It’s a frigid winter afternoon in the Southern Highlands and the Wingello Village Store is closing. ‘Come back tomorrow,’ calls a chirpy adolescent through the diminishing space in the door jam. ‘We serve good breakfast.’ Then he’s gone.

The warmth inside is palpable even through the window. There’s a wall papered with newspaper clippings: local celebrities and feats of heroism. Shelves are filled with cutesy-kitsch teapots and homemade biscuits in big glass jars. An open fire flickers in the book corner. There are postcards picturing children in green meadows under homespun slogans: ‘Wingello – Where summer walks are a short step away’ and ‘Wingello – Where the grass is greener’.

The grass is only just green again. This was ground zero in the apocalyptic ‘Black Summer’ bushfire season which – through a combination of record-breaking drought; the hottest year on record; dry winds and fuel on the ground – incinerated vast swathes of Australia.

Nothing was going to stop the Currowan Fire. It roared like a freight train through the dense bushland of Moreton National Park. Then, on January 4, the sky went black, and red, like hell. The fire split, one flank hit nearby Bundanoon and Exeter, the other cracked into Wingello, where the inferno burned down nearly a dozen houses, sheds, cars, everything in its path, until the Wingello Fire Brigade bolstered resources to defend the cornerstone of the community.

‘Not on my watch,’ the captain had declared, and the Wingello Village Store (circa 1883) was saved.

This little curiosity shop – the only business in town – is the heart of a small community half way between Sydney and Canberra. And it’s the closest thing to civilization from Wildernest T1 tiny house, where I’ve retreated for a few days of city isolation, with a friend.

Our tiny house lies at the end of a red dirt road in a clearing, past a few well-fed cattle, on the edge of Wingello State Forest at Tallong. The forest is so abundant here that it accentuates the smallness of Tiny House One (T1), the itsy-bitsy housing equivalent of a swiss-army knife, all folded up in pocket-sized practicality and almost harmless to the earth.

A Lilliputian experience like this fits neatly into today’s world, where vast book collections can now be stored on hand-held devices and yet, there’s something that harks back to frontier times. It’s the modern-day counterpart of the bark hut – a simple life – without all the clutter.

Luxe linen bedding inside T1 Wildernest (tiny house)

A tour around the micro-cube takes less than 20 seconds. A large window peers into a stand of towering gums and a field pockmarked with kangaroos. There’s a kitchen and living area with a sleeping loft above. The ceiling is within arms-length of the mattress so no sitting up suddenly, unless it is to pop a head out of the skylight, which opens to a crescent of moon by night and birdsong by day.

We are alone. Close to nature. It would feel like camping in a tent were it not a whole lot more comfortable – linen sheets, designer crockery, house-made lemongrass-scented soap, hot shower – but this gem comes at a price. Addiction. Immediate. Irrevocable.

I may never camp in a tent again.

A sort-of breakfast nook can be ingeniously created, let’s see, by moving a stool. It might be necessary to flatten against a doorway to get to the fridge at the same time but the house is an off-grid energy sipper, not a guzzler, with reliance upon tank water and solar power. There’s an oven, cooktop, BBQ and fire-pit for cosy star-spangled chit-chat.

Exploring Wildernest – photo Amanda Tait

Escaping the city affords a nice opportunity to explore the daisy chain of Southern Highland towns that I have known, but not really known, all my life. This is tweed and knit territory, an elevated place for the horsey set, children in boarding schools and movie stars on acreage, pine-scented breezes and fire-side brews. Dig beneath the surface though, and the villages that line up like red gallahs on a tin roof – Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Burrawang, Exeter, Bundanoon and Wingello – are vastly different in character.

Every town, of course, has its share of good butchers, bakers, grocers, providores and farmers. Bundanoon, about 10 minutes’ drive from Wingello, is well-known for the annual Brigadoon highland gathering that triples the town population in one day. Nature lovers have long been drawn to the stringybark gullies of Morton National Park while foodies shuffle in and out of nice cafes on the main street (Delilicious, Jumping Rock, Potter’s Pantry). The Village Grocer is a plain brick building with a plentiful supply of cheeses, charcuterie and condiments for the obligatory picnic.

Further along the road, morning lights up a forest of ghostly gums, eerie white sentinels on the outskirts of Exeter. This English-pretty village had been fortified by a social distancing buffer from Sydney during the first wave of coronavirus restrictions but, when these eased in June, the demands of welcoming hordes of out-of-towners proved challenging for some operators. Further challenges are likely ahead if there are renewed lockdown restrictions.

Exeter General Store is a busy post office collection point for locals who order coffee while collecting mail and return daily, if not hourly for best-baked, just-picked produce for fridge and pantry. ‘I love cooking: it’s my therapy,’ offers store owner Lauren Johnson. ‘Mine too’, I say, stuffing her notoriously scrumptious, whisky, herbed, honeyed porridge into my mouth, while insolently jotting down the recipe. It would be easy to while away the hours in this renovated 1900s outpost of gourmet and homemade foods, with a whole wall of books, but there’s no time.

Mossy Store – one of the many lifestyle store destinations in Moss Vale

Ten kilometres further on, Moss Vale has transformed itself into a sort of lifestyle store destination (Mossy Store, Made by Others, Suzie Anderson Home), and now with a super-cool tap-house bar/bistro with renovated historic interior. Bernie’s Diner has been here forever. Well, three generations in present ownership anyway, making sure the hot, house-made pastrami is a staple. Along with the onion rings. And the milkshakes.

The core of the highlands, of course, is typically thought to be Bowral. Some businesses are still takeaway-only or in the stages of a reopening. It’s a proud pastry town with celebrated bakeries and patisseries and dolloped in the midst of an excellent bunch, South Hill Kitchen is a rustic foodie favourite, fruit and veg harvested daily from owner Tory Bevan’s farm. The Sydney girl bought the place in April 2019, got it just right by November, then the fires hit. Her life enriching carrot, candied apricot and walnut muffins – with generously rich globules of butter cream frosting – are worth a road trip from anywhere.

Scenic views surrounding Centennial Vineyards, Bowral in the Southern Highlands region – photo Destination NSW
Bernie’s Diner – this American style diner is a multigenerational owned and operated local icon – photo Amanda Tait
Tulips in full bloom and colour at the annual Tulip Time Festival in Corbett Gardens, Bowral – photo Destination NSW

With hunger satisfied, it’s essential to visit the funky mix of creativity that is Mittagong. Sturt Craft and Design Centre at Frensham school has been a Southern Highlands destination since the 1940s. It’s a centre for excellence in design-influenced art where visitors can sign up for a multitude of workshops or just select a treasure from a mix of hand-made artistry.The same goes for Twisting Vintage – an authentically eclectic vintage clothing store on the Bowral Road – famous among the film-making crowd for quality curation of the mid-century.

The constantly evolving capacity for creativity is inescapable in Robertson too, a not-too-far-away town spectacularly perched on the top of craggy Illawarra Escarpment. The SHAC – a new artist and designer creative space with exhibitions that display and sell work – and The Moonacres Kitchen – which comprises an organic farm café and, soon, a cooking school – are two important new reasons to stop. The Robertson Cheese Factory, an obvious third.

An escape to the country has always brought a heightened awareness of surrounds and, these days, the incidental conversations with strangers seem to count for a lot.

It’s icy again when I return to Wingello Village Store before it closes on my last day to devour an egg and bacon roll by the open fire.

‘Yes it’s cold,’ agrees Aerial, one of six Bruggeman children who run the store. ‘The daffodils and tulips bloom two weeks earlier in Bundanoon yet it’s only 10 minutes away.’ She hesitates. ‘… but it’s always a lovely day in Wingello.’ And the grass is greener again.

Anabel Dean is a freelance journalist formerly with The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, The Bulletin and Medical Observer magazine.

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