A Tale of Drinking Towns with Fishing Problems…
We’ve manged to find ourselves a killer one-way rental deal at RedSpotRentals: $9.99/day, unlimited mileage, and a weird bright green [the agent says it’s gold] little hatchback. We dub the strange little car “Glowbug”, our chariot to explore some of Australia’s most beautiful stretches and colorful towns: the Sapphire Coast.
It takes about an hour to clear Melbourne’s sprawl. The crowded suburbs slowly give way to open stretches of grazing land, and gradually livestock outnumber people as you enter the Gippsland plains.
The goal for the first day’s driving is to get to an obscure little fishing town called Bermagui, where my Gandpa owned a share in a fishing trawler for a brief while.
When we crest the ridge descending into Lakes Entrance, however, the view entices us to stay [the cold beer and delicious lamburgers we find in at Six Sisters and a Pigeon Cafe on the town’s main road may have helped too].
Miles and miles of estuary waterways twist and turn their way to the horizon in either direction, and the whole lot rushes violently in and out with the tides through a channel no more than a stone’s throw across.
The waters churn with the running currents, the open ocean beyond full of whitecaps that throw up a grey haze of sea spray. In the distance, if you look hard enough, oil rig platforms can be made out, hovering above the whitecaps like alien spaceships.
It is off-season and the town is deserted, we have no problem finding a cheap room for the night at a clean hostel. Plenty of boating and fishing to be done here, and lots of touristy tours and things to be done during the season.
We’ve only been on the road for a few hours when we crest another ridge and are greeted with yet another spectacular vista: Twofold Bay and the hills of Eden. The beer coasters in the pub proclaim A DRINKING TOWN WITH A FISHING PROBLEM, and the whole town smells salty, and slightly sour.
The only documented case in the world of wild Orca working in partnership with humans, the Killers would identify a target whale and alert the humans by splashing about in the bay.
“Rusho!” This cry would ring throughout the town as the whalers dropped everything and rushed to their wooden vessels in the race to row out and be the first team to chase down their prey. The pod of Killers would split into three groups, one which cut off the whale’s exit path to the open ocean, the other to harass it from below and prevent it from diving to safety, and the third team to harass and attack the whale from its flanks, sometimes even jumping on the whale to cover its blowhole.
Meanwhile the human team would close in on their boats and harpoon the poor victim, and give chase to the whale until they were close enough to deal its death blow – a lance to the heart. The Killers’ reward for all of this? The corpse would sink to the ocean floor, where they would feast on the whale’s tongue [all 4 tonnes of it], until the gases in the decomposing corpse would float the whale’s body a couple days later for the humans to drag in for processing.
There is even a genuine Moby Dick-style story documented in the Killer Whale Museum about a man who was swallowed whole by a Sperm Whale in its death throes, and survived 48 hours in the oxygen-rich stomach of the giant. When he was cut out of the whale’s stomach, his skin and hair had been permanently bleached by the digestive juices inside its belly, and the man lived for another 12 years or so after the incident.
Funny how reading a novel with a little history about a place can serve to bring your experience of that place so much more alive… and certainly give an appreciation for how far we have come in so short a time.
The yellowtail are jumping onto my hook with each cast off the pier, while a dolphin and a seal are lazily diving through the baitschool and filling their bellies for the night. Golden afternoon sunlight fades to cool indigos of dusk, and bright halogen spotlights glare on the decks of the docked trawlers, poised for the next morning’s action.
“You can actually stay in one of these places??” The Canadian says incredulously when I ask for a room at the bar. It is Friday night and the pub is filling up fast; we buy tickets for a “meat raffle” and watch later as the winners walk away grinning with shrink-wrapped trays of all difference meats and cuts from the local butcher.
Eden is more a working town than a toursit destination, with controversial woodchipping taking over from whaling as the area’s primary industry, but there are plenty of B & B’s around and clearly a healthy tourism trade here [judging by their posted rates].
There are two outdoors and camping supplies stores on the main street of town, and of course each one sells bait. It is tempting to stay and hike, camp, and fish in and around the area, catching our food along the way and stopping back in town for supplies and beer.
Next morning we sleep in again and grab lattes before heading out again, and are only on the road a few hours before we hit Bermagui. This is a smaller drinkin’ town with a fishing problem, and I decide that I could happily spend my days hanging around these forgotten coastal towns with their salty/sour smell of fresh fishblood, ocean and shellfish.
The fish-less session is nonetheless very rewarding: me, the ocean at my feet, the salt in my face, my finger on the line waiting eagerly for the tap tap tap of a biting fish, and the sun bursting below the massive grey cloudbank stretching away above, a blazing ball of yellow fading to orange, sinking spectacularly below the low mountain ranges in the distance.
No matter, we are still able to enjoy fresh fish for dinner that night at the Bermagui Hotel, which has enjoyed a serious facelift since the last time I was here – over 15 years ago. Gone is the creaky staircase and the common room at the top of the stairs with the rickety old honky-tonk piano and faded black and white prints of fisherman and their prize catches on the wall.
Nowadays, the rooms at the Bermagui Hotel are painted in peach tones with matching peachy towels and linens; you can even order your room with a spa bath. Grandpa would be rolling over in his grave.
Still, the grizzly characters at the bar and crumbling black and white photos of fishermen and their prize catches give testimony to its rough and tumble maritime past. The firecrackers let off in the parking lot on Saturday night by drunken locals also helped…
By the way, highly recommend you order the fish & chips, with a dozen mussels baked in garlic butter on the side….freshest you are likely to get anywhere…
We sleep in again the next morning, and I walk the breakwater for one last session before we hit the road again. The county is beautiful, craggy cliff faces rising from a white-capped ocean on one side, and mirror flat lakes in the lee of the coastal dunes on the other. We trap across rickety wooden and rusty steel bridges before and after each drinkin’, I mean fishin’ town we pass through, and I want to stop and fish the breakwaters of them all.
The sunset welcoming us to Sydney’s outer suburbs through the mountains is brilliant and orange and sets the whole sky ablaze; the Harbor Bridge is spotlit by the time we make it to our hotel. We’re staying five-star tonight, the last employee-discount hurrah by my travel companion to say farewell.
I wash the fishy smell from my hands and walk up to the rooftop to soak in the hottub with the metropolis lights to keep me company. Life is good.