Drive just 50 km west of Sydney and you’re in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Rising to more than 1,100 m above sea level at its highest point, it is the fourth area in New South Whales to be declared a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 2000.
What a delight to have pristine wilderness literally at the doorstep of a bustling city like Sydney. The preservation of such ‘prime real estate’ doesn’t just happen by accident. The majestic Blue Mountains are the object of affection of The Colong Foundation for Wilderness — a small, passionate group of nature lovers who have for more than four decades strived to keep the bulldozers at bay.
The foundation has been at work before it became cool to banner-wave about global warming and deforestation. Keith Muir is the Director of Colong Wilderness and he frequently hops on a train from Sydney to Faulconbridge for a bushwalk in the mountains when the stress levels peak. He told me it’s where he goes to find inspiration.
“I was a greenie before I knew I was one”, says Keith about his work. He grew up surrounded by nature and recalls a childhood full of wonder and learning.
He rues the lack of a connection with nature for children growing up in cities. “If you didn’t grow up in touch with nature, chances are you’ll grow up to be an adult who’s more concerned about a solitary tree being hacked down in their neighbourhood than thousands of hectares of wilderness being razed to the ground.”
Keith and his team are trying to change a system that still looks at wilderness as an impediment to development.
They are the voice of reason that reminds everyone that you can’t un-build a resort, un-mine a mountain or re-plant an ecosystem that’s been 3.5 billion years in the making. Their tireless work has ensured that thousands of hectares of land in and around the Blue Mountains will forever remain wild and undeveloped.
Keith is a simple man. He’s a bachelor and wilderness preservation is not just his job — it’s his life. As he talks about the diversity of flora and fauna in the region, the rivers and the smell of the forest — his eyes light up. He feels truly connected to the land and he’s in it for the long haul.
I grew up in the mountains of Himachal, attending an Army Public School in the beautiful hamlet of Dagshai. It’s painful to go back; it violates my memories of the lush green mountains now dotted with private cottages and sub standard resorts.
I bring this topic up in conversation with Keith but quickly realise how comfortable I’ve become being apathetic. Every nature lover has a ‘then and now’ story to shed a tear over. We would still rather let our world shrink than raise a finger in protest.
Fortunately, some don’t shy away from rabble-rousing for the right cause. Keith and I recently exchanged emails about the blocking of the Vedanta’s mining of bauxite on the sacred hills of the Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa. The might of 8 billion dollars pitted against the will of 8,000 tribal people.
In halting the planned open pit mine, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has saved not just the ecology of the region but also a people from extinction. An amazing example of what timely and synchronised action by those truly concerned with environmental justice and social justice working together can actually accomplish.
It warmed my heart to learn that there are many people around the world rejoicing in this victory, because for the true nature lover, the turf isn’t just their backyard — it’s the planet.
*Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself —along the way.