There aren’t too many destinations within comfortable weekender reach of Sydney that are genuinely family friendly, comfortable and well-run and still let you feel like you’ve really made it to the great outdoors.
This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of 4x4 Australia.
With flushing toilets and hot showers, Coolendel Bush Camp is a great camping destination. There’s just enough creature comforts to ensure delicate family members stay happy.
Located 32km west of Nowra (about three hours south of Sydney) it’s within reach of a determined weekender and very accessible if you have a brief three or four day break planned.
The same group of partners has held the privately owned nature reserve for more than 25 years. During that time, they’ve gradually developed the 520,000sqm site on the Shoalhaven River to provide an amazing range of campsite choices.
You can camp anywhere you can get to, from down by the river nestled among shady trees (the prime location to beat the summer heat) or on big, open sunny flats edged by tall trees (perfect for cooler winter months).
As you slowly circle the well-maintained tracks through Coolendel Camp, you’ll find space to suit everyone – privacy for the romantic getaway, room for a couple of camper trailers, or even a spot for 40 tents. And, you can also plant yourself closer to two amenities blocks for extra convenience. Even the older, smaller block is clean and tidy and shouldn’t phase the more fastidious camper – although it might pay to check under the seat for long-legged wildlife before getting comfortable.
While you may find cheaper tariffs for bush camping elsewhere; those sites probably won’t be as well maintained or have the same amount of infrastructure as Coolendel. As well as the amenities blocks, there’s a laundry (hand washing only), a gas barbecue, plenty of shelter and an abundance of water on tap throughout the well separated sites.
The main tracks are well graded and there are multiple minor walking trails criss-crossing the site. The tracks are scattered with timber bridges across little creeks and ravines that are popular, not just with guests but with the local wombat population.
Once you’ve claimed your own patch of grass, you can stoke up a campfire in one of the plentiful campfire rings that mark out good camping spots. If you forgot to bring timber, the onsite store sells bags for just $5 each.
At dusk, your feet may be trampled by determined local wombats as they slowly march by with their heads down, methodically mowing the grass. If your camper gets a bit of rock and roll happening in the night, don’t panic – it’ll probably be a wombat taking advantage of some low-hanging suspension components for a good back scratch.
While not native, the resident peacock population is a visually splendid addition to the beauty of the camp. At last count there were 16 of the big beauties strutting their gorgeous stuff and peevishly glaring at campers who happened to set up in their favourite spot.
The beautiful winged birds have no qualms sounding their eery mating call, which sounds more like a pleading cry for attention than a happy affirmation of male supremacy – but it seems to be working out okay with new chicks regularly appearing.
The owners, and their resident managers, are determined Coolendel remains a quiet and peaceful campsite for all to enjoy. They strictly enforce the rules of no motorbikes, generators or loud music after 10pm. Management also screens bookings and actively deter those who may be inclined to disrupt the peace. If a rowdy group slips in under the radar and parties until the wee hours, to the frustration of fellow campers, they’ll find themselves promptly evicted.
During the day you can kick back and soak up the peace and quiet – unless the cicadas have hatched and are kicking up a storm, in which case you’ll be destined to a uniquely loud Australian bush experience. There are plenty of bushwalking trails to meander along within the immediate vicinity of the camp, or there are many great spots to ride your mountain bikes.
The open spaces are perfect for the kids to burn off excess energy. And, once everyone has reached boiling point, they can head down to the river to cool off. The camp has 2.5km of Shoalhaven River frontage to enjoy – although there are only a couple of access points to choose from to avoid the steep and high banks.
The river is perfect for canoeing but pay close attention to the state of the current – a downstream paddle may seem like a leisurely and relaxing ride, but if you have to fight currents paddling back, you may find yourself needing to walk the canoe through the shallows – make sure you wear sturdy shoes to prevent bruised toes on the slippery river rocks.
It’s not unheard of for overambitious canoeists to get caught out way down river and have to call on friends, or less than thrilled parents, to come pick them up. One way to avoid such embarrassment is to paddle a small up and down loop and keep your eye on the time.
Or, hire a canoe for a day with a packed lunch and plenty of water to enjoy the trip at a leisurely pace.
Perhaps the closest place to engage the short stick is to head further south towards Yalwal on the eastern border of Morton National Park. Tracks that head out from the Wombat Flats campgrounds, such as Dusty’s, are steep, loose and slippery and are best tackled by very well set-up 4WDs with plenty of lift, high clearance and lockers. There are also plenty of minor trails that meander through the area in a more relaxed manner.
The Old Burrier Fire Road Trail, that connects Yalwal Road and Burrier Road, has some steep sections but in dry weather is a comfortable ride. Watch out for a marked side trail that leads to a great lookout.
If time permits, the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Nowra is well worth a visit. It showcases the history of naval aviation with restored and replica aircraft from the earliest days of naval carriers through to current model choppers. There’s even a helicopter simulator to try out your flying skills. The simulator is complete with both hand and foot controls to maintain balance.
If visiting midweek, and off-peak, you may be lucky enough to have Coolendel to yourself. You’ll definitely have no problem finding a quiet spot with just the wallabies and wombats as neighbours. Make sure you call ahead when the weather warms as weekend getaways are on everyone’s mind. Bookings are essential for peak school holiday periods – but you don’t need to make advance payments unless travelling during Easter or October long weekends.
Unfortunately you can’t book a particular site (except for the cabins and bunkhouse). It’s first-in-best-dressed so add an annual leave day, or three, onto your long weekend and get there early. You won’t have any problem finding something to do!
Coolendel is located 32km west of Nowra. And Nowra is about a three hour drive south of Sydney.
WHEN TO GO
Any time – Christmas and Easter are very busy. During summer it can be very hot, making river campsites very popular. Though, there’s still plenty of space.
WHAT TO BRING
Water sport equipment and bushwalking gear. No pets, motorbikes or generators. Leave your phone home – it almost certainly won’t have reception. There is an old fashioned public phone available onsite for emergencies.
FOOD AND FUEL
Stock up in Nowra. The onsite store has basic groceries; ice, bread, milk, ice cream and drinks. Gas and firewood are also available to purchase.
Unpowered sites with water readily available (boil before drinking) – $18 adult, $10 child (offpeak) to $29 adult, $16 child (peak).
Cabins range from $130 to $220 per night.
20 person bunkhouse (rates vary depending on number of guests, minimum charge is $315 per night. Maximum is $735 per night).
Canoe Hire: $30 for an hour, $75 for an entire day.
The last 11km into Coolendel are unsurfaced but well graded. There are some narrow spots on the winding roads, so watch out for caravans! Other forestry trails in the area are the usual mix with some steeper rocky parts.
Bookings are essential for peak school holiday periods.
Call (02) 4421 4586 or visit the coolendel website.
Visit here to explore more of New South Wales.