We feel the school holidays coming to a close and want to make the most of the days we have left and arrange to explore our friends' new property in the hills behind our house. It is the western fall of the Great Dividing Range in northern NSW and a drive to the top corner of the farm reveals extraordinary views of the Peel Valley below. We drive further down the slope and leave the truck to walk with our sons, 11, and eight. It's steep country and we feel the microclimate change, the temperature dropping as we descend thigh high clumps of grass into a gully with a creek running through it. Along the way we find remnants of sheep fleece and start to ponder the fate of its owner. There is flattened grass ahead and it looks like the sheep has been dragged. As we reach the creek we're distracted by a rustle and movement in the trees. A pig. But we don't see it. Duncan walks quietly and teases the boys and I about being more bush stompers than bush walkers. The pig is long gone.
Walking along the creek we identify scats. Do they belong to pigs, wombats, deer, or sheep? The boys are learning to walk in the bush, balancing on rocks, finding their footing on uneven ground, avoiding stinging nettle and dodging giant orb-weaver webs. We come across wombat burrows and roads, so old they have been home to generations of wombats, for possibly 100 years or more. There is alien looking fungi growing on fallen logs and living tree trunks. Further along the creek bed we start to smell something rotting. As the smell grows stronger we find the source, a decaying sheep carcass. Perhaps it was sick or dying and has been dragged down the slope by a pig, leaving tufts of wool along its path.
We start to walk higher up the slope, following animal tracks. It's steep country and the path narrows. Gryff slips and slides down the slope on his belly, stopping his fall by clinging to the edge of the path. His face shocked, I rush to pull him up and brush him off. Thank goodness he didn't fall into the stinging nettles below. We head further up the slope as the path becomes harder to follow, thick with undergrowth. Duncan stops suddenly, silently mouthing, "Deer" and gesturing to the boys to come quietly. About 500 metres away on the opposite slope is a young red deer buck with small antlers. His russet colour stands out against the green and cream grass, grey saplings and eucalyptus leaves. We see him through binoculars, but scare him with our movement and chatter. We climb the hill hoping for another glimpse. Duncan sits with the boys low in the grass using the binoculars again to see the buck. He's hidden behind a sapling, but we can see a shoulder and movement as he turns to look at us.
The sun is dropping behind the hills and we head back along the spur of the range to our truck. The sun turns the grass gold and makes long shadows of tree trunks. Talk at the dinner table is of "Amazing" orb-weaver webs, falling down ledges, and red deer.