How green is my valley

Rural industry ... canoes ready for Kangaroo Valley Safaris.
Rural industry ... canoes ready for Kangaroo Valley Safaris. 

This beautiful region, leading the eco-awareness charge, captures Michael Gebicki's imagination.

My GPS has gone feral. I'm driving south of Fitzroy Falls, which sits on the lip of the Illawarra Escarpment at the border of the southern highlands. Moss Vale Road has just begun a corkscrew descent down Barrengarry Mountain and the neon-yellow worm that plots the route on my GPS begins a writhing dance, twisting itself into knots like an electrocuted pole dancer as I zigzag down the switchbacks.

When I dare to take my eyes off the road, through the screen of trees I look down into Kangaroo Valley, which is shorn into pastures between dark-green mountains.

At the bottom, 500 metres below the rim, Moss Vale Road runs more or less alongside Barrengarry Creek, which is still making up its mind whether to writhe or straighten out across the valley floor. Another 10 minutes further on, past the shop that advertises "World's Best Pies" and your wheels are rattling over the boards of the mock-Gothic Hampden Bridge.

It's a single-lane bridge and you might find yourself waiting here in the queue that forms on busy days, giving you time to examine the giant bowl that is your surroundings.

Kangaroo Valley measures about 30 kilometres east to west and anything from four to 10 kilometres across. Its dominant feature is the rainforest-covered hills that ring the valley, in particular the high peaks along its western border, rising like ramps until they meet the sheer cliffs of the escarpment, which towers above the forests like the rusting hulls of titanic ships.

Mornings are often misty and when the mist rises on a warming undercurrent of air the disembodied peaks float on a doona of clouds.

Should you happen to stop at the general store and newsagency for supplies, Kangaroo Valley dishes up a surprise in the form of a brown paper bag. Almost eight years ago, this became mainland Australia's first plastic-bag-free town.

Dig a little deeper and you'll find signs of green consciousness everywhere. At Cafe Bella, owner-chef Tish Banks has a permaculture vegetable garden where she grows much of the produce that appears on her Mediterranean-style menu. The town is about to install a public water bubbler to encourage visitors to refill bottles rather than buy bottled water, while over at Kangaroo Valley Collections, Wendy Caird has moved to total green energy.

"It increases my costs but I'm just doing what any good citizen would to shrink my carbon footprint," Caird says. "I turn off lights, heaters and I've got airconditioning in the shop but I rarely turn it on. My customers have to be a bit stoic."

Caird is the former vice-president of the Kangaroo Valley Tourist Association and during the six years she has lived here, she's seen the town embrace carbon-neutral principles under the Green Kangaroo banner. "Because of the nature of Kangaroo Valley, it's attracted people from all over the world," she says. "They recognise there's something very special about Kangaroo Valley and they understand the issues, and they're committed to the idea of a carbon-neutral environment.

"The tourist association has around 100 members and more than half have signed up for the Green Kangaroo project, which requires them to do something to reduce their carbon footprint. It might be planting trees or installing solar panels or a recycling program."

The knight leading this green charge is the president of the Kangaroo Valley Tourist Association and instigator of the Green Kangaroo project, Chris Warren. At Crystal Creek Meadows - the five luxury guest cottages he operates with his wife, Sophie - there is a rigorous program of recycling, rainwater harvesting and eco-conscious design. Firewood for the cottages comes from environmentally sustainable forests and the five-kilowatt solar farm he installed provides a third of the property's energy.

Crystal Creek Meadows also demonstrates that a low-carbon-emission lifestyle can be achieved without sacrificing comfort. Each of the five cottages is a plush, self-contained enclave with a spa bath and fully equipped kitchen and laundry, buried in luscious green gardens.

Eco-consciousness has not always been a facet of life in these parts. "The valley was first settled by dairy farmers and they scalped the place," says John Keats, who owns Melross, a property along Barrengarry Creek. "They pulled out every tree and let their cattle wade into the creek to drink."

Melross was once one of the showpiece properties of the Shoalhaven, a model farm, yet when Keats and his wife, Louise, bought it 11 years ago, those days were a distant memory. "It was completely degraded," Keats says. "It was overgrazed, there wasn't a tree anywhere and old bits of tin were scattered all over the paddocks."

Over the past decade, Keats has pulled out privet, fenced off the creek, planted more than 10,000 trees and created nature corridors and stock crossings so the Angus cattle on his 93-hectare farm don't interfere with wildlife.

"We also had a fair number of wild cats living on the property and since we've eradicated them the bandicoot population has rocketed and there are more birds around," he says. "In spring you can hear them all the way from the creek to the house."

Today Melross is once again a model of pastoral rectitude, with glossy-black Angus cattle and horses in pristine paddocks, well-tended roads, hens clucking in the shed and avenues of newly planted native trees.

It's also a prime example of a rural industry that has taken root in the valley: the luxury, self-contained house, available for holiday rental.

Melross Estate has two houses for rent: the four-bedroom Millet House and the contemporary-style, five-bedroom Rye House. Each comes with everything you need for a family holiday - multiple bathrooms, a superbly equipped kitchen with an espresso machine, laundry, barbecue, lounging space inside and out, big tables, glasses by the dozen and a swimming pool.

And now, time to fess up. During the past four years, Kangaroo Valley has become the favoured spot for our multi-generational, extended-family gatherings. There are lots of us, we need a big house and at Christmas, when numbers swell even further, we need two.

We've rented four of the valley's big houses and, while I hate to spill the beans, if you're looking for a largish house or two with a taste of country life, a high comfort component and glorious surroundings, it doesn't get any sweeter than Melross.

The valley's to-do activity list belongs to the self-improving genre and often involves water. There are, of course, some lovely walks, although many of the forested hills that rim the valley are tantalisingly out of reach, shuttered behind private land. Turn on to Mount Scanzi Road just south of Hampden Bridge, continue as it becomes Tallowa Dam Road and park a couple of kilometres before the dam. The fire trail across from the parking area narrows to a walking track that will take you to a spur overlooking a richly forested canyon, the hillsides toppling into the gutter of the Shoalhaven River below the spillway at Tallowa Dam.

One of the prettiest drives in the area - and a fine backdrop for a bike ride - is Upper Kangaroo River Road, farmland along the river bank, becoming progressively wilder as it infiltrates the forest.

Somewhere near the intersection with Scotts Road, which will take you to the Yarrawa Estate Winery, the road turns to gravel. Press on, as it splashes across a couple of infant creeks and you end up at the delightful Flat Rock river rapids, a honeyed spot for a picnic, especially if there are kids on board.

The canoe-hire places on either side of the bridge can set you up with the essentials for a dawdling, three-hour ride down the Kangaroo River. It begins with a gentle rapid, barely more than a cat's-paw stroke on the water, then you're paddling through a green tunnel with water dragons for company, the current doing half the work. Lower down is a tricky squeeze between boulders where the water narrows and quickens. Get it wrong and the river will tip you out but even if you're dry at the other end, strip down for a swim well before you get to the haul-out spot at the Bendeela Campground.

There is something about Kangaroo Valley that seeps into your soul. "We don't know a great deal about its Aboriginal history," Caird says, "but we know it was regarded as a place of healing and people quite often feel that, even casual visitors passing through."

It also has a way of conscripting you to its needs. Last Christmas, I popped into the little Church of St Joseph to find out the service times. A nun was supervising a small group of elderly parishioners hanging Christmas lights to radiate like spokes from the palm tree at the front of the church. One was up a ladder but wasn't tall enough. Before I could say a Hail Mary, the nun had me up among the fronds, standing on the apex of the ladder, lassoing the trunk with ropes and tugging tight the light strands.

At the Christmas Eve mass, as he does every year, the Priest-in-residence & Hermit - and this is his title - Father Ronan Kilgannon, entered carrying a baby to represent the newborn Christ. While the tiny choir belted out Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Kilgannon - who has a face like a prophet and a persuasive tongue - held the baby aloft for a moment before returning it to its mother, traditionally given pride of place in the front pew.

How the Catholic population from a valley that numbers barely 1300 manages to produce a baby of just the right size in time for Christmas is itself no small miracle. Yet every year for the past three at least, a baby has appeared.

It's all too much, you see. One day, I fear, I'll visit and forget to leave.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Kangaroo Valley is about a 2½-hour drive from Sydney via Mittagong, slightly longer via the Princes Highway.

Staying there

Crystal Creek Meadows has cottages from $280 a night Monday-Thursday, from $340 a night Friday-Sunday, phone 4465 1406, see crystalcreekmeadows.com.au.

At Melross, the tariff at Rye House costs from $550 a night midweek and from $750 a night on weekends. At Millet House, the tariff is from $600 midweek, $850 on weekends.

Another good choice for large, self-contained accommodation is Ellywan. For 12 people, the cost for the minimum three-night stay midweek or a two-night weekend is $2375, phone 4465 1404, see ellywan.com.

Things to do

Canoes are available for hire from Kangaroo Valley Safaris. The trip from Hampden Bridge to Bendeela costs $35 a person, or $70 for two adults and two children, including bus back, phone 4465 1502, see www.kangaroovalleycanoes.com.au. Two-hour trail rides are available from Kangaroo Valley Horseriding for $85 a person, phone 4465 1912, see kangaroovalleyhorseriding.com.

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