There are so many excuses to visit a wild land but I’m trying to put my finger on the exact cause for the left-over yearning I’m feeling following last weekend’s walk – an off-track meandering along Five Day Creek in New England National Park. Back at the day job now, that yearning is being fuelled by a power saw in the industrial estate across the highway, ambulances screaming in and out, the thousand trucks a day roaring past: small things here in a small town, but big things for a body desperate to return to the wilderness it walked out of on Sunday.
New England National Park is dominated by a long east facing escarpment of towering cliffs, high forests of snow gum and rich cool temperate rainforest where Antarctic Beech and lurid green mosses have forged an inseparable love of each other.
We arrived late on the Saturday afternoon and headed out along Cliffs Trail. After one kilometre the track drops into a small gully and here we veered left off the trail, stepping along a wallaby track and straight into the forest. It was not much of a creek at first, a shallow trickle over slippery rocks. The forest either side offered open, easy walking as the dense canopy of beech trees left no understorey to battle with. We crissed and crossed the creek, taking our time, weaving our way slowly around and over fallen trees and emerging at one point into a flat expanse covered with a dense crowd of Soft Tree Ferns with their gingery down-covered stalks and new shoots. This tree fern is often called Man Fern for its thick and massive trunks and here, some of those trunks stretched three metres along the ground before turning ninety degrees and reaching another two metres into the sky so that the fronds formed a low roof above us. At the edge of the fern forest we emerged into a new wonder where a dozen Shining Gums had gathered together and towered 30 metres above. Straight as an arrow, the saying goes. Straight as a Shining Gum topped with a shaggy head of twisted limbs and ribboned bark.
Even though the creek acted as a clear route marker, I felt strangely lost. We were in a deep, old wilderness. I felt inexplicably happy. The quietness of the place, the closeness of trees and ferns, the slow deliberate pace of our walking, all came together and yet seemed surreal.
We reached the point where Five Day Creek’s two upper forks came together and now the creek grew wider and the sides of the valley steeper. Tree ferns still dominated the understorey along with hard water fern, rainforest spinach and the odd surprise of stinging nettle. Five Day Creek has a distinct look about it – recognisable in any photo. Moss covered rocks crowd its narrow reaches. Lichen’s thrived over all else. Old Man’s beard festooned every branch. All very JRR Tolkein-Middle Earth-ish. The trees were old enough to have learnt to talk. The afternoon’s walk seemed fictional – timeless, remote, ephemeral. Free of conflict or dictates, our only demand was to find a campsite. Small as it was, we pitched on the only piece of flat, earthy bank we found.
All afternoon thunder had rumbled with us around the edge of the escarpment. We could see no stars that night but we had glow worms instead. We woke several times to heavy rain and yet by morning the sun was out and our storybook walk continued down the creek. We worked our way over greasy, wet rocks – moss everywhere – until finally reaching The Cascades walking track: reality of sorts. We followed the track up off the creek where it passes into a surprisingly open patch of Antarctic Beech forest with nothing but low growing hard water fern and grasses carpeting the hillside. Climbing up to Robinson’s Knob trail brought us to the junction of several of the main walking tracks in the park. From here it was just a short 100m clamber onto the plateau where Wright’s Lookout is named. In that small distance, the environment changed dramatically as we emerged from the ancient Gondwana rainforest onto a flat-top basalt off shoot of the New England escarpment.
I may be biased but I believe Wrights Lookout is the best spot in the best park in New South Wales. The 180 degree view takes in the towering bulk of Point Lookout, along the escarpment to Rim of the World, down the Bellinger Valley to the sea and across range upon range of uninterrupted forest. On top of the lookout itself, low growing purple and pink kunzea were in full flower and below us the dense pattern of the rainforest canopy was a patchwork green. The view proved a bit hazy, but on a good day you can see the Pacific Ocean from Wrights Lookout.
After an early lunch, soaking up the warm but overcast morning on the bare rocks or Wrights Lookout, we walked a half hour back up the main trail and we were at the car again. The off-track adventure may have been over but it was an exciting trip home through a cracking high country afternoon storm of indigo clouds, torrential rain, lightning strikes out the window.
Now I am back at work wishing the forest were real again. A string of B-doubles roar down the highway, one blows its horn at the lights, another pile of files lands on my desk. The reality is, this sense of longing – for the green trees, the clear water, the secret campsite – could cost me my day job.