MY LUST FOR A MOLLUSC
My lust for a mollusc.
Oysters are a gastronomic distillation of the ocean. It is not just the sensual marine slipperiness as they slide down your throat, or the briny water that comes with them freshly opened. The sensation they arouse is also tied up with their smell- a whiff of iodine like rockpool kelp. Eating them becomes a mouthful of sea water gulped during a sunny day at the beach or the lashing froth of wind blown surf sprayed in your face as you run from a storm. They are to seawater what good whisky is to a highland stream.
Fine sweet Sydney rock oysters are grown and sold all along the New South Wales south coast, unopened and packed in nets containing three dozen for about $20. It is almost enough to make you want to holiday there.
I have wanted to holiday there more often than I have done. After all it offers a coastline peppered with plenty of positives in addition to tasty bivalves and little of the tacky tourist development that infests Australia’s seaside further north. Start with the obvious. This coast has clean long surf beaches interspersed with river mouths, inlets and salty lakes. A short distance inland, there are areas of cool temperate rain forest in places that have not been destroyed by farmers, timber cutters or property developers.
When I wonder about my attraction to the place, the first reason is probably as the site of one of my most memorable early holidays. Aged about nine, with my parents and my adopted mongrel cattle dog Skipper, we rented a simple fibro cottage on the shore of Burrill Lake. The dog was a complete reprobate, but at the lake’s outlet into the ocean, he did one thing which gave him automatic absolution for a lifetime of subsequent fence jumping, puppy siring sin.
I remember this moment so clearly. I could not swim at the time, proving a difficult learner for my frustrated father. At the lake entrance Dad swam out into the water and pretended to get in to difficulties. The dog had been with us only a few months. A homeless stray, he had simply jumped our Sydney front fence and moved in. The short time did not stop him bonding and this event proved it. Watching Dad’s feigned difficulties, Skipper gave a screaming yelp and sprang into the fast moving water, swam to my father and grabbed him by the swimming trunks attempting to tug him back to the shore.
Dad overlooked the torn trunks and the dog achieved sainthood.
Other remembered highlights from that holiday include: Dad going night fishing and actually catching something edible. He also helped himself to the local oysters, opening them off the rocks with an old knife and eating them on the spot. My taste for them had not developed at that age. But my fondest memory was hiring an old clinker built wooden put-put motor boat and exploring the lake, me steering the thing with its wooden tiller.
Another childhood link was via my best friend, David from over the back fence, who used to go with his family each summer to Lake Conjola further up the coast. I never went there at the time and my church mouse mother frowned on my friendship, as David’s family were communists, but I did see his family’s large canoe in their backyard and suffered great envy. I also envied his escape from the insufferably dreary play-time-wasting Sunday school.
Perhaps my attachment to this coast is even more deeply ingrained. The Irish branch of my family first settled on it when they arrived in Australia in the 1850s or 60s establishing farms near the town of Berry where there is still a road named after them off the main Princes Highway. Most of the Strongs subsequently left and migrated further up the coast to the New South Wales northern rivers or South East Queensland. Some decades ago I drove down Strong’s Road and in an old house at the end found a distant relative who had stayed. He was a bachelor farmer called John and seemed young at the time, but I have never been back to check on him.
Given that most Australians, when they think of a beach holiday, head north, this south coast is somewhat under-rated. One of the reasons it was slow to be recognised was that the lakes and rivers made it difficult to access until good roads and bridges were built.
In July this year, Jill and I spent a week on the coast with our old blue cattle dog Astro after visiting her brother’s family in Canberra. Australia’s capital is only a couple of hours away by road and as the city has grown this coast has become its beachside playground. Perhaps that is what has protected it from becoming a southern Gold Coast. Canberrans are after all, the most highly educated people in Australia.
Because we had the dog, we had to find pet friendly accommodation, and for the first couple of nights we did so a place surrounded by national park and superb beaches called North Durras Lake. The more perceptive readers will assume the place has a lake and they are right, so does South Durras which is only a couple of hundred metres across that lake, but about 15 kilometres by road. We stayed in a very comfortable cabin in the North Durras Tourist Park, because they allow dogs. Unfortunately the North Durras beach is national park, which does not allow dogs. The South Durras beach is not in a national park, but their caravan park bans dogs.
Despite allowing dogs, the North Durras Tourist Park, is host to dozens, if not hundreds of eastern grey kangaroos who munch on the grass and laze around in the sun, not much concerned by the dogs which have to be leashed when not in the cabin or on the verandah.
We were also able to hire a double kayak for an afternoon and explore much of the lake.
The nearest large town is Batemans Bay on a river eastuary famous for its oysters. Unfortuately Jill abhors all seafood except fish, so instead of buying six dozen, I only bought three dozen the first night. For her we bought some local albacore tuna which proved delicious cooked in a curry sauce.
While North Durras and its neighbour Depot Beach, are tiny places, it doesn’t mean they have been able to avoid being set upon by the rich and old fibro beach houses are being replaced by mansions.
Durras we used as a base to visit both the Burrill and Conjola lakes of my childhood, but we did not get as far north as Berry. The part of Burrill where we stayed is almost unchanged, but I bet Conjola doesn’t match David’s memories, its southern shoreline is now lined with a couple of hundred metres of swank villa units- tastefully low-rise.
From North Durras we went south just inland from the town of Narooma to the most dog friendly place I have encountered called Pub Hill Farm. It is an old house and some cottages overlooking the Narooma Inlet, with an enormous fenced garden where dogs can run free. The rooms are very tasteful in a French provincial way and Astro who is not normally allowed to sleep in our bedroom was in heaven because that’s what dogs are allowed to do here.
I think the most astonishing feature is the three member border collie welcoming committee, ranging in age from creaky matron to large pup, who rush to the gate as each new car pulls up. Their job is not only to make the human guests feel welcome, but they are especially welcoming to their dogs. Old Astro, whose default setting is friendship, was especially relieved, after suffering a particularly hard time with the relatives’ dogs in Canberra. Those collies are smart. Arriving and knocking at the wrong door, I was accosted by one of them, who barked and when I kept knocking, gently grabbed my hand to guide me across to the correct door.
Here, we also met up with a couple of Melbourne friends who were staying in one of the cottages. They like shellfish and we indulged in both local oysters and prawns from up the coast.
Heading south, we came across the most touristy thing of the trip, the national trust preserved village of Central Tilba. I remember when it was a real town with its own distinctive cheese factory. Now Tilba Club cheese is made in Melbourne and sold in the town in a factory looking shop front. The rest of the main street is devoted to the usual hippy inspired crap, like hand made soap, meditation crystals, Nepalese jackets and Balinese light fittings. It must be a good business model. When we arrived you could not find a parking spot. At least the buildings look authentic, something Australians find hard to manage in the north.
On our way back to Melbourne we found another dog friendly place at Mallacoota just over our Victorian border. It is called Adobe and we liked it so much we are returning in January, with two friends, our sea kayaks and of course, the dog.
It is mid spring as I am writing this and a couple of weeks ago the weather report had parts of the New South Wales south coast copping 200 millimetres of rain in just a few hours. It was pissing down on one of my favorite places on earth. Not that I minded. It gives it a bad name among sun worshipping hedonists and makes them look northwards. Also, if you are going to have rainforest, which is one of the great attractions, then rain seems inevitable. I’m not sure what it does to the oysters.
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