Looking up at the sun setting behind the saddle of the imposing mountain above us, Indigenous elder Iris White turns to me and begins the story of how everything here on the NSW South Coast began from this peak. Captain Cook named it Mount Dromedary as he sailed past in 1770 because it reminded him of a camel's hump. But to Aboriginal people, who have called it Gulaga for thousands of years, it resembles a pregnant woman lying down... and is the foundation of their spirituality.
"This is where our creation story begins," Iris explains to me. "Gulaga is our mother, and our mother nurtures us and embraces us. She carries eternity in our hearts."
There's a seven-kilometre hike that takes you to the top of Mount Gulaga, which many people choose to do on their own for spiritual reasons. Or, with Minga Cultural Experiences, you can learn more about the local creation story and other aspects of the Indigenous heritage.
I'm able to admire Gulaga from Mountain View Farm in Tilba Tilba, which has cosy self-contained cottages at the foot of the mountain. Sitting by a small outdoor fire in the evening, the outline of the mother lit by the galaxies of bright stars, I can understand why both Indigenous and non-Indigenous locals tell me they can feel the energy of this sacred site.
Dinner at the local pub, the Dromedary Hotel, gives me a chance to chat to some of the Tilba community - while I try to finish the enormous steak I ordered. The first European settlers came here to establish dairy farms in the mid-1800s, while the discovery of gold later in the century brought more prosperity. These days, the residents that the charm of Central Tilba (population 288) attracts are looking for a more relaxed way of life.
"Little townships work," says local Zoe Burke. "They might be small, they might be a few people and everybody knows their business, but there's something about small townships. If you work it right, it's a perfect way of life."
Zoe Burke runs the Tilba Talks Historical Walks and she shows me through the heritage-protected National Trust village. The main street (the only street, really) is lined with colourful timber buildings, almost identical, from around 1890. Many of them are now small shops with locally-made produce. At the Bates General Store, Linda and Ken Jamieson have been selling their fudge for 35 years. "My wife makes 129 flavours - it's the only reason I keep her around," Ken jokes.
Tilba is just ten minutes' drive south of Narooma, so it makes sense to combine the two on a trip to the NSW South Coast. Last time I was in Narooma, I went swimming with seals at Montague Island, but today I head to the area around the famous Australia Rock (named so because it has a hole shaped like the continent) to see them lazing in the sun. I'm not quite that lazy so I head out on an ebike tour with Sally Bouckley from Southbound Escapes, who picks me up at the company's waterview apartment and takes me along the Narooma to Dalmeny Cycleway, which hugs the coast for about six kilometres. It may be winter but the beaches look just as inviting as usual on this sunny day.
Narooma is clearly a town with tourism at its heart but it still has a laidback community atmosphere, which I particularly notice when I head out to eat and find excellent food without any pretension. The Whale Restaurant feels classic but has a wonderfully contemporary menu (try the homemade nettle fettuccine with prawns), while the quirky Quarterdeck offers an eclectic mix of Jamaican, Tex-Mex, and American BBQ - and pulls it all off with style. Or, just out of town is the Tilba Valley Winery where the local wines and craft beers go perfectly with the burgers, outdoor tables, and views down to the lake.
Heading north, I pass through Moruya, a quaint town with a Saturday market that has up to 150 stalls showcasing local artisans and producers, then past the famous Bodalla Dairy Shed and Mogo Wildlife Park. I stop for the night in Batemans Bay at the Bay Breeze Hotel which, as well as boutique rooms, has enormous two-bedroom apartments on the water.
Like much of this part of the NSW South Coast, Batemans Bay is famous for its oysters and, to get the freshest ones, I go directly to the source. Hopping into a kayak with local tour operator Region X, we paddle through the oyster farms and past the processing sheds. When we pull into the jetty at the Wray Street Oyster Shed, we stay in our kayaks and Jade Norris, a fourth-generation oyster farmer, hands down some samples to taste. What a fun way to try the local produce!
"It's ideal growing conditions for us here," Jade explains. "Even when you were kayaking over here, you would have seen some baby jellyfish at the moment. That's a good sign of a great ecosystem that there's enough food supply in the water."
The same could be said of this whole Eurobodalla region because it really is a great ecosystem in every respect. The community was obviously hit hard in the summer's bushfires but the environment has already bounced back, most businesses are open, and the opportunities for tourists are as good as ever.
WHAT TO DO:
- In Tilba, walk up to the summit of Mount Gulaga, learn about the Indigenous heritage with Minga Cultural Experiences, explore the heritage village with Tilba Talks Historical Walks, taste the local cheese at Tilba Real Dairy.
- In Narooma, visit Australia Rock, take a tour with Southbound Escapes, ride along the coast on the Narooma to Dalmeny Cycleway, swim with the seals at Montague Island
- In Batemans Bay, take an oyster tour by kayak with Region X, go for a walk around Broulee Island, pop down to the Bodalla Dairy Shed.
WHERE TO EAT:
Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. For more travel destination inspiration make sure to visit Travel Australia Today.