Australia: Sky's the limit

By Rob McFarland

There's heaps to enjoy on the Melbourne to Sydney touring route, writes Rob McFarland.

Braving the heights with Pricey. Photo / Rob McFarland
Braving the heights with Pricey. Photo / Rob McFarland

It's not every morning I find myself sitting on another man's lap. But Pricey asked so nicely it seemed rude to say no. While I try not to fidget, he tightens a series of straps and buckles that will hopefully ensure that for the next 10 minutes we are inseparable. We hit 14,000ft, the door opens and we're out.

After 60 seconds of mind-rushing, scream-inducing freefall, he opens the chute and we glide down in a series of graceful arcs.

Compared with the mental assault of the freefall, it's surprisingly serene. Pricey lets me take the controls and I steer down through a valley between two clouds. Wollongong and its beaches far below look breathtakingly beautiful.

When we finally hit the ground, I want to get straight back up there and do it again. Which is precisely what Pricey does. He jumps five days a week and then goes skydiving on his weekends off. And now I understand why.

I'm following one of the Sydney to Melbourne touring routes, a series of itineraries that highlight the myriad activities to be found between these two great cities. Options include a nature-themed coastal drive that weaves its way down to the Mornington Peninsula, and an inland route via Canberra that focuses on the region's cultural heritage. The beauty of these suggestions is that you can tailor them to your own requirements and focus on the things you enjoy most.

I've got only four days, which is not really long enough to get to Melbourne, so I'm going to head down the coast from Sydney to Bega and then turn inland towards Jindabyne. And along the way I'm going to cram in as much adventure as I can find.

From Wollongong, it's a 90-minute drive to Jervis Bay and my accommodation for the night: Paperbark Camp.

This luxury bush camp has 12 raised tents that have been cleverly hidden among a forest of eucalypts and paperbarks. You don't often hear the word tent and luxury in the same sentence but these large safari-style tents have spacious verandas, comfortable queen-sized beds and private en suites.

I'm up with the kookaburras the next morning for the 90-minute drive to Bateman's Bay and an appointment with a man and a kayak.

Josh Waterson runs kayaking tours through the Batemans Bay Marine Park Sanctuary and, along the way, I get an illuminating insight into the region's history, from its time as a timber port to a centre for prawn fishing.

For lunch we retreat up an estuary to a sandy beach hidden among a forest of mangroves. Josh throws down a rug and from his kayak conjures up a banquet of hot pumpkin soup, chicken salad and home-made chocolate cake.

From Bateman's Bay it's only an hour along the Princes Highway to Narooma, a picturesque seaside town blessed with great beaches and a labyrinth of inlets, lakes and rivers. That evening, I take a stroll along the boardwalk to the beach and find fishermen filleting their catch and throwing the leftovers to an appreciative audience of seals and stingrays.

I'm staying at the Whale Motor Inn, which turns out to be the accommodation equivalent of Clark Kent. From the outside, it appears to be a mild-mannered, pleasant-looking motor inn. Step inside, however, and it wows you with spacious suites and an award-winning restaurant with hypnotic views over the harbour.

It turns out that Narooma has another trick up its sleeve. Head 8km out to sea and you reach Montague Island, a National Park famous for its historic lighthouse and the 6000 pairs of penguins that trundle up the beach to rest each night. I'm here to meet some of the island's other residents - its population of Australian fur seals - and after an exhilarating ride perched on the front of Island Charters' motorboat, I don a wetsuit, mask, snorkel and flippers and dive in.

Immediately I'm surrounded by dozens of inquisitive seals, many of which race towards me before darting to the side at the last minute. Their agility in the water is astounding and I watch in amazement as 350kg males effortlessly dive, twirl and spin. I could stay here all day but it's a four-hour drive to Jindabyne so I reluctantly bid my playful friends farewell.

Although famous for being the gateway to the ski resorts of the Snowy Mountains, Jindabyne has a wealth of activities to entertain visitors during the warmer months. Nearby you'll find walking trails, mountain biking, golf and horseriding.

Justin, from Snowy Wilderness High Country Adventure, pairs me up with a trusty steed and for two hours we weave through forests of gum trees, climb steep trails and descend into lush valleys. The company also offers multi-day rides where you camp under the stars.

Now it's time for the long drive back to Sydney and, to my surprise, it's a prospect I'm relishing. Although the past four days have showcased some of the region's best activities, it's also been a reminder of the pure joy of driving. From the stunning natural scenery of the National Parks to man-made wonders such as the Sea Cliff Bridge, driving along deserted roads with the sun shining and the stereo playing is a simple pleasure that's hard to beat.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Sydney and Melbourne.

Touring routes: For driving itineraries and suggestions, see sydneymelbournetouring.com.au.

Where to stay:

Paperbark Camp

The Whale Motor Inn

Quality Resort Horizons Snowy Mountains

Getting around: Hertz is an official partner of Sydney Melbourne Touring.

Activities:

Skydive the Beach, Wollongong.

RegionX Sea Kayaking, Batemans Bay.

Montague Island Tour

Snorkelling with Seals

Snowy Wilderness High Country Adventure

Rob McFarland was a guest of Sydney Melbourne Touring.

- NZ Herald

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