And the mountains echoed: On a drive through New South Wales, to Australia’s highest peak
Tathra was a little delight. Perched on a hill on the scenic Sapphire Coast, the quaint town with a long history, winding roads and happy people was where my exploration of Australian countryside started.
But the experience began the moment I took off from Sydney’s domestic airport in a 34-seater plane with a cheery flight attendant.
The low-altitude flight offered a great view of the coast with its long beaches, cliffs, lagoons and islands, and the most pleasant surprise was the airport at my destination, Merimbula. A single-storey structure, almost a shed, next to the tarmac turned out to be the terminal.
While the building had a waiting hall, what made the airport amiable was its open waiting area — a lawn with a few chairs facing the tarmac where passengers could sit watching planes take off and land while sipping coffee.
Merimbula, another seaside tourist town 450 km south of Sydney, was as charming as they come along the New South Wales coast. My rented self-drive car, a Toyota Kluger SUV, was waiting outside the airport.
The short 22 km drive north towards Tathra gave me my first glimpse of rural Australia. Traffic was sparse on the long winding road lined with casuarina and eucalyptus trees, and sticking to the speed limits (something Indians are not used to) was the most difficult task.
A church and a provision store heralded my arrival at Tathra and the drive ended at the doors of Hotel Tathra, where I was booked for the night. Located on a cliff-top, the heritage hotel with a history of more than a hundred years offers a commanding view of the surrounding ocean.
After a quick lunch at the hotel’s famous bistro, I set out to explore the town. The first stop was the historic Tathra Wharf, a wholly timber structure that dates back to the 1860s.
No longer in use, the wharf has been restored through the initiatives some enthusiastic locals and a museum has been added, turning it into a tourist attraction.
Though it was a holiday and the museum was closed, its president Lynne Darmody came rushing when I called and explained why I was there and opened it for my benefit.
The exhibits, while telling the story of the wharf, also offer a peek into the history of Tathra, going as far as back as to the time when the first colonial settlers arrived.
My wanderings, while familiarising myself with the locality as well as the car, took me to the Chamberlain Lookout, a popular cliff-top spot for whale watching that happens between late September
and November when pods of humpback whales return to their Antarctic Ocean homes with their young ones from the northern warmer seas where they had gone to mate and calve.
A short way down is Kianinny Bay. A perfect picture postcard spot with its clear water and towering cliffs, it is a launching point for local fishing boats. After a drive around the town and a leisurely walk along the clean Tathra beach, I was ready for dinner at the hotel.
Next morning, it was time to take the road back to Merimbula and then head to Pambula. Here I was to meet Brett Weingarth, an oyster farmer who runs Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tours for the benefit of tourists.
As I made my way to the Pambula Lake Jetty, Brett was waiting by his boat, and his friendly, and typically Aussie, greeting told me I was in for a treat.
The next two hours were spent cruising through his extensive oyster farms in the lake — him explaining all about oysters and I admiring the magical setting of clear water, untouched greenery of the surrounding land and a cool breeze while taking in whatever I could about the nuances of oyster farming.
After I bid Brett goodbye, I drove 15 km further south, to Eden, the Southern-most town in New South Wales.
After a filling lunch at the popular Sprout Eden restaurant, I walked into Eden Killer Whale Museum, where I learnt about the fascinating story of a group of killer whales and their friendly association with whale hunters of the time.
The lookout at Eden, offering a panoramic view of the coast and the ocean, is another popular whale watching point along the coast.
Eden was my last stop on the coast. After beaches, it was time for mountains. I turned onto the road that will take me to Snowy Mountains, Australia’s highest mountain range.
The long 202 km drive took me through varied landscapes — from sandy beaches to farmlands to thick forests to barren hills to snow-covered mountains.
The roads were mostly smooth, except a small dusty stretch, and traffic almost non-existent. For miles together there was no single living being in sight, except the occasional herd of cattle or a bunch of birds. I spotted some roadkills — mostly wombats and deer.
It was almost dark when I arrived at Lake Crackenback Resort, a 150-acre property located on the periphery of Kosciuszko National Park. As I checked in, the temperature was touching zero.
Chilly winds and a steady drizzle put paid to my plans of exploring the neighbourhood. After an early breakfast the next day, I drove towards Thredbo, a ski resort town about 17 km away, with my path taking me through typically mountainous terrain.
While snow-covered hills were visible at a distance, road signs told me about potential dangers.
At Thredbo, I met my guide for the day who took me around. Thredbo has all the facilities that a typical winter resort has, and its main attraction is a chairlift that takes you to the top of a mountain and offers a breathtaking view of the surroundings.
We drove around Thredbo for a while and then headed to explore the surroundings. The snow-lined road took us up to the interstate border between New South Wales and Victoria, where a mob of kangaroos and a few wallabies were grazing happily until the two intruders arrived.
The kangaroos, probably aware of their numerical advantage, stayed put and also posed for some pictures. As drove on, we encountered a large group of emus and more kangaroos.
The lunch was at Wildbrumby, a distillery in Crackenback known for its own brand of schnapps, vodka and gin. It was preceded by a session of schnapps tasting that was on the house.
There were multiple flavours on the offer and each one better than the other. After saying goodbye to my guide, I headed to Skitube Alpine Railway closely.
The mountain railway with three stations starts at Bullocks Flat, passes through two long tunnels, totalling about 6 km, and gives access to snowfields at Perisher and Blue Cow.
I entered a snow-covered world as I stepped out of the Perisher station.
Everything around was snow white, and the wind was howling at nearly 100 kmph, making it difficult to even stand without holding onto a firm structure. But despite the adverse weather, there were a few adventurous skiers having fun.
Back at Bullocks Flat, I set out to explore the area and met with more kangaroos — wary of the unwelcome guest, but bold enough for a staring contest. By the time I returned, it was turning dark and chilly winds and rain forced me to retire early for the night.
The next morning when I woke up, a troop of kangaroos was waiting outside to greet me, and as if to celebrate the occasion, a deer too turned up.
After clicking some pictures, it was time to pack up.
The morning drive to Cooma airport, 65 km away on the road to the Australian capital Canberra, was a
bonus, with the path taking me through some stunning countryside locales.
The airport building was another unassuming structure, slightly bigger than the one at Merimbula but as charming and friendly. I parked the car, dropped the key at the rental company’s desk and boarded the plane.
It’s back to urban life and a colourful Sydney, artistically lit up for the annual Vivid Sydney festival.
The flight to Sydney goes via Merimbula, where onward passengers were given a chance to deboard, which I happily took for a last glimpse of the beautiful Merimbula.
The flight back passed over the coastal cliffs, beaches and islands, giving me one more chance to recollect the whole experience.
(The author was in Australia to experience Vivid Sydney at the invitation of Destination NSW. All arrangements were done by Destination NSW)