March 02, 2020

After the bushfires, time to tick off #NewSouthWales South Coast beaches

By Graeme Willingham
Image: Destination NSW

We ticked off a dozen or so beaches at Shellharbour, just north of Kiama on New South Wales south coast, including the foreshore ocean pool where 1972 Olympic gold-medallist Beverley Whitfield got her start as a four-year-old in 1958.

We swam, bodysurfed, ducked the waves, snorkelled, walked in the shallows, sat on their sand for picnic breakfasts, did some laps, or just … watched the waves. Beaches and their constant restlessness, no matter how benign or aggressive, have mesmerised me since, I think, I was a four-year-old, at Port Campbell, on The Great Ocean Road, near The Twelve Apostles. There’s a captivating spirit about the beach, generated by sand, sun, cloud, wind, rain, waves, tides, storms and maybe lightning playing ever-changing roles.

Shellharbour is just off the Princes Highway, but it’s also on the Grand Pacific Drive, the 140km coastal drive that starts at the Royal National Park and includes that cliff-hugging platform highway reaching further south to Wollongong and then wandering on to Shellharbour, Kiama and Shoalhaven.

Shellharbour also can be reached by Fly Corporate services from Melbourne and Brisbane, landing at Illawarra Regional Airport, a few minutes’ drive away from the village. Fly Corporate though promotes Wollongong, 22km away, as the destination. So, ‘Gone to the Gong’ features in their marketing.

Beaches aside, for beach-bums like my wife and I, there’s plenty of other activities and services at Shellharbour … including Aboriginal culture, air, rail and train museums, golf, cycling, walking, fishing, boating, surfing, paddleboarding, hinterland villages and scenery, the massive Illawarra Lake, national parks as well as entertainment, restaurants, cafes and clubs, and accommodation styles.

We were in Shellharbour during the last week of January. By then, the bushfires that ravaged communities and bush along the Princes Highway from Victoria’s East Gippsland to Shoalhaven and closed the highway had, mostly, done their vicious damage. The highway was re-opened just after our visit and then the rains came and doused the fires.

We stayed in a roomy Coastal Cottage on the point at Shellharbour Beachside Holiday Park which is a council-owned park managed for eight years by long-time locals Julie and Mark Core. (This was a perfect site for us: to the north, a 50m walk to the ocean pool and eateries just another 50m beyond the pool; to the south, a 50m walk to the patrolled south beach.)

Julie is also president of the tourist operators’ association. The good news is that in May next year, just along the south beach at Shell Cove, the first stage of a 297-berth marina with hotel, apartments, shopping and a kids beach will be up and running. It will be the deepest marina between Sydney and the Victorian border. Traders can’t wait for the influx of yachties.

(Might have to get back there, because boats and yachts in harbour also draw me in. Perhaps I’m a Salty, over and above beach-bumming.)

The bad news is that Shellharbour businesses were affected by the fires, by the fall in visitors, not by direct fires. And, the visitors who did arrive were subdued by what the fires were doing further down the coast, said Julie. No-one was playing cricket in the park, or at the beach.

The art of ticking off beaches on the NSW South Coast, though, belongs to the 147km-long Shoalhaven region, 20km south of Shellharbour, running from Seven Mile Beach National Park to Durras, close to Bateman’s Bay.

When driving from Sydney to Melbourne along the Princes Highway back in August, we by-passed Wollongong and Shellharbour so we could attempt the Shoalhaven 100 Beach Challenge. We discovered the challenge on the back of our niece’s dunny door, north of Wollongong. The poster’s there, she said, for considered contemplation. It displays photos of all the beaches, with a tiny line box on each image for ticking. She’s ticked 22. We ticked 15. We have unfinished business there. (After Shoalhaven, we visited more beaches between Bateman’s Bay and Mallacoota. We ticked them off, too, in our minds.)

The Challenge was created just three years ago by Shoalhaven Tourism marketing staff to ease the parking congestion at several drawcard beaches, like the quartz-white sandy Hyams on Jervis Bay. It’s been a massive success, now also generating constant interaction online, postings of pictorial proof of beaches visited, or being visited, live.

Beaches are identified by their ‘experience’ – bush-to-beach, secret, families, 24hr pet friendly, walking, picnics, camping, whitest, surfing … and best Instagram shots, of course.

Shoalhaven Tourism confirms the beaches, and the bushfired-affected communities, are open and ready, again.

The Princes Highway is open, as is the airport, so it’s time to join the South Coast rejuvenation.

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