Gardens of Stone

Written by Joel Robinson



During July 2015, the Blue Mountains saw its heaviest snowfall in decades. Schools closed and traffic ground to a halt. Chilled to the bone and short on supplies, photographer and cameraman Jochen Spencer called to let me know that he was stuck in the Gardens of Stone, just west of the main range. Until the roads thawed all he could do was stay put and keep filming. Warm and cosy at home in Katoomba, I celebrated his predicament with a nice hot cup of cocoa.

The Gardens of Stone is an Australian icon on the brink of refuge or ruin. Coal mining, as well as unchecked vandalism, is causing severe damage to this landscape before a transition towards responsible tourism can make sustainable use of an irreplaceable asset. Its geological story is internationally unique, its swamps and highland forests considered by science a ‘hotspot of biodiversity’. Its Indigenous Wiradjuri heritage spans tens of thousands of years. Yet remarkably few people have heard of the place. It has remained relatively obscure compared to more popular and commercialised attractions like Jenolan Caves and the Three Sisters nearby.  

When the tireless conservationist Keith Muir of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness agreed to add a new video to the long campaign to protect the area he hoped to change this, understanding only too well that nobody fights for what they don’t care about.

My job was to introduce the wonders of Australia’s Gardens of Stone to as many people as possible.

Perhaps more than any other genre of film or television production, natural history documentaries – even short ones – require determination, patience and lots of luck. Wildlife and weather seldom does what you want. A far more predictable factor will almost certainly be money. There won’t be enough of it. Currently that’s especially true of programs made specifically for the purpose of conservation, despite film’s power to cut through and leave a lasting impression. Under such economic constraints passion and generosity inevitably become major items in the budget. Fortunately some people are ready to contribute their time and skills to save our environment. Otherwise my film would have been a PowerPoint presentation.

The first to put his hand up was environmental scientist and former director of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Dr Haydn Washington, whose combination of expertise and rather cuddly voice proved very handy in his roles as script consultant and lead narrator. Whether preparing a lecture or wandering with wombats at his property on remote Nullo Mountain, he was never too busy to help. 

Like most of us involved, Haydn’s fee came to the grand total of $1.00.

Despite its proximity to numerous towns and highways, access to the more obscure sites in this maze of ridges, canyons and pagodas demands some careful planning and local knowledge. Originally from Uzbekistan, Yuri Bolotin’s obsession with his new homeland and years spent exploring the Gardens of Stone made him the perfect informant on locations. First though I needed his help talking Jochen Spencer into filming them.

Jochen had already spent enough time photographing its rugged terrain to grasp the effort necessary to do it justice. He would have to navigate roads accessible only by four-wheel drive, carry forward his equipment on foot and spend nights there – often in freezing temperatures – prepared for dawn. Before filming was complete, batteries failed, memory cards vanished and his car broke down half a dozen times. 

But all that was nothing next to the challenge of choosing between the stunning images he brought back.

Selecting footage is always wonderful, and excruciating. The magic of captured moments on screen never gets old, while the torture of editing never gets any easier. The camera follows an eagle across a magnificent vista, amber sunrays highlighting the canopy of eucalypts swaying gently in the breeze, when suddenly a romantic cascade is revealed, from which a single drop of water glides directly onto the lens and spoils everything. Thankfully, Jochen was so prolific that the problem became more an embarrassment of riches; while footage of specific threatened species whose rarity made it virtually impossible for us to film within our timeline were provided by Simon Mustoe of Wildiaries, and his colleague Nick Hayward, cameraman behind David Attenborough’s famous mimicking lyrebird scene. Although based a thousand kilometres away, in Victoria, they didn’t hesitate to do what they could for our endangered animals.

Joining me in culling everything down into a bite-size four minutes was Gary Caganoff, a veteran filmmaker on subjects ranging from the logging of Tasmanian wilderness to the social rehabilitation of war torn Afghanistan. Frankly, having worked together on numerous projects previously, I really wasn’t quite sure he’d agree to spend any more of his life arguing with me about which shot of melting ice or what take of lichen growing on a rock fits best. Luckily, Gary’s lifelong commitment to environmental issues won out in the end. As usual the shots we couldn’t use haunt us both to this day.

If there is one element that can make or break any film it is music, and my rather ambitious approach of obtaining original compositions and combining them into an evocative backdrop to the landscape could easily have ended in tears; if not for our long suffering sound editor, Daniel Grinvalds, who managed somehow to gel the brilliant work of Melbourne based multi-instrumentalist Taylor Crawford with classical cello performed by Trish McMeekin and David Valaisa’s special bass effects, as well as traditional Aboriginal percussion and vocals by Chris Tobin and Gelarnie Gaagang Yamandirra. Voiceovers by Haydn Washington and actress Beth Champion were recorded right in Daniel’s living room, and his own additions to the theme music crystallised the soundtrack into something everyone could be proud of (and saved me from disaster). He was still mixing at 11pm the night before the film launch.

Since its premier screening to open the In Focus photographic exhibition event at Sydney University in September 2016, the Colong Foundation and Gardens of Stone Alliance have utilised the film not simply to promote this extraordinary place but also as a catalyst to recharge resistance to its destruction and encourage discussion on alternatives for future management. The same enthusiasm that produced the film has continued, as conservation, tourism and also arts organisations in Australia and oversees share it among an ever-widening audience.

Watching those results makes it all worthwhile. 

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For more information, visit:  www.gardensofstone.org.au

Wildiaries •