Want to immerse yourself in the forest, tell tall tales fireside, or simply go wild on canapes and sparkling wine outside of wi-fi range? Wildfest, Australia’s only annual wilderness festival, can make it happen.
From Saturday September 29 to Sunday October 7, the festival will spread through the Southern Highlands for the second time and, as its founder Amanda Fry explains, it’s “all about relaxing, connecting, getting offline – just enjoying the moment.
“[If] we don't return emails in 10 minutes, no matter what time of the day it is, people think it’s strange,” says Fry. “We’re always on. And as humans we need time to be off and unavailable and in the moment with people that we love, and doing the things that we love.”
There’s plenty of chances to switch off at Wildfest, which caters to all levels of outdoorsy, from budding Bear Grylls types to city slickers desperately seeking a break from the big smoke. Fry – who once worked in high-powered PR roles for big international brands herself – wants to show there’s are many ways to connect with nature.
“If you want to go and do a three-day wilderness trip and learn about cooking and putting up tents and going hard, we have that,” she says. “If you want to go ‘glamping’ and let someone else do the work, we have that. Our primary goal is to design different ways to get people outdoors for different reasons.”
One option is “forest bathing” – a learned technique, not unlike mindfulness, that was born in Germany, popularised in Japan and that Fry says is now “as popular as yoga” overseas. Unlike hiking, it’s less about exploration and exercise, and more about absorbing the energy of the forest.
“It's stopping to smell the flowers,” she says. “It's not just walking to climb the mountain, it's being in the forest. It's [seeing] it, smelling it, tasting it, feeling it, listening.”
For Canoes, Champagne and Canapes, you won’t need to walk at all. Instead you’ll glide downstream on the Kangaroo River, through Morton National Park, on a couple of custom-built canoes joined by a tabletop set with forest canapes and local wine.
“You get out of that canoe two hours later and you feel like you've just had a full-body massage,” says Fry. “Your body just lets go.”
Food is the focus at the Wild Native Feast, where Grand Bistro chef Damien Monley will put on a seven-course spread that will include a pecora-cheese tart, and pine nut and currant salsa; Ora King Salmon with preserved lemon and tahini yoghurt; and wild-blackberry pudding.
The Campfire Cooking Classes are more like a dinner party where you make your own meal. You’ll learn how to build a fire and prepare it for cooking, how to cook on coals and a couple of campfire recipes, too. The classes are led by Fry (a former chef) and other guest chefs, including Len Evans and Peter Rowland.
There are pop-up glamping packages, that allow you to sleep (in relative luxury) under the stars on a property backing onto the Wingecarribee River; a mini retreat, with yoga, vegan food, guided hikes and more; a three-day canoeing adventure; an artisan basketry class with Sydney artist Catriona Pollard; and a range of wilderness walks, too.
For families, there’s the Wild Night Out sleepover at Tidbinbilla wildlife sanctuary, 40 minutes from Canberra. A ranger will guide youngsters through the 54.5-kilometre nature reserve where they’ll learn about native flora and fauna (and maybe even meet some).
In the gardens of the Manor House in Sutton Forest kids are invited to get acquainted with some other Australian natives, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, at Tales From the Wild. The storytelling workshop will celebrate the simple joy of spinning a cracking yarn, and mark the 100-year anniversary of May Gibbs’s eponymous children’s classic.
“[We’re sitting under a tree on cushions outside in a beautiful garden. And you stop and take it in,” says Fry. “Mum and dad drop the kids off, they have a juice and learn about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie with us, while mum has a massage and a wine and then comes and picks them up.”
The underpinning mantra of Wildfest is “people protect what they love”, Fry says.
“Make them fall in love with the wilderness areas, so we fight to save them. That way, that next generation will get to see kangaroos and wallabies and echidnas and emus and all the things I see on a daily basis down here, too.”
Wildfest is happening from Saturday September 29 to Sunday October 7 in the Southern Highlands. Events vary in length and price.