Smoking-Ceremony-with-Ngurra-Bu-croppedjpg-380x39220 November 2013 — SPINIFEX: 
As a Sydney-sider, I adore skirmishes around our beautiful countryside in NSW. I marvel at the fact that I can be in the bush within an hour on a Friday night, after work.

What I have found disappointing, however, is the lack of sustainable travel options available to me. I have a policy that I will only stay at responsible venues when I travel for pleasure. I’m a GoGet car-share user and feel that I am responsible in my mode of transportation, offsetting carbon emissions whenever I fly, but staying in responsible accommodation never proves quite as simple.

Not to be thwarted by the lack of choices available, my partner and I set off north at 6 am on Saturday morning for a five-hour drive to the Barrington Tops National Park. This wasn’t potluck of course, I’d spent days researching this trip.

If you haven’t been to the Barrington Tops, you are truly missing out. It offers an array of breath-taking ecosystems and tranquillity, including an eerie, man-made pine forest that nothing grows beneath, the Polblue Swamp wetlands and campsite, home to hundreds of species of fauna and flora and a mesmerising abundance of diversity, and of course the views from the Barrington Tops themselves.  They really knock the socks off of the Blue Mountains, which I also adore.

After savouring the sites en route, we arrived in Cobark, at the Tops Organic Retreat, a 800-hectare, 4.5 star secluded location that is the epitome of equanimity.  It took us 15 minutes to travel up the driveway and we were accosted by a number of curious farm animals along the way.  We were greeted by a less curious and more friendly Rachel at reception and shown personally to our cabin.


Tops Organic Retreat

I have to say at this point, wow!  I am still blown away by memories of Tops Organic Retreat. The two-bedroom cabin was gorgeous, with a kitchenette, comfy lounge, open fire and spa bath.

For recreation there are eight diverse walks, a salt-water pool, tennis court and pool table. We took an early morning game of tennis and were cheered on by kookaburras. Kids will adore the petting barn with guinea pigs, chicks, goats and horses. Being spring, the babies had just arrived, which was quite magical.

We dined in the restaurant for both morning and evening meals, making the most of the organic food, prepared by the owner Sharini. No mean feat, as there are eight, two-bedroom cabins and the restaurant caters for up to 40 guests (80 for functions).  Sharini’s speciality is a Sri-Lankan curry and we had the pleasure of sampling it, enjoying a welcome apple juice with the meal. There was organic wine on offer too.

John, the co-owner and Sharini’s partner, gave us an overview of the property and the walks, explaining that they had rescued the disused property a few years ago. The property’s communications all run on solar power and they are currently pricing the property to take it completely off grid next year.


And in the Hunter, Mulla Villa

We departed the Retreat reluctantly and headed back towards Sydney.  Luckily we were on our way to our next adventure, Mulla Villa, in the Upper Hunter Valley.  Mulla Villa is a convict built guesthouse, in Wollombi, dating back to 1840. The attraction to Mulla Villa was two-fold, Caroline the owner serves all organic food and there is an Aboriginal cultural tour that departs from Wollombi town centre, to the Yengo National Park.

Visiting Mulla Villa is like stepping back in time. Old newspaper articles and antiques adorn the walls and sideboards and an antiquated wireless plays languidly in the background.  We had breakfast out on the veranda and were spoilt with home made jams and a breakfast fit for royalty. Caroline, a second-generation owner of the property, made us feel most at home, catering for our dietary requirements and taking us to see a Brumby, a native wild horse.

The property is completely waste-free. All the food is recycled and fed to the chickens and the manure services the garden. There is no waste-water, as the property is Envirocycle, and the water supplies the vegetable garden.  Caroline keeps organic, grass-fed cows and, much to my partner’s delight, presented him with tender, very local beef for dinner.

Ancient-rock-art-in-Yango-National-Park-380x508Ngurra Bu at Yengo National Park

Another sad departure and we were en route to our last stop, to meet Jocelyn and Adam, of Ngurra Bu, for our Aboriginal heritage education.

The Yengo National Park is as sacred a site to Aboriginal people as Uluru is, so we knew that this was going to be special.  Adam drove us 45 minutes by 4 x 4 up dirt roads, gradually winding higher.  When we arrived, we took part in a cleansing, smoking ceremony, where the smoke literally washed us clean. This provided a sign to the Elders of the land that guests were present in the area.

Following our initiation we were off to explore ancient rock art, learning about emu tracks, ancient spirits and further traditional ceremonies.  We removed our shoes when walking on the sacred rocks, both as a sign of respect and to protect the art. We sampled bush-tucker and learnt about the medicinal and nutritional uses of the traditional foods, thinking, sadly that much of this 45,000+ year knowledge must have been lost over recent years.

As a perfect ending to the afternoon, we stopped at a look out point for a picnic with a stunning, almost panoramic view of the Yengo Mountain. Yengo, we were told, means mountain. ‘It was so important they named it twice’, joked Adam.  Jocelyn relayed a story about her children being ill recently and finding a cure in the native plants.  I hope that we are able to capture what is left of this valuable knowledge. It is an integral part of the sustainability of our communities.

Sarah-Jane Sherwood is the founder and chief executive officer of sustainability communications agency, Communicate Blue, part of the “be sustainable” group, supporting a vision for The Blue Economy.

The full Fifth Estate article can be viewed here.