Escaping to the Sapphire Coast

By Chris Ord 1 July 2014
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Adventure doesn’t have to be about sapping the will to live. Sometimes it can just be about pure pleasure, and the south coast of NSW delivers.

THEY SAY THAT the soul can only soak in life at no more than walking pace. When you travel in an aeroplane they say it takes days for it to catch up to its owner.

I’m hoping, then, that my soul hurries up back from the coffee bar where I suspect it’s purposefully being tardy before my short flight from Melbourne to Merimbula, deep on the south coast of New South Wales.

If it doesn’t scuttle along soon, my soul will miss not only the flight but a glorious week of paddling, mountain biking and trekking – all at a pace that I’ve promised my soul it will be able to keep up with.

The mission ahead, it must be said, does read more like an adventure race than an adventure meander. First up is a Canadian canoe paddle, followed by a 40km mountain bike ride, a 6km estuary kayak leg, then 10km trekking south along the coast, a short stint on a stand-up paddle board to get to the start of another 40km mountain bike.

Then there’s a 32km sea kayak with a 13km trek marking the final stretch of a multi-day end-to-end adventure… or is it?

This little foray is about testing the other extreme of adventure, one where there is no rush, and rather than meager rationings, on this trip we’re talking camp catering from annals of MasterChef (if it had an outdoors incarnation*). Plus, I’ll never be further than 20 minutes’ drive from the nearest country bakery (a couple of good ones at that), although I’ll do my best to stick to camp cuisine. Promise. So long as there’s a beer accompaniment.

Finding paradise on the Sapphire Coast

The ‘adventure’ begins with a little sign out on the Princes Highway halfway between Merimbula and Bermagui in the Sapphire Coast hinterland.

It’s a small blue sign that says “Canoes” accompanied by a small tee-pee icon. If you do notice the sign, and you do get curious enough to hook inland, follow the camping signs towards Lake Brogo, and the bush property of Dave and Sue Thorssell.

You’ll be welcomed by 38-year-old horse Pepper, who obviously reckons the place is too good a living to give up the ghost and die just yet (most horses call it quits at about 25-30).

And fair enough. The family mudbrick home sits on a small bush outcrop, jutting into the trees overlooking Brogo River and fringes of the largely untracked Wadbilliga National Park.

On your way in, you may also catch sight of a sign that lets you know Dave and Sue may not be around, but to get on down to the campsite, straight past the main house, down the dirt road, dropping below the wall of Brogo Dam looping back to finish on an idyllic outcrop overlooking a scene so Australian it could only be called a billabong.

There’s the rock pool, the bubbling water up one end, the huge, gnarled gum standing guard, providing shade for a campsite that, if they were rated, would be a billion and five star offering. Seriously, look up. Count ‘em.

Anyway, make yourself at home. Dave or Sue will welcome you shortly.

A warm welcome to the campsite

And what a welcome: on arrival I’m presented with an esky and shown to the campsite of my dreams. The wood stack is full, the billy is framed by a campfire cooking set up that Miele may well trademark if it goes into bush cook goods, and there is no reason to touch the gear in my backpack, such is the array of utensils and gear supplied.

Better still, the esky is a treasure trove – chops, sausages, fresh salad, condiments including homemade chutney, breakfast and… beer. Coronas, no less. Hardcore camping, not. Heart-warming camping, absolutely.

Pepper the horse is not the only one who reckons this patch of paradise on the skirt of Wadbilliga National Park is too good to ever leave. The two resident sea eagles must have been chuffed when they flew in one fateful day, set talons on a gum tree, looked over the manmade Brogo Dam and spied 10,000 belly-fulls of bass (it’s the local anglers’ worst kept, but rarely exploited, secret).

I spot the pair on my introduction to my five-day adventure bonanza, which begins on the still waters of Brogo Dam where Dave hires out Canadian canoes to those who venture inland from the oceanside playground.

We glide gently up the dam, skirting the banks to spot goannas, snakes and green water dragons. Exploring a canyon arm of the dam, Dave points out the distinctive deua gums.

“A botanist visited here in the ’70s and came away with the discovery of a new sub-species. Quite a beautiful small leaf gum. Only found here, on Lake Brogo.”

If my soul did miss the flight, this slow-pace paddle should give it enough time to catch up. I can feel the body clock winding down, the grey matter starting to twitch at a lesser rate and I suck in the stillness as though this introduction to the wiles of the Sapphire Coast is a slow-motion button being pushed on the remote control to my life (which has long been lost down the back of the couch, stuck on fast forward).

Starting a bushwalk to remember

The following morning, I’m reminded that my host Dave specifically noted that we may not want to pedal out of his property, given the three steep inclines that threaten to push into a zone of exertion that lazy visitors may baulk at.

“Ah, let’s ride them,” says my leg two guide, Jake Iskov, from Tathra Beach and Bike, signed on to get me from Brogo tracking east along the borders of the Mumbulla State and Biamanga National parks to another paddle rendezvous.

Jake’s plan will see us ride the width and highest point of the parks, Mumbulla Mountain, through a forested area that holds special significance for the traditional indigenous landowners, the Yuin, as a place for tribal meetings.

Thankfully, Jake has set me up on the latest Trek mountain bike, replete with the granniest of granny gears, meaning Dave’s biting driveway and even Mumbulla Mountain are slow but not entirely thigh-melting propositions.

The ride snakes up a long hill made comfortable by the cool shade of massive gums and ferns. A few river crossings cool the clipped-in heels, and the flipside of the ‘what goes up…’ rule has us sweeping down the eastern slopes to hit the coastal road where kayak guide Jess Waddell, owner and operator of Mimosa Blue, awaits aside the upper reaches of Wapengo estuary, as does lunch from Tathra Bakery – gourmet chicken and salad rolls.

Kayaking the Sapphire Coast

After growing up in the area, and having a past career as a fisheries and wildlife officer, Jess has a unique insight into the part of the world we’re about to paddle and trek through. “If there’s a paradise on Earth,” says Jess of his backyard, “may as well work in it.”

We float leisurely down the Wapengo into its lake, discussing the endless number of oyster farms on the waterway, their health (good), their importance as an indicator species of general river condition (great), and the politics of introduced species (not so good).

“Some oyster farmers want to introduce a faster growing non-indigenous species. They are imagining bigger profits. The risk is that new non-native breeds could negatively impact the ecosystem,” says Jess, who offers as part of his tours a visit to an oyster farm, including tastings.

We paddle to Bithry Inlet, where a sandbar marks the end of my cross-range journey and the start of a coastal section that soon has us tracking through spotted gum bush and along pristine beaches to our night’s pre-pegged accommodation at Gillard’s Beach campground.

Staying at Gillard’s Beach campground

Having stashed the boats, Jess points out a teepee structure hidden away.  “It was owned by famous architect Roy Grounds (designer of the National Gallery of Victoria) and Kenneth Myer (of the Myer retail emporium) – they built a sustainable little holiday house here, one that was used to experiment with natural building materials and design.”

The partners knew they owned a patch of paradise, and, possibly knowing only too well the vagaries of developers given Roy’s background, and with an eye to the future, they held the property in trust for Roy’s son, with ownership passed over to NSW Parks in January 2011.

The donation of properties “bought cheaply when land like this – sea views included – was considered worthless,” says Jess, is a common story along this stretch of coast. As we trek further down, he points out a few properties where nature is reclaiming its ownership over various old building sites, all donated back to the parks agency for the purpose of protection from the condo-virus that has struck plenty other paradises on the east coast. 

Snatching a cold beer from the esky Jess had thoughtfully deposited at camp earlier in the day while I was riding, we give cheers to the vision of the likes of Roy and Kenneth.

I then also give cheers to Jess’s homemade curry complete with homegrown veges, topped by after-dinner mints and discussion of tomorrow morning’s freshly ground coffee “from a mate who roasts locally”.

As my billion and five stars spark up again, a bush wallaby snuffles nearby and talk turns to the mission. In particular, the niche of end-to-end adventures as a tourism product. Could my trip be commercialised?

“I reckon it could,” says Jess. “I’m keen to work in with other local operators like Jake to develop something like this – even if it’s just a paddle, walk and SUP.”

Stand-up paddle boarding

SUP? That’s stand-up paddle boarding to the uninitiated. At Mogareeka Inlet, I’m handballed back to my Tathra Beach and Bike mountain bike buddy, Jake. But there’s no beach, nor bike. Instead I’m handed a long paddle and sent up the Bega River.

As a fad, stand-up paddle boarding has gone beyond squeezing fun out of small beach swells and is now invading, quite peacefully, inland waterways.

“Besides the health kick you get – the core workout and all that – it’s just a great way to see wildlife on a river,” says Jake, pointing out marauding schools of flathead in the clear waters below and then, a black snake bathing in the sunshine on the bank. River cruises like this are the latest on Jake’s menu of soft adventure on the Sapphire Coast.
“We’re only on a short paddle today, but you can strap a lunch to the board and head out all day if you like,” says Jake.

All day we do not have, however.

Riding through Tathra

Instead, it’s back in the saddle to get a taste of the singletrack goodness that weaves through the hinterland of Tathra.

And if you’re going to ride a purpose-built slice of trail, you may as well get the inside word on the best lines by riding with the architect, in this case Andy Johnson. Once Tathra’s main man in uniform, Andy now sports a Tathra Bike jersey in place of policeman blue, and the only arresting he’s doing is of his speed on the downhill shuffles he’s carved into Tathra’s hillside flanks.

The 18km of loops he’s constructed (with plenty of local volunteer help) are called Doolagharl, after a mystical ‘Yowie-like’ creature that indigenous adults once told their children about in the hope they wouldn’t go walkabout in the bush. “Only problem we have here is that there’s not enough people to ride them,” says Andy, lamenting the tyranny of distance that keeps the crowds away.

Empty, flowing, fast trails? Sounds to me like a perfect place to ride.

With friends in high places (Thredbo to be exact), and access to appropriate signage, Andy has marked his trails to mirror ski runs.

Black. Diamond.

That’s, like, the hard…

Too late, Andy’s led me down a rather steep bushgarden path, the ‘most difficult’ run requiring skill. Which I forgot to pack.

Ever the host he guides me through it. “You know about using more of the front brake, right?”

No. I don’t.

As the mastermind behind every berm, switchback, bridge and gully run, Andy has the advantage of experience in taking the correct line, and using the correct technique, but it wasn’t always the way. Like me, he once hit the trails sans appropriate experience, which is the very reason he built the trails.

“I once rode down into the Nadgee wilderness to the south, to see if there were any adventure tourism biking opportunities down there,” said Andy, who reckons he was a notch below a beginner on two wheels back then. “It was an experience that taught me disc brakes can wear out in a single ride. I finished up in the Nadgee River.”

The mountain bike mob up at Bermagui heard about Andy’s foray into wild riding and invited him up there for a taste of their trails.

“I thought ‘how hard can a bit of single track be?’ Turns out, pretty hard.”

Creating the mountain bike tracks of Tathra

Andy was so frustrated that he started building trails to practice on. As they extended, he approached the local Aboriginal Land Council and other authorities, seeking permission to legalise and extend his fledgling trail network. The result is a bunch of trails that now hosts the Tathra Enduro, a 100km event that attracts some of the best in the pedalling biz.

After he won the event in 2011, World Solo 24 Hour MTB Champion Jason English quipped that Tathra’s trails were so good that they should become home to the National Marathon Championships. It may not host that Big One yet, but the Tathra Enduro is growing in stature, and slated to roll bigger and better than ever (with an additional 50km event) in April 2012.

The Sapphire Coast has been infected with the singletrack virus, something borne out when we hit more trails, this time cross-country sweetness that features Jake’s (one of the many behind the Tathra Enduro) sweat and toil mixed into the soil.

After fuelling up at Tathra Bakery and punting it south via a few big downhills, Jake weaves us into his creations on the grounds of Manna Park, which hosts approximately 7km of trails. Just across the way you can link up with more at the Mandeni Resort, which has a further 11km of singletrack and plenty more fire trail to link it all up.

After enjoying the flowing creekside trail and stopping for a cuppa at Manna Park’s hostel, we again leg it south on a mix of dirt and bitumen, rolling into Merimbula to tick the final 40km ride leg off.  “But not before a little skills practice,” suggests Jake.

Fine for those who have them, I think. Down on the foreshore he guides us to
a rock garden that beats all mountain bike rock gardens, the view a coastal one, and the price for falling if you’re too close to the edge; a dip in the southern ocean. It’s as hard on balance and judgment as it is on bikes, Jake bending a cog on one of the hundreds of outcrops we weave between before he departs to ride the 50km back to Tathra.

I retreat to my cabin located in the Merimbula Beach Holiday Park located spectacularly on the clifftop above.

Cabin, you raise an eyebrow? Well, I had been booked in to a tent site, but it’s blowing an icy gale, and you know… I’m no Antarctic hero.

Extreme conditions for sea kayaking

That gale is actually a cause for concern over more than a rough night’s sleep (had I actually pitched a peg). Tomorrow’s penultimate leg of my Sapphire Coast adventure amble is a 32km ocean paddle. Winds mean waves. Waves mean a day of gritted teeth and potential dunkings. As my kayak roll is on par with my mountain-bike skills, I should be worried.

But I’m not, because if there’s one person I want guiding me on this foray past the rivermouth bar, it’s an ex-Commando who once spent nine hours at one stretch battling 30-knot headwinds and a 3m swell paddling from Wollongong to Sydney.

Ergo, this will be a cinch for Rob White from Ocean Wilderness Sea Kayaking: he simply has to get me from Merimbula down the coast to the Sea Horse Inn, a remnant of Ben Boyd’s folly town and now boutique accommodation outpost on the southern side of Twofold Bay and the fishing/shipping port town of Eden.

Mind you, the only reconnaissance we’ll be doing is for seals, dolphins and whales.

As it happens, the morning is a Merimbula classic: blue skies and flat water until at least 10.30am before the nor’easter comes in, and that just means the wind at our backs and a fast ride to the cold beer waiting at the Inn.

We skirt along the coast, alternating between bay crossings with beaches to our starboard, and cliff jaunts where wave energy reflects off the stone walls, creating a chop that seriously tests my support stroke.

Even more testing is the call of nature. Do you know how hard it is to ‘let go’ when bobbing adrift, sitting down, another man steadying your bow while you’re trying to pee into half a plastic orange juice bottle?

Scurrying around the headland into calmer waters we explore a small cave, backing our way gently in, before scooting in to a cove beach for lunch, welcomed by a pod of dolphins. On the final cross-bay paddle, I also spy plenty of whale spotters on Eden’s shore-based viewing platform, but no whales. Later, at the Inn, we’re told that we missed them by half an hour.

That night, I find myself hunkered down at Saltwater Creek campground, roughly halfway along the Light to Light Track from Green Cape (and its lighthouse) to Boyd’s Tower.

Starting the Light to Light coastal trek

The trek along the coast the next day is a rollercoaster of clifftop views, plunging down to deserted inlet beaches and back up into swathes of headland bush. The Light to Light lives up to its reputation as one of Australia’s best 2–3 day coastal walks, with nothing more arduous than the odd 100m climb and a constant look out for snakes.

It’s a leisurely three-hour meander along the track to Boyd’s Tower – the extravagant structure ordered by Boyd to get first sight of the whales his crew would then hunt and kill. At the time Twofold Bay was the centre of Australia’s whaling industry (it was the first mainland operation in the 1830s and a mainstay industry there through to the early 1900s).

Put aside the gore and modern day political correctness and there is a fascinating story to be told here; the book Killers of Eden, by Tom Mead, recounts how a pod of killer whales used to help the Davidson family’s crews hunt down other whales, in return for a bit of whale tongue.

It is the only record in the world of killer whales working alongside humans to hunt.

I fascinate over this while sitting at the base of the sandstone tower. Stewing up my final meal of the tour on a gas stove, it is hard to imagine the hardships of a century ago when hunting whales was a test of survival.

Don’t get me wrong, I love extreme adventure missions, ones that tear shreds off your will to live, as much as the next masochist.

But sometimes, just occasionally, an adventure foray requires the slow-food approach – chewing through the bush kilometres one tasty morsel at a time, savouring the flavours…no gristle of deprivation, just gems of exploration – in this case of the Sapphire variety – at a pace one’s soul can better appreciate.

*Great idea. I hereby claim copyright to MasterBushchef.

Brogo Wilderness Canoes
Canoeing and one of the best billabong campsites going
02 6492 7328

Mimosa Blue
Kayaking, walks, eco-accommodation
0428 124 664

Ocean Wilderness Sea Kayaking
Ocean kayak forays, whale watching
0405 529 214



Tathra Beach and Bike
Mountain biking, stand up paddleboarding
02 6494 4357

Tathra MTB Enduro
21–22 April 2012


Light to Light walk
30km, 2–3 days
NSW Parks


Brogo Wilderness Camping
02 6492 7328

Mimosa Blue Cabin
0428 124 664

Merimbula Beach Holiday Park
02 6495 8999

Robyn’s Nest
02 6495 4956

For info on accommodation/activities:
1800 150 457