Sydney, Australia (Shutterstock)
Article Words : Tom Rhys | 28 June

Discovering the wilderness beyond Sydney

Beautiful coastlines, epic wilderness and drinkable valleys: there’s a ripe New South Wales adventure sitting right on Sydney’s doorstep.

We hadn’t been expecting the dolphins. The day was early and deliciously cloud-free in Jervis Bay, and we’d taken two sea kayaks out for a pre-breakfast paddle. There was no one else around. It was the kind of sunny Australian morning that could have been lifted straight from a tourist promo – a woozy dawn heat, lorikeets flashing through the trees on the shoreline, each blade stroke easing into the water with a fluid splash.

And then they appeared. Dark, silent shapes arrowing in the blue, their dorsal fins cresting less than 20 metres from us. There were three of them, travelling south along the coastline like us but moving far faster, swimming as if they were desperately late for something. Within two minutes they were out of sight. We spent the day talking about little else.

My wife and I were here in the further reaches of New South Wales partly to show ourselves what we’d missed the first time. Like a lot of Brits, we’d travelled out here in our early twenties, our backpacks weighed down with surf wear, squashed novels and personal stereos, then promptly spent much of the next year barely leaving Sydney.

Not that time spent in the region’s showpiece city is ever a hardship. We’d decided to spend a few days here at the start of this return trip, and were quickly reminded why it holds such a pull on travellers. Our first thoughts on revisiting Sydney after more than 15 years were to wonder why we’d ever left. Were these parks always so green? Were there this many beaches? And was there anything more civilised than people commuting to work in sunglasses on the open deck of a ferry?

New South Wales (Dreamstime)
New South Wales (Dreamstime)

Rediscovering the city was hugely enjoyable. We whiled away hours on café terraces in Balmain. We caught the boat out to Manly and walked the coastal path. We found excellent veggie curry in Darlinghurst, lingered for most of an afternoon in the Royal Botanic Garden and sought out our old bar haunts in Glebe. The whole thing felt like arranging to meet a once-close friend and quickly sensing, with relief, that it was going to be anything but an awkward reunion.

But we were here for more than nostalgia. “Ah, you’re going south,” said the garrulous lady in the campervan depot on the morning we left Sydney. “Good move!” We’d just explained that we were planning to head down the coast to Jervis Bay. It had been recommended to us as somewhere with beaches, bushland and no crowds – and in those few words, we were sold.

We had a fortnight ahead of us. We would be spending four or five days in the Jervis Bay area before looping back up to the Blue Mountains for some hillwalking, then driving northwards, past Sydney, to finish up among the wineries of the Hunter Valley. And yet we were still anxious: with so many places to visit in the world, should you revisit those destinations you’ve already mentally ticked off? When we started the van’s ignition for the first time, the radio piped up automatically: it was tuned to Triple J, the station we’d survived on a decade and a half ago. This, we decided, was a good sign.

Surfers on beach in New South Wales (Dreamstime)
Surfers on beach in New South Wales (Dreamstime)

Fit for royalty

The Princes Highway rolled its way through the southern half of New South Wales in style – dipping into green valleys, climbing over hills and unfurling through villages full of the kind of stores that you pop into for a snack and leave laden with homemade jams, cheeses and bags of ripening local fruit. In our case, Berry became the main pit stop. The journey from Sydney down to Jervis Bay is just three hours or so on paper, but we made a good job of nearly doubling that.

On our eventual arrival, we based ourselves in a campsite in Myola, close to the western shores of the bay. From here, a few minutes’ stroll through the bush brought us to Callala Beach, a long and almost pure-white ribbon of sand, warm underfoot in the late afternoon.

Jervis Bay has long been a popular weekend spot for Sydneysiders, being sheltered, tranquil and quick to reach (providing you don’t get waylaid by fresh produce), but this was midweek and the beach was virtually empty. We flopped and watched the steady frothing of the ocean, savouring that feeling which Australia seems to heighten more than almost anywhere: that slowing down is good.

With this in mind, we kept things unrushed for the next few days. There was plenty of wildlife – mother and joey kangaroos, noisily bold kookaburras, the aforementioned dolphins – but also wide swathes of handsomely rumpled coastline to enjoy. We kayaked, then hiked through the hinterland and lingered over impromptu picnic lunches. And it wasn’t all about the wilderness. On the decidedly hearty recommendation of an Australian couple on the same campsite, we even spent an afternoon playing lawn bowls at the local social club, copying the townsfolk by bowling barefoot and with beers to hand. We retired to our vehicular quarters hazy and happy.

Kangaroo on the beach, New South Wales (Shutterstock)
Kangaroo on the beach, New South Wales (Shutterstock)

The walkin’ Blues

One of the many great joys of travelling in a campervan is that it grants you the flexibility to move as and when you want to. When you drive, your fold-out hotel room comes with you. And it was joining us now on the journey up to the Blue Mountains, the eucalyptus-hazed belt of peaks that lies a short distance west of Sydney.

We’d been adamant that we wanted to incorporate the mountains into our itinerary, having only experienced them fleetingly 15 years earlier. Memory can often distort places and natural features into being bigger than they actually are, but in the case of the Blue Mountains the reverse was true – when they slid into view they seemed far grander and more epic than we remembered, their deep slopes bushy with trees and impossibly high.

“You’re asking me to recommend a bushwalking trail?” answered a young ranger we’d comandeered. He cracked a smile. “The national park covers about a quarter of a million hectares of land, mate. What sort of thing are you after?” It was a good question. The paths of the Blue Mountains are notorious for being labyrinthine: more than 130 walkers get lost or need rescuing every year.

This, though, is just the tiniest fraction of those who hike here, and you can understand why it attracts visitors: it’s a glorious place to walk. The ranger presented us with a whole sheaf of different options, from classic short treks like the Three Sisters Walk – we’d spotted this famous trio of sandstone pinnacles on arriving in the region – to far longer trails such as the Six Foot Walking Track, a three-day undertaking along a path that was cut more than 100 years ago. Mountain tourism is nothing new here.

Three Sisters Rocks, Blue Mountains (Shutterstock)
Three Sisters Rocks, Blue Mountains (Shutterstock)

Such a timescale is a mere trifle in the grander scheme of things. Aboriginal people have used these mountains for thousands of years. At sunset that evening, we watched as the hills turned red, then purple, until an immeasurable stillness fell on the slopes.

With the home comforts of the van preventing us from opting for a multi-day trek – this was a holiday after all, and they don’t serve tea and Vegemite on toast in the bush – we opted for something midway between easy and lung-busting. We were staying in Katoomba, the main town in the Blue Mountains area and starting point for a looped five-hour walk that took us past cliffs and lookouts before heading into the forest. Before 1813, when three European pioneers managed to conquer its mighty canyons and ridges, the range was seen by settlers as an impenetrable obstacle to inland exploration. Today it feels more like a beauty spot than a barrier.

It was a walk high on sensory stimulation, full of swelling panoramas and sweet, earthy smells, and the next day brought more of the same when we followed the so-called Grand Canyon track, which wound down past waterfalls and lush clumps of ferns to reach the valley floor.

Over the two days we’d covered a combined distance that would never have troubled hardened long-distance walkers, but it was nonetheless more than enough to justify the rewards of where we were headed for the last leg of our little road trip: the winelands of the Hunter Valley.

Vineyards in Hunter Valley, Australia (Shutterstock)
Vineyards in Hunter Valley, Australia (Shutterstock)

Sundowners in Sydney’s back garden

The three-hour journey north-east mostly followed Putty Road, a quiet and enjoyably sinuous route strung through roving woodland. For much of the last 200 years it had been the primary means of access between Sydney and the Hunter Region, meaning the volumes of wine to have been transported down the highway over the decades must be considerable. The first major vines were planted in the Hunter Valley way back in 1828, so the region’s winemakers have had plenty of time to master their craft.

It’s a good job, too. Driving in Australia is thirsty business. The gnarled ridge of the Brokenback Range stands above the vineyards of the Lower Hunter Valley like an aloof old sentinel but, as we found out fairly promptly, the wines are nothing if not inviting. Our first stop-off was the boutique Constable Estate, set in a suitably sweeping location and specialising in the two wines the region is best suited to – light, fruity Semillon and velvety, mediumbodied Shiraz. We bought bottles of both.

There’s something special about drinking a wine when you’re just minutes away from the fields in which the grapes grew. The flavours seem more vivid and the drink itself more life-giving. Well, that was our excuse. Our campsite was on the outskirts of the settlement of Cessnock, which also made it well placed for visiting the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. Travel obligations are tough sometimes. “We use Aussie dried fruits and nuts and cover them in fine Belgian chocolate,” said the gentleman behind the counter, effectively rendering us powerless to resist a bulk purchase. We visited another winery later in the afternoon, the biodynamic Krinklewood Vineyard, then retired to the van and simply lounged in sun-chairs for the rest of the day, eating and drinking like road-tripping royalty.

It was a suitably serene way to round off our trip, lighter of temperament and newly converted to Australian reds. Some people warn against heading back to destinations that hold special memories, but revisiting somewhere as big as New South Wales was always going to be more about making new discoveries than anything else, a place that could be forever unticked. And now? We’re busy figuring out what we’re going to do the next time.

The author hired a campervan from Britz (800 2008 0801) for ten days, picking it up and dropping it off in Sydney.

Main Image: Sydney, Australia (Shutterstock)