“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
― Anthony Doerr,
I made a few attempts last year to read Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind. After my visit in autumn to the vast Pilliga Forest of inland New South Wales, I was motivated to complete it in a day. It seemed a fitting conclusion to my first Pilliga experience. Sometimes we spend our lives being terrified of imaginary monsters, while at the same time being blind to real and insidious threats. Sometimes our fears also blind us to the light.
There is something in the Pilliga, that’s what people say. Accounts of Min-Min lights, the ghost of the Pilliga Princess, flesh-eating Yowies, and other strange happenings abound. For many years it has evoked fear in the hearts of some travellers and locals, while for others it has been a treasured home or habitat worth fighting to protect.
Even if all the terrifying tales are true, I suspect the Pilliga has more to fear from the actions of humans than we have to fear from it. In recent years, the forest has been threatened by proposals for over 800 Coal Seam Gas (CSG) wells. However, companies and governments did not anticipate the strong opposition from concerned groups, and so far most of the Pilliga, and the deep artesian water supplies it feeds, remains safe.
Before any of you think I was particularly brave or irresponsible to visit the Pilliga on my own, given the frightening stories and warnings, let me try to avert any attempts at hero worship or judgement. I went to the Pilliga because at that moment the thought of being swallowed up by whatever dangers lurked there offered respite from my current mindset.
I’d been returning home from a farm-sitting job in western Victoria. It was meant to be a time to unwind and recharge emotionally and physically. A time to leave responsibilities and dramas aside. A time to spend with old friends, and a time for social media black-out.
I achieved some of these goals, but shortly after beginning the solitary 1900 kilometre drive home, I received a distressing call from medical staff about a loved one. The relaxation benefits of my trip seemed undone in a few moments. The anxious jaw clenching and teeth grinding began.
At that point, a brief visit to the Pilliga on my way seemed immensely appealing. Disappearing forever into the vast “menacing” scrub offered a blissful escape. The potential perils of the Pilliga seemed benign in comparison to other concerns.
Besides, if I did see a Yowie, how thrilling to grab photographic proof. I’d be famous and could rescue my rapidly deteriorating spine by purchasing an insanely expensive trekking backpack with the proceeds of lucrative media deals. And, if the Yowie did fancy my flesh, well, my family could still make a fortune from the media attention and my life insurance policy. It seemed a win-win situation.
So, with a certain amount of reckless abandon, I took a slight detour in search of sanctuary, excitement, or oblivion.
Viewed from the long, lonely straight stretch of Newell Highway, the Pilliga may appear unrelenting, impenetrable and monotonous – not typical tourist fodder, but on closer inspection, it is teeming with life.
A haven for around one third of Australia’s bird species, and with detailed bird route maps available, the Pilliga attracts avian enthusiasts from afar. A National Parks and Wildlife brochure describes it as one of the iconic landscapes of the Australian inland:
“The Pilliga is full of life and richness. The forest changes from cypress pine to ironbark to scribbly gum to box and back again in just a few hundred metres. Expansive heathlands burst into spring colour, massive river red gums line the sandy creeks and more than 350 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs make the forest their home.”
My first visit to the Pilliga Forest began with the medium grade, 1.7 kilometre, Sandstone Caves Circuit, located along a dirt track off the Newell Highway. After previous acts of vandalism, the Aboriginal Co-management Committee requested the turn off be unmarked. They do welcome visits by interested and responsible tourists though, and details of its exact location can be obtained by contacting the Pilliga Forest Discovery Centre. To make the most of your visit, it is recommended you book a guided walk with an Aboriginal Discovery Ranger. Time constraints and the need for group bookings meant I didn’t have this option.
Turning off the Newell Highway onto a red dirt track immediately lifted my spirits. Memories returned of my young children playing in a similar landscape over 20 years ago when we lived on a remote 70 000 hectare property in far western New South Wales. (You can read more about it in The Five Year Adventure.)
It was an extremely challenging period in my life and where I spent some of my darkest days. However, it was also intermingled with moments of indescribable joy. It’s where my daughter was born.
Some places will always be a part of you, or perhaps it is the other way around. I think I left a part of myself there all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I felt a sense of wholeness – a healing – in returning to a similar landscape.
Next, I was greeted with a welcome sign:
“Yaama! Gamilaraay dwahun-gu gulbiyaay.
Hello! Welcome to Gamilaraay country.
Our people have lived here for thousands of years. We hope you will cherish and respect this special place as much as we do. Enjoy your visit.”
No sign of Yowies, Min Min lights, or ghosts just yet. I was being watched by hundreds of eyes, but so far they were only of the small reptilian variety. Later I was to wonder if something much larger was observing me.
The beginning of the track meanders through brown bloodwood, black pine and narrow leaved ironbark. Fires have blackened some areas, however, significant regrowth has occurred and after recent rain it was flushed green. On the morning of my visit it had showered, adding extra vibrancy to the sky, soil and rocks.
Closer inspection of the forest floor revealed a great diversity of plant species, which change through the seasons.
Many of these are used as bush tucker by Aboriginal people.
I came to a junction and chose the anti-clockwise direction which took me along a sandstone ridge path.
Eventually, I reached the large sandstone outcrop and the first cave.
A series of cathedral type caves and overhangs have been formed through thousands of years of weathering.
The startling textures, patterns, and colours of the weathered sandstone form a natural gallery and kept me absorbed for hours.
It’s difficult to show with a flat picture but this is the conical ceiling of one of the caves.
Some of the caves also contain Aboriginal grinding grooves and rock carvings. These include etchings of emu and kangaroo prints that may be up to 12 000 years old.
Stone axes were sharpened on sandstone, leaving deep grooves.
As the information board and brochures state, these sites provide a strong link with traditional times and the use of bush tucker and other natural resources remain an important part of the local community.
The Pilliga Forest lies on vast horizontal layers of sandstone, formed by sediment laid down by a series of ancient lakes. These layers were compressed and cemented into rock, and later shattered by volcanic eruptions.
According to the information brochure, the sandstone is up to 300 metres thick and stretches over 400 kilometres.
These porous sandstone layers soak up rain like a sponge and carry it west, deep into the Great Artesian Basin.
One of the many concerns about CSG drilling is that it may contaminate this underground water resource.
I contemplated how much time, energy, and activity had occurred to produce the images taken by my camera that day. The patterns will never look exactly the same again. Even after one day some of the sand particles will be gone.
I also pondered the many Aboriginal generations who had gathered in these caves.
It would be difficult to visit the Sandstone Caves and not feel a sense of awe for this ancient land and its custodians.
Curious eyes continued to follow my progress along the ridge.
Skinks were an important food source for Gamilaraay people.
As I rounded the sandstone outcrop, sunshine from the east turned the rocks a dazzling orange-gold.
I understand why the Pilliga may feel like a scary place. I expect darkness would give the scrub a completely different atmosphere and I wouldn’t relish a car malfunction on that long, lonely quiet road in the middle of the night. I am not doubting that it holds dangers, but for me it was like returning home. The Sandstone Caves Circuit was a place of warmth and light. I felt welcome.
Even when an odd experience occurred on the return to my car, I felt no sinister presence. While focusing on plants by the path, my camera detected a face in the scene. Before I had time to consider what this meant, I heard a loud whoosh and the sound of something large moving in the scrub behind me. I spun around but couldn’t spy anything in the open bushland or in the sky.
Perhaps I should have been afraid, but the incident only left me puzzled. I was still infused with the warmth and peace of the Pilliga Light.
Later, I was to read that the Sandstone Caves are only about 5 kilometres from a detailed sighting of a hairy, 7 foot, flesh-eating, human-like creature. Yowie, ghost, native animal, or human – whatever it was left me in peace, and I’d survived yet another solo walk.
It’s easier to destroy land we feel is empty, inferior, worthless, ugly, or dangerous – if we turn it into a monster. In the process, we may damage something beautiful and precious because we never really knew it.
In the same way, we can make monsters out of people, and of course, this renders them easier to mistreat, as in Anthony Doerr ‘s World War II novel. What monsters we make of people and places when we need to justify acting like monsters towards them. How easy it is sometimes to lose sight of the light.