I had imagined experiencing Australia from a sunbed. A tinted world of tanned, sporty people would go by while I leisurely sipped on a pint of James Squire craft beer. But the universe had a different plan for me and rather than on a lounger, I found myself enjoying a series of adventure sports on a road trip through New South Wales with my husband. Michael Gan, our local guide, drove us north from Sydney on the grand Pacific Highway past national parks, oyster farms, and white sands, filling our days with shots of adrenaline.
Route: Sydney to Port Stephens
Distance: 205 km
Nelson Bay, a suburb of the coastal town of Port Stephens, is about 2.5 hours north of Sydney. When we first arrived there, it struck me as a sleepy rural town fringed by calm crystal waters and green hills. That perception changed as soon as we entered the Murrook Culture Centre through a giant yellow boomerang.
Scotty, our tour guide, handed us reflective jackets and helmets and led us to our quad bikes, also called all-terrain vehicles or ATVs. I started the bike nervously and rode through a scrubby path that led to the Worimi Dunes. Billed as the largest coastal moving sand mass in the southern hemisphere, the dunes travel up to six metres a year, their shapes changing overnight. After losing control of the vehicle twice and running into dry bushes, I finally got on the marked track. By this time, the rest of the bikers in my group were nowhere in sight, but I detected two bikes in the distance creating a storm as they approached me. A very worried Scotty and my husband had returned, and coached me through the path, following my bike at 5 km/hr.
In front of me, peaks of gold rose nearly a 100 feet toward the sky, pretending to sit still even though the stiff breeze had completely changed the terrain from the day before. That’s when I pressed down on the accelerator, leaving the protective duo behind, and raced through swirls of sand on the newly marked track. Twenty minutes later, I reunited with the group on the peak of one of the dunes overlooking the long stretch of Stockton Beach. Mesmerised by the juxtaposition of yellow dunes and azure sea, I completely forgot about the deadly incline that I now had to tackle.
One by one each biker slid downhill. Mustering up courage, I released the brake and the accelerator as instructed and muttered a prayer. I let go. Less than a minute later, I hit the base like a child on a smooth slide. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I couldn’t wait to get to the top of the next dune. After an hour of this exhilarating exercise, we headed back to the culture centre with sand in our hair and a vague feeling of accomplishment (Sand Dune Adventures, 2163 Nelson Bay Road, organises quad-biking expeditions from Murrook Culture Centre; www.sandduneadventures.com.au; AUD110/₹5,665 per person for an hour-long trip).
Route: Port Stephens to Port Macquarie
Distance: 248 km
In the first three hours of our drive out of Port Stephens we passed oyster farms and stopped to pick sweet-smelling strawberries at Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries (www.ricardoes.com). Michael stopped the car to point out a chubby koala snoozing on a eucalyptus tree on the outskirts of Port Macquarie. I recalled this lazy creature and its twenty-hour sleep routine with envy, while dragging myself out of bed the following morning for a 6 a.m. meeting with “Big Jim” Hutcheon. He was to accompany us to Bago Bluff National Park in his four-wheel drive.
While Jim filled us in with interesting bits of information about the region’s flora and fauna, we drove south toward Hastings, an old timber town. “Look out for the elusive lyrebird,” he said. “It’s known to mimic bird, human, and even machine sounds.” Deep within the woodlands through a rugged course with no road signs in sight, Jim told us about the conservation efforts undertaken by the government to protect the park’s different ecosystems and endangered species. The constant threat of wildfires has led to a ban on camping. As the vehicle steadily travelled uphill on Rollover Road, Jim pointed to gum and eucalyptus trees with blackened barks, signalling a previous fire.
Once inside the timber forest, a cool breeze refreshed us instantly. We were now standing 400 metres above sea level overlooking the cloud-covered Hastings Valley. I could make out a variety of blues and greens in the diminishing mist. Big Jim brought out a large picnic basket and we sat at the cliff ’s edge gorging on strawberry yoghurt and quiche. Rejuvenated, we started to head back. Almost on cue, the lyrebird showed up, swaying its flamboyant caramel tail (which is also embossed on the Australian 10 cent coin). We watched this parade quietly, until the little beauty disappeared into the woods.
Out of the Bago Reserve, we drove next to the Burrawan State Forest. After walking over little bridges and gushing brooks, deep in the lush rainforest, which had now started to resemble Pandora from the movie Avatar, the 600-metre trail led us to the 200-year-old tree “Old Bottlebutt”. The stately red bloodwood, the largest in the southern hemisphere, seemed to lord over the enchanted forest. “It’s older than your great-greatgrandfather,” Jim exclaimed. Enamoured by its stature, I touched its enormous mossy base, while my husband, forever on the lookout for adventure, climbed up its scaly trunk, and settled into a furrow a few metres above the ground. He napped under the green canopy for a few minutes before it was time to hit the road again (daily 9 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; +61 02 6582 3355; www.portmacquarieinfo.com.au/explore/location.aspx?id=106).
Route: Port Macquarie to Bellingen
Distance: 148 km
It was late in the afternoon when we reached Bellingen driving over Lavender Bridge, past little shacks selling flowers and handmade soap. My first impression of this quaint, vintage town was that it seemed to be a perfect place to retire. Bellingen’s therapeutic vibe was accentuated by the surrounding Great Dividing Range, a river that runs through the town, and its pretty wooden architecture. Time slowed down as we sipped hot coffee in the veranda of our lodge overlooking a lily pond amidst gum and lemon trees, and listened to a kookaburra sing.
Intoxicated by the languid pace around us, we slowly moved to our next activity. A six-km drive along football fields and cabbage patches led us to a villa adjoining a chapel, where Poppy, a very excited McNab sheepdog greeted us at the entrance. Daniel, a fifty-something, bohemian canoeing instructor, took us through his garden fragrant with fruit, flowers, and herbs. A beautiful tree with pink bell-like flowers caught my attention.
“People say it has a hallucinatory effect when heated and inhaled,” Daniel chuckled.
The garden led to the Bellinger Riverbed, where Daniel upturned a yellow canoe and Poppy jumped in quickly. While my husband had canoed before, it was my first time. “Don’t worry,” Daniel said looking into my uncertain eyes, “If Poppy can do it, so can you.”
I got into a single canoe, gripped the paddle firmly, and tried to push the calm waters backwards. Instead of moving ahead my canoe did a 360-degree turn. Embarrassed, I tried again. My husband paddled away happily while I struggled with aching muscles, stuck with a canoe that refused to do my bidding. The sky had now turned grey and it started to drizzle.
“Ducks!” my husband called out. The fear of missing out made me push harder and I started to row smoothly, gaining momentum along the scenic hilly landscape. We made our way to the mouth of the creek, closer to the mangroves, and made a U-turn. A flock of geese swam by and a couple of resting egrets took flight as Poppy barked loudly.
Back in the garden, we feasted on homemade croissants before we bid Daniel and Poppy goodbye. It was 5 p.m. and the laid-back town was beginning to unveil its true spirit. Eclectic groups of people hung out at cafés buzzing with Indian instrumental music, drinking chai. Everywhere I looked, I seemed to spot posters for Bollywood dance, yoga, and meditation workshops. We didn’t get a chance to miss home when we wound up the day at Mouza, a Middle Eastern restaurant, with Goan-style prawn curry and red wine (Bellingen Canoe Adventures; www.canoeadventures.com.au; AUD90/₹4,555 per person for a half-day trip with guide).
Route: Bellingen to Byron Bay
Distance: 278 km
To the gull flying above me, I imagine I must look like a tiny black smudge on a canvas of translucent blues. Floating on the ocean, my mind wandered but my eyes searched hungrily for the vibrancy of underwater life. I was at Julian Rocks, a pair of small rocky islands that lie in the Pacific, 2.5 kilometres from Byron Bay’s shore.
After leaving Bellingen earlier that morning, Michael had driven us past orange orchards and yellow paddy fields. The warmth of the blazing sun was a welcome change. An hour into the drive, a caramel fragrance permeated the air as Michael pointed out a steaming sugar factory amidst a sugarcane plantation. It could have been the perfect stop, watching pelicans fly by while chewing on a six-dollar sugarcane stick, but we were on a mission. “No slow travel,” Michael said playfully.
Around 60 minutes away from Bundjalung National Park, we arrived at the beachside town of Byron Bay. Named in 1770 by British explorer Captain Cook, after Vice Admiral John Byron, Cape Byron, is the easternmost point in Australia. Our fun in the sun was short-lived. We were enjoying the views of the ocean from Cape Byron Lighthouse when grey clouds took over. The crystal blue ocean changed colour and angry winds lashed at us. I hoped the weather would not dampen our plans to go snorkelling.
Later that afternoon, kitted out in a wet suit, mask, and snorkel, my husband and I headed to the middle of the ocean. Our guide at Byron Bay Dive Centre demonstrated a few SOS signals to our group of eight and we slid off the raft close to the rocks. The water was a notch above 21˚C and surprisingly warm.
Spellbound by the view underwater, I followed the crimson and ochre fish like the children of Hamlyn. A larger school of green fish swam by; the palette changed with glittering silver bubbles emerging from the scuba divers below. I watched in envy as they edged closer to the coral near the ocean floor, pointing towards something. And then, as the rays of light touched the water, I saw an enormous sting ray swimming upwards, close to where I was. I forced my head out of the water to tell the other snorkellers about it but another marvel confronted me.
Staring straight into my face was a turtle. Calm and unperturbed it looked like it would break into a smile. I wanted to touch it. But I just stared into its eyes, and with that came an epiphany—I was meant to be here, at this very moment. It brought to mind an old Aboriginal saying I’d picked up a few days earlier, “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.” (Byron Bay Dive Centre; www.byronbaydivecentre.com.au; AUD65/₹3,325 per person for a two-hour snorkelling trip including instructions).
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “At Full Tilt”.