Bellingen and the Dorrigo Rainforest
January 1, 1970
by Helen Frances
The Writer’s Recent History
Laura and I met in Melbourne during our first weeks in Australia. We were a close group of four girls, one of which has headed North, the other we are meeting in Sydney in a few days. Laura met me in Byron Bay last week and we have decided to meander our way down the East Coast, stopping off in towns we wouldn’t have originally planned to and discovering places less highlighted on the map.
We have stumbled across Bellingen, a small town set 15km inland and six hours or so north of Sydney. It is set in a valley, surrounded by rolling hills painted a deep, lively green that can only be achieved after hours of solid rainfall. Stepping into this town is like stepping back in time; it is set firmly in the 50s and is free from any modern day pollutants. Independent shops and restaurants line the one main street; a church, a bank and maybe two or three bars – but that is just about it.
We have explored the Promised Land and its crystal clear waters and the Never Never creek and its stunning beauty. If you ever want to feel like you’re alone on the planet go to the Never Never. You are high up on the mountain surrounded by rivers and rainforest, not a soul was there and it was blissful. True to its name, we felt like children again; jumping off rope swings into the icy waters.
Altogether, we had only spent a couple of days exploring Bellingen but already knew it quite well. On this particular day, we decided to utilise a small window of good weather and explore the wider world.
It was a day of adventure from start to finish. There were four of us altogether. We met at the hostel and even after a day we already had a strong friendship; the kind you only find when you are travelling. It is a friendship where you are wholly accepted and understood because no body knows you long enough to dig deeper. But at the same time the relationship isn’t shallow, it’s just that it has been sped up maybe. You can know someone a day and feel like it has been a lifetime.
There are several wonderful characters in the hostel. One lady in particular I have taken a great liking too. She is in her fifties, a writer, a lover of books just like me and we sit for hours and talk about our favourites. We talk about Winterson and Fowles and Murdoch and Melville and how each and every one of them has inspired us in our own careers. I love people like that; people you really connect with. There is another man and his young son, both gorgeous people; happy and kind to the core; a younger guy living there; an activist; a baker, an artist; a pianist; all with their own stories and histories and dreams.
But just the four of us set off; two guys, two girls. Dorrigo rainforest is 30km from where we were staying, and without car or bus or the motivation to walk we decided to hitchhike. The sun was shining, no clouds threatened, no winds blew and our spirits were encouraged; and with smiles on and thumbs up we succeeded in catching a lift.
They were three french travellers touring Australia in a camper van. It was packed full of surfboards and roller-skates and memories; Stevie Wonder played on the radio and we all sang along with joyful enthusiasm. It was one of those moments you can’t capture on film or camera. We all had beaming smiles on our faces and no worries or cares to falter them. Driving up the mountain with stunning views and great music and it felt like nothing in the world could go wrong. We talked briefly with one another just then and asked each other why anybody wouldn’t want to travel. ‘Some people find happiness in security’, Laura says, ‘and some find happiness in the unknown’. She was right, we all knew it. We were all so happy in that golden moment because we had no idea where we were going, who these people were and what we would find at the end of our journey. We had but the open road, each others blissful company and Stevie Wonder. I’m not sure that anything else in the world could have been more perfect. This is why I travel.
We arrived at Dorrigo National Park and our expectations were immediately fulfilled. Sublime natural beauty surrounded us. We felt like Kings at the top of the mountain with thick greenery spread widely beneath and the bold whiteness of lingering clouds precisely at eye level. There is a walk you can do which takes 2.5 hours for the dilettante walker, so naturally it took us three. We were submerged in nature; treading water in flora and fauna; the air so fresh you could taste it. No traffic, no people, just the rhythmic sounds of our own breathing and the occasional gushing of water from the surrounding falls.
One Fall in particular was of outstanding natural beauty. Powerful and graceful at the same time; boisterous and elegant. We swam in the pool beneath and it was freezing. Not the kind of cold you get used to, but the kind that penetrates and shatters your bones and punctures your breath. The kind that hurts. We swam beneath the fall and the water tumbled and crashed its way down to us. I have never seen or felt anything like it. I was completely at the mercy of nature. ‘Welcome to the world!’ we shouted over and over again, because that is what it felt like. Stumbling across this, it was like we had been thrown without care or grace into the wide open mouth of opportunity and it was exhilarating; revitalising; up there with the best experiences of my life. Everyone: I implore you to visit.
Lost and Hungry
Now, as we are backpackers our supplies are short. Take Greg for example who came without shoes (I think it’s a hippy thing). Trekking through the rainforest barefoot seems ridiculous, yes? Yes, me too and half way through he too began to share our feelings. But with a sharp mind and a slightly exaggerated knowledge of the natural world, he built himself shoes out of torn pieces of towel. He tied them to his ankles and walked with a degree of comfort the rest of the way. The looks he got were strange with his bright orange shoes of cloth, but he was happy because he had triumphed; the rest of us happy for him. Greg Grylls we now call him.
We got lost too, straying from the path maybe felt like a good idea at the time (adventurous and thrilling maybe), but then remembering the spiders and snakes encouraged us to promptly find our way back. We stood under the tallest waterfall, sheltered in a rock set just behind where the water falls. We swam in the cool, shallow pools, we carved our names into the rocks, we climbed trees and laughed and had the perfect day.
We also hadn’t eaten and so our energy levels dropped to insufficiently low. But with the encouragement of birdsong, the inspirational inventiveness of Greg Grylls and the swiftly setting sun we continued, and made it out alive.
Canoeing Under the Stars
Our final adventure of the day consisted of two canoes, the Bellinger River and a night sky. We decided to keep the ‘how are we even here living this wonderful life’ feeling alive, and canoed our way down the river at dusk. We saw the sun melt and drip into the fields like lava. We saw a thousand Flying Foxes leap out of the comfort of their treetop homes and duck and dive and devour the sky. We saw the Milky Way in all its glory; a vast strip of a billion stars lined the sky, reflecting on the still waters where we sat and watched in awe.
‘Nothing else matters other than the Universe’. That’s what Harry says, he can be wise like that sometimes. It’s true though I think. Nothing at all; not the minute trivial details of everyday life but the Earth and Moon and Sun. My mum always used to tell me, when I had any kind of doubt about the world, to ‘look to the stars’. And I do. And in a weird way that is only acceptable when your in the middle of a river at night with the sky torn open above me, I looked, and the stars gave me all the answers I needed.
This is Why I Travel
And standing there on the roadside, trying to hitch back, pulling leeches from our legs and feeling exceptionally proud of ourselves having conquered the day, I knew I couldn’t give up the travelling life. There is something so special about meeting new people and places daily, and continuously discovering the world within as well as without. There is something beautiful, I think, about changing your mind, your identity; being inspired, inspiring others, learning, questioning and building and becoming memories in someone else’s mind – daily. From all corners of the planet, becoming an essential part of another’s (and your own) existence.
This is why I travel.