The landscape below us was afire with glittering light.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” asked my companion, Richard Green, an eccentric Englishman who has flown all over Australia using his personal helicopter as most people would a campervan.
Pretty? I’d lived in Australia for 30 years and never been so floored by a scene. Velvet mountains, rolling and fluid as poetry. Valleys and peaks, glinting with jewelled forests. The rhythm of a black, lazy river between them, sluicing back and forth between banks with gentle, metronomic precision. And all of it was just a 20-minute flight from Sydney.
Green tilted the helicopter and a rolling sea of forestry loomed large through the windowpane. “This is called Back Bimlow Walls,” he offered, gesturing at a particularly photogenic outcrop that ended abruptly in a sheer cliff. “Not many people come here.”
- Federation Peak, Tasmania. “For this shot, I found a saddle between the mountains where I put the helicopter down in the snow, then I climbed up to the top.” (Richard Green)
Green, I learned quickly, is a man of understatements. Back Bimlow Walls – part of the world heritage-listed Blue Mountains region – is not just less travelled. It’s strictly off limits to the general public, located in the kind of wild, mercurial terrain that has, in the past, nearly swallowed more than one brave visitor. No roads venture here; no footpaths, either. For decades, it’s remained an untouched sanctuary of ancient indigenous artworks, prolific wildlife and several endangered plant species; accessible only by chartering a helicopter. Or having one at your house.
Over the last 20 years, Green and his wife, Carol, have flown to some of the wildest, most remote reaches of Australia’s last frontiers, stopping wherever they like in their customised chopper – essentially a flying campervan, complete with a tent and a fridge. This particularly unique mode of transport – the pair often “park” atop mountains or inside craters – has resulted both in some remarkable experiences (“once we stopped to have lunch in a valley filled with wildflowers, and it was as though we had entered a far off secret garden,” Green recalled.) and also in an extensive library of photographs, the likes of which includes places that possibly no other human has ever set eyes on.
- Painted Hills, South Australia. “You can’t imagine how someone would have put these rocks there, but they are evenly spaced, as though they were placed just so.” (Richard Green)
“The middle of Australia is still very wild,” Green said, casually manoeuvring his helicopter through the golden light. It’s another understatement. The Australian continent is roughly the same size as the United States, yet it’s the third least densely populated nation on Earth, with most of the 22 million-strong population living on its coastlines. Australia’s interior isn’t just wild – it’s almost entirely devoid of modern human life.
“Ninety percent of Australians will never even go there in their lives,” Green asserted, shaking his head. “We’re very lucky to have seen the things we have.”
Of course, there’s more to Green’s story than luck. A happy fortune in the flourishing computer industry meant retirement at the sprightly age of 49, and “the rest you can blame on Crocodile Dundee,” he half-joked. “My kids were almost grown up, my ex-wife and I were separating, and I saw what [Paul] Hogan was doing and thought ‘God, that’s for me’.”
- Pillar, Northern Territory. “Pillar is another of the lost cities; We so named it because of the pillar that stands up like a huge matchstick. An amazing shape.” (Richard Green)
Back at Green’s headquarters – a spacious, light-filled house in Sydney that has a private hangar and helipad next door to the bedroom – the halls are decorated with artefacts from their travels. Panoramas of his favourite locations grace vibrant canvases more than 1.5m tall. “Actually, [my lifestyle change] was really about my love of nature and photography,” he said as we stopped at a particularly spectacular shot of deep red mountains called the Ragged Range. “And I loved helicopters. They just combined; I fell totally into it by accident.” A solo trip to Tasmania in 1989 inspired a week-long journey with Carol the following year; by the time they married 10 years later, the helicopter had been upgraded and converted, Carol had also earned her pilot’s licence and the pair had sufficient amazing adventures to publish a book.
- The Ragged Range, Western Australia. “It didn’t seem quite so mesmerising when we were looking for a place to land the helicopter for the night.” (Richard Green)
Looking back at the Ragged Range photo, I was awestruck. The mountains bulged and swelled outwards from Earth in a fashion I’d never seen before. Tiny palm trees dotted its surface, like microscopic pins on a cushion. (“Oh no,” Green said. “Those trees are each over 10m high.”) Lazy mountain waves lapped at the distant horizon, misty with pink afternoon air.
“You can’t actually get up close to them in any conventional means,” Green said. “We tried last year, in a 4WD, but the nearest I could get on a rough track was about 8km away.”
- Cascading Falls of Liverpool River, West Arnhem Land. “There are many places [in Arnhem Land] that are fabulous. Australia is just so wild.” (Richard Green)
And there were more photos – plenty more. Lost cities in the rugged, untamed terrain of Australia’s north-eastern Gulf Country. Stunning gorges and nameless valleys in Arnhem Land, a vast tract of untouched soil in the tropical Northern Territory.
- Flooded Canyon, West Arnhem Land. “This place is so wild and beautiful. There are no tracks, no nothing here… this particular area of Arnhem Land is very special.” (Richard Green)
Green told stories of being swarmed by stingless native bees; of camping in a seemingly dry creek bed that flooded the tent and helicopter overnight; and of a place he deems “paradise on Earth”.
“It’s a funny name, but we called this spot ‘Tentpole’, after I lost a tentpole there and didn’t find it again for 13 years,” Green said. The picture we’re looking at – and he has taken several of the place in both wet and dry seasons, to remarkable contrasting effect – shows a river swollen to full capacity, all foamy, muted greys, surging through clusters of beehive-striped pillars that lean on each other like old, dignified men.
- “There are lost city formations like Tentpole all over the area, including one near the tiny settlement of Cape Crawford in Australia’s north.” (Richard Green)
“Wait till you see it in dry season,” he said. “There are waterlillies, gorgeous flowers on the trees, water that I love swimming in. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
And nobody goes there, he added. The nearest sealed road is 160km away.
There is something rather comforting about this; the idea that even in today’s Google-Mapped, smart-phone-apped world, there are wild, unseen places. That away from city chaos is a gentle otherworld, where nature continues to exist, quietly and peacefully. “That is why I take photos,” Green said simply. “When they are blown up to 4m in length, people turn to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m there.’ It’s wonderful.”
Source: BBC Travel