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In a scratching of sand at Lake Wollumboola lie two tiny eggs, cream and mottled brown. Each, no bigger than a thumbnail, carries precious cargo – the beginnings of life.

“They’re little terns, and they’re endangered,” says Frances Bray, who has been advocating for birdlife on and around the lake for three decades. “We have 40–50 birds and about 14 breeding pairs this season so far. I can take you in for a closer look, but follow my footsteps so we don’t upset the mother too much.”

Ducking under a single strand of rope, erected by local shorebird volunteers to keep the general public out of the nesting site, we tread lightly across the sand flat towards the eagle-eyed mum watching us intently. We’re within 10m before she alights. “Softly but quickly,” Frances urges. “We don’t want her off the eggs for long. She may get too distressed and abandon them.”

Beside the nest, Frances places a thin metal stake with a white flag and a number scrawled in black marker. “That’s 10 nests at this site [a total of 40 breeding pairs and 100 eggs were recorded during the entire season]; we’re doing well.” Her smile is wide and her joy palpable. 

Set behind Warrain Beach on the New South Wales South Coast, Lake Wollumboola is on the national register of important wetlands and provides a refuge and breeding place for thousands of migratory and resident native birds. 

“This summer we estimate the lake is home to about 2500 birds,” Frances says. “There are roughly 33 species here, from our resident black swans – that’s them over there in that sheltered part of the lake – to pied
oystercatchers, red-capped plovers, bar-tailed godwits, curlew sandpipers, Caspian terns, white-bellied sea-eagles…the list goes on and on.”

As if on cue, cutting through the swathe of blue sky above us, is a sea-eagle. And trailing not too far behind, trying to run it off, a magpie. “You could stay here all day watching the birds’ comings and goings,” Frances says as we retreat from the nest to follow a pied oystercatcher stalking the lake’s waterline.

“And I often do, from just after sunrise, when they’re just waking up, until late in the day.” Frances is not alone in her preoccupation with the outdoors. With an embarrassment of riches – turquoise sea, plentiful wildlife, sprawling national parks – this expanse of coast, known as the Shoalhaven, is a magnet for nature lovers.

Stretching from Shoalhaven Heads to North Durras and west to Kangaroo Valley and Berry, the region’s crown jewel is Jervis Bay, a big bite of shimmering sea that heaves with dolphins, whales and seals. It is bookended in the north by the sheer limestone cliffs of Point Perpendicular and in the south by eucalypt-encrusted Bherwerre Peninsula. 

Dotted around its shoreline are charming coastal hamlets, including Huskisson (Husky to the locals), Vincentia, Hyams Beach and Callala Bay and Beach, and behind them lush valleys and sparkling rivers. To the west of it all rises the spectacular Illawarra escarpment, a dramatic 30-million-year-old range punctuated with lookouts, hiking tracks, and birding, swimming and picnic spots.

Frances spends much of each day patrolling the Lake’s waterline for new nests and recording their location. (Image credit: Justin Walker)

Water, water everywhere

“Jump in,” Terry Davies says as snowy cumulus clouds, huddled on the horizon, glow with the sun’s first rays. “Dawn is the absolute best time of day to set out – the bay’s like a puddle it’s so calm, and you often have it all to yourself, unless the dolphins and turtles come to play.”

I slip into my sea kayak and push off from the white sand of Iluka Beach in Booderee National Park, and now we’re gliding across the golden pond, skirting the scalloped southern shore of Jervis Bay. 

“I’ve kayaked all around the world,” Terry says, “but there’s nowhere quite like the bay. I’ve had whales slip beneath my kayak here, pop up beside me, look me straight in the eye. The humpbacks come into the bay on their way north and again in spring, when the mums and their calves need a place to rest before heading into Antarctic waters.”

Terry and I are heading to Bowen Island, a sandstone bump lying 250m off the tip of Bherwerre Peninsula at the entrance to Jervis Bay. It’s an easy paddle, and as the sun climbs, the gilded bay morphs to a mesmerising turquoise. The Shoalhaven is credited with having some of the whitest sand in the world. Hyams Beach, not too many clicks north of where we are now, holds the local title, but there are 16 equally beautiful white sand beaches around the bay. As we dip our paddles into the drink, I marvel at the colours laid out before me. 

“Because the sand’s so white, the water takes on this almost unreal blue hue,” Terry says. “It’s like being in the Mediterranean, on a Greek island, but then you look at the shore and see those distinctive gum trees and you know you’re home.”

The eucalypts he’s referring to are wild and tangled, and run almost to the water’s edge, halted only by the flash-bright strip of beach. It’s a vista that’s almost too beautiful to bear and when a large ’roo and his mob of three move through the understorey, the reverie is complete. I glance over at Terry, not quite game to speak for fear of ruining the idyll. He nods and smiles, and we dip our paddles again.

We pass Hole in the Wall, a craggy outcrop of sandstone with striations that vary in colour from white to ochre, before heading out into open water towards Bowen Island. It’s choppy going, the surge of water pushing in from the open ocean colliding with the wind-whipped offshore waves of the bay. My kayak bobs and weaves to their beat. 

Finally we stop in the lee of the island and scan for signs of wildlife. Despite being just one kilometre long by half a kilometre wide, and home to roughly 10,000 penguins, the island hides its inhabitants well in a thick covering of scrubby natives, and, sadly, we see none. But as Terry points out, they’re likely all at sea, fishing, and will return to their nests on dusk where they’ll bunker down for the night before hitting the waves again at dawn.

“They can dive as deep as 20m for nearly a minute,” Terry says, “although most of their dives are much shallower and shorter.” They’re on the hunt for sardines, anchovies and other small fish, crustaceans and cephalopods, such as squid.

A protected seabird habitat, Bowen Island has a no-public-access policy, so we paddle back towards the southern arc of the mainland and into the still water of Murrays Beach, another dazzling Booderee NP swimming spot, where according to Terry you can often see little penguins dipping and diving throughout the day. 

As he speaks I catch a glimpse of something in the water a few metres ahead, and thinking it’s a penguin, marvel at its timing. I push my kayak closer until I’m all but alongside the creature before realising it’s too round and too large. 

“It’s a greenie,” Terry says, identifying the green sea turtle just before it dives and disappears from view. “That’s a pretty special sighting. You can’t usually sneak up on these guys. They’re gone before you get anywhere near them.” The waters here are protected within Jervis Bay Marine Park, which was established in 1998 and spans more than 100km of coastline from Kinghorn Point in the north to Sussex Inlet in the south. 

The bay is also home to a resident population of 100 or so bottlenose dolphins, some of which I meet later in the week while aboard Port Venture, a custom catamaran whose bow wave the cetaceans love to ride. 

The character of Jervis Bay’s water is largely attributed to the mingling of warm water from the East Australian Current and cooler water from Bass Strait. With periodic upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters from the nearby Continental Shelf, these combined currents flow clockwise around the bay, completely flushing it out every 24 days or so.

Throughout the park, landforms provide a variety of habitats, including deep-water cliffs, exposed and sheltered sandy beaches, rock platforms, rocky reefs, soft-sediment bottoms, kelp forests, small estuaries, expansive seagrass meadows, mangrove forests and open ocean. Because of this diversity – more than 230 algae, hundreds of invertebrate, at least 210 reef fish species, including sharks and rays, many marine mammals, birds and reptiles, with several threatened species – the region teems with life.

Boats shelter in the clear waters of Currambene Creek, at Huskisson.

Walking on Country

Raymond Timbery is a funny fella. A natural storyteller, he exudes charm, warmth and knowledge. He’s also one of the leaders of Djiriba Waagura (meaning Two Crows in the Dhurga language), a multifaceted Aboriginal cultural program established to revitalise and strengthen Aboriginal culture on the NSW South Coast.

I meet Raymond on a sun-kissed Wednesday morning in the grounds of the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, at Huskisson. He and Matt Simms, co-founder of Djiriba Waagura, will guide me through the surrounding bushland to deepen my connection to Country and culture. But first there’s the smoking ceremony. 

“A smoking ceremony is a very sacred practice for us,” Raymond explains. “As soon as those leaves go onto that fire it creates a magic, a gateway between us and our spirits. The spirits walk with us on land, but they also sit up in the sacred place where this smoke travels to, up through the trees, and then to the stars, into a place that you know as the Milky Way, but we call Mirrabooka. And up in Mirrabooka is our sacred place, called Bullima. 

“Now Bullima is where all our ancestors sit and that’s where, when we talk about them being finished down here, their spirit goes up to. But they’re able to help us by attaching themselves to falling stars and landing back on Earth if we ever call out to them. 

“If we ask for strength or guidance from our old people they come to walk with us. And once they’ve travelled with us and helped us they go back up to Mirrabooka through this smoke. 

“That’s the idea of this smoke. When we’re in it we all have time to connect, with our ancestors, our old people. You think about the love they give you, the guidance and strength, and if there’s anything that makes you sad, hurts or gives you anxiety, you release it into the smoke. When you release it you don’t think about it again. And that’s what that guidance, that smoke, is all about.”

When the smoke billows thick and rich with the smell of she-oak, Matt motions for me to join him. I kneel and with two hands cup it, as I might water, to wash myself. Head, face, chest and arms. There’s a reverence to it as I acknowledge my ancestors, and when I rise I truly do feel cleansed.

As we walk through stands of eucalypts, Raymond stops regularly to show and tell. At a mature Xanthorrhoea he asks the question: “Who knows what this is called?” 

Everyone in the group looks sheepish. “It’s okay,” he says. “You can call it a black boy, I don’t mind. My strength, my belief in my people, my culture and my ancestors, means it doesn’t affect me.” 

He goes on to explain that the plant needs fire to flourish, and that while it looks big and beautiful and healthy, it’s actually suffocating from the base up, being strangled by its own prolific growth. “Fire is like a reset button, and it’ll grow back stronger and more resilient. And see the stalk here,” Raymond says, pointing to the spear-like stem that holds the plant’s lengthy flowerhead. “It’s used to make firesticks, for when we need to burn Country. So you see, this plant – we call it glingo – needs fire to thrive and we need it to start that fire. On Country everything has a use and a place. Our Elders teach us that.”

The Elders he’s referring to are members of the local Wreck Bay community, which is located in Booderee NP (formerly part of Jervis Bay NP). According to Raymond, Booderee is an Aboriginal word from the Dhurga language meaning “bay of plenty” or “plenty of fish”, and the Wreck Bay people, who remain closely tied to their culture, are expert fishers. 

There are more than 100 historical Aboriginal sites recorded on the Bherwerre Peninsula, some probably dating back about 6000 years. Most sites are shell middens, but there are also rock shelters, burial sites, ceremonial grounds, stone-flaking sites and axe-sharpening grooves.

Further on, as we wend our way along an overgrown bush track, Raymond talks about bush “matriarchs” – the tallest trees in stands of the same species – and how they nurture and teach the nearby saplings about survival. He stops beside a towering coastal gum, places his hand on the ample trunk and says: “I reckon she’s telling these youngsters to plant their roots deep in the earth, to turn their face to the sky and find the sun.” 

It’s sound advice, I think, and not just for trees.

While walking on Country, Matt Simms explains the medicinal use of native sarsaparilla, used by Elders for an array of ailments. (Image credit: Justin Walker)

Walking in the Budawangs

British-born Chris Zinon has been exploring the bush behind Shoalhaven’s beaches for the past five years. Based in Milton, about 50km south-west of Jervis Bay, he’s a wilderness guide who calls the Budawangs – a rugged
mountain range that’s part of a spur off the Great Dividing Range and is protected by Budawang and Morton national parks – his backyard. “I spent the better part of 15 years roaming the globe in search of climbing, hiking, kayaking and surfing adventures,” Chris says. “But when I lucked upon this place, I knew my quest was over – I’d arrived ‘home’.”

Today we’re exploring the Scenic Rim, a spectacular cliff line crowned by the mountainous formations of Pigeon House (Didthul or Balgan), Corang Peak and The Castle. This is breathtaking country: rugged yet gentle, fore-
boding yet inviting, grand yet exquisitely simple.

As we follow a fire trail through classic sandstone heath country – a jumble of stunted banksias and delicate wildflowers – Chris explains that this area escaped the ravages of the Black Summer bushfires. The escarpment we’re en route to wasn’t so lucky. On the breeze I hear the distinctive squawk of a glossy black-cockatoo, and, as we pass by a small swamp, the rhythmic call of frogs. 

With 30-plus native mammals, 176 bird species, 19 frogs, 14 snakes and 24 species of lizard, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for wildlife in the scrub. Nearby, a dragonfly alights on a sliver of Budawang grass while orb-weavers lay down silken latticework in gnarled branches. As we push further towards the rim, the extent of the fires packs a brutal punch. The soil and volcanic rock remains charred, crackling underfoot, and once thriving banksia trees now resemble grotesquely deformed figures screaming in agony from the flames. 

“The fire burned so hot through here that 12 months later we’re just now seeing new life begin.” Chris says, pointing to unfurling grass shoots and lime-green epicormic growth on gums. “And you’ll notice there are no birds. I used to see and hear all types up here, from crescent honeyeaters and olive whistlers to hawks and eagles, but not anymore. Hopefully, when the bush recovers a bit more they’ll return.”

And then we arrive, atop a hulking stone monolith, its eroded lines like deep wrinkles on an aged face. It’s one in an arcing wall of stone that stands sentinel over the Clyde River valley and beyond it, the impressive rocky ramparts of The Castle. “Looking at all this, you get a sense of time immemorial,” says Chris. “And a feeling that you’re being watched over.” Given the Indigenous presence here – the Wandi Wandian, Walbanja and Budawang people made the Budawangs their hunting grounds and sacred places for thousands of years – Chris’s “feeling” may well be right. 

Wilderness guide Chris Zinon is hopeful the bush will bounce back after the ravages of the bushfires. (Image credit: Justin Walker)

Whale of a time

I’m being watched. I can feel it. It’s 8am on another big sky day in the Shoalhaven region and I’ve just slid into the drink at the northern reach of Jervis Bay. There’s nothing but endless blue all around, and beneath me the deepest hue of navy. 

I’ve come to swim with the humpbacks that cruise into the bay during their annual migration up and down the east coast of Australia. 

“You can see them from June on their way north to breeding sites in warmer waters,” Peter Ellis from Dive Jervis Bay tells me while we’re motoring out from Husky and into the bay. “They’re also here from August to November. The mums and calves stop in here to rest on their way south.”

Pete and his crew are bound by strict rules when it comes to swimming with the whales. “We can’t approach them, or come within 100m of them,” he says. “But we can drop you in their swimming line and they then come to you.”

We’d spotted a pod 15 minutes earlier, breaching and tail slapping, and had tracked their progress before manoeuvring the boat into position. “With luck, they’ll swim right by,” Pete says as we gear up – wetsuit, weight belt, fins, snorkel, face mask.

And now I’m lying on the surface of the water, waiting. I think I hear something – a series of lyrical clicks and hums – before I see it, and then, out of the blue, from below, comes a shadow. The size of a bus and moving with effortless grace, it’s coming straight towards me. And as it does the shadow becomes more clearly defined. It’s a mother and, wait…nestled into her undercarriage is her calf! Within seconds they’re mere metres away. I can see the deep striations in her skin and the barnacles fused to her side. 

I’m mesmerised – I forget to breathe, I forget everything. Then she dives, pulling her little darling along in the slipstream. And now they’re gone, having passed by with barely an acknowledgement…save maybe for a wink of her beautiful eye and a wave of her elegant tail.

Liz Ginis and Justin Walker thank all those mentioned and Shoalhaven Tourism for their assistance with this story.