Dairy queen's sweet treats
Green acres ... Bega's lush pastures support a thriving dairy industry. Photo: Getty Images
Visitors come for Bega's cheeses, writes Bruce Elder, but the region also has a rich indigenous and maritime history.
Does a town's iconic name guarantee a steady flow of tourists? When it comes to good old Aussie cheese, few names resonate quite as strongly as Bega and the nearby cheesemaking towns of Kameruka and Bodalla.
Bega Cheese employs more than 600 people, has absorbed the old dairy co-operatives at Kameruka, Bodalla and Tilba and produces more than 40,000 tonnes of cheese and processed dairy products a year.
On one level, cheese is reason enough to visit. The huge Bega Cheese factory is on the edge of town, with a visitor information centre and a restaurant (cheese, of course, is a mainstay on the menu, along with milkshakes and Devonshire teas with local cream). Upstairs is an unusual museum, the Bega Cheese Heritage Centre, with displays of milk vats, old cream-separating equipment, model horses and wagons and other paraphernalia vital for dairy production.
A brochure available at the information centre identifies the locations of 17 historic landmarks that can be viewed on a short and pleasant walk around town. Known as the Bega Heritage Walk, it starts appropriately at the Bega Pioneers' Museum, run by the Bega Valley Historical Society.
Located in the old Family Hotel (built in 1858-59) at 87 Bega Street, like many rural museums it is full of unusual memorabilia covering the industrial, military, transport and domestic history of the town. The highlights are a collection of more than 200 photographs of the town's pioneers and a fascinating old horse-drawn ambulance, which was subsequently converted into a hawker's van. The locals love to tell the story of the discovery of thousands of old pound notes in secret wall cavities of the van after it was bequeathed to the museum and was being cleaned for display. The hawker, it seems, had died a very wealthy pauper. Quite accidentally he became a major contributor to the financial success of the museum.
While the coastal towns of Eden, Pambula and Merimbula have developed as tourist destinations, Bega has been sustained almost entirely by its cheese factory and the town retains a peaceful, rural atmosphere. As well, it's surrounded by places of significant historic and cultural importance. No visit to Bega is complete without visiting Tathra, Mimosa Rocks and the charming villages of Cobargo, Tilba Tilba, Central Tilba and Candelo.
I'd recommend the scenic circular drive from Bega to Tathra, up the coast to Mimosa Rocks National Park, through Bermagui to Montreal Goldfield, across to the villages of Tilba Tilba and Central Tilba and back down the Princes Highway via Cobargo.
On December 2, 1916, The Sydney Morning Herald described the arduous journey required 40 years earlier, in 1876, to get from Bega and Tathra. "The coast route from Illawarra down south was even more difficult owing to unbridged rivers, steep ridges, and unmade roads. Communication by sea was made by steamer of a type now considered out of date, such as the Coomonderry and John Penn - vessels of light draught, slow speed, and wretched passenger accommodation. The principal ports were Tathra, an open roadstead under the lee of a headland; and Merimbula, a bar harbour, only available to light-draught boats and under favourable tidal conditions. These ports still remain, much improved, and are used mainly for shipping produce outwards and stores and goods inwards."
At the time a journey from Sydney to Bega took 19 hours and the quickest route was via Goulburn.
It is this early maritime history that makes a visit to Tathra Wharf so important.
Until the 1950s there were dozens of wharves along the coast. The one at Tathra is a symbol of the transport history of the south coast and the last wharf of its kind between Sydney and Victoria.
Tathra was originally nothing more than a small jetty that served as a shipping outlet for farmers. A wharf that was built with funds donated by those farmers and the Illawarra Shipping Company replaced the jetty in 1861-62. Regular shipping began in 1862. Passengers travelled to and from Sydney with pigs and produce - hence its contemporary fame as the "Pig and Whistle Line". The site offered shelter from southerly winds and the wharf was built of local turpentine pylons.
The growth of Tathra and the surrounding area is reflected in the physical evolution of the wharf. The Illawarra Company built the first cargo shed in 1866 and the wharf was enlarged six times between 1873 and 1912. The existing two-storey shed was constructed in 1907.
The absence of a railway line and poor roads made the steamer service to the far south coast crucial. The Princes Highway from Batemans Bay to the Victorian border was still gravel in 1940 and regular south coast shipping didn't disappear until 1956. There was a cafe on the wharf for decades, but it closed last year. What was once a hub of industry is now used almost solely by local anglers.
Mimosa Rocks National Park
The park lies between Tathra and Bermagui. Though accessible only by gravel roads, it's definitely worth the effort as the coastline is impressive, with beaches, caves, cliffs, rocky coves, massive offshore rock stacks, headlands, lagoons, coastal lakes and a heavily wooded hinterland with patches of temperate rainforest.
The park supports diverse bird life, including honeyeaters, lorikeets, wrens, thornbills, ducks, cormorants, great egrets, sea eagles, goshawks, crested terns, silver gulls, pied oystercatchers and hooded plovers. Bushwalkers can see sugar gliders, ring-tailed and brush-tailed possums, bandicoots, wallabies, echidnas and goannas.
The highlight of any trip to Mimosa Rocks is the Aragunnu midden, one of the most interesting and best presented Aboriginal sites on the coast (the turnoff is 24 kilometres from Tathra and 20 kilometres from Bermagui). A boardwalk passes the huge midden beside a freshwater creek and there's a lookout platform with views across a rocky beach to Mimosa Rocks.
The signage at the midden says it contains "the shells of the seafood that Aboriginal people ate over thousands of years. They showed the people what the last visitors ate and so helped in managing food resources. Middens could provide a well-drained area to camp in wet weather. They are also sometimes birthing places and burial places."
Stand on the boardwalk behind the midden and consider the idyllic life that indigenous people had before European settlement. There's an impressive view to Mimosa Rocks - the rock platforms would have been thick with crustaceans, the sea rich in marine life and behind was a freshwater stream. On a sunny day, Mimosa Rocks is as close to paradise as any place on the Australian coastline.
Bermagui and the Montreal Goldfield
Bermagui is an ideal place to enjoy fresh fish at one of its foreshore cafes. The town's most unusual attraction is Montreal Goldfield. Located seven kilometres north of Bermagui on the Wallaga Lake Road, it is the only goldfield in Australia that extends to the ocean.
Gold was discovered on the beach in September 1880, sparking a gold rush of miners, many of whom travelled from Sydney on cargo boats. A portion of the goldfield has been preserved as a community project and there is a tour by trained volunteer guides.
Tales of history, geology and an unsolved mystery stir the imagination as visitors wander the tree fern and bloodwood forest that covers the site today.
Bega is 425 kilometres, or about 5½ hours' drive, south of Sydney via the Princes Highway. It is 19 kilometres from Bega to Tathra on the Tathra Road.
The Bega Cheese Heritage Centre at 11-13 Lagoon Street is open 9am-5pm daily. Phone 6491 7762; see begacheese.com.au.
The Bega Pioneers' Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10am-4pm and Saturday 10am-2pm. Entry $7.50 adults, $2 children; see thebegavalley.org.au/begapioneers museum.html.
Access to the Aragunnu Aboriginal midden can be difficult because it is not clearly signposted. Turn off the Tathra-Bermagui Road either 20 kilometres south of Bermagui or about 24 kilometres north of Tathra. Drive three kilometres along a gravel road and turn left at a T-intersection. About 600 metres from the intersection is a parking area. The midden and Mimosa Rocks are accessed by a well-signposted boardwalk.
Montreal Goldfield is seven kilometres north of Bermagui on the Wallaga Lake Road and can be visited by guided tour only. Tours leave at 2pm daily, take about 75 minutes and cost $5 a person. See montrealgoldfield.org.au.