For snorkelling Sydney-siders, the city’s crenellated shoreline has brilliant spots – Gordon’s Bay, Colin’s flat and Shelly beach to name a few. However, if you desire to get far from the madding crowd, without driving to exhaustion, the Illawarra region has a sparkling option – Bushranger’s Bay. Roughly 120 km from the city, it takes about 2 hours to drive to Bushranger’s Bay via Wollongong and Port Kembla. Called ‘Allowrie’ (apparently translating to ‘pleasant place by the sea’) by the once local Tharawal indigenous tribes, Lake Illawarra was named Tom Thumb’s lagoon by Matthew Flinders after his boat, Tom Thumb. I must admit that Illawarra definitely sounds more exotic and romantic, just like many other indigenous names that we have so easily integrated in our everyday city life. Think Bondi (‘where the sea breaks over the rocks’), Cronulla (‘place of pink shells’), Kirribilli (‘basket of fruits and flowers’) or Parramatta (‘Land of the long black eel’). Viva la langue exotique!
Coming back to our southern sojourn, once you drive past the industrial hubbub that is Port Kembla, you will arrive at the Bass Point peninsular region. The shoreline here abounds in vantage points in the midst of easily accessible rocky shelves that gradually slope into the indigo Pacific. The land also has its fair share of indigenous cultural walks, after covering all of which, you can head directly into the serene waters of the Bushranger’s Bay. The bay is more of a water inlet and looks like a thin finger of water flanked by small rocky ledges (see picture above), guarded from the turbulence of the ocean, and hence very serene and placid. Unlike other popular beaches though, this one is a stony beach without sands, hence reef shoes are quite a help.
If you did not fill your quota of lookouts by the sea, then the small rocky ledges around the water inlet is a good opportunity to stretch your legs. Very easy to climb, you can keep walking for long, and if needed, find a spot of your own to lose your companions, then your thoughts, and finally yourself in the rhythmic crash of ocean waters on rock. The sound almost soothes you to peace until the squawk of a sea gull or a shearwater brings you back to the present. You get up, keep walking, then discover a rock pool and get delighted to see a whole new world in its super transparent waters. Red anemones, sea weeds of myriad colors and heaps of fish in the rock pool reminds you that if this small water body has stuff that would delight Jacques Costeau , what of the bay itself?
The next minute you are snorkelling in the super awesome bay and discovering new aquatic colors with every breath. That’s what I did until I found one, then two, then more and more jellyfish! It was scary and almost impeded our joys, until we hoped against hope and continued. Later, we realised these were the common moon jelly which is harmless. Fear aside, they are beautiful creatures especially when you stare at their translucent bodies against the sun, billowing their tentacles in and out. Watching it seemed like a sort of trance, to the point of being meditative – and on multiple occasions I was almost tempted to reach out and touch the tentacles (another must no, when you don’t know the species around – if it was a bluebottle, I would have been nursing a painful swollen finger for the next five hours or more). Jellies are primitive creature, even outdating the dinosaurs and come in various types – from super killers to benign ones, but it always helps to know your jellies – it does make snorkelling far safer.
Jelly distraction aside, there was plenty to watch out for. Just two metres into the water (the slope is a tad steep) and you are surrounded by heaps of small, black-striped, mado fish with their distinctly bright yellow bordered tails. Then there were the usuals – goatfish, heaps of flutefish and many other species – colorful and colorless, whose names I (sadly) do not know.
However, what made my day was a giant orange hued cuttlefish – just 3 – 5 metres from the beach (yes, that close!) It was difficult to spot this camouflaged beauty in the midst of orange colored sea weeds, but then I was lucky to spot an eye. Hey, what was that! and the next moment, the big cuttlefish slowly floated away from the weeds to revel its true form, beautifully hovering about. Striking, peaceful and even comical, the giant cuttlefish is a sheer delight to watch! Another species of fish found here is the grey nurse shark – harmless but heavily fanged – and a big prize for divers who wade into the deeper waters.
Nonetheless, we had an awesome time in the waters though summers would definitely be a preferable time for the longer days and warmer waters (May did render the waters cold along with shorter days). There’s no establishments in the vicinity, so get your own food for lunch, as we did. This was followed by more walks, climbs and vantage point hunting until we decided to head back. Sunsets on these waters are once again, a great setting to turn philosophical or poetic. Even if that doesn’t bring out the Wordsworth or Thoreau in you, wait for the darkness to descend. Then stop by the large Lake Illawara and watch the town lights on the other side of the vast lake turn on, one by one, only to cast long reflections on the lake, competing easily with the stars in the heavens above. Whatever it is that brings you peace, you will smile and admit that the indigenous folks had understood this eons back. It was not for nothing that they had named this region a ‘pleasant place by the sea’…