When the flames are tamed at Currowan, Comberton and Clyde Mountain, thanks to the efforts of exhausted, soot-blackened firefighters, I pack up my car and my 13-year-old son and we drive down from Sydney to this green and breezy coast that I love so much.
This is where I had my first weekend away with the man who would become my husband, scarfing platters of grilled local blackfish paired with margaritas at The Little Snapper in the tiny coastal town of Culburra Beach. We were married two years later a short way inland in a 1960s community hall at Upper Kangaroo River, just north of Kangaroo Valley.
Our guests slurped fresh shellfish from Jim Wild’s Oysters (02 4447 1498) at Greenwell Point and demolished an orange and poppyseed cake from Bowral’s Flour Water Salt bakery. My mum lives round these parts. So does my best friend. No fire could burn hot enough to destroy my love of the beautiful South Coast. In the town of Shoalhaven Heads, beside Seven Mile Beach, we pull up to the self-contained ironbark-clad accommodations at Bangalay Luxury Villas. This area wasn’t directly touched by fire but tourists still stayed away in droves all summer. “We had a 50 per cent drop in anticipated earnings,” says owner Michelle Bishop of those devastating few months. “We also received no forward bookings for the period when the fires were active. We’re very concerned about what it will mean for the rest of 2020.”
It means the rest of us need to embrace, support and pay a visit to these areas, something that’s hardly a chore when you know where to stay, eat and drink.
Where to eat in Berry and beyond
At Bangalay, head chef Brent Strong is serving some of the most inventive native-focused food in NSW, such as an umami-bomb ceviche of mackerel and fermented desert lime wrapped in an envelope of translucent daikon; and lamb belly with labne and lemon myrtle. My son – usually a leave-thecrusts-behind kind of kid – exclaims so enthusiastically about the housemade sourdough that Strong wraps up a wedge for a midnight snack, along with a smudge of fresh-churned butter. (Bangalay also has Luxury Villas on the edge of Seven Mile Beach and the Shoalhaven Heads Golf Course. Each villa has its own kitchen so you can feast on treats that you pick up on your travels.)
Just a few kilometres inland is the Christmas-card pretty village of Berry, which looks like it’s been airdropped into NSW from somewhere in rural England. At South on Albany restaurant, owners Sonia Greig and John Evans spent the summer sofa-surfing as their home further south was repeatedly cut off by the Comberton blaze. Despite their own hardship they busied themselves doing the thing they do best: cooking refined neighbourhood bistro fare for friends and neighbours who lost properties or had to evacuate their own families and livestock. “It’s been a privilege and very humbling to offer some joy at our place,” says Greig. Offering joy is a good descriptor of what South on Albany does on any ordinary day, as ex-Merivale chef Evans serves his curated set menus to a usually packed house, while Greig makes you feel like you’re her longlost best friend.
Berry loves its markets – it holds several each month – but if you want to rub shoulders with locals rather than other visitors, the pick is Berry Farmers Market, held on Thursdays at the showgrounds. Take an empty cooler and fill it with a South Coast smorgasbord: chicken liver pâté from Buena Vista Farm in Gerringong, Kraken Sourdough from St Georges Basin and aromatic gin from South Coast Distillery.
SEE ALSO: A Weekend in Berry, NSW
Exploring Kangaroo Valley
Another 25 minutes inland, misty Kangaroo Valley is home to so many wombats that it should consider a name change. The roads are dotted with water bowls and wreaths of fresh fruit laid out by locals to help wombats and other native wildlife make it through the hard months. There’s plenty of sustenance for humans, too. Pick up an Allpress long black and homemade croissants from Hampden Deli, Dining & School or pre-book a cooking class or themed dégustation – be sure to choose the paired wine option to experience coowner and sommelier StevieLee Bounader’s remarkable palate. If you have room, grab a slow-cooked lamb and rosemary pie from Southern Pies while you browse the bric-a-brac and bookstores.
Where to drink
Then it’s an easy drive back to the coast to Mountain Ridge Wines, which holds a changing roster of events like twilight pizza nights and live music, or to Huskisson for a lazy afternoon-stretching-into-evening at The Jervis Bay Brewing Co. (02 4401 2142), which has joined the Resilience Beer movement with other local brewers, funnelling profits from a specially crafted pale ale to bushfire relief. Sink a schooner or two with a plate of sticky barbecue ribs elevated with Indigenous herbs and spices from the Mirritya Mundya food truck that pulls in to serve lunch and dinner every few days.
This upper part of the South Coast was relatively lucky, all things considered. As we head further south the Princes Highway cuts like a deep wound all the way to the Victorian border, flanked by the blackened sutures of burnt, twisted trees. I blink hard so my son won’t see me cry. “If you squint it looks like it could be autumn,” he says in a hopeful voice as we gaze sadly at the singed caps of copper-covered leaves that still cling to some branches.
But peering even closer, we notice something else. Just days after the fire tore through, green shoots are already unfurling. In other areas, grass has begun to cover the ashy ground. We pull over to get a better view. Tiny ferns, native grass trees and blush-pink clusters of waxy new eucalypt leaves are pushing defiantly through the desolation, in the same way the brave people of these towns will prosper again.