Just an hour north of Sydney lies a protected nature reserve and wildflower garden so ecologically precious it’s usually off limits to visitors.
It’s not one for the spontaneous. Little known and largely untouched, Muogamarra Nature Reserve opens its proverbial doors to the public just six weekends a year.
Which, by my quite possibly wrong calculations* means it’s closed off to visitors like 96.8% of the time.
You could say it’s exclusive. But this is for a good reason: its own protection.
This place is virtually undisturbed. A rare, precious and frankly almost miraculous thing for this kind of bushland within the Sydney region.
But this is no happy accident. Muogamarra owes much of its preservation to one seemingly forgotten conservationist from back in the 1920s — but decades before his time.
If like me you’re a sucker for ‘hidden’, wild, usually off-limits places, or just a general fan of Aussie bushland/flora, or all of the above, why not, then Muogamarra is just the spot for you.**
Here is a little photo-essay about the place followed by its backstory.
Muogamarra Nature Reserve: Nature, heritage and stunning Hawkesbury views
Fragile ecosystems, scatterings of historic relics and Aboriginal carvings, and panoramic views of the surrounding Hawkesbury region make Muogamarra a special place. Back in 1972, one magazine writer described Muogamarra as:
…a place of plunging gullies and rugged sandstone heights commanding dramatic vistas of the Hawkesbury River far below…
Keep your eyes peeled and you may just spot an echidna or wedge-tailed eagle (nope, I didn’t know we had raptors around the Sydney metropolitan area either***). Apparently there may even be lyrebirds wandering about. LYREBIRDS.
There’s also a hanging swamp and even a tessellated pavement or two.
One of the reserve’s trails, called the Lloyd Trig walk, follows the path of an old convict-built road, itself based on Aboriginal walking paths (as so many were), and leads to a rocky platform. Once you’ve scrambled up and caught your breath, the views of the forested Hawkesbury sandstone country spread before you — with just a glimpse of the river below — are so pristine that it’s hard to believe that just an hour south on the freeway would have you smack bang in Australia’s biggest city.
You might spot 19th-century graffiti and remnants of an old telegraph line half submerged in the bushland. Some of the historic traces here, from building foundations to pipes, flagstones and dry stone walls, are said to date back to 1789 — the earliest days of the fledgling Sydney colony.
Even more precious are the traces of Aboriginal heritage hidden among the bushland here. You can’t miss the large engraving of a whale carved into the sandstone by the local Guringai people, for one thing. And there are many other, albeit more subtle Aboriginal heritage sites where that came from if you know where to look.
But the main drawcards for visitors are of the floral variety. Billed as a ‘hidden wildflower garden’, Muogamarra is regarded by many plant nerds as the best place to see wildflowers in the actual wild in the Sydney region.
From shy violets and ground orchids to stately trees came the waves of colour, delicate and vivid, not found in any other forest lands of the earth and only to be found in the sandstone regions of ours. Even the winds were fragrant… Week by week, other flowers, shrubs and trees will blossom in royal processional…
This was written in 1952 — and happily still rings true today during the wildflower blooms of late winter and early spring.
Come for the floral beauty, stay for the precious ecology. Colourful wildflowers may be the star attraction but rare and threatened plants are also among the 900 native Australian species of flora here.
And this was precisely the vision of the reserve’s founder.
The final factor that makes Muogamarra so special is its own inspiring, vaguely miraculous history: the largely forgotten tale of an unsung early conservationist and his life’s work. I pieced the story together from a tranche of old newspaper records and in doing so gained a newfound appreciation for this one-of-a-kind place.
Muogamarra’s legacy: the masterpiece of an unsung early conservation hero
John Duncan ‘JD’ Tipper was an electrical engineer by day, passionate conservationist (or ‘conservator’ in his words) by night.
When JD came across this isolated, pristine swathe of bush in 1923, he saw too the threats it was facing like much Hawkesbury sandstone forest, gullies and ridges of the day. Industry, bushfire, wildlife poaching, Sydney’s ever-encroaching development, general public apathy and, later, quarrying all imperilled this bushland. And so was born JD’s idea to found a sanctuary on this very spot.
Five years later, he started getting the ball rolling, founding and co-founding multiple conservation societies.***** By 1933, he was granted leasehold for the first section of some 600 acres. He named it ‘Muogamarra’, a term from the Awabakal of the Lake Macquarie people further north which he believed meant ‘preserve for the future’. Later this sanctuary extended to some 2050 acres in total.
One visitor in 1935 commented on the planting process at the then fledgling Muogamarra:
Stones on which numbers have been painted are used to mark the spots where young plants are sprouting hopefully through the loamy sand, and imagination can easily picture a magnificent reservation, bright with wattles, of which over one hundred varieties will be seen, and blazing with waratahs, gigantic lilies, red bottle brushes, boronias and Christmas bells…
A walk through the reserve in spring today ought to confirm this 1930s journalist’s imaginative fancy. That the place seems serene and untouched now is testament to the hard work put in during its early years. JD told a newspaper in 1953:
The public will never know what it cost us in money and labour — and blood, sweat and tears — to establish and safeguard Muogamarra.
And, on a helluva side note: like it wasn’t impressive enough that he led a team working tirelessly to set up an entire friggen sanctuary, populated it with plantings, and established two conservation groups, plus a volunteer bushfire-fighting brigade and an environmental study centre and museum, our JD found the time to lobby for another cause too:
He was one of the leaders in the fight against the massacre of millions of koalas and opossums for their skins for export. As a result of this battle, Mr Herbert Hoover, then President of the United States, banned the entry of the skins into America.****
The fur trade killed at least 8 million koalas between 1888 and 1927. Usually purposefully mis-labelled as ‘wombat’ fur,***** the pelts would be auctioned to fancy international fashion houses in London, the US and Canada. According to the Australian Koala Foundation:
The current population of approximately 87,000 wild Koalas in Australia******** represents only 1 per cent of those that were shot for the fur trade.
Mmmm-hmm. Even by the track record of a country like ours, it’s disturbing to let those numbers sink in. The mind boggles.
And back to JD, this work is what really cemented his upgrade to ‘new personal hero’ in my books. *salute* Plus, he also straight up refused to reveal the location of several Aboriginal rock carvings at Muogamarra, saying this was the only way to guarantee they’d be kept safe and undamaged.
In 1953, JD surrendered his lease but remained involved with the place as president and resident curator of the trust that came to oversee Muogamarra Sanctuary. Some 13 years later, the National Parks and Wildlife Service took control of the reserve. JD clashed with the Service over its management practices and in particular ‘the level of protection afforded to Aboriginal relics within Muogamarra’. This, along with poor health, made him end his association with the sanctuary in 1968.
He died just four years later, survived by a son and his second wife, one Enid Constance Monaghan.
And as for his beloved Muogamarra — surely his greatest legacy — JD’s vision rings true today (including the strict limitation of public access to just a few weekends a year!). A lookout and a walking track in the reserve are named after him. But perhaps the overall atmosphere, preserved even today ‘with the least amount of human intrusion’, as per his wishes, is the best testament to what he achieved as a conservationist. The fruition of his ideas, seemingly decades before their time, is satisfying to behold all these years later and a tribute to not only JD but the dozens if not hundreds of volunteers and rangers who played a part along the way:
The sanctuary is only for those who would study and enjoy, in quiet surroundings, a piece of our bushland as near to its virgin state as we can keep it.
If this is you, and you don’t mind an early wakeup and a bit of pre-planning, then go take a look at Muogamarra for yourself when it’s open. See what you think — and what you find. As you tread lightly along its paths, soak up the Hawkesbury views below, and enjoy the colours and fragrance of the native flowers donning their annual regalia, I hope you pause for a moment to remember the unsung hero behind this living masterpiece.
Check out Muogamarra Nature Reserve for yourself, either on a guided tour or self-guided. Be sure to get in early to nab a parking spot.
*/ ……… OK let’s be honest: Google search. Does anyone else hit Google up for basic eighth-grade-level maths or is that just me?
**At least between August and September, weekend days only, batteries not included.
*** *facepalm* Evidently this was written before I became a birder, wildlife volunteer, and all-round Crazy Bird Lady. Ohhh, the raptors we have around Sydney… and the number of factories and shopping centres they inexplicably find themselves in…
*****He was founding president of the Rangers’ League of New South Wales in 1928, and in 1932 helped found the Australian Bushland Conservation Association. The feminist in me notes that as far back as 1947 he worked closely with several women worked in the ranks as Assistant (Enid Monaghan — the eagle-eyed among you may pick up that a romance seems to have later bloomed between she and our JD), Deputy Conservator (Constance Daunt) and Assistant Conservator (Brenda Young).
**** Source here. However, note that when Herbert Hoover signed this order in 1927 he was Secretary for Commerce, not yet president.
*****Which I don’t get. If anything wombats are cuter than koalas. Still fucked in any case to kill an animal for a luxury coat, obviously. Possum, kangaroo and wallaby skins were also taken.
********Note this estimate was BEFORE the hellish 2019/2020 bushfire season which is estimated to have killed around 2 of every 3 koalas in NSW alone, not including the huge decline in the past 20 years already thanks to habitat destruction and tree clearing for agriculture, development and logging, drought and the effects of climate change. (And *gulp* if this is what’s happening for one of our most iconic, best-loved species…)
Tips, Links and Resources
Visiting Muogamarra Nature Reserve
What you should know before you go to Muogamarra Nature Reserve:
- Remember, Muogamarra is only open to visitors on six weekends a year, usually starting in late August… but note that, due to COVID-19, it won’t be open to the general public in 2020.
- Price: free to visit, but to really appreciate the site you might like to book a guided tour, which must be pre-booked.
- Tip: make sure to get there early to nab a parking spot — they will fill up.
- More on Muogamarra from the NSW Government, plus a factsheet with extra visitor information.
- A handy overview of bushwalks in Muogamarra from Bushwalking NSW.
Deep dive into the history and ecology of Muogamarra, and learn more about its legendary founder and the causes he championed, with my nerdy round-up of resources for learning more:
- The Plan of Management for Muogamarra and the nearby Maroota Historic Site.
- ADB entry on JD Tipper.
- Here are some links to the historic newspapers, accessed via the National Library of Australia’s amaaaaaayzing Trove, that I drew on when piecing together the story of Muogamarra’s early origins, vision, volunteer effort, gazettal and growth.
- Some readings on the horrific koala fur trade here from the Australia Koala Foundation, the ABC and, for those who like their sources more scholarly, the Australian Zoologist.
- Read more about the threats koalas are facing today from the Australia Koala Foundation, Mongabay, the WWF, tips from the ABC on helping koalas if you live in an area where they’re still around (you lucky so-and-so), plus this handy round-up of various koala-related projects and conservation groups from the NSW Government of all people (ironic, huh).