…and down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide…
From “The Man from Snowy River” by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson
When the world seems to be spiralling into chaos, I recommend heading into the treetops and the clouds for a few weeks. It might not be the most pro-active response to a crisis, but I’m convinced that a healthy dose of escapism is good for the heart and soul. In any case, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since we disconnected ourselves from the global media and disappeared into the wilderness in mid-November.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been living a rather dreamlike existence, staying in remote locations that are a very long way off the beaten track. Our original itinerary had us heading down the coast to Sydney, but we changed our plan at the last minute and decided to drive inland into the forests and mountains of central New South Wales. We’re so pleased we did, because we’ve had some completely unexpected experiences, and we’ve seen parts of Australia that are totally different to the stereotypical visions of scorched outback vistas and windswept beaches.
I’m writing this blog piece at an old farmhouse table, in a weatherboard cottage that has hardly changed for 100 years. We’re in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, in the Upper Murray, staying among wombats and kangaroos. Believe it or not, it’s cold here, even though it’s now summer, and there’s still snow on the mountain tops. The cool, crisp weather makes for crystal clear starry nights, and beautiful, haze-free views across hundreds of miles of ancient eucalyptus forests.
Yesterday, we drove up into the mountains of Kosciusko National Park, as high as we could go, past glittering creeks, banks of beautiful wild flowers, and flocks of Crimson Rosellas. In some places, other than the roads and gravel tracks, there were barely any signs of human existence. That all changed when we arrived in Thredbo, Australia’s charming ski resort, where there’s a fair amount of development, but other than the summer hikers and bikers we saw there, we felt as if we had the mountains to ourselves.
It’s so incredibly quiet out here in the Snowy Mountains that the weather dominates everything. I love the ever-changing cloudscapes; we’re getting quite good at interpreting them, but sometimes powerful storms seem to sweep in from nowhere, appearing over the tops of the mountains with an almighty crash. I’ve learnt to listen for the sound of the wind in the treetops and smell the approaching rain – changes that occur long before the storm arrives. I also love the short period after the storm has past, after everything has been thrashed around and inundated. When the quiet descends again, you can hear the soft flutter of birds drying their soggy wings, and smell the overpowering scent of eucalyptus – a heady combination of lemon, peppermint, and thyme, and something more exotic, almost like pineapple. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else I’ve ever been; I think it’s an experience that’s unique to Australia, and it’s worth coming here for that alone.
It’s a pity I can’t bottle the smell of the rain-soaked eucalyptus forests and share it. But at least I can share some of the scenery we’ve been enjoying. One of the highlights of our entire trip has been the landscape of the Port Macquarie hinterland, where the cool nights create clouds that sit in the valley until just after sunrise, when they evaporate into the air. The first night we were staying there, in a place called Rollands Plains, Al woke me up long before dawn. “Come and see this!” he said. “Get your camera!” Even though I admit I can sometimes be an obsessive photographer, I very nearly rolled over and went back to sleep, but something in Al’s voice got me out of bed. I stumbled over to the window (the whole front of the cabin was floor-to-ceiling glass) and looked out over a sea of clouds below us, where just the tops of the tallest trees were protruding. In the distance, the horizon was turning from opaque purple to translucent indigo, and the clouds were starting to reflect the colours. Needless to say, I grabbed my camera, and for the next couple of hours, I photographed the most magical, ethereal sunrise I’ve ever seen. The next night I set my alarm just in case the clouds formed again. And the next night, too. And each morning, there they were, sitting in the valley beneath me.
Another unexpected highlight has been the landscape of the Northern Tablelands, and in particular, Pilliga State Forest and Warrumbungle National Park. We hadn’t planned to go there, but while we were staying in Byron Bay we read about Australia’s world famous observatory, Siding Springs, and we wanted to see it for ourselves. So we booked a quaint-sounding, dog-friendly cabin nearby, in Pilliga Forest, and instead of heading down the New South Wales coast, as we’d originally planned, we drove inland for six hours, across the beautiful hills and meadows of the Northern Tablelands. What we discovered when we arrived took us both by surprise. Our quaint cabin turned out to be an exquisite, woodland eco-retreat, set on the land of Pilliga Pottery (one of Australia’s premier potteries). So not only did we get to visit Siding Springs and enjoy the stunning dark skies of Warrumbungle National Park, we also enjoyed some pottery lessons, and I think I might have found another obsession in the process – the pottery wheel. When we finally settle down again, we’re going to need somewhere with a fair amount of space for Al’s observatory and my pottery studio. This trip is full of surprises!
Here’s a short video of me making a pot in the intensely hot pottery studio at Pilliga. (Spoiler alert: this video is almost as interesting as watching paint dry, and just as much happens, so fasten your seatbelt…)