Family Travel: The Wild Beaches of Oz

Gorgeous coastlines, country roads and alpine air

by SHFamily | Mon, June 19, 2017

By Richard Fairbrother

Feel that first blast of fresh, you’ve plunged into that cool, clean Pacific Ocean hit your face. If it’s your first time in Australia, that’s the moment you know you’ll come back. If you’re an Aussie, it’s the moment you know you’re home.

Down Under. Oz. Great Southern Land. ‘Straya. Australia goes by many names and has many faces. Some, like red deserts and matching kangaroos, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and superannuated ‘80s actors or noughties supermodels, are familiar from tourism commercials over the years. Others, perhaps more subtle, are less well known, but equally rewarding. The southeast, for example. It’s far from The Outback, nary a crocodile in sight, but rich in wild beaches, atmospheric historic towns and, a surprise to many, a glorious high alpine environment covered in beautiful flowers.

You’re likely to fly into Sydney. Bust out of that overcrowded, ill-designed, low-ceilinged arrivals hall and breathe the fresh, salt air. (Pro tip: keep four dollars handy when you leave. At Sydney airport, you actually have to pay for your luggage trolley). It’s been a long flight and you want to hit the beach. Remember, you’re not really in Australia until you've plunged into that cool, clean Pacific!

Beach life

Try Bondi Beach for a full introduction to the spectacular, multicultural reality of modern Australia. Yes, it heaves on summer weekends. Don’t worry, we’re heading south to wild beaches soon enough. And sure, Sydney has other fantastic beaches with their own quirky character. But Bondi is easy to find, and runs the gamut from Bodies Beautiful to recent migrants spending the day away from the steaming western suburbs; from bewildered Asian tourists to cashed-up hipster families. Representatives of every other stereotype you can imagine are there too, sitting in the sun and having fun. There’s great food to be had and, heavens, after Shanghai, that coffee! Ask for soy milk in Shanghai and you’ll get a look that says, “What is this, a baozi stand?” Ask in Bondi and they’re likely to ask, “Sure, what kind?”

Now rent a car and head south. Despite what you hear, the nation’s capital is worth a few days: interesting architecture, good museums and great coffee abounds. Make like the locals and jog around Canberra’s central lake. Get a culture fix: the National Gallery, National Library and National Museum often have world-class exhibitions.

Into the hills

Two hours south of Canberra, and you’re in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. The landscape en route is lonely, undulating valleys between black ridges topped with granite tors, either flooded with sun from a big blue sky or moody and dark after a summer storm. With tents, backpacks, a good map and a free spirit, you’ll encounter wilderness that refuses to be categorized.

Just a few hours from where the road ends at Charlotte Pass, or even from the chairlift at Thredbo, you can camp alone underneath the brightest starry sky you’ve seen in a long time. Drink straight from cold alpine streams. Walk to one of the pioneer huts that weren’t wiped out in the apocalyptic fires of 2003, and imagine prospecting for gold in this remote place. Watch out for snakes, especially in long grass. And don’t build fires!

A few days in the mountains are soothing for the soul, but you can’t leave without some serious beach time. Far from the heaving crowds at Sydney’s beaches, even further from the soaring beachfront apartments of the Gold Coast up north, the South

Coast of New South Wales has long stretches of remote wild beach. Taking the back-roads from the mountains, you can breeze lazily through small towns whose present-day sleepiness belies their remarkable history. Most have a solemn memorial to the local menfolk killed in last century’s wars, though few have such a memorial to local indigenous people killed during the century before. Try a pie or sourdough from somewhere like Dojo in Braidwood; eat it in the quaint park across from the old hotel.

All along the southern coast of New South Wales, from the old whaling harbor of Eden to the dairy town of Nowra, wild beaches lie waiting for travelers willing to spend fifteen minutes navigating a dirt road. Tiny beach towns have rental homes (try AirBnB), but for the real experience, have a go at camping. Wake up to kookaburras laughing from gum trees, fall asleep to the crash of the surf. Research ahead by exploring the Parks Service website (see “Good to Know”) packed with tons of information about secluded beaches in parks like Murramarang, Meroo Ben Boyd and Jervis Bay.

Sun savvy

Remember, these wild beaches are not patrolled and often have big surf – be especially careful with kids. This isn’t Phuket or Langkawi. Beware of rip tides, don’t swim alone, and if you aren’t sure, ask a local. Remember to bring potent sunscreen, as the Australian sun is powerful. You won’t feel it happening, but even on an overcast day, it will quickly burn you really badly. Wear a hat, a rash guard and keep reapplying 50+ sunscreen.

You’ll spend the mornings swimming, or reading a book under a beach umbrella (it’s a wild beach, so bring your own!). Avoid the hottest part of the afternoon by snoozing near your tent, or walk the headlands under the shade of banksia trees and the other unique Australian flora. Take a late afternoon swim, then picnic on the beach as the sun goes down behind you, lighting up the headlands and painting a stunning sky. There are worse places to have a few cold beers.

Those long lazy days at the beach, hair smelling of salt and sun, kicking a ball on the beach and leaping headlong into the fresh surf, just because it’s there and you can. Pristine. Now look up into that big blue sky, pierced by that big yellow sun. Listen to the waves crash around you, the laughter of the children. Inhale the clear, salt air. Let that fresh, clean, cool Pacific Ocean splash your face. This is Australia. And you’ll be back.