It's a brisk yet sunny morning in the NSW Southern Highlands as we bump along a dirt track that wends its way through Joadja Old Town, the ruins of a former mining settlement.
Warmed by a fiery nip of gin from the Joadja Distillery, I picture the Scottish miners and their families who made this harsh, remote valley home as we pass the remains of crumbling buildings, including a row of abandoned houses. Soaring chimney stacks, retort ovens and a school lie in various states of dilapidation as nature slowly takes Joadja back; climbing over the crumbling buildings and working its way into the foundations.
It's here in the ghostly relics of the deserted town, once home to a thriving community of 1300 people, that the inaugural Wildfest Southern Highlands will take place this October. Founder Amanda Fry, a former public relations executive, dreamed up the three-day annual event celebrating nature and helping people connect with the great outdoors after attending a mentoring session with Richard Branson on Necker Island. Wildfest, she says, marries her two passions: travel and conservation.
The festival, which includes glamping under the stars, gourmet food and wine, entertainment and luxe wilderness experiences, will take place among Joadja's ruins, 25 kilometres west of Mittagong, not far from where Fry, formerly of Sydney, now resides. The site is also home to the renowned Joadja Distillery. "Wildfest is about connecting with nature, but with a luxe twist. It appeals to an audience that wouldn't necessarily camp, canoe, bush walk or ride a mountain bike," Fry tells me.
As she shows me around the 290-hectare site, I ask why she opted for the austere and curious setting. "Its wilderness is unmatched in the area and the historical backdrop of colonial mining ruins are incredible," she says, outlining the events that will unfold across the weekend.
Food will play a huge part, with catering by the formidable Brigid Kennedy of the Loch Berrima. There will also be bush walking, abseiling, canoeing, mountain biking and performance art, along with a night photography session, an open-air wellness spa, an optional Wild Canoe experience and the signature event, Wild Native Feast. Damien Monley, head chef and owner-operator of Bowral's Grand Bistro, is curating the seven-course native feast, mixing foraged and locally grown paddock to plate ingredients, set among Joadja's ruins.
Before moving to the Southern Highlands, the talented Monley ran the kitchen in Matt Moran's eponymous two-hatted restaurant. Before that he was head chef at the renowned gastropub the Whitehorse Pub on Parsons Green in London. He also owned two notable Sydney eateries, Madame Char Char at Surry Hills and Flat White Cafe, Woollahra. After wrapping up a busy Saturday night at his chic Bowral restaurant, he says he simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to cook for 250 people in the middle of the Australian bush among historic ruins.
"Those lucky enough to get a seat can expect an incredible dining experience in a magical location. Think visual abundance, slow cooked meats, local produce and a bit of theatre – miles away from anywhere, with the profusion of nature all around. Magic!"
Apart from the native feast, all other catering for Wildfest will be done by Kennedy, owner and operator of the Loch, chef and driving force behind the Southern Highlands Food and Wine clusters. Just the day before, I'd attended one of Kennedy's Foodie Field Days – the phenomenal Festival of the Roast. The seven-course (sold out) degustation lunch matched with local wines – each course a take on the humble Sunday roast – was served at the Loch's delightful farm setting, bathed in winter sunshine and bustling with visitors, mostly Sydney foodies.
"Wildfest food is all about the season's very best, locally foraged produce. We'll be using hand-reared pork and lamb from Red Leaf Farm, Robertson Spring Water Trout, wild herbs from the fields and forests of the highlands, spirits and craft brews from the remarkable Joadja Distillery and sublime cool climate wines, selected from local family growers," Brigid says.
Another highlight will be the accommodation. Think glamping at its finest with premium walk-in bell tents, high thread count sheets, mattress beds on raised bases, plush bath towels and five-star concierge service. Participants will wake to the waft of locally made fresh baked sourdough served with smoky butter, roasted coffee and hand-blended tea, while hot showers will be on offer in specially constructed amenities blocks.
The Wildfest setting is permanently home to the Joadja Distillery. Its owners, Valero and Elisa Jimenez, who live on the property, are the custodians of the heritage site. The Scottish legacy in the valley and the history of "sly grog" inspired the couple to establish the distillery three years ago. After a hard day at work, many miners would head to the valley's hotel for a drink, they tell me.
"We're continuing the township's appreciation for a good drop by creating Joadja Whisky. Many of the ingredients that go into making our whisky come directly from the valley, including the water which comes from our natural freshwater spring."
As we farewell Valero and Elisa and head back to civilisation, Fry tells me Wildfest will open up the great Australian wilderness like never before. "It creates a fresh way for travellers to interact with the landscape, and disconnect from working life."
In my mind's eye, I can see it clearly. Awed city slickers under the southern night sky, sipping local wine and listening to stirring music. The crumbling industrial ruins, entangled by foliage, moodily backlit, adding to the drama of the distinctive setting.
"That feeling of absolute awe for the wonder of nature is what I want people to experience," Fry says. For those who feel the call of the wild but don't necessarily want to give up good coffee and high thread count linen, this could be exactly what you're looking for.
Wildfest Southern Highlands will run from 27-29 October 2017.
The three-day inclusive Wildfest experience, including food by Brigid Kennedy of the Loch, paddock-to-plate Wild Native Feast by local chef Damien Monley, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), some activities, entertainment and accommodation in luxury tents, starts from $2950 a person quad share. See wildfest.com.au
Accommodation for those attending only the Wild Native Feast event is also available at the Loch, a rustic, four-bedroom guesthouse in converted horse stables 20 kilometres from Joadja. The Loch opens its doors each Sunday (10am-4pm) for a fabulous farm gate experience (available for in-house guests and the public) with a paddock to plate menu sourced from the Loch's property, farm stall and more. Doubles start from $210 midweek, including a breakfast hamper. See theloch.net.au
Cordeaux Farm, a historic two-bedroom early 19th-century sandstone cottage is on a working farm, five minutes' drive from the township of Berrima (about 25 minutes' drive from Joadja). The charming cottage sleeps four, has an open fireplace and overlooks the tranquil Cordeaux Creek. From $250 a night midweek. See cordeauxfarm.com
Tickets are available for the Wild Native Feast on Saturday, October 28, which includes a seven-course dinner under the stars, award-winning wines and a musical surprise for $345 a person. Return transport is included from four Southern Highlands' locations.
A Wild Canoe experience led by Travis Frenay, from Paddle and Portage, will also run during Wildfest and costs $195 a person for three hours, including canapes, champagne or wine. See wildfest.com.au
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Wildfest Southern Highlands, the Loch Berrima and Cordeaux Farm.