“Shorty” the campervan was next due to take us to Sydney. Lynne had spent a lot of time and effort getting ready for a reunion there. It had already been postponed twice due to the virus, so we were hoping this would be third time lucky. But, with just a few days up our sleeve, the Coronavirus outbreak in the city was growing. And so we cautiously waited before committing to enter greater metropolitan Sydney.
For a couple of days we holed up in a Lithgow caravan park, and listened to news of the growing COVID outbreak in Sydney. Perched there on the heights of Lithgow, we felt like Frodo and Sam on the Emyn Muil, waiting to enter Mordor. Our daughter Sally caught onto this and messaged us using Boromir’s words: “One does not simply walk into Mordor!”
We didn’t, and neither did we drive there. Instead we turned tail and sadly retreated from “Mordor” to the rather more friendly town of Mudgee. While there, apart from a bit of wine tasting and bike riding, we learned that the NSW premier had put Greater Sydney into lockdown. Had we gone there, we’d have been there still (as of early August, and counting!)
* * *
Chastened, we re-jigged our plans – again. We’d organised to catchup with my brother after Sydney, when he’d be back from his own virus-dodging trip. So we firmed up that plan, and a few days later arrived at his place in the NSW Southern Highlands. He lives outside, though not a great distance from, greater metropolitan Sydney. It’s strange to run such a filter over every destination, but we had become very used to it. My brother, a retired doctor, is well practiced at it staying Covid-safe too. So once at his place, we hatched a plot to go literally far from the madding crowd: a day walk into the Nattai Wilderness.
|[Ian and Lynne start our Nattai walk]
Tasmania has a way of turning we Tasmanians into wilderness snobs. Partly it’s the fact that we live on a substantially wild, mountainous island thrust into the southern seas, away from the fray of mainland Australia, and beyond the easy reach of over-development (though that threat is growing). And partly it’s that around 20% of our island, nearly 1.6 million hectares, is designated as World Heritage Wilderness.
It’s a vast wilderness I will never encompass, no matter how long I live. But I have taken great pleasure in showing many people, including my brother Ian, just some of the wonders of Tasmania’s wilderness. Now it was his turn to show us one of the hidden gems of his area, specifically the Nattai Wilderness.
|[... let the wilderness begin]
When I've flown into Sydney I have sometimes looked down on a deeply incised wild area and wondered: is that the Nattai Wilderness? Back in the 1970s, when I lived and studied in NSW, I’d camped and bushwalked on the fringe of the area. But I had never knowingly been into what in 1991 became the Nattai National Park. Parts of the park, including where we would walk, were later officially designated as wilderness. Of course for millennia, the Dharawal and Gundangarra Aboriginal peoples called this home rather than wilderness. Our day walk would take us past sandstone overhangs that would have been used as shelter for thousands of years. The country still feels old and remote, despite being relatively close to a large city.
For Lynne and I the sandstone felt very familiar, since we were both brought up on sandstone country. Ian led us first along a fire trail, and then onto a narrower walking track. He was lamenting that we were seeing this country so soon after a massive wild fire. And he was apologetic that the wildflowers weren’t really out yet. Yet somehow we found more than enough to slow us down, oohing over a late-blooming flannel flower here; ahhing over a banksia there.
|[A selection of winter wildflowers in the Nattai]
The country felt similar to the Blue Mountains, and I knew that our track would inevitably lead us to a lookout, although lookdown would be more fitting name. Because, just as in the Blue Mountains, this is more gorge country than mountain country. We reached the edge of the plateau, and could feel the air expand around us before we saw the first bit of gorge beneath us. Ian suggested we push on to the lookout proper, maybe 5 minutes further on.
|[Worth the wait: Ahearn Lookout]
It was worth it. Ahearn Lookout is a grandstand to some vast, wild country. The Lion King wouldn’t have looked out of place posing here, if you accepted replacing savannah plains with vast and steep forested slopes. At the bottom of this defile was the Nattai River, here and there flashing reflections towards us. And beyond that we could make out further gorges, including that of the distant Wollondilly River.
|[Looking south down the Nattai Gorge]
We perched on the edge of this vastness, 1 million hectares of wild country stretching all the way to Kanangra Walls, the Blue Mountains, the Wollemi, the Colo, and beyond. In such a place our quiet consumption of a humble sandwich and a coffee somehow felt like a feast. I was never great with equations, but here I could work out that place + movement, over time equalled deep satisfaction. And especially when that place was a wilderness. That's when a day can feel like another little life.
[Special thanks to my brother Ian for introducing us to the Nattai Wilderness.]