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 / ……… OK let’s be honest: Google search,* means it’s closed off to visitors like 96 point… point…… uhhh…96.8% (??) of the time. Promise I’ll stop trying to math now.
Point is, 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 bushland within the Sydney basin.
But this is no happy accident. Muogamarra owes much of its preservation to one forgotten conservationist from back in the 1920s — but decades before his time — a new personal hero of mine.
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 and the behind-the-scenes backstory that saw it preserved, itself a rare and precious gem — AKA a happy conservation story.
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 lurking 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 (naturally), 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. Chances are there are many more Aboriginal heritage sites where that came from — grinding grooves,
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 beautiful wildflowers, 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 piece of the puzzle as to what makes Muogamarra so special a place is its own surprising, vaguely miraculous history. The largely forgotten tale of an unsung early conservationist and his life’s work.
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 he 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 — from industry, bushfire, wildlife poaching, Sydney’s ever-encroaching development, general public apathy and, later, quarrying. And so the vision of founding a sanctuary there was born.
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 park in spring ought to confirm the journalist’s imaginative fancy. If the place seems serene and untouched now, that 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.
The mind boggles. The body facepalms.
But back to JD, this is what really cemented him from ‘cool guy from history I’d never heard of’ to ‘new personal hero’. *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 undamaged.
In 1953, JD surrendered his lease but remained as president and resident curator of the trust that came to oversee Muogamarra Sanctuary. In 1967, 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‘, 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, who my research indicates was his assistant as far back as 1947.
And as for his beloved Muogamarra — surely his greatest legacy — JD’s vision rings true today (including the strict requirements around public access being limited to a few weekends a year!). A lookout in the reserve is named after him as the founder. But perhaps the overall atmosphere, preserved even today ‘with the least amount of human intrusion’, as per his objective, is the best testament to what he achieved as a conservationist with ideas seemingly decades before his time, helped by dozens if not hundreds of volunteers and rangers both then and now:
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 a bit of pre-planning, then go take a look at Muogamarra for yourself and see what you think — and what you find. Just remember this unsung hero, and tread lightly. This natural botanic garden you’re walking in is very much his 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.
*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 wildlife volunteer, birder 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), 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 item coat, of course, but come on. Though I note 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* this is just one species, albeit an iconic one…)