I’m not sure if the Southern Highlands of NSW are deliberately trying to be Scottish or English or even Irish. I mean, there’s the name, but I do not see ragged rocks round which raggedy rascals run, nor boggy glens of heather and gorse lurking in the haar. There are big country estates akin to the tweed jacket terrain of a southern England itching for a brexit, but the falling leaves and withered buds lining their driveways can no longer mask the reality of eucalyptus and brown, scrubby land. Meanwhile, in Robertson, a fondness for potatoes is clear for all to see, only it culminates in the splendid apparition of a big thing, undeniably Australian.
The landscape can at best be described as greenish and pleasantish, a subdued and ultimately futile attempt by those illiterate and innumerate immigrants to create a home away from home, made all the more difficult by prolonged heat and drought. The United Kingdom is the United Kingdom due to its lousy but somehow endearing weather, and because of that Australia will never be able to compete. And nor should it, because Australia is definitely better for being more than just a half-baked recreation of a previous rose-tinted incarnation of a mother country. Plus it can just vie instead – rather well as it turns out – at Eurovision.
As the fading gentrification of the Southern Highlands descends toward the sea you can be in no doubt that this is Australia. Indeed, an Australia as it was before anyone, even its first peoples, decided to venture over by boat. The plateau abruptly falls away into a dense system of deep valleys and gorges. Massive walls of sandstone plummet towards pristine creeks obscured by a blanket of gums. A pair of black cockatoos glide in the air, conversing in prehistoric shrieks. Banksia and wattles compete for attention in the understorey topping the escarpment. And a thin veil of water tumbles over its edge, destined ultimately for the ocean.
Between Fitzroy Falls and the ocean, further endeavours to pacify the landscape emerge in Kangaroo Valley. Undeniably pretty, flower gardens and cottages adorn the valley, while larger lodges bask on elevated terraces as if attempting to emulate the initial slopes of an Alpine pass. Indeed, a winding road gathers some form of height before snaking down to Berry, where the quaintness is a tad more commercialised but delivered in style with good coffee and expensive buttery tarts.
After the surprisingly sprawling outlet strips of Nowra, the environment becomes evidently coastal. Salty inlets and spotted gums signal the ocean is near, and at Jervis Bay it is realised in a flourish of white sands and opaque water, a brilliance which softens as the day says its farewell. Today’s departure is a cut above, a boastful multicoloured extravaganza of transitioning light and incandescent skies. It is an exquisite end to an enthralling ride.
To provide some attempt at balance, not everything down at Jervis Bay was entirely utopian. The next morning was decidedly cool, a persistent easterly wind restricting twenty four hour shorts wearing. The first breakfast I had in Huskisson disappointed and the coffee was only adequate. But such first world irritations faded quickly away upon the welcoming green and white terrain of the White Sands Walk.
From bay to bay, traversing succulent coastal forests in between, it’s an easy amble from Blenheim Beach to Hyams Beach. The only real difficulty is deciding whether to take your shoes and socks off on the sandy bits only to then have the hassle of putting them on again for rougher terrain (conclusion: wear sandals or thongs). Plus there’s the challenge of restraining your photo-taking so that you don’t have endless, repetitive pictures of clear water lapping at fine, white sand.
The sand is so white here that it famously gets on every piece of tourist literature and recurrently features on Sydney Weekender as the whitest sand in the world. In fact, it is genuinely so white that even small-minded immigration ministers would feel unthreatened and some cretin with a golden toupee would approve. Personally, I think there is probably whiter (for instance, around Esperance), but that is probably just supremacist talk.
Regardless, the presence of such beaches is a blessing and I was feeling immensely satisfied early the next morning with an improved coffee overlooking the glowing, becalmed bay. And for a few minutes at least you can breathe it in, cherish what makes Australia so special, what helps to make it so compellingly attractive. And to think such coffee-fuelled nirvana may not have happened without openness to the world. We could all still be enduring that ghastly blend of oversized Americanised coffee mixed with UK ineptitude instead. Something, I suspect, even the Southern Highlands would turn their nose up at.