I’m on a 6-day trip down Australia’s east coast from Sydney to Melbourne with my wife, Jo-Roxy. We’re living in a campervan with “crusin” written across the front. I have never driven the A1, usually preferring the Hume for speed. It’s blowing my mind because in my head Australia is never this green in the summer months, maybe in the tropics or something, but this is the same scrubby gum bush that I’m used to seeing as a Victorian except here in this area south of Ulladulla I’m confronted with lake after lake, green literally all I can see in places other than a sparkling blue sky.
I’m driving to see a family friend. She said she has a good surf break nearby and a place to park the campervan and that’s about all I’m looking for. I’m passing known surf spots like Moruya and Potato Point, not having realised the distance required to reach my friend’s place. I’m thinking about all the different places that I still have left to explore, the highway between Ulladulla and Bega diverges from the coast and I’m passing sign after sign for beaches that the only reason to go down the road is you either live there or are going to the beach. And every one of these beaches I pass is a missed opportunity to me, something I’ll in all likelihood come back to explore another day because even as I’m writing this there’s probably 100 beaches with all-time conditions somewhere on that rocky coastline and I’m missing all of it. But plans are plans and to take each of these roads to small coastal villages would seriously derail my timing for getting the hired camper back to Melbourne. Still, they’re out there.
gMaps is telling me that I’m not far from Camel Rock when I pass another sign for a beach, Mystery Bay. I am informed by a friendly local at Bendalong, a man who has more than a passing resemblance to Gene Simmons and images of his dogs tattooed across his breastplate, about a surf spot named 1080 at Mystery Bay. The name, 1080, supposedly, is of a rabbit bait heavily used in the area. I pass this sign begrudgingly. Mystery Bay: the name itself is calling me.
I arrive at Camel Rock. Everyone that I bump into along the way is really nice. I ask a guy emerging from the water in a spingsuit what the water temperature is. I tell him I have a wetsuit jacket and trunks. He says I should be fine. I ask how the waves are, he says, ‘Better than mowing the lawn.’ With this much greenery around I’d imagine that mowing the lawn is a daily encumbrance. The beach, first mentioned by early explorers Bass and Flinders, obviously derives its name from a sitting camel shaped rock. I say, ‘ah, there’s the camel.’ Another local says, ‘One time a tourist said she saw the camel but couldn’t see the hump.’ This causes the man a low-level snicker that I think is supposed to mean that foreigners are less intelligent or perceptive than us hump seeing people.
Of course, as we arrive everyone gets out of the water. Usually, this is a good thing, but as this is my first time surfing Camel Rock it’d be nice to have a guide as to where to sit. The waves are stormy and inconsistent, seemingly breaking wherever they feel like breaking. Their size is at about the top of my comfort level but for the most part are rollers, foam forming at their peaks and gently engulfing the waves face as it rolls toward shore and are therefore not difficult to get under. A rip pulls away from where I think the take-off is and I’m constantly paddling to stay in position. I catch two maybe three decent waves before capitulating to exhaustion, of the waves I catch all I remember is there being a full football field of wave face, enough room to make high speed sweeping turns, the kind of space that makes me start to see what people are talking about when they talk about painting lines on waves – if only I could keep from sliding out and falling on the bumpy faces.
As this is day 3 of our trip, and we’ve mostly been parking overnight in beach carparks, on our return to our friend’s place the first opportunity of the trip presents itself to have a shower. While one of us keeps our host company, the other spends an inordinate amount of time washing salt from their body.
Although I make every attempt to honour the reputation of campervaners, lest their name not be associated with hairy, smelly hippies, right now I’m seriously letting the side down. I need a haircut. I’m having a shower. I’m on my way. My host offers me a beer. An exhausted body, once it feels that carb hit from beer will crave it endlessly until you put the whole thing to bed. Our friend has a view to a lake across the road. We sit on the porch and talk about mutual friends, about how this little area has stayed quiet because it’s on the road to Bermagui and not the highway. The mozzies arrive with the evening. I replace the salt that covered my body with Aerogard. The first beer turns into two, by the fifth I’m out in the van getting more.
The morning begins with a short trip back to Camel Rock to check conditions. It’s smaller than yesterday and I’ve got a full tank of gas and nowhere specific to be. I ask someone what conditions could be like at Mystery Bay. He looks to the sky, the wind, the water, looking for the clues in nature that might suggest conditions at a distant location, these are the codes that surfers peak in, ‘I reckon this nor’western wind swell might just have enough to wrap the rocks. Wind protected from the north too. Doesn’t like a straight westerly swell though. Yeah, probably worth a look.’
We follow the signs from the A1 into Mystery Bay heeding the local directions, ‘Pass the campground, take the first right, at the first 50 sign take a left on the dirt track.’ And as if by magic, we turn left at the 50 sign and find a wooden entry marker, put up by the national park people, for 1080 beach. The track is rough and I’m starting to wonder what really qualifies as an unsealed road as per our insurance, which instructed us that insurance is void on unsealed roads. The track continues for a full kilometre into the Eurobodalla National Forrest creeping uncomfortably close to gnarled trees either side of the track. Despite how isolated this spot feels, as we arrive in the carpark, grabbing our belongings to take a look at the beach, a park ranger arrives and asks if we can move the van so he can mow the grass I’m parked on. We walk out onto a headland where we can see the no waves in all directions. It’s times like this that you wonder if local advice is maliciously wrong or just plain wrong, but soon the carpark fills up with other disappointed board carriers. Jo-Roxy and I body surf the small shore break. Everyone who arrives quickly leaves and we have the beach mostly to ourselves. The water is brisk, even in a wetsuit jacket, but is clear and bright blue at the same time. As I duck under each wave I open my eyes and watch the tumble of water folding over on itself above penetrated by sunlight, shade cast by white water momentarily turning everything dark. After the wave passes the bright blue melds with the distant deep water and messes with my depth perception and I can’t tell how far I’m really seeing and if what I am registering is just distant nothingness. The mystery at Mystery Bay might be in the water just out past the rocks but I’m not the one who’s going to look.
The surrounding countryside is rich with places to visit. Tilba Tilba proves to be charming, the scene of a cooking show based upon the English River Cottage, no doubt it’ll be overrun with culinary tourists in a year. Our host calls and invites us to an evening kasundi party. We buy preservative-free, organic sausages for the inevitable BBQ at the kasundi party from a Scottish guy at a farmer’s market who breeds and slaughters his own lamb and pigs. I say he must stay pretty busy, he says he doesn’t notice anymore as either rearing or selling his animals is all he has time for. This news takes the shine off the life I had been contemplating since entering Tilba Tilba.
The kasundi party is hosted at a small one bedroom fibro house on a double block that has lake views from both the front and back yards. I ask how this is even possible. ‘We’re on beauty point,’ is the answer. I pull out my phone to look at a map but have no reception. Good.
Kasundi is an Indian relish, so a kasundi party is basically a pickling or canning party. It all feels very appropriate and commune-ish. I’m tasked with deseeding and finely chopping a large paper bag of green chillies. Others are dicing tomatoes. There is a distinct lack of sharp knives. The owners of the house have two young boys, Tom and Angus. Tom talks, a lot. He knows an incredible amount about nearly everything and tries to tell you all of it at the same time. His younger brother Angus has learnt to pick his moments between the avalanche of information pouring from his brother, quietly announcing insights to the human condition without fanfare. For an 8-year-old he sounds a lot like late career Tom Waits. They live in the mountains that lie a couple hours drive inland, Jo-Roxy asks Angus which he prefers. He cups his chin with a clenched fist, takes a pregnant moment to answer, lets the suspense build, extends an open palm away from his body, ‘Beach, bush, river, me: doesn’t get any better than that.’ I finish chopping my chillies and the ingredients are combined with a full rack of spices inside in a huge pot which is then left on the stove. It starts to rain heavily causing everyone present to huddle on the small porch. A fire in a cut open 44-gallon drum burns defiantly on the front grass. Tom details the world’s top-5 most poisonous spiders then lists, in order, his favourite cuisines. I speak with the boys’ father whose profession is floating up and down rivers killing noxious weeds and replacing them with native vegetation, I didn’t even know that could be a job. I shouldn’t be surprised when the sun goes down directly in front of their house, lighting up the lake all kinds of beautiful colours, it is called beauty point after all. We eat sausages in bread and various salads. Desert is gluten free cake. Angus finds another opportunity to speak and contributes: ‘I made a chicken skewer sandwich one time. When I bit into it there was something hard. It was the skewer.’ We leave the party with two small jars of kasundi that have accompanied nearly every meal I’ve eaten since, there is nothing kasundi can’t make better.
We drive onward. We pass more beaches, more opportunity to explore, more waves to find. Surfing is the excuse to be out here, but really it’s the people, places and the experiences that fill time between waves that you relish.