Aleney de Winter and family discover the true meaning of a family escape at Banjo's Bushland Retreat in NSW's Hunter Valley.
"How did you even survive?" cries my six-year-old son Rafferty when his father and I tell him about our childhoods, free of DVDs, iPads and PlayStations. You know, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
"That must have been so, so boring, Mum. What did you do all day?"
He and his three-year-old sister, Marlo, are about to find out because we’ve decided to disconnect for the weekend so we can reconnect with nature and our family at Banjo’s Bushland Retreat. Ironically, it is me that first has to deal with our great weekend disconnect when, about 20 minutes from our destination, my phone signal drops out. Gulp! It’s not only the kids that will have to detach their retinas from their screens. So will I.
The kids whoop as we drive down the hilly, extremely windy road to reach Banjo’s Bushland Retreat, declaring it better than a rollercoaster. I’ve got to admit it is fun, and as we climb higher and higher up the Hunter Valley’s Moonabung Mountain range, the postcard-pretty views are incredible. On one side fat, happy cows are munching away by sparkling dams in green fields, on the other pretty birds flit between the trees and the kids are excited when they spot wallabies nonchalantly grazing by the road. The white noise of city life is already slipping away.
Wildlife at the door
The kids are so entranced by the wildlife and views that once we arrive at Banjo’s they don’t even notice the giant TV in the living room of ‘Clancy’s’, our lodge for the weekend. Instead they’re off exploring our temporary digs. Clancy’s, named after the Banjo Paterson poem, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, is one of three lodges at the much-awarded eight-hectare bushland property.
The accessible, Advance Eco Tourism Accredited, architecturally designed wood and glass cottages are spacious and extremely private. Ours offers three enormous bedrooms each with an ensuite (the others offer two- and four-bedroom configurations), an open kitchen and massive living space, a large fireplace, floor-to-ceiling glass on every side and a wide verandah that overlooks the bush and valley. The attention to detail is amazing with everything from board games to blenders supplied.
As foretold by the lodge’s poetic namesake, the bush hath friends to meet us, and their kindly voices greet us. We’ve barely unpacked the car when the locals start to descend. A cheeky kookaburra stops by, two pretty king parrots sit on a feeding perch squawking expectantly and a family of kangaroos hops on to the verandah to check us out. They stay for pretty much the whole weekend, joined by wallabies, rosellas, magpies and possums.
We play dominoes, memory games and our eldest tries his hand at Junior Monopoly while the little one sprinkles wild bird seed around the balcony and chatters to her new friends. Time flies by as we barbecue, talk and, as the sun sets, snuggle up over storybooks in front of a roaring fire. By the time we say goodnight the kids still haven’t noticed the television.
We breakfast with our new furry and feathered friends and hit Banjo’s recreation room for a little billiards, magnetic darts, giant chess and an interesting game of table tennis (the three-year old insists on playing even though she is the same height as the table). A round of mini-golf proves equally challenging as our kangaroo pals decide to join in and keep sitting on the holes. That’s what I call a handicap.
We enjoy lunch with our new posse and then head for a walk to explore the surrounding bushland. Within minutes we come across an echidna busily slurping away on some ants. My husband and I are even more chuffed than the kids, neither of us having seen an echidna in the wild before. Yet here we are with one of the insanely cute little critters going about his business just metres from our feet. Incredible.
Too good to leave
In the afternoon we ask the kids if they’d like to head off exploring as there is plenty to see around this beautiful part of the Hunter Valley. There’s the pretty, historic town of Morpeth, the spectacular rainforest of Barrington Tops, the botanic wonderland that is the Hunter Valley Gardens and, of course, vineyards, all within a short drive. There’s also access to a restaurant and saltwater swimming pool at a neighbouring resort. But the short answer is no. They’re not budging from Banjo’s.
Instead we take a hike down to the lily-strewn Goonarook lagoon for afternoon tea before the boys hit the retreat’s full-size tennis court and Marlo and I play on the swings and slides. We spend the rest of the afternoon on our balcony where the kids make up games, busy themselves with hide and seek and just play. Together. Without arguing. This place is miraculous.
The kids don’t want to leave but the following afternoon, we must. We make a quick stop in nearby Paterson, a historic town along a quaint river where we enjoy a late lunch in the garden of the Paterson Tavern, which is pretty much a playground with beer. The play equipment is made of old timber and tyres with rope swings and is surrounded by trees. The kids declare it the best playground ever. If only they knew it was the same as the ones we used to climb on... With our old pals the dinosaurs.
As we set off for home Rafferty asks, "Mum, is this what you used to do all day when you were a kid?" and when I tell him yes, though admittedly sans wildlife, his awed response is, "You’re so lucky."
Indeed I am.
Banjo's Bushland retreat is approximately two hours' drive north of Hornsby in Sydney via the F3 Freeway.