns of the South Coast to really make the most of it, personal transport is essential. The best thing to do is hire, and to hire a four-wheel drive. The area is connected via single arterial road, the Princes Highway, but most places of real interest are found on the dirt tracks that lead off it.

The Far South Coast is the ancestral home of the Yuin people, and its landscape still feels alive with spiritual significance. An hour south of Batemans, I came to Binji Binji point, a beach and traditional foraging ground for Aboriginal Australians. Bush food was, and is, so plentiful here, the name Binji Binji means “full stomach” in the local dialect – and there is a glut of helpful information boards that explain to the uneducated visitor the culinary richness of the landscape.

From Binji Binji looking back inland is the restful form of Mount Dromedary – an elegant, forested mountain that the Yuin people call Gulaga. They believe it to be a sleeping goddess. In their culture, this is the naval of the world. Caught between the double brilliant blue of sea and sky at Binji Binji, and gazing inland to the buzzing green, it was not hard to see why.

Back on the Princes Highway, the road turned away from the coast and soon arrived at the township of Bodalla, a place of weatherboard houses and spectacular views out over green valleys: grazing land shared by kangaroos and cattle.

Inland, the Far South Coast is a dairy-producing region, and at times you can feel as inundated by different local cheeses as you might in the French countryside. In Bodalla these can bought at the “Dairy Shed”, a bustling outlet with a colourful interior décor pitched somewhere between stylish and kitsch.

After Bodalla comes Narooma. Back on the coast, Narooma rings a magnificent natural harbour, which is loomed over by Gulaga. The hinterland never feels far away!

Seafood restaurants and oyster shacks dominate the harbour’s banks. Many have been there for generations and creak under their own authenticity. Before sampling what they had to offer, though, I rented a boat to take out onto the harbour itself, equipped with a hand real and bait, hoping to catch my own fish. On board the boat with me, was a woman with her family. They were visiting from Melbourne, she said, but she had grown up on the Far South Coast.

“There’s nothing like the light in Narooma,” she said. “The water’s bluer here than it is anywhere else in the world. Anywhere else on the South Coast even.”

“What?” I started, prepared to shoot her down with cold English cynicism: How could the water here actually be bluer than that in the next town along?

But then I got a bite on the end of my line, and as I began to inexpertly battle with what would turn out to be an indelibly puny fish, my eyes played across the sparkling water, which did indeed seem bluer than any I’d ever seen.

A Second Eden

To reach Bermagui it’s necessary to leave the Princes Highway and take a smaller road that becomes a causeway across the great flat expanse of Wallaga Lake. I – partly by accident, partly by design – missed this turning.

In short, I was having such a nice time travelling the Far South Coast that the moment I realised I had missed it – admittedly about fifteen minutes further down the road – I decided to put off the end goal of my quest in favour of more exploration.

So, I rode the Princes Highway all the way down to Eden: the last coastal town until the Victoria border, in fact the last human habitation of any size for over 60 kilometres. South of Eden there lies the pristine wilderness of the Nadgee Nature Reserve, which the adventurous hiker can walk across in an entirely self-sufficient four days.

Eden, itself, could once-upon a time have transformed into one of Australia’s largest towns – perhaps even the nation’s capital – had things turned out just slightly differently. Originally a whaling station, it was primed for investment in the 19th Century by the pioneer Benjamin Boyd. Boyd saw Eden’s location – on the coast and equidistant between Melbourne and Sydney – as an ideal place for the development of a port. However, he went bankrupt before his plans could be realised, and Eden remained a sleepy outpost on the edge of the bush, the kind of place, you feel, that will continue regardless of what happens in the rest of the world.

Most of my journey around the Far South Coast I camped. The area boasts an embarrassment of National Parks (more than any other region of Australia, according to one enthusiastic local), most of which offer basic camping ground, not too far from the beaten track, but in forests that team with wildlife and feeling. There are also plenty of commercial campsites for the less intrepid, and all the towns have decent, if not quite luxury accommodation.

The drive up from Eden offered more coast hugging roads and spectacular views. The approaches to most towns were lined by oyster beds, from which I soon learned are farmed oysters considered to be the best in Australia. I resisted stopping to try them, however, perhaps from the fear of being worn down by too many superlatives.

An Amazing Plaice*

It was around one o’clock in Bermagui, but if there was a lunchtime rush, it constituted only of seagulls. There were four of them loitering with clear intent outside the fish and chip shop I had found following Brian’s precise instructions. The seabirds looked uncommonly fat.

Inside, the shop was a clean, unpretentious, cool blue. The air smelt lightly of frying oil, fresh fish, and lemon. I took the fabled fish and chips out to the harbour, where a couple of small fishing vessels bobbed picturesquely. Just as Brian had said, I was looking out to the ocean when I sat down to eat. And there was Gulaga again, now to my North where the land curved out toward the sea.

The food was more than delicious. The batter was light and crispy, the fish itself flaked beautifully in my mouth, departing a subtle fresh flavour that defies words. Was it the best fish and chips in the world? Almost certainly.

*Full disclosure, the fish was flathead but “An Amazing Flathead” doesn’t make for a good section heading.