Travelling along the Waterfall Way, I see cattle run out onto the road up ahead. I slow my car and come to a standstill. A dog appears at the back of the cows, moving this way and that, quick as a flash, rounding up its charges and moving them safely across the road. With the dog’s work done, the farmer shuts the gate behind the herd and they move into the lush, green pastures of the Bellinger Valley.
On the way into town I find myself drawn to a rambling food garden. I’m wearing thongs, it’s summer and I hear a rustle at my feet. I stop instantly and look down. A fat blue tongue lizard is looking up at me, belly puffed out in a show of defence, tongue stretched out. This reptilian steward of the garden scurries off into the undergrowth, without so much as a goodbye, and I’m left standing there by myself, smiling to no one.
I’m on my way to Bellingen for my first Camp Creative. I’m one of 1,100 people who have come to explore the creative arts and escape for a week to the laid-back, artisan town that is Bellingen. There are over 60 courses to choose from including bollywood dancing, latin American percussion, canoe making, bamboo craft, sculpture and Gumbaynggirr language. I’ve enrolled in a travel writing course called ‘Have Words, Will Travel’.
I walk into the classroom and sit on a small orange plastic chair, better suited for the children that sit here during the school term. I notice the signs ready for use pinned up on the wall. A is for ‘amazing’, B is for ‘beautiful’, C is for ‘concerning’, D is for ‘disappointing’ and P is for the ‘principal’s office’. I hope I don’t get a P, that is, until the principal of the school drops into the room to welcome us. He speaks with enthusiasm and excitement about the week ahead. It is clear that he is passionate about learning and proud of his school and his town. I feel welcome here.
There are ten people in my class and, one by one, we introduce ourselves around the room. Some of us are locals, some of us have travelled from far away and some of us are nomads with no fixed address. With the patient and thoughtful guidance of our tutor Lee Mylne, we start to explore and share our stories. My classmates tell tales of near kidnappings in Rio, women with gold teeth in Kurdistan, gurus in Bali and sombre reflections of visits to Auswitch. It becomes quickly apparent that I am the least well travelled. But I don’t mind. I could sit here all day and listen to people’s adventures. I listen and observe. I think and I write. I play around with words and explore my own stories.
In my spare time I wander the streets of Bellingen. Colourful strands of wool are knitted ever so happily around a wrought iron fence and up into the leafy trees. Lettuce and herbs grow outside the shops on the main street. A shirtless man sits against the grocery store and strums an acoustic guitar, his rootsy folk songs drifting out over Hyde Street. Families meander along with long haired children in tow, carrying paper parasols to shade them from the sun. I sit in the Federal Hotel, eating vegetable tempura, sipping on crisp cider and typing my stories in the summer heat.
At the end of each day I drive back across Lavender’s Bridge, looking down at the people cooling off in the Bellinger River, and onto my campsite at the Bellingen Showground. I settle easily and quickly into the routine. I find myself looking less at the clock, instead gauging the time by the movements of the flying foxes and the call of the kookaburras. I listen to the melancholic yet comforting sound of a euphonium played by my neighbour as it floats across the campground.
In the evening I walk back across the bridge and up to 5 Church Street. ‘Local, seasonal, simple, good’ reads the sign on the red brick wall. The menu is covered in vintage fabric and I read about the people and places that grow and produce the food for the restaurant. The staff are polite, humble and welcoming. I sit and savour my chickpea simmer, sipping on a glass of red wine. It’s easy, comfortable and wholesome. This place feels like home and I could sit here forever.
I look out across the river to the dark blue mountain range that sits in the distance. The flying foxes start to lift up from the tops of the trees on Bellingen Island and eventually they pass us overhead. Next door, Kombu Wholefoods is closed for the evening, but I walk through their herb and vegetable garden on the colourful mosaic stepping stones. Jazz music wafts over from the restaurant next door with its lanterns swaying in the night. I walk over and stand in the doorway for a minute listening to the warm rhythm of the double bass and the notes of the clarinet and saxophone.
As the week draws to a close, I think back to that first day when I travelled out to Bellingen. I was busy, rushing, in a hurry to get there on time. But the moment I slowed and stopped to let the cows on the road pass by, I fell instantly into the slow, easy living of the place that is Bellingen.