Friday, April 2, 2021

Amara dining opens to non-residents at Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains, NSW

Here's exciting news for those in search of exclusive dining experiences – Restaurant Amara at Spicers Sangoma Retreat in the Blue Mountains is now taking a small number of outside bookings. So now you don't have to be an in-house guest to experience the highly creative degustation menus by head chef Will Houia, but you'll wish you were!

Restaurant Amara
Amara - Eggplant taco shell, smoked mushroom and pea flowers

Amara is the Zulu word for grace and the restaurant's philosophy is to provide a graceful dining experience, drawing on an ecosystem of local producers and sustainable on-site practices reflecting the natural bushland surrounds. 

Amara - King Edward potato, marigold, sage and basil

Amara - Squid confit stuffed with chicken and tarragon mousse, fennel, chicken broth

The daily seven course dinner degustation menu and five course lunches on Friday to Sunday are all based on the freshest organic and seasonal  produce available within 100km of Sangoma, including the Hawkesbury region. Amara's ‘Harvest Menu’ shared lunch concept, offered on Monday to Thursday, focuses on one succulent protein and four of the freshest organic vegetables, mostly sourced from local friends at Harvest Farms, followed by dessert.

Amara - Milk skins, hazelnut praline, smoked ice cream, raspberries, dulche

Chef Will Houia prefers traditional cooking techniques with charcoal and fire and the use of controlled dehydration to prepare fruit and veggies, as well as indigenous ingredients to add subtle layers of flavour.  Why not stay for a week and have Will cook for you every day?

Amara - Head Chef Will Houia

Restaurant Amara, Spicers Sangoma Retreat

70 Grandview Lane, Bowen Mountain NSW 2753

Amara dining only guests - an intimate fine-dining experience by appointment

Dinner - 7 course degustation. 7 days 6pm-9pm $125pp

Lunch - 5 course degustation. Friday to Sunday 12.30pm-2.00pm $105pp

Lunch – Harvest Menu. Monday to Thursday 12.30pm-2.00pm $85pp

Please advise any dietaries at the time of booking

In-house guests dine 7 days

Breakfast, Harvest Menu Lunch Mon-Thurs & 5 Course Lunch Fri-Sun, 7 Course Dinner

Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains, NSW

Photos courtesy of Restaurant Amara, Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Midnight Oil, Makaratta Project at Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW

Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil, Hope Estate. Image © AP

What a thrill to be at Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW, for Midnight Oil's Makaratta Project. The moving and engaging welcome to Wonnarua Country was followed by powerful performances from Alice Skye, Troy Cassar-Daley and the mighty force of Peter Garrett/Midnight Oil and guests. What a show, what a message for reconciliation. 

The Welcome to Wonnarua Country. Video © AP

Midnight Oil onstage, Hope Estate. Image © AP

Troy Cassar-Daley and the crowd we were part of at Hope Estate. Image ©AP

Alice Skye's quiet, awesome ownership of a stage set up for a phenomenal rock band still sends shivers down my spine. Playing piano and accompanied by twins on guitar and drums, Alice, a Wergaia/Wemba Wemba person from Horsham, Victoria, played her heartfelt songs including her own I Feel Better, but I Don't Feel Good, also Terror Australia , written by Peter Garrett and Bones Hillman (Wayne Stevens) who sadly died in November 2020.

Alice Skye at Hope Estate, Image © AP

Hopefully heading out of Covid are we going back to a better, more thoughtful world?

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp: Virtual field trips for children in lockdown

How good is this? School children in lockdown around the world can hook up with a live personal call to see elephants in their natural jungle habitat in Northern Thailand at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort.

Virtual field trips at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp © Anantara

The complimentary service offers virtual participation in a jungle field trip including the resort’s Walking With Giants experience to get to know the elephants and develop a connection with them. The community initiative follows the success of Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s (GTAEF) live streams of rescued elephants walking in the jungle and taking a mud bath in the Ruak River. 

In Northern Thailand in the 'Golden Triangle' where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, the luxury Anantara resort is famous for its elephant camp, set up with the GTAEF in 2003 to help street begging elephants and others in need of help.  Over 60 elephants have been rescued and 23 now live in the resort's  jungle environment along with their mahout (carer) families.


During the livestream, children are introduced to elephants and join them on their daily walks accompanied by the mahouts and either a veterinarian or biologist to offer insights into how these intelligent creatures think and behave. Each virtual field trip is customised to meet the needs and curriculum of the students.


The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation can coordinate complimentary virtual field trips with elephants for online school classes that take place during Thailand daylight hours.  For more information or to reserve a live virtual fieldtrip spot, contact Mr John Roberts, Anantara’s Group Director of Sustainability & Conservation, on email  or telephone +66 53 784 084.


The Anantara portfolio specialises in authentic destination luxury, with over 40 properties located in Thailand, the Maldives, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Zambia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Portugal, with future properties planned across Asia, the Indian Ocean, Middle East, Africa and South America.


Source: Press release

Monday, January 18, 2021

Oh, Barmah! Tales from the riverbanks of the mighty Murray River (Dhungala) in Yorta Yorta country

We're in Victoria's Sun Country region at Barmah, looking at maps showing off-road tracks, significant wetlands and camping spots along Dhungala, the Murray River, Australia's longest and the third longest navigable river in the world. With or without the impressive statistics, this particular area is quite simply stunning, too good not to share. 

Dhungala, the mighty Murray River

This is an assignment that's brought us to the wider region without a fixed prior plan and it's a luxury to go as we please, choosing accommodation to suit. Barmah, the only Victorian town north of the Murray (I still haven't worked that out!) is on our radar as it is beside the river with a connecting bridge to NSW.  The Barmah Bridge Caravan Park has cabins and the kind owners give us the spotless Cockatoo cabin a short walk from both the riverside and the Barmah Hotel –  we're just in time for dinner at 6pm. The hotel bar/dining room has historic photos around the walls and it seems that bushranger Ned Kelly played cards here. We're masked up because of Covid – maybe cause for a philosophical discussion with Ned here?

There's hardly anyone about as the VIC/NSW border only opened the day before we arrived so we're beating the crowds, lucky to find this place to stay ahead of what is shaping up to be a huge weekend for camp grounds and accommodation along the river. Nine hours' drive from Sydney via Wagga Wagga and along back roads through plains of golden wheat fields –  it's been long day reaching the heartland of Yorta Yorta country, but there's still time to wander by the river at dusk, to the tune of a cacophony of corellas!

Pre-dawn we're heading in to the Barmah National Park where the Barmah-Millewa river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) forests meet the Moira and Barmah Lakes systems.  There's movement in the trees and a group of brumbies appears, ghostly shapes blending effortlessly into the setting, as do the kangaroos and emus we see along the way. The brumbies have a reprieve from the muster due to take place the following weekend, cancelled due to Covid. The Heritage listed Muster Yards stand empty. 

Tracks to the left lead to flooded areas but we hope to drive the loop road without incident. No such luck, the road ahead is closed, even to our rugged 4x4 with an intrepid driver! Backtracking we follow loops and turns to the river, where camp sites beckon and the idea of settling in to camp for a few nights is extremely tempting. There are huge trees and everywhere a sense of calm, as if every part of this place is sacred and protected, which it obviously is. There are canoe and shield trees, scarred trees, markers, cooking mounds and ceremonial and burial grounds –  signs for an interpretive walking track from the Dharnya Aboriginal Centre (closed) help visitors focus on details it would be easy to overlook, such as how the burls on the huge river red gums are formed.

Brumbies and burls
Self-guided trails

Still looking for the lake system we try several tracks, finding car parks on the edge of the river but still no lake. Parts of the forest are flooded, the dark waters reflecting the trees in a mesmerising fashion, like a mystical/magical film setting. Backtracking again we follow another side road and find a large group of fishermen poised to launch their boats. This is Barmah Lake and it's sensational, the river widening, lined with beaches and reed beds, reflecting the clouds from its calm surface. 

Stunning Barmah Lake

Following tracks back beside the river we pass named points that are obviously favourite camping spots, a few occupied with campers looking decidedly happy and relaxed. No doubt they'll have the luxury of time to experience the fascinating features of these significant freshwater wetlands, recognised under the international Ramsar convention and home to around 550 plant species, more than 200 species of birds including Superb Parrots, mammals, frogs, native fish, turtles and much more. 

Reluctantly we leave the park for our next location at Moama in NSW opposite the historic VIC river port of Echuca. Our choice for the next two nights is a yurt at the eco-friendly Talo Retreat, the glamping section of the large Moama on Murray Resort offering, the Talo Retreat video says, an experience you will never forget. Biking and canoeing are options or just lazing, swinging in a hammock, looking out for parrots and kangaroos. But there's no relaxing for us today as we must be elsewhere and leave as the place fills up with a film crew and two media groups. Luxury glamping facilities are among the future plans for the resort, we're told.
Yurt at Talo Retreat

Barmah Hotel
After a busy couple of days we're due to head north again, but somehow we're drawn back to the Barmah National Park and happily there's a vacancy for one more night at Cockatoo cabin! I'm not sure why I feel so elated but we'll have another opportunity to enjoy the great bacon and egg rolls at the Barmah Post Office/store and it's like going home for a meal again at the Barmah Hotel, experiencing that timeless sense of reality that country Australia has to offer if you can slow down a bit and tune in to the surroundings. It's all so uncomplicated, very simple and very real. 

Back on the tracks, driving through the river red gum forest beside the Murray, we again experience the sense of peace and presence and an atmosphere of wellbeing that will definitely not be forgotten.

All words, photos and video © Alison Plummer. 

The annual World Wetlands Day on 2 February celebrates extraordinary places like this.

Up close:

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Hairy clairy and Christmas bush put on a spectacular show in Wollombi NSW

Christmas bush. © Alison Plummer
Angophora and Christmas bush. ©AP

Spring has been beautiful at our place in Wollombi NSW and we've spent time documenting plants here and in the neighbourhood, continuing our ongoing study begun in the year 2000. In all that time we haven't seen flannel flowers as prolific as they have been this year or Christmas bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) which has been extraordinary with red trees dotting the landscape around the ridges and cliffs. We have clerodendrum tomentosum,  too, covered in creamy white blossom followed by green berries surrounded by red – the berries turn black in yet another photogenic colour combination. The leaves are hairy underneath and the common name is hairy clairy or hairy lollybush!

Clerodendrum and scarlet honeyeater. © Alison Plummer
Clerodendrum and scarlet honeyeater, above.
Clerodendrum berries, below. ©AP/KPM

Clerodendrum berries.©Ken Martin

Things to do and places to stay in Wollombi/Laguna:

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Sandstone springwatch 2020, Wollombi Valley

Patersonia sericea©AP

People often ask about our place in the Australian bush in the Wollombi Valley. In contrast to my beloved English cottage garden, this wide treescape with its soaring sandstone ridges and deep valleys is a little harder to explain, especially when I talk about the plants.

Sandstone cliffs, our place. ©AP

While the wider view is fabulous, hidden here in the woods are treasures that are often hard to spot. I've been cataloguing the native plants and wildlife here since we came in the 1990s, always particularly excited about orchids and the beautiful carpets of Patersonia (flag irises) that appear in spring.  I have a ton of reference books, but some of the plants come in many varieties ... !

The irises like certain parts of the property and knowing if they are flowering takes a little guesswork – they like a warm sunny morning so it's not hard to harness the energy and take off for the 30-minute walk around the ridge to see if they are flowering. I thought the anomalies between one area and another were solely the shade or the soil, then I realised there were two varieties. The first to show is Patersonia glabrata, usually standing shoulder-to-shoulder on tufted stems, but razed to the ground by a very hot fire (aided and abetted by the dropping of incendiaries!) three years ago this spring. While the ground is still barren, the irises have re-appeared and I hope will thicken out to cover the hillside as before. This is the first of the 2020 season - a little early?  They are on a very sheltered, north-facing sandy slope. I don't think it is Patersonia fragilis as that's rare.

Patersonia glabrata, Leafy Purple Flag. ©AP

The top block is flat and the irises bloom later there. On closer inspection in other years I found that they are a different type, patersonia sericea. These aren't out yet, but hopefully soon. Note the tufted stem:

Patersonia sericea.  Photo: October 2016. ©AP

Meanwhile  I've seen tiny Pterostylis – greenhood orchids again for the first time since our fire. Over the years I've seen several different varieties and they are notoriously similar so difficult to pin down. As a friend said, they resemble little triffids and it's hard to think of them as orchids. These have little 'waists' and are green and white.

Pterostylis, Greenhoods, July 2020. ©AP

Next to erupt throughout the bush has been the Hardenbergia vine, a vivid purple people pleaser, seen here blooming over a burnt area that's still struggling to recover even after three years.

Hardenbergia. ©AP
There are more plants in bud and the birds are gathering. So thrilled to have seen the white goshawk again today for the first time for years! Also spied this Wonga vine, Pandorea pandorana:

Pandorea pandorana, Wonga vine. August 2020. ©AP