I wond’r if Joella really ran out of air? Scuba scares and other adventures on our ‘holiday within a holiday’

Continuing with our jet set traveller lifestyle, we found ourselves on yet another house sitting assignment; this time looking after some more unusual pets – ferrets! Unbelievably they had their very own room in a rather well to do neighbourhood, full of numerous pipes and tubes to keep them entertained, until we were brave enough to let them out for what can only be described as a whirlwind of mayhem…

Although only playfully, they would often nip your heels, resulting in Joella comically jumping up on the sofa, while I tried to catch ‘em before they disappeared yet again into the various holes and crevices they so skilfully found. We soon discovered that ferrets aren’t the most agile of animals, and often failed miserably to run in a straight line or climb the simplest of things – acting pissed is probably the easiest way to describe their general mannerism!

The flat (or as Australians say ‘unit’) was perched on the steep slopes that make up the suburb of Neutral Bay, lying on the water a short ferry ride from Sydney’s Circular Quay. Despite warnings from unadventurous locals that Sydney Harbour was full of Bull Sharks, we couldn’t help taking a quick dip in Hayes Street Beach one afternoon, following a fascinating look round Nutcote – the home of world famous illustrator May Gibb. May Gibb is mostly known for her children books based on characters inspired from Australia’s plant and animal life, such as the Gumnut babies, Big Bad Banksia Man and Mr Lizard.

Neutral Bay was a convenient and scenic commute for both Joella to Mosman, and I to my new job in the city working for Host / Havas – a global creative agency, part of the massive Vivendi Group. I was to be working on the single largest account in the country – Australia’s Defence Force Recruitment. DFR turned out to be a far more exciting proposition than I imagined, keen on innovation to maximise their recruitment efforts through technology such as virtual reality games.

Before we were due to head off on our ‘holiday within a holiday’, we were kindly put up by my cousin Cass at her place in the outer suburbs of Campbeltown. There we were in the presence of an, errr, eccentric bunch of rescue animals, including a dog with a funny bark named George, a rather angry kitten called Spice, and Cass’ hyperactive Alsatian puppy – Blue.

Having decided to avoid the crowds at the Australia Day celebrations in the city, we instead opted to spend the morning in a slowly sinking kayak, with Cass and excitable Blue, slowly paddling down the Nepean River – it was pleasantly entertaining 🙂 After that we were off on our first proper adventure since Aberdeen in October, to Narooma and beyond!

A blinding stopover at Jervis Bay – Home to some of the whitest beaches on earth

Instead of aiming straight for Narooma, around 6 hours South of Sydney, we opted to stay somewhere en route, in a yet to be determined location – how spontaneous are we! But before trying to find a bed for the night (well actually our bed was in the boot), Hyams Beach and its apparently whitest sand IN THE WORLD was our target. Unfortunately conditions were overcast, but the sand still glistened in what daylight there was – very unlike any other sand I’ve encountered before. Although funnily enough, it did remind me a little of the incredibly white beaches of Barra, an island off Western Scotland – true!

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Following an unplanned afternoon nap, our attention turned to accommodation, and we soon learned that not booking ahead on Australia Day wasn’t a good idea… After what seemed like a million phone calls, while attempting to be as chummy as possible, we eventually secured a spot in Sussex Inlet, a quaint little holiday town 30 mins drive away. Luckily the owner had allowed us to take the ‘overflow’ spot, and on arrival excitedly talked us through the wonders of the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s answer to the Alps. It definitely wet our appetite for an inland adventure following our coastal stay in Narooma… While looking for a bite to eat in the nearby RSL, we unexpectedly encountered the wrath of a jobs-worthy bouncer, who refused to let us in because Joella didn’t have ID on her. Luckily with my drivers licence I was allowed to order a takeaway pizza, just before the kitchen was due to close – phew, I was starting to get hangry.

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Breathtaking views and hard labour – Setting up camp in Narooma

After a morning stroll along the inlet, watching the hustle and bustle of all the fishing mad Aussies racing out in their various boats, we packed up (well, pretty much just shut the boot) and began our relatively short drive that lay ahead of us. Following a brief stop in Batesmans Bay for some more holiday gear – we just can’t get enough of Target and K-Mart (think Primark prices with a variety of goods like John Lewis), we arrived in Narooma.

Having requested a specific pitch on the instructions of my Uncle, we were expecting a lot from our camping spot, and oh boy it didn’t disappoint! We were perfectly positioned on the edge of a steep hill that dropped down to the beautiful beach below; offering us glorious views of the vast ocean stretching off into the horizon, peppered with rocky stacks. After taking in the incredible sight, we couldn’t resist bolting down to the beach for a satisfyingly refreshing paddle.

My cousin Jess and Uncle Martin arrived shortly after (ahead of Cass and Auntie Christa who arrived the next day), and quickly put a temporary hold to our relaxation… We found ourselves signed-up (like we had a choice) to help setup their caravan which took what felt like an eternity. Rather than your average caravan that you park up and you’re done, this was the sort that expands up and in length, then has a gazebo of an entrance tent. Fortunately Martin had a few tricks up his sleeve to speed things up, like using gigantic screws in place of pegs, quickly driven into the ground with the help of a drill. Once done, we thoroughly deserved our ice cold schooners and hearty chicken parmies at the local pub.

Depleted air supplies and power boat rides – Scuba diving off Montague Island

Following a refresher dive a few weeks before, and Joella nailing her SSI Open Water course, we were all set for our underwater adventure that Martin had booked us all on (minus Christa, who kindly volunteered/was told to dog-sit Blue and Lilly). We were up before the crack of dawn, but felt raring to go thanks to the adrenaline rushing through our bodies, and that was even before the power boat ride that saw us flying over the waves to Montague Island while being drenched by the ocean spray and golden rays of the rising sun!

Our first dive was predominantly with a group of lovingly playful seals, although some small sharks – Port Jacksons and Wobbegongs did crash the party. Don’t worry we were told afterwards, they don’t bite – although this is up for debate, as I later discovered there are cases of them nipping people’s legs (by nip, I mean take small chunks off). We also saw some large Grouper (who have been known to swallow 5 foot sharks whole) and tiny, but oh so vibrant sea snails.

After lashings of calming green tea and scrumptious home baked blueberry muffins while staring at the horizon in an attempt to offset the choppy waters, we soon found ourselves slowly disappearing into the turquoise depths once again. Unfortunately, after rescuing Jess’ flipper that had come off mid-descent, my queazy sea sickness got the better of me, and I had to cut my second dive short. All was not lost though, as our guide let me in on a little secret…

A short swim away was a narrow opening that opened up into a small pool, teaming with gorgeous baby seals! There I peacefully lay submerged with my snorkel on, while the puppies of the sea brushed past me, letting their curiosity get the better of them. But little did I know that while I was chilling out in the seal crèche, the rest of the group were (literally) breathlessly fighting strong underwater currents. Due to the extra exertion, Martin’s air almost hit zero, and Joella’s actually run out, leaving her having to use the guide’s spare regulator to make an emergency re-surface – yikes! Once back on the boat, everyone was surprisingly relaxed considering.

Dangerous rips, picturesque villages and campsite games – Settling into holiday life

Clearly not satisfied with our brush with underwater death the previous day, a quick dip the next day almost ended in embarrassment / something potentially much worse. As we slowly drifted outside of the flags, Jess, Joella and I soon realised we were caught up in an infamous rip current, and were being dragged out to sea. The seriousness of the situation was confirmed as we noticed the life guards grab their boards and run to the edge of the water looking intently on. Fortunately a shallow sand bar allowed us to stand up and slowly but surely fight the current, walking ashore – phew!

Understandably at that point point, we’d had enough of the sea (and judging by how it treated us, the sea had had enough of us) so we made a beeline for Tilba Central, a quaint little country town bursting with boutique shops, including a famous cheese factory that didn’t seem to mind us sampling all their smelly wares without making any transactions in return. Following a seafood picnic, in the form of super fresh oysters and melt-in-your-mouth squid, we all (inc the dogs) then took a stroll along the seafront and boardwalk, where we spotted Stingray gracefully swimming by. The rest of the arvo was spent being inspired by Martin inventing new words while playing Bannanagrams, and a nail-bitingly close game of the incredibly addictive pétanque.

Rapidly changing landscapes to Kosciuszko: Australia’s highest mountain

The next day, following a feast of pancakes lathered with the sinfully tasty Nutella and a side salad of the most delightfully ripe fruits, we were on the road again. Our destination was to be the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s answer to the Alps, although that’s being rather generous, maybe the Cairngorms is more accurate… Going from seashore to mountainside was expected to be a journey of contrasting scenery, but it’s difficult to prepare oneself for just how extreme this was going to be. In a matter of a few hours we experienced gorgeous sun soaked beaches with rolling waves, steep winding roads through sub-tropical rainforests, vast desert plains disappearing into the distance, then finally a baron rocky wilderness sprinkled with pine trees and overlooked by distant snow capped peaks. Just wow!

En route we took in the sights along the way, including ‘Gnome Alley’ and a rather creative postbox, before stopping off in Bega, a small country town to refuel – for the car and us. We had some mightily tasty coffees and peculiar pastries. On asking what was in the ‘Ned Kelly’ pie, the elderly lady informed me that it contained “meat”. When attempting to enquire further what sort of meat this was, she simply stared back, and repeated once again, this time with a slightly more raised voice that it had “meat” inside. Ok. So I ate the pie and lived. Nothing more to say really, except that maybe I’ll be converting to vegetarianism sometime soon, as apparently ‘meat’ refers to a mixture of animal meat, potentially including lamb, beef, pork and even horse…

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On arrival in Jindabyne, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Scotland’s winter sports scene yet again – it reminded me very much of an Americanised version of Aviemore (but with fewer drinking establishments). Similar to Narooma, we lucked out on our campsite, which was situated on the edge of Jindabyne’s picturesque alpine lake. Interestingly, the original Jindabyne town was partly moved up-hill, leaving the rest to be flooded by Lake Jindabyne, making way for a new hydroelectric dam.

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After cooking up a feast of Mexican chicken, rice and vegetables in the homely camp kitchen, while wrapped up (it was forecast to drop to 6 degrees that evening) we settled down to watch the wonderfully appropriate film entitled “Jindabyne”. Similar to Wolf Creek, it featured a psychotic murdering rapist, but luckily for our sanity it focused more on the relationships of the local families involved in a recent disappearance, rather than being a blood curdling horror.

After a night of broken sleep – our set up isn’t designed for winter conditions (we’re in Australia God damn it!) we set off to Thredbow to begin our ascent of Australia’s highest mountain: Kosciuszko! Although, being totally honest when I say ascent, I do in fact refer to the use of a chair lift for most of the way, but we did walk the final couple of hours to the summit, where we were treated to wondrous views reaching far and wide.

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Too hot to eat chilli and museum overload in Canberra

Our final stop saw us visit Australia’s official capital once again – Canberra, the city that’s seemingly built around a park, as Bill Bryson once put it. After driving round the large spacious, but empty roads, surrounded by ridiculously large acreages of lawns and never ending rows of trees, we eventually arrived at our hotel.

Wanting to make the most of our afternoon, we instantly dropped our bags off and shuffled over to the nearby War Memorial and Museum, that sits intentionally opposite Australia’s Parliament some 2 miles away further down the hillside. The view certainly does make you feel like you’re part way in a National Park, not in the the nations capital city! Inside was an incredibly detailed and fascinating look at Australia’s part in the numerous wars that have taken place around the world in the last century or so. Given Australia’s small population, there’s no way one can say they shirked their responsibilities in helping police the world.

Not wanting to join in with the bogun karaoke back at the hotel bar, we quickly freshened up, then hit the town. Pleasantly, Canberra has come a long way in the last few years in the way of drinking and dining establishments, so we had some difficulty choosing where to intoxicate our livers and gorge our faces at. In the end, with a little help from Zomato and Google, The Bent Spoke microbrewery won us over. Their never ending list of beers certainly made for great drinking, although the food turned out to be a little disappointing and, err… painful! Their chilli was so hellishly hot it was impossible to eat, unless you’re Chuck Norris that is.

Before departing back to the bright lights of Sydney, we checked into a couple more galleries and museums, including The Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, where we learnt all about the evolution of what was pretty much some empty grasslands, into what is today Australia’s capital; and the National Museum of Australia, that guided us through the nations past, involving crazily long fences to stop the spread of rabbits, and the shocking removal of Aboriginal children from their families in what’s today referred to as the Stolen Generation.

A stunning drive back to Sydney along the famously dangerous Macquarie Pass, featuring countless hairpins, surrounded by rainforests and stunning ocean views, certainly made for a fantastic end to our epic 10 day holiday within a holiday 🙂