The spotlight pans the inky wilderness, scanning the scrub for signs of life. Our guide for tonight’s nocturnal safari swears she saw something skittering through the dusk, but what it was and where it’s gone, she can’t be sure.
What we can be sure of is what it wasn’t: a lion, an impala, a jackal. For this night safari is far, far out of Africa, in Kangaroo Valley in the NSW Southern Highlands, where my husband and I have ventured for a nature-filled weekend. And what we’re looking for on this slightly soggy Friday evening from the warm interior of a seven-seater van are critters of the cute and cuddly kind.
Suddenly, the van screeches to a halt. Our driver, Natalie, figure-eights her red spotlight around the inky darkness until… Gotcha! There, grazing contentedly on the roadside, is a big, barrelly wombat flanked by its baby.
We’re lucky, says Natalie: seeing a mum and bub together is rare, and for the rest of the safari our good fortune continues. We rumble through rain-hazed streets spying more nuggety wombats, groups of eastern grey kangaroos and wallabies popping out from the scrub, and a solo owl perched solemnly in a eucalypt.
All the while, Natalie proffers bits of animal lore, sotto voce. We learn that wombats can take off faster than a cheetah, and that tens of millions of years ago wombats were the size of hippos. But it’s the spaces between the creature-spotting and factual tidbits that provide the safari’s greatest pleasure: the chance to tune into the staccato rhythm being drummed onto the roof by the rain.
The following afternoon that staccato rhythm continues throughout the valley. I’ve spent much of the morning glancing at my phone, hoping for a call cancelling our afternoon horse trail ride. Like most adventurous capers in my life, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But now, reflecting on the one and only time I rode a horse (a helmetless, hangover-fuelled disaster in Africa) I realise I’m actually not too keen on a second round. Alas, my phone remains silent. An hour later I’m standing in the drizzle, Driza-Bone-clad, and being told in no uncertain terms that my horse “will ice-skate” on the mud during our ride.
“They can’t grip in the clay, so they’ll just lock up and slide,” says Geoff Fearon, self-proclaimed horse whisperer and owner of The Man From Kangaroo Valley Trail Rides. Fearon (the irony of whose name is not lost on me) tells us he trains his horses so well that they can live and act just like they would in the wild, without shoes, bridles and, if he is riding them, saddles.
This doesn’t dispel my fears, nor does Fearon’s next lesson. “There are only two jobs available in the animal world: leader and follower,” he says. “In the case of the fifth-fastest land animal on our planet, if you pick the wrong job around them, you’re in big trouble.”
Thankfully, during the next half hour we’re taught how to show our horse who’s boss, using leadership rather than dominance. Before I mount my horse – whose name is Thumper – Fearon shows me how to approach him in a non-threatening way. I sidle up to him, eyes cast down and arm held out beside me. Thumper ambles over and smells my hand, and Fearon tells me I’m now in control of the 600-kilogram creature.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way when, after riding just 10 minutes up Fearon’s spectacular rainforest tracks on Mount Moolootoo, Thumper decides to go for a run. As the bush flashes by I freeze, bleat out a pitiful “Help me!”, and promptly forget everything I’ve just been taught. Thankfully, it’s all over as quickly as it began, and I manage to fall into the easy rhythm of Thumper’s gait for the duration of our ride through the bewitching sub-tropical mountainscape.
The next day’s nature quest involves far less angst and, thankfully, a little less rain. We meet Lez Freeman, a guide from Kangaroo Valley Safaris, for a two-hour canoe trip along the Kangaroo River. The plan was to enter the river further up than we are and paddle through some rapids, but the rain has made them too dangerous, meaning we’ll have to skip that section. I do a mental cartwheel, while my husband hangs his head in disappointment.
We click on lifejackets and slip our canoes into the river. Soon we’re around the corner, feeling as though we’ve left civilisation very far behind. We slice through the still water, which reflects faultless mirror images of the overhanging trees and clouds, and get into a meditative rhythm. It’s just us, the river, and the occasional swan and kingfisher wheeling overhead.
The writer was a guest of the Kangaroo Valley Tourist Association.
From Sydney, head south on the Princes Highway. At Berry, turn right onto Kangaroo Valley Road. After 18 kilometres, turn right onto Moss Vale Road.STAYING THERE
Roo Corner has rooms from $165 a night, see roocorner.com.au.SEE THERE
“Meet the Locals” Wildlife Tour costs $35 a person for a one-hour tour. Phone 0408 197 226.
The Man From Kangaroo Valley mountain trail rides cost $75 for a two-hour ride. See kangaroovalleyhorseriding.com; phone 02 44651912.
Kangaroo Valley Safaris runs day and multi-day canoeing and kayaking trips. Costs range from $30 to hire a single kayak to $130 a day for overnight safaris. See kangaroovalleycanoes.com.au; phone 1800 805 742.