Get an authentic taste of the Sapphire Coast with an oyster tour on Pambula Lake

A glorious lake cruise and a gourmet feast of fresh-harvested oysters with a maverick tour guide proves to be one of the best things to do on the Sapphire Coast.

Three people standing in Pambula Lake looking at the water
  • Alexandra Carlton
  • March 2020

As I walk to the water’s edge to join Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tour, I’m struck by the still jade-green beauty of Pambula Lake, a 550-hectare waterway south of Merimbula. There are two whirling dots in the air – a pair of white bellied sea-eagles circling silently on the horizon above the treeline.

“G’day!” says the Captain himself over the top of Mick Jagger as he helps our group aboard. “Let’s go check out some oysters.”

Captain Sponge – ‘Sponge’ is a nickname from university, his real name is Brett Weingarth – is a kind of Oyster Dundee; all stubble and khaki and a stone necklace on a leather cord. A former sheep and wheat farmer, he’s been growing oysters on the Sapphire Coast for 12 years, and his two-hour tours of local oyster leases are considered legendary.

Oyster farmer, Captain Jack, standing in his boat on Pambula Lake
Captain Jack's high spirit and charm make him the ultimate oyster tour guide.

His charisma and wry sense of humour make him the consummate Australian tour guide. “I grow my oysters in Pambula, then I drive them up the road to Merimbula to finish them off up there,” he says. “They love a drive, oysters. They go mad for a seaside holiday.” His eyes narrow with mock derision when he talks about the rivalry between NSW South Coast oyster farmers and their North Coast counterparts, a standoff that would appear to be of Springfield vs Shelbyville proportions. But most of all, this is a man who knows and loves oysters. “I never get tired of them,” he insists. “A really bloody good oyster is the best thing in the world.”

Shortly after our tour begins Sponge switches off the Stones and lets us enjoy the pristine perfection of the lake. Sponge’s boat is covered but on a hot day, sun will reflect from the water, so don’t forget your sunscreen.

A heron flying above three people standing in Pamula Lake
Take in the bird life while enjoying the calm stillness of the lake.

We scuttle along quietly as he points out the long, black rows of oyster leases just underneath the lake’s surface and explains how they’re grown. Why, I ask, are the oysters around here so good? Why the Sapphire Coast? Why Pambula Lake? “We’ve got a small population and less people means less pollution,” he says shrugging. “It’s just really clean.”

As if to prove the point, Sponge unveils a tray of around 35 oysters that he had pulled from one of his leases shortly before we boarded. They’re dressed with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of pepper. I try one, and they taste like nature distilled: creamy, salty, minerally and absolutely fresh. One of our group is an oyster sceptic but even she agrees that these complex little bivalves are heaven in a half shell. Not bad considering the price of the outing (Adults: AUD $70; Children 5-16: AUD $30; Families: AUD $180; Under 5s: free).

A man shucking oysters over a grill on Pambula Lake
The freshly shucked oysters will convert even the most hardened sceptics.

The tour concludes with a short trip up the Pambula River where Sponge points out the ancient Aboriginal oyster shell middens that line the shore, thought to be around 4000 years old. We gaze at an enormous wedge-tailed eagle nest perched high in the fork of a gum tree. And we keep eating oysters. It’s a pretty special way to spend an afternoon. “You must love this life, working out here every day?” I ask Sponge. He thinks for a moment. “Well, work impinges a bit on my surfing time,” he says dryly. “But other than that it’s not bad at all.”

Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tour, Landing Road, Pambula Lake, 0429 453 545, opens in new window