In the time of picnics

According to the NSW Government, on secondment from governing and moonlighting as health professionals, September 2021 is picnic time:

Households with all adults vaccinated will be able to gather outdoors for recreation (including picnics) within the existing rules (for one hour only, outside curfew hours and within 5km of home). This is in addition to the one hour allowed for exercise.

https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/

Parks throughout the Greater Sydney Basin are brimming with socially distanced crowds, interspersed with authority figures to verify vaccination certificates. And while there is a palpable sense of relief at this easing of restriction, there is a Pythonesque element to this decree. Picnic hopping is now a thing, along with exquisitely delineated schedules that incorporate five, six, seven events adjacent in the park, and an overindulgence in cheese.

Never ones to break the rules, we too decided on a picnic in a park, albeit a national park, at a table scored by eons of time and beer-bottle tops, far from civilisation and with not a soul in sight.

Deep in the Wollemi, beyond the fringes of remote, along washed-out fire tracks and dirt-choked run-offs, this is 4WD country, the smell of diesel and hot brakes a sticky perfume that garlands the blue haunches of Mount Yengo and Pon Pon as the the convoy jolts deeper into the interior.

Captive of Pierce’s Putty Valley Tours – track-felled trees our speciality! – all we know is we’re heading west, along spine-like tracks said to follow songlines. This is Darkinjung Country in the shadow of Mount Yengo, where the dreaming speaks of silver-lipped gums, dappled light falling on gullies of unexpected flowers, and soaring grass trees. impervious to anything but a proud primordial form.

The peak of a dormant volcano, traditionally used for learning and ceremony for tens of thousands of years, Mount Yengo is rich with cultural significance. It is to the clans of this area as Uluru is to Central Desert communities, a sacred space that thrums with a pulse as old and deep as time itself. With a plateau’d top, the ancestral story of Mount Yengo depicts Baiame, a creational figure, jumping back up to the spirit world after he created the mountains, lakes, rivers and caves in the area. When he sprung skyward, Baiame flattened the top of the mountain. A landmark visible from every direction, Yengo is our guide as we venture further in, its stories cloaking us.

Pierce’s Putty Valley Tours come replete with stories, too. Theirs are lives lived in the very heart of this place, from grandfathers who built slab huts by hand to fathers who cut in the tracks with dozers and heavy plant equipment, through a landscape wild and untamed, ceding just metres a day. Each generation protects it, too, their stories secrets shared with only a few, or at least never pinpointed on a map.

And while the Sheepskin Hut is marked as a campground on the National Parks website, littered in 4WD conversations and the pinnacle of trailbikers’ torrid retellings, it is a lonely place rarely visited, a step beyond hillbilly haunts that spew woodsmoke and juice from the still.

When the hordes who’ve escaped the confinement of the truck quieten, it is still, listless; engines tick as they cool, a whip bird calls out caution. It is as if time forgot.

From beyond Kindarun Mountain, Wollemi and into Wiradjuri Country in the interior, this was a staging post on the stock route east. Drovers would graze their mobs here before the final run to the coastal markets. It is a lonely reprieve, but its functionality – built by men on horseback, carrying tin, carving stone and timber from the landscape – would have softened tired eyes and sore bodies.

One side of the hut is for animals, a tin umbrella on poles to shelter their ears, The other is a raw-hewn structure that is stained with stories and thick with ghosts.

Inside, the tin is singed, mottled with use, a cow cocky’s musings cast in leaded scrawl. The floor, compacted dirt and beer-bottle tops, is hard and cold but flattened for a swag. A broad-hipped fireplace holds a memory of raging heat, a lagerphone slouched against it happily worn.

The stink of old dung and smoke still lingers, and the ghosts are quick to let us know they are here; tin cups and horses’ bridles clink and jostle, moonshine slops in a barking laugh, an animal snorts in the dark. Tall tales swirl in the smoke, the weather catches in a rattle on the roof, and a rustle of wildlife in the thick undergrowth causes the dogs to snarl.

I can imagine the Sheepskin Hut, respite to a mob of travelling souls on the long journey east. We scoff damper and hard-boiled eggs, cured meat, beer and a billy of tea in salute to the old timers, aware that our only stock concerns involve running out of diesel.

The locals say there are rock petroglyphs in the area that feature sheep, drawn by the Darkinjung people, as this is their Country. I like to wonder at their wonder upon first meeting a sheep… let alone a mob of them driven by hatted men on horseback, the scent of sweat and durries ripe on the breeze.

The tall trees above us are part of a thick eucalypt forest of mountain blue gum and rough barked apple that slopes towards Doyle’s Creek, home to raucous gang-gangs that drop seeds and attitude from up high. We investigate the creek, marvel at the enormity of the canopy, and shiver a little, ghosts and the weather wrapping themselves around us.

We don’t stay long at the Sheepskin Hut. It entreats you to build a fire, settle the stock and bed down for the night, and though there is no doubt it can fit us all, its bare bones are cold to the touch.

Nature has the last laugh though, as is so often the way. It takes three hours to weave our way out, a ribald game of fill your boots with sawdust in play. Strong winds that rocked the Hunter two days earlier have littered the tracks with downed trees, giant obstacles that prevent escape.

Fortunately Pierce’s Putty Valley Tours – track-felled trees our speciality! – come prepared, a barrage of chainsaws revved and ready.

After 13 impromptu stops, chains loosed, diffs locked, coated in mud, we emerge from now darkening valleys. As our noise dissipates, the silence falls again on a world that seems intent on keeping the picnickers at bay.

I can understand why.

Along the Nine Mile

Wild beaches churn and boil with a savage beauty, and Nine Mile is no exception with its storm-crushed surf laying waste to to a coastline that cannot escape, the roar of fury held hostage in white-capped waves, and the howl of unforgiving offshore winds that sift sand through their teeth.

They are untamed places that force us to forgo comfortable ideals of control and mastery over the natural world, substituting vicious surges of adrenalin in their place. Fight or flight coursing through the blood, ancient instincts override the system and rank survival kicks in.

Where the earth’s contours are rewritten into endless spools and mirage horizons contort basic assumptions, humanity seems fragile, the likely victim in a power play with nature, its visceral force a stinging rebuke.

The CB crackles with static, voices muffled by the elements. The truck slews through thick drifts of knee-deep sand, the block bellowing, low-range torque clawing its way across the terrain, crab like. The Cowboy is in OK-Corral heaven, aviators glinting at each new obstacle, yee-hah-ing as we get air. The Kelpie has her front paws on the dashboard, her nirvana nearby; and I cling on for dear life, muttering disjointedly about tyre pressure, the lick of high tide and tank traps.

Nine Mile Beach is not. It is actually seven miles and riven with whorls of soupy shifting sand. The vollies at the bucktoothed entrance – all potholes and exploded rusted steel – are quick to remind everyone that the beach is abnormally soft, and known to eat SUVs for breakfast. The Cowboy is calm: Private Camel, he reassures me, can handle anything.

An ex-mining water-drafting truck, the Camel is a rarified beast, which is readily apparent in this showcase of 4WD utes, bristling with roof tents and B+S ball stickers. A dual cab Mitsubishi Canter with Super Singles, a truck-bed gate cage under canvas and a race-track’s worth of diesel grunt, it is a show pony… well, a Clydesdale perhaps, dutifully dragging its dray.

Sticking out like tits on a bull, we rumble through the grainy scrub of wetlands at Belmont, and down to dip tyres in the raging drink at the edge of the beach.

The Wetlands State Park that fringes the beach is 549 hectares of crown land, dunes, bush, and brackish wetlands acquired by the State Government in 2002 from BHP. It has a rich history of degradation: Redhead Coal Mining Company mined the land in the late 1880s; during the Second World War, Blackshmiths Beach was considered a potential invasion point, and defence strategies to protect Newcastle were shipped in – Cold Tea Lake was excavated as an anti-tank ditch with twin rows of large tetrahedral concrete tank traps linked with interlocking cabling studding the southern bank, like inedible cake decorations that shatter teeth.

Image caption: Newcastle Herald

In the 50s, silica dredging was the degradation of choice, followed by sand mining in the 70s and general abandonment until 2002. Scabbed and damaged, this unloved dog doesn’t offer up much when you first meet it, with its straggly undergrowth scarred with rusted wrecks and muddied hollows. But it is loved, by many, from hoons and horseriders to twitchers and tent-dwellers.

The wetlands are the traditional lands of the Awabakal People, bounded to the north-west by the Wonnarua, the Worimi to the north-east, and the Darkinjung peoples to the west and south. Middens, artefact scatters and campsites dot the margins, while it is believed that undiscovered burial sites edge Belmont Lagoon, a dreaming site formed when the Moon wept out of loneliness. The Awabakal were determined defenders of their land, too, repelling incursions by neighbouring clans for thousands of years.

State Library of NSW

People are still fighting over this culturally contested land, with environmentalists agitated by the off-roaders, fisherman at odds with swimmers, and the BWSP Board of Directors recently disbanded due to a bitter power struggle between members. But beneath skies so sharp they could shatter and icy ocean spray, we find a like-minded tribe parked up in the hind dunes.

The Camel ticks softly in the fading light, cooling. Driftwood fires emerge along the sand, tinnies clink, and the raggedy tribe of mutts that Belmont welcomes holler and yip at the water’s edge. The Kelpie is above such things as she has her own camp chair and a stash of sticks all of her own. Later, though, she spends hours dancing at the surf’s edge, ears, tail and tongue cartoon-like in bouncy joy.

The Cowboy goes into mountain-man mode for a while, hauling out the unfortunate from vehicles bogged to their bellies and cutting wood for the fire, while I emu pick along the churned tracks searching for shells.

The power in this unbound land catches you unaware. The space, with its 360º rake and skin-scouring love climbs inside you, stilling the human while enticing a primitive other. Fire, shelter, pounding water and the sense of smallness that we rarely experience in this conditioned world – these are the things that echo here… that and the meaty roar of V8s sideways in the sand.

We remain alert, though, watching, waiting, heartbeats a skip faster than before, salt-tight skin tingling in anticipation of the next assault of hormone laced primitive fear. We fail, repeatedly, to keep the sinuous, mutable force of nature at bay. Paint is scoured from the Camel’s flanks, there are fat welts in her tyres and corrosion eats at her underbelly, while the Cowboy and I look like Cactus Beach locals, wire-like hair slicing pink skin, eyes scrinched shut against the elements. The Kelpie, alone, resists. Perhaps it is her lack of the deep, primal and internalised Man vs Nature conflict humans must bear. That and the sticks.