Sheer escape

Author: rob ingram
Photography: chris chen

This time last century they clambered down a precarious track carved out of the sandstone escarpment to get to Wolgan Valley - tough men and women carrying their possessions on their backs and destined for an even tougher life. You don't see so much of that these days. Some come by private cars - and very nice ones, too - others by chauffeur-driven luxury 4WDs, and the most conspicuous of others by helicopter.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Newnes, at the head of the Wolgan Valley on the Lithgow side of the Blue Mountains, was the site of a shale mine, and men desperate for work came to the valley to dig for the bituminised mud and clay used to produce kerosene and low-grade oil. The oil by-product link is there to this day, but the grade is much higher. Today's visitors are guests at Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, owned by The Emirates Group, which is wholly owned by the government of the modern emirate of Dubai, itself an impressive by-product of the oil economy.

Emirates opened its $125-million resort just over a year ago to as much bewilderment as excitement. Dubai luxury in Lithgow? Would nature-lovers want to drive past the billowing smokestacks of a coal-fired power station and a longwall coalmine to get to a conservation reserve? Would Emirates build the world's tallest resort in the shape of a towering Wollemi pine?

Well relax, folks. Let me bring you the latest score. Emirates 10; doubters nil. For a start, Emirates's first resort, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, built a decade ago near Dubai, was the model for Wolgan Valley's ecologically sustainable luxury. Al Maha has been acclaimed as a leader in sustainable eco-tourism development by the United Nations Environment Programme and is something of a national treasure for its preservation of Bedouin culture.

There's nothing Bedouin at Wolgan Valley except the prevailing sense of hospitality. The culture here is unmistakably Australian. It is billed as an Australian homestead-style retreat designed to blend in with its natural environment and to actively protect its surrounding habitat and indigenous wildlife species. In doing so, the resort development itself takes up just two per cent of the 1600-hectare reserve.

In the 1820s the Walker family applied for a lease over the property that the resort now occupies. They were refused but, in the finest tradition of Australian squattocracy, moved in anyway. They built a stone and timber house on the property in 1832 and added to it over the years. It has since been restored by Emirates at a cost of $2 million and remains as the reference for the homestead theme.

The Webb family leased - and later bought - the property from the Walkers in 1929 and ran cattle here until Emirates arrived in 2007 and wrote a very big cheque for it. A delicious example of Aussie bush culture followed. Cashed up to an unimaginable degree, the Webb brothers decided they could now afford their lifelong dream. They went to town and each bought a new Toyota.

Interestingly, Wolgan Valley was not even on the list of potential locations when Emirates decided to extend its commitment to sustainability and the environment Down Under. All that changed when the team making the decision flew over the valley which is tucked between two national parks and adjacent to the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Ringed by ochre-coloured peaks, plateaus, crags and cliffs, the valley is visually dramatic and rich in cultural, environmental and historical significance. The Emirates conservation program is based on the principle of clearing sites of all but indigenous flora and fauna, so foxes and wild dogs are being eradicated to make the reserve feral-free. The population of eastern grey kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, wallaroos and wombats has increased, and native trees and grasses have been encouraged.

So here we are bumping along on the resort's wildlife tour, watching wallabies watching us and watching kite hawks plummet after their prey. How significant is the wildlife in this valley? Field guide Stuart Dann reminds us that in 1836 Charles Darwin came to Wolgan Valley to satisfy his curiosity about the place. We're thinking that probably not much has changed when our LandCruiser creates a minor dust storm as we grind our way up to "the knoll", an elevated scenic lookout. No worries: two liveried staff step out from behind a rock with chilled sparkling wine and canapés. Darwin, we think, came too early.

A man with a sore back tells me 175,000 indigenous trees have been planted in wildlife corridors and along creek beds to overcome erosion. Relics of a farming past, including old fencing, fallen trees and antique machinery, have been cleared and many have found their way into the décor of the main building.

There are those who've described it as a Jurassic Park, but from a social, cultural, ecological and environmental sustainability point of view, there's something much more spiritual at work. The neighbouring Wollemi National Park is home to one of the world's rarest tree species, the Wollemi pine, which belongs to a 200-million-year-old plant family and is regarded as the botanical find of the 20th century. The indigenous Wiradjuri people also have links here, and before development of the resort began, they performed ancient rituals to cleanse the site.

The future is given as much respect as the past. The resort is the first in the world to be certified carbon-neutral by New Zealand-based Carbon Zero - a program monitoring greenhouse gas management. That old line about environment sustainability not costing the earth comes to mind… but then again it did cost $125 million. The fact that Emirates has not compromised its luxury lifestyle in achieving carbon-neutral history, however, only makes the achievement more meritorious.

Sensibly, the architectural team hasn't tried to compete with the setting for visual impact. Sydney practice Turner & Associates found a reference in Australian identity and local rural history, and an inspiration in the Federation-style homesteads known as Queenslanders. The corrugated-iron roof, the screened breezeway, the water tank - they're all here and looking very much at home. But so are most of life's luxuries.

The interior design, the work of Sydney-based Chada (formerly Chhada Siembieda), is a great support act, with natural materials such as sandstone and timber echoing the landscape. The restraint, however, doesn't dilute the sense of arrival.

Beyond reception in the main homestead - with its floor-to-ceiling views over the valley - is an impressive dining room with massive double-sided sandstone fireplaces and recycled timber beams, a verandah terrace, bar spaces, wine cellar, private dining room, and conference and business centres. The lower level also houses the Country Kitchen, a providore-style bistro serving lunch and light meals throughout the day.

Supporting regional artisans is another of Emirates's principles and much of the furniture and artwork has been commissioned locally, with the furniture, leadlight windows and lamps all providing an eloquent narrative of rural lifestyle in colonial Australia.

Accommodation is provided in 40 freestanding bungalows, comprising 36 one-bedroom Heritage suites for two, three two-bedroom Wollemi suites for up to four guests, and one two-bedroom Wolgan suite with separate staff quarters and its own kitchen, for up to six guests.

The Heritage suites repeat the Federation elements of the homestead but are flexible enough about the style to include a private swimming pool and deck, a double-sided sandstone fireplace separating the bedroom from the lounge, and a luxurious ensuite bathroom in slate.

Happily, executive chef Dwane Goodman's food does not provide an eloquent narrative of rural lifestyle in colonial Australia. There's not a corned beef sandwich in sight at lunch and we have to make do with lobster spring rolls and a wild mushroom pie with roast garlic purée and rocket and hazelnut salad. There's a good list of complimentary wines or you can pay for something with better bloodlines.

The dinner format may be along the lines of starters of nori-wrapped beef fillet with sautéed spinach and zucchini flower plus a goat's curd mousse with broad beans, chervil and pommes gaufrette followed by a Campari jelly with orange sorbet. Mains might be a choice of King George whiting with langoustine sauce, wood ear mushrooms and sautéed leek or Dutton Park duck breast with confit duck leg, pea purée, gem lettuce and crisp pancetta. Expect chocolate somewhere in the dessert, perhaps a millefeuille of chocolate and cherry, or white chocolate parfait with peach and raspberry.

Goodman plays the 100-mile radius game here, selecting the best produce of the surrounding region. This hardly cramps his style with the likes of Mandagery Creek venison, Ormiston free-range pork, Jannei cheeses and Lakelands organic olive oil inside the circle. Here the locavore concept isn't a gimmick, it's part of the policy of assisting the local economy and reducing the resort's food miles and carbon footprint. It must work. There was no trace of carbon in any of the dishes.

And so to the spa part of the name. Timeless Spa offers guests an extensive menu of holistic treatments aimed at reducing whatever stress you might bring into the valley with you. And on either side of your relaxation/rejuvenation/beauty therapy in one of six double treatment rooms, there's the mysterious serenity of the relaxation lounge, complete with herbal teas.

It must be said that whoever requires stress treatment while at Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa must have worked damned hard for the pleasure of being here. I bet they go away with the resolve to work just as hard to return.





THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
DRIVE
Wolgan Valley is a three-hour drive from Sydney. Transfers to and from the resort are available by helicopter or 4WD and can be booked directly with the resort. Combined land-air packages cost from $999 per person return.

STAY
Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa
Heritage suites cost from $1950 a night for two people including all meals, most alcoholic drinks and two nature-based activities a day. 2600 Wolgan Rd, Wolgan Valley, NSW, (02) 9290 9733.



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