Theatre in the wild

Nature puts on daily, and nightly, shows in this private forest, writes Craig Tansley.

We're sharing a dusty track but the three wallaroos don't detect me on their marsupial radar. They practically leap on top of me. I'm not sure who's startled more - we all jump. They jump higher, though, straight up a sheer granite rock face, defying gravity. The largest one stops, stares and tightens his jaw, challenging me to follow. He's tall, dark and handsome; as I move on I feel his stare from the forest.

Grasshoppers leap from my footsteps, the whirr-whirr of cicadas intensifies. I find the river and in the seconds before I jump in, two platypuses surface and dive again. Overhead a wedge-tailed eagle does circle-work. The water is cooler than I expected, so I soak here, staring at the gum trees towering above me, wondering how many people have ever seen this private forest.

I've never been the type of traveller to wallow for days in a resort or hotel without exploring every inch of my surroundings, so I had called in at the tourist information office at Tenterfield and collected a stack of literature before I arrived at Anketell Forest. I planned trips to local wineries. I imagined bush walks in distant national parks and meals at noteworthy restaurants; even a visit to Tenterfield's most famous of attractions, the Tenterfield Saddlery, cast into folklore by the town's favourite son, Peter Allen.

Then I drove south along the highway, past towering granite escarpments, climbing a kilometre or more in height until I reached a turn-off. I steered right on dirt, took a turn over a cattle grid where lorikeets swooped my rental car, found an old sheep-shearing shed - and never left. The brochures stayed right where I'd put them in the back of the car.

This is 800 hectares of private forest named by the bloke who's walking up now to welcome me, shadowed by an old, near-blind kelpie and three chooks. Out here a kind of bush theatre plays through the days and nights. Right now a kookaburra is butting the earth with his big, square head, a magpie chases a couple of crimson rosellas, and grey kangaroos crash about in the forest. The heat expands and contracts the corrugated-iron roof, causing sounds like someone tossing ping-pong balls, and a milky brown calf called Miss James Brown comes in almost close enough to pat.

"You're lucky, we only finished the shed this morning,"says Steve Merta, who has spent years restoring the 50-year-old shearing shed on his property to create a rustic retreat for people desperate for downtime. Shearing gear from the past 120 years hangs on its walls. Sliding doors are rolled back to expose two long decks that connect the huge living room with the world outside. The furniture has been handcrafted by Merta from hardwood milled on the property. The granite on the bathroom floors comes from the same source. But a sound system powerful enough to entertain a crowd of 5000 is his real pride and joy. "Play your music loud, we don't care," Merta says. "If it's music we hate it's just an excuse for us to go camp up the bush somewhere till you leave."

When I wake in the morning, the view from my bedroom in the shed is of a corrugated-iron water tank beside a big old gum where kookaburras sit. As the day warms up, I feel like I'm having cups of teas on a Drysdale canvas. At night there's nowhere with more stars and, at 1200 metres, you can almost touch them.

Merta bought the property to raise sheep a decade ago and named it after his mother's family in Ireland. He decided he hated sheep and established Anketell Forest as a wildlife refuge. It's a wildlife corridor that links the north-eastern coastal ranges with the western slopes. A lot of animals pass through - platypus, echidnas, frill-necked lizards, quolls, kangaroos, wallaroos and more. If you miss them, you can see their tracks.

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I see massive granite boulders balanced on top of each other, like an Australian version of Stonehenge. Redgums, blackbutts, swamp gums, tea trees and casuarinas dominate the landscape but there are rock orchids, staghorns and bonsai Port Jackson figs among them. From Eagle Rock, one of the highest points on the property, you can see all the way to Texas (Texas, Queensland).

You could walk or swim for the whole weekend or paint - canvases are available - but I'm content to sit in the Shearing Shed. Each vantage point takes in a different show. It takes me hours to complete simple tasks - making a cup of tea, preparing a sandwich - because I'm distracted by the bush - lorikeets chasing kookaburras, or a huge lizard sunning itself on a nearby boulder.

I came here alone but find, even in the darkest of nights, I'm never lonely or bored. Something is always afoot: thunderstorms brew and crackle over the ridge, birds come and go, kangaroos eventually give in to their curious nature.

I never did see what else the area offers. The only time I leave is to stock up on supplies from the nearest town, Deepwater, a 25-minute drive away. Even then I scuttle home, past the rickety cattle grid and the slow-chewing calves. I have a lot to catch up on.

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of NSW Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Anketell Forest is about eight hours' drive from Sydney via the New England or Pacific highways (turn off at Grafton). QantasLink flies to Armidale, about 90 minutes' drive south. Turn off at McCowans Road, 65 kilometres north of Glen Innes and follow the signs.

Staying there

The Shearing Shed has two bedrooms with en suites and a huge living area and kitchen. It can sleep up to eight or a couple can enjoy the space. There is also a small cabin for couples about half a kilometre away from the main building. The shed costs $280 a night for four people; $40 for each extra person. Phone 6734 5080, see anketellforest.com.au.

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