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My happy place (Judy Henderson)

Words by Judy Henderson
Location: Gumbaynggir Country, NSW
Published 17 Oct 2022

Freshwater flows east from the mountains, it thunders down waterfalls into calm, clear pools, navigates green paddocks and rainforests, before emerging through Melaleuca-stained estuaries and spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

I was born and raised on a dairy farm on the Bellinger River and my childhood experiences have always had a profound impact on my worldview.
Bush Heritage’s founders in 1995. From left: Ray McKendrick (back), Robert Rosen, Greg Blake, Bob Brown, Judy Henderson, Verna Simpson, Peg Putt, Penny Figgis and Penny King.

The river itself played an important role in our lives. On weekends, in between milking, many hours were spent on the riverbank or in a small wooden boat, fishing and catching mud crabs. At night, lines would be set in the hope of scoring a Jewfish while egg jaffles were cooked over the fire.

Our dairy farm backed onto a thriving wetland or as we called it, the ‘swamp’. It contained a forest of shaggy Paperbark trees and a plethora of birdlife and frogs.

My early years in the bush had a major influence on the rest of my life. After high school, I moved to Sydney to study medicine at university. I enjoyed my studies and saw becoming a doctor as a direct way to bring my concern for helping others into reality. However, being in Sydney wasn’t an overly happy time, it felt claustrophobic and dense. I felt lost without nature close by and I deeply missed my daily connection to the bush.

After graduation, I left the big city to go to Hobart for my internship and then across to Perth in Western Australia to continue post-graduate studies in Paediatrics. During this time, I worked in a clinic for Aboriginal children and for a period, I thought I’d found my place in the world and this would be where I would stay. Yet as life does, it twisted and turned, directing me down another course.

Next, I went to Nepal to volunteer in a hospital for three months and ended up staying 10 years in the Himalayas, spending the last four years in Jumla in Western Nepal setting up a training program for village health workers. I loved this time. Once again, I was out in nature. It was amazing to be there in that landscape, amongst these majestic snow-capped mountains, steep valleys and powerful rivers. Here, the social situation enlightened and disturbed me. I’d never quite seen poverty to that extent and I was struck by the needs of people in the developing world. People’s very existence in this remote and wild place depended directly on their relationship with the natural environment. A relationship that in developed communities is so easily taken for granted or replaced by privileged convenience.

Family reasons pulled me back to Australia, and I chose to head to Tasmania where I would stay for the next decade. I was attracted to the region’s natural beauty and its people.

There was a highly motivated community of like-minded people, including my old friend from high school days Bob Brown living in Tassie.

It was the early nineties when Bob purchased the two bush blocks at Liffey to save them from being clear-felled and with other founding members, we established Bush Heritage. Together in a tiny office with a reusable tea bag to keep us caffeinated, we navigated the beginnings of a new way to do conservation in Australia. A moment in time, I feel absolutely honored to have been a part of.

Through life's bends, I had begun to really uncover and cement where I got the most energy and purpose from, and that's grounded in the ethos of social justice and looking after the natural world. A purpose that when I reflect, I realise had always existed. My love for the bush had always been present. There wasn’t a fireworks moment, it’s a part of who I am and I have my mother to thank for instilling in me a desire to look after others and care for the environment.

During the early days of Bush Heritage, I also became involved with Oxfam Australia and was the inaugural Chair of Oxfam International. Oxfam is a truly outstanding organisation where I felt grounded in purpose, and again, one I feel totally privileged to have contributed to.

Fast forward many years, and I have moved back to the area I grew up in. It’s here that I’ve found my happy place; nestled between the dunes and ocean at Tuckers Rock, north of the Bellinger River’s entrance. It’s here I like to walk. I wander through the Bundageree rainforest on the way to the lagoon and then circle back along the beach.

Moving through the bush, I catch the morning’s light as it sparks up elkhorn, staghorn, coastal banksia and the remnant Gondwana forest. It’s quiet and the sounds of the ocean and outside world are muted by the ancient vegetation. On a lucky day, I’ll spot a goanna tracking up a Strangler Fig, a Red-necked Wallaby bouncing through the coastal shrub or a Sea Eagle soaring overhead.

Shifting weather systems play their part and every day the lagoon is different. Observing its changes is one of life’s simplest and richest joys.

When I reach the open ocean, the horizon stretches, and I increase my pace, the tempo of each step reflecting the louder calls of crashing waves. Post walk, I am energised and inspired, reminded of nature’s power and the need for its protection.

In 2000, I decided to leave a gift in my Will to Bush Heritage. Why? So, we can continue to protect our natural world for future generations. It is a privilege for me to leave a bequest to an organisation that is making such a significant contribution to the protection of our precious and increasingly endangered flora and fauna, and one I have been involved with since its founding. Further, it allows me to give back to a love that’s always been there - the bush.

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