This summer I went camping with my boyfriend’s sister and her husband. They are Londoners. They inhabit a concrete world of tube stations, coffee shops, busy footpaths, museums and art studios. Places where scraps of nature have to fight to keep their place amongst the many tiled roofs.
Our car ambled down the pea gravel road into the campsite, towering jarrah forest closing in around us. They were thrilled, making exclamations about the beauty of the trees and the numerous bird calls. They were right, I thought, it was a pretty beautiful campsite, surrounded by many flowering banksia trees amongst the taller trunks of marri and jarrah.
It was hot, nearly midday, so we decided to head down to the Blackwood river for a swim. After walking around the corner, we found the beginning of a short trail through the bush. We set off through the tree trunks, the ground cover of ferns and scrubby bushes cut away to form a red dirt path. As we walked, a rhythmic sound grew louder, sounding vaguely like footfalls. Some debris crashed through the undergrowth to our left, drawing our eyes to the canopy. Feeding voraciously in the branches were six large black cockatoos, calling noisily to each other and regularly dropping the nuts responsible for the rhythmic sound. This sight proved extremely exciting for our UK visitors and I found myself swept up in their glee over witnessing these creatures.
We reached the swimming spot, the confluence of the Blackwood River and Chapman Pool. We clambered eagerly down the bank, keen to rid ourselves of the heat and sweat of the land.
Floating on my back in the cool, calm water, I heard one of the Brits describe the setting as the most beautiful place they had ever swam.
The towering jarrah forest rose from the riverbank, leaning over the water, enclosing the river within its umbrella of branches and leaves. Birds flew overhead, from canopy to canopy, noisily calling to each other. The water was flat and calm, no perceptible current to drag us downstream. It was a deep brown, stained by the tannins of the surrounding forest, but fresh and surprisingly clear close to the surface. There was not another person anywhere, no evidence even of human intervention, besides the viewing platform where we had entered the water. No powerlines, no traffic noise, no houses, no shops, no phone service. Just the four of us floating in the water, listening to the bird calls, the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze and the tick-tick of cicadas combining to produce the din of the forest.
They were right. This place was incredible. And it was so close to civilisation, only a 20 minute drive from a big town and 3hrs from the capital city. It was the busiest time of year and yet, there was no one here but us.
I had lived in said capital city for over 20 years and I had never been here before, never even knew it existed. And I called myself an outdoor type. What other treasures from my homeland had I missed?
That night as we sat around the camp table, about to dig in to our BBQ dinner, we were suddenly surrounded by the raucous laughter of a family of kookaburras. Their echoing, maniacal call drowned out our voices, forcing us to sit in reluctant silence, like children waiting for grace to finish before digging in. Again I was able to enjoy this familiar sound in a fresh light as it surprised and delighted the newcomers. I wondered how the first person must have felt hearing that cry, perhaps thinking their mate had completely lost their marbles and wondering if they should go as quickly as they could in the opposite direction.
Later we relaxed with a cup of tea, waiting for the sunset afterglow to fade and reveal the unpolluted night sky full of millions of stars, another foreign but much anticipated experience for the Londoners. While we waited, the rustling of bushes caught our attention. Turning our headlamps to the sound, we caught two sets of shining red eyes staring back at us through the darkness, perched upon the branches of a nearby banksia. The brush tail possums went back to feeding, unperturbed as our northern hemisphere visitors crept toward them for a closer look. This forest was teeming with life, undeserving of the peaceful silence typically attributed to natural spaces.
It had been the most magnificent afternoon, surrounded by all the things I love so much about spending time in nature. The beautiful vistas, the spontaneous wildlife encounters, the sensation of floating in the calm river, the lack of other people. But what made me truly appreciate it was seeing and hearing the wonder of the city dwellers experiencing all this magic for the first time. When you frequently immerse yourself in nature, you lose that wide eyed childish awe for the beautiful places, as they become your ‘everyday’. You are blinded to the incredible beauty of the scenes before you, the calling birds, the intricate flowers, the mighty river. You become driven to seek out more epic locations to attain that same breathtaking, humbling sensation. Previously floating in a beautiful river surrounded by a jarrah forest would have struck you dumb with awe, as it did for our London visitors. But when you enjoy such nature on a regular basis, the stakes need to be upped. You need to follow melt streams up the valley to their origin at the terminus of the glacier, watching waterfalls tumbling hundreds of metres over the ancient layers of ice. You need to sleep in an alpine hut below the imposing massif of the countries highest mountain, so you can ski tour across its plateaus and down its myriad of snow laden faces. You fly into the depths of a massive national park, climbing over two mountain ranges, wading through estuaries and camping on beaches in order to walk your way back out again. Only then will you be able to experience that humbling, incredulous awe at natures beauty.
But, do you really need to do that? Do you truly need escalating levels of ‘epicness’ to continue to enjoy nature to the fullest?
The beauty that generated that awestruck feeling the first time you cast your eyes over the river and surrounding forest is still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere, degraded in any way. You have just spent enough time around it that it has become familiar, you no longer find it impressive.
That is, until you take someone new out there. A fresh set of eyes that can open yours to the wonders you have been blinded to. The majesty of nature never fades, only our perception of it is altered. You can preserve that wonder, or revisit it with the help of someone new. It’s as if nature intended that it be shared, you can only continue to enjoy it to the fullest by bringing others into its beautiful places.
This doesn’t mean we should stop searching for new incredible experiences outside. One of the great things about nature is the escalating challenge required to access increasingly remote and untouched areas. Our skills and experience can grow over time as we venture further into the wild.
But this may help us get the full enjoyment out of the nature that we have at hand. Sadly, we are not all able to continuously immerse ourselves in untouched natural wonder. Most of us must make do with a few bigger trips a year, interspersed with shorter weekend exposures, which generally occur in the same places.
If your local accessible nature is no longer invoking that sense of awe it did the first time you laid eyes on it, take someone new there. Watch them admire your well known patch with fresh eyes, and enjoy as you too get to see your favourite place for the first time all over again.