Photo courtesy of Jake Anderson

Like the idea of a festival that combines wilderness with luxury, and shows you the best of the New South Wales Southern Highlands? Look no further.

From the 27th to the 29th of October 2017, WILDfest is hosting an adventure-packed program of activities, taking in parts of the state that you’ve likely never seen before.

I was recently lucky enough to chat with WILDfest’s founder, Amanda Fry, and get the lowdown on the festival, how it all works, and how it came to be.

What exactly is WILDfest? Tell us a bit about what you’ve created.

WILDfest is an adventure travel events company that, once a year, will be hosting our wilderness festival, WILDfest Southern Highlands. WILDfest is all about re-connecting people with ‘the wild’ in a way that moves them to want to make a difference, through artfully curated wilderness encounters and unforgettable food adventures.

What’s your background and motivation? How did you find yourself planning WILDfest?

The moment that ultimately set WILDfest in motion was seeing the wonder in my niece and nephew’s faces following an encounter with some of my wildlife rescue friend’s fauna. From that moment forward ‘Aunty Mandy’ could walk on water in their eyes. It was a real eye-opener for me, having spent most of my adult life in the heady world of International celebrity. I found that my only path to sanity was getting out of Sydney and either enjoying weekends in country NSW or travelling to wilderness destinations around the globe chasing wildlife encounters from Rwanda to Galapagos.

Four years ago, I bought a house in the Southern Highlands and was reminded just how beautiful NSW is and how rare such connections with nature had become for the digital generation.

During a celebrity assignment in Vietnam, I was lucky enough to experience an encounter with the endangered Black Gibbons. This spurred me into

WILDfest Southern Highlands

Photo courtesy of Clayton Hairs

action. It would take years for this to be fully realised but it started the cogs turning. The group I worked with in Vietnam felt it was too late to influence the baby boomers on mass with the strong medicinal culture that wildlife represented. They felt the best hope for these magnificent creatures (and other endangered species in the region) was to engage up-and-coming generations. So they started a program in the wild in a way that got millennial’s connected at a deep level to want to change the culture of wildlife protection. I knew then and there that I wanted to play a part in making that happen in some way, back home in Australia.

The next turning point was Change Makers Rule Breakers, a conference put together by Richard Branson, along with a host of other entrepreneurs and trailblazers, on Necker Island.

Honouring my passion for the wild, Branson arranged for me to accompany his zoology team visiting another of his islands, dedicated to re-populating several endangered species of Lemur. It’s an indescribable feeling to trek into the raw forest and be swarmed by these beautiful, playful creatures that come out of nowhere at the game keeper’s call. Just a magical moment.

That feeling of absolute awe for the wonder of nature is what I want people to experience at WILDfest. And Joadja is home to large populations of Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, platypus, kookaburra’s, monitor lizards and birds of prey.

Returning home with an overwhelming sense of the profound possibilities for a wilderness experience unique to Australia, I unplugged from my fast-paced professional life path and made the permanent move to the NSW Southern Highlands where WILDfest became a reality.

Being in the Highlands where outside the towns and historic villages there are great pockets of wilderness with no wifi reception to speak of became a sort imposed stillness meditation for me. I needed to unplug, re-boot and re-connect with the wild by immersing completely in the environment and it showed me how many places there are just two hours from Sydney to get lost in nature.

What better way to get people excited about nature and the preservation of our beautiful open spaces than to create a festival – so WILDfest Southern Highlands was born. At its heart, it’s a festival celebrating the wild and all nature’s diversity, beauty and unpredictability.

WILDfest Southern Highlands

Photo courtesy of Clayton Hairs

There are lots of different parts to the festival. How does this work, exactly?

You have several choices…

You can opt for the three-day glamping experience where we cater for everyone and everything. It’s all inclusive package with hiking, remote dining, mountain biking, abseiling, a bush spa, wine and distillery tastings, our Wild Native Feast event, morning yoga, night boules, photography and so much more. It’s as action packed as you want it to be.

The great thing about this package is the location, which is an old mining town that nature has reclaimed so you are surrounded by incredible wilderness and the crumbling ruins of an old Scottish settlement. It’s pretty magical.

The other option is to arrange your own accommodation and just choose a few activities to attend like Wild Native Feast or Canoes or Champagne and Canapés. These are really all about offering food experiences in wild places and again the locations are wondrous. The feast is enjoyed out under Southern skies amid the ruins of the old mining settlement at Joadja.

To make it more fun we have arranged some dress ups for everyone, as well as some unique entertainment. The Canoe trip is completely bespoke also.

We have some more on the cards that will be announced in the coming months. I hope by next year as we include some free events as well to make the festival as inclusive as possible. We have very much focussed on the traveller who needs creature comforts to be lured into a remote place as our starting point.

What makes WILDfest unique?

We unashamedly will use any enticement available to get people to connect with nature.

The twist we include with everything we do is our brand – who else is offering canoe trips with cool climate wines, hand made farmed and foraged canapés in a remote sunken forest? Or bringing a koala to camp to make sure you get to really experience the best this country of ours has to offer as spotting one in the wild is very rare and unlikely.

My goal is very simple – make people fall in love with nature and in doing so encourage them to work to protect it. Once its gone, its gone forever and that is not a legacy I want to leave behind in my lifetime. Especially when I have the chance to try and change it. No guts, no glory, as they say.

WILDfest Southern Highlands

Which part of the festival are you most excited about?

Hard to say, I think watching people who have had very little contact with the Australian wilderness lose themselves in enjoying it would be the part I look forward to most.

What’s your ultimate way to spend time in the wilderness?

Alone and in silence. For me it’s about reflecting and being in the moment. I get to slow down the pace of my mind and just think about what I want, what I have learnt, and be free of all the responsibilities life throws at you. No one can find you when you are out of Wifi range.

I learnt that in Rwanda. The first time I sat with mountain gorillas I just took photos. I was blown away and wanted to capture every second. The second time I just watched them and lived in the moment. The second visit was better, it was more real and honest and so ultimately more memorable.

What’s your favourite place in the Southern Highlands? And what’s the best way to experience it?

This one is easy… Joadja Old Town. I fell in love the first time I went there and knew I wanted to show anyone game enough to come long what a magical place it is. WILDfest is the best way to experience it – you have everything you need and you get to meet like-minded people that also want to really get a glimpse of the Australian bush and all its splendour which is why we have to camp there. You have to live it.

WILDfest Southern Highlands

Glamping experiences (and I’d imagine luxury canoe-rigs) get a bad rap in the outdoors community. Any thoughts on this?

I get it. The hardcore outdoor person sees glamping as being the easy option and it is. But if your goal is to get people away from their TV’s and computers then what does it matter how you entice them. And why not have a comfy mattress and concierge making sure you have what you need if that is what you feel makes you happy. People are time poor. WILDfest offers a gateway to wilderness experiences for everyone, including those who are drawn to the idea of wilderness adventure but feel ill-equipped to take the step.

WILDfest Southern Highlands is only three days and it’s 75 minutes from Sydney. So it’s one day off work and very easy to get to. That just makes sense to me. It’s not practical or affordable to get on a plane to go to Africa for everyone.

My glamping package on the outside is an expensive weekend but if you add up all the costs its actually great value for money. Fine dining, great wines, outdoor activities, bike and canoe hire. We do it all so you don’t have to spend your valuable time planning it. You turn up and get into it from the first minute you arrive, making sure that for three days it’s about you disconnecting, not wasting a second getting everything organised. We do that.

As for the canoes, champagne and canapés – which by the way includes beer for those so inclined – getting people onto the water is hard so we make it safe and easy. You don’t have to worry about balance and spending the first hour being able to steer. Our rig is solid and virtually unsinkable so its as much fun for first timers as experienced rowers. It’s basically a dinner table on the water. And I have been at Kangaroo Creek on the rig and watched all the hard adventure guys call out asking how they too can get a pimped up ride like ours! We all want a little luxe even if we don’t like to admit it.

It’s not for everyone, but for many its exactly what they want.

WILDfest Southern Highlands

Can you tell us about the team working on WILDfest with you?

We have an incredible team of people that are the best at what they do. Chefs, adventure guides, event planners, camping companies, drivers, entertainers, poets. You name it… It’s an impressive team of locals who like me love this region and are adventurous at heart.

Check out the collaborators page for some of their bios – and we are adding more each time we come up with some new and crazy to offer.

Is this a one off? What’s in store for next year?

The plan is that we do the festival here every Oct, that will not change. Then throughout the year, we offer individual events and other trips to remote locations. I am dying to do a trip to Mungo National Park next. I have an initial five-year plan and have already been approached to licence the concept interstate and overseas.

From your point of view, what would make WILDfest a success?

If one person comes along and loves it and tells another person about how beautiful this region is and how fresh our approach to interacting with nature then I have succeeded.

How are ticket sales going? Do people need to get in quick?

Some packages are selling faster than others and as word travels, we get more and more emails, bookings and enquiries. The key to the event is to keep numbers manageable and small so yes get in fast as once its sold you have to wait another year to come along. The early bird catches the worm and the more people want the more experiences we will create for them.

WILDfest sounds amazing, Amanda. Thanks for filling us in. I hope it goes well. I’ll be there to check it out if I can.

For bookings and more information about the festival, check out the WILDfest website.

Heading along to WILDfest Southern Highlands? Got any questions, comments, updates or corrections? Let us know by commenting below.

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