After starting from humble beginnings by a volunteer who wanted to share Wollongong’s natural beauty Bushwalk the Gong is driving visitation to the Illawarra and helping locals explore their own magnificent backyard.
It began a few years ago when Jenae Johnston posted some pictures of her bushwalks on social media and was immediately inundated by people saying “that looks fabulous”.
Ms Johnston started doing volunteer bushwalks and then entered into a partnership with the National Parks Association and started doing up to four bushwalks a month.
Her nature hikes initially appealed to locals but now many people from Sydney travel to Wollongong for a day to have her help them explore the Illawarra Escarpment, Royal National Park and other Illawarra and South Coast locations such as Barren Grounds.
Ms Johnston works in an office in a corporate role during the week and leads bushwalks on weekends.
“It is a great way to come down from the pressures of everyday life and just restore and re-balance in nature,” she said.
“We are so lucky here in Wollongong. Once you get into our escarpment there is so much diversity. There are so many different kinds of forest and each little pocket is so unique.
“The escarpment has so much to offer. There are waterfalls, magnificent viewpoints, there are windy little trails that are just so unique to us and the history on our escarpment is magnificent as well.
“There are a lot of mining relics hidden up there and even plane crashes down the back of Dapto that you can explore from the 1940’s. There is a really rich history here to explore”.
Ms Johnston admitted being a bit of a Dora the Explorer to a Destination Wollongong Tourism Week function and said she loves getting out in the wild to make discoveries and enjoy the healing aspect of bushwalking.
“I really start to crave being out in the bush if I haven’t been out there for a while. It helps me re-energise and refresh,” she said.
“That is what it is all about for me having that connection with nature again”.
Ms Johnston conducts bushwalks for people of all ages and fitness levels and feels it is important for everyone to be able to get out into nature no matter what their fitness level.
“Just come along and do the best you can and have a really good time in a safe comforting spot. That is what adventure should be for people,” she said.
“It should be doing what is comfortable for you and not feeling like you have to live up to any expectation of fitness or beauty. I am in the adventure industry not the beauty industry. We get out there we have a good time”.
Ms Johnston also supports initiatives such as She Went Wild that really embodies that by inspiring, educating and connection women to live adventurously in the outdoors.
“Just get out there in your own skin and have a good time,” she said.
Ms Johnston said she herself experienced and struggled with post-natal depression and anxiety and bushwalking helped her with that.
“It is important it is spoken about. One in three women suffer from some kind of mental illness whether it is anxiety or depression.
“And I find that being able to take people out into the bush many of them are able to open up and start talking and really connect with each other and share experiences.
“I think nature is one of those places where everyone can let their guard down. There is no pressure to hide things”.
In 2018 Ms Johnston added nature meditation events to her bushwalk schedule for that very reason. The connection to nature she said really helps.
She also willingly talks about her experience with anxiety and depression and openly welcomes questions.
“I am comfortable with where I have been and am looking forward to where I am going. I do women’s only events like Women’s Circles and also do a lot of anxiety, depression, re-balancing events generally using nature as a healing source for people who would like some nice time-out”.
Ms Johnston is studying to be trained yoga teacher and also plans to introduce that as an additional opportunity for locals and visitors in 2019.
She said everyone can benefit from bushwalking.
And while a lot of people flock to the ocean when it is hot in the summer months they should also consider flocking to the hills because there are many cool spots shaded by a forest canopy in areas with beautiful waterfalls.
Ms Johnston’s main advice is to find information on website trail guides and bushwalk groups, not to do it alone but with family or friends, stick to the trails and let people know where you are going.
“Safety is paramount,” she said.