ON the surface, the water looks alive with fish.
Rings of promise ripple out across the dam in the late afternoon light.
Yet Barry Brown seems unmoved - and so is the fly rod he is holding.
"That's a platypus," he says.
Sure enough, a sliver of fur briefly arcs before disappearing back into the depths.
"He's come up for a breath then dives back for a feed in the mud on the bottom."
Scanning the surface, I can see there are quite a few platypuses about. It is a wondrous sight.
But it is trout that Barry Brown is seeking. As he stares at the water, he offers an aphorism.
"There are some fish you're just not meant to lose, and some fish you're not meant to catch."
More from the writer: Scott Bevan's complete Breaking Bread series
Fishermen seem to have a huge store of wise sayings. No wonder, since they have a lot of time to sit around and meditate on the meaning of life as they wait for their line to jiggle.
Barry Brown is a long-time member of a small but enduring club that has access to a string of dams on private property at Hunter Springs in Barrington Tops.
Yet as the American writer Henry David Thoreau said, possibly after a day's angling, "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after."
The members of The Barrington Club seem to know what they are after.
While many of the club's 60 or so members come up here to the rooftop of the Hunter Valley to fly fish, all of them seek something even more elusive than a rainbow trout: serenity and escape from the hubbub of city living.
BARRINGTON Tops is the kind of place where you can lose yourself. Or at least avoid being found.
More than a century ago, bushrangers, including Captain Thunderbolt and the Governor Brothers, found refuge in the bush. In more recent times, Malcolm Naden camped in the Tops during his seven years on the run, before he was captured in 2012 and imprisoned for murder.
It may be only a few hours' drive from Newcastle, but Barrington Tops can feel not only remote but primordial. Perched up to 1580 metres above sea level, great swathes of the Tops are entangled in rainforest and sub-alpine woodlands.
From the lianas dangling from branches to the rain and mist moping around, and, on the coldest days, snow on the ground, the Tops seem like a place that neither time nor humans has touched.
But it is that very feeling that has drawn people to the Tops for generations, including the founders of The Barrington Club.
After the bitter winter of 1947, a couple of Newcastle businessmen, Rod Earp and Warwick Johnson, resolved to climb the Tops.
The men organised a series of expeditions from 1948 to 1950, with small parties heading up the mountains, using maps that still had blank spaces on them. They were literally trekking into largely uncharted territory, noting the landmarks as they went.
The heavy snow that fell during the winters of the late 1940s warmed the hikers' hearts. They were looking for a ski run. So a key reason for The Barrington Club to come into being was to promote skiing.
"It was initially adventurous people doing this, dreaming of going skiing," says Charles Atkin, The Barrington Club's secretary.
A hut was built on Mount Brumlow, the area's highest point, and a ski run was cleared on its southern slopes.
However, the skiing dreams were as fleeting as the snow. As Max Dunford, the club's long-time president, says of those early days, "there was not a great deal of skiing".
While the snow disappeared, the enthusiasm for a club hadn't. The Barrington Club was founded in March 1950. In addition to the "ski lodge", the club built a more substantial hut at nearby Tubrabucca.
The club members' goals were to pursue mountain sports, including skiing, fishing and hiking, to undertake scientific studies of the area, and to help preserve the Tops' fauna and flora.
Among the earliest members were Donald and Patricia Dunlop, who had recently moved to Newcastle.
Actually, Ireland-born Patricia had been in Australia only a few months when her opthalmologist husband, a keen fisherman, announced in March 1951 they were going on a camping trip to Barrington Tops.
Patricia Dunlop thought she had left behind freezing weather when she had emigrated from Britain, until that first trip up the valley.
"Wide open spaces and very cold," she says, recalling her first impressions of the Tops.
On that initial trip, the trailer carrying their gear slipped off the narrow road, and the Dunlops had to scrabble on the steep slope to retrieve their belongings, which were a necessity if they were to stay up top.
"We didn't have a hut in the beginning, we only had a tent," Patricia Dunlop recalls. "It was basic, totally basic.
"In the early days, there were no amenities really. It was quite bleak. But good fish!"
The club members waded into the mountain streams, casting and waiting. To increase their chances, the members introduced trout into the Tops' waterways, including releasing about 10,000 recently hatched fish into the tributaries of the Pigna Barney River.
Yet The Barrington Club has always been about more than fishing.
In the 1950s, members joined the fight to protect Barrington Tops. These adventurers were not the only ones beguiled by the Tops. For years, others had seen potential up there.
Local authorities and business people had envisioned opening the high country and developing it as a tourist destination.
Another proposal, according to Dulcie Hartley's book, Barrington Tops: A Vision Splendid, was to capture the power of the area's waters to generate hydro-electricity. Later, there were plans for pine plantations.
"When that started to pick up momentum, and they were talking about airports and golf clubs, the more a conservation approach came into it," explains Charles Atkin.
As the founding club member Rod Earp said at the time, he didn't want to see a "Katoomba-style development" in the Tops.
The club pushed for the formation of a Barrington Tops National Park, which was eventually gazetted in 1969. Two decades on, it was listed as a world heritage area.
Even then, Charles Atkin explains, the work of the club's founding members played a role, with links back to when they literally helped put the Tops on the map.
"One of the maps that went in for the World Heritage [listing] was a map created by them, owned by The Barrington Club," he says.
Yet nature doesn't have all its own way on Barrington Tops. Some areas are managed by the Forestry Corporation, retaining a long tradition of timber felling in the area.
Forestry also carved out a road over the mountains, linking Scone and Gloucester, which further opened the area to visitors. There are also farms on the Tops, some of them having been in the same family for generations.
It was to one of these multi-generational farms that The Barrington Club moved more than half a century ago.
THE sheer wildness of Barrington Tops can quickly expose human frailties and weaknesses. But the environment can also bring out the strengths of human character.
In a way, you have to be tough to survive up here. And so it is with the Wright family of Hunter Springs, about 1300 metres above sea level.
For four generations, they have worked this land, running a beef cattle property named Wondecla. The current landholder, Dale Wright, explains Wondecla is an Aboriginal word, meaning "meeting of the waters".
The river that helps give life to a valley is effectively born on this property.
The Hunter River begins as three tiny streams here.
First Hunter gurgles from the ground just beyond Wondecla in the Barrington Tops State Conservation Area, before it sneaks under the fences and onto the Wrights' property. Second Hunter and Third Hunter spring into the world in the paddocks of Wondecla.
About 470 kilometres downstream, these waters cradle massive coal ships in the river's mouth at Newcastle port. But up here, the "meeting of the waters" holds the fortunes of a farming family - and the hopes of fishing enthusiasts.
In the early 1960s, Dale Wright's grandfather and father, Joe and Val, harnessed the water running off these hills for a string of dams on Wondecla. They stocked the dams with trout.
"He was into fishing, and the breeding of them, he had a hatchery here," Dale Wright says of his father.
Yet the fishing dams were about more than enjoyment. The plan was to create another income stream. The plan worked.
The Barrington Club reached an agreement with the Wrights. The club could build a small lodge by one of the dams and its members could fish Wondecla's waters.
In return, the club members would pay to stay in the lodge and a fee for each day's fishing, along with an amount for each trout taken, based on its weight.
Current club president Max Dunford first came to Wondecla in 1965. He recalls meeting Joe Wright, who was "a real dyed-in-the-wool man of the land".
The land had shaped Joe Wright. He had been a gold prospector, a cattle drover, and farmer. In his final years, Wright would craft his experiences and memories into short stories that were published.
Max Dunford had come to Wondecla in search of what he had lost, and what Joe Wright still had: a real bush experience.
Max Dunford had spent his early years on Bulga Plateau, a couple of hours north-east of Barrington Tops. Since 1957, he has lived in Newcastle, and he worked at the BHP steelworks for 40 years. But the 80-year-old still feels connected to the country.
"This place is very similar to where I grew up, it's similar in its isolation," Dunford says. "It's probably the only likeliness to my childhood that's available."
Entwined around that unceasing passion for the country is a love of trout fishing.
"I don't know whether it's a carry-over from the Stone Age, when we were hunters and fishers and trappers," Dunford muses.
"I saw my first trout probably when I was about eight years old. My brother and I were lying on the creek bank watching this fish swim around, and it had red on its sides. And the only thing I had seen with red on its sides like that was a red-bellied black snake."
For Max Dunford, The Barrington Club has not been a solitary experience. Through the years, he has brought his children and grand children to Wondecla. It has been an opportunity to get close to nature - occasionally too close, as the club's log book records.
"I had a nice weekend but caught no fish," wrote Mark Dunford, Max's son, in 1976. "I was sitting on the toilet when a snake came under the door. I told dad and he chased him."
In the early days, Max Dunford would bring his fishing mate Barry Brown to Wondecla. He became a club member in 1967.
"These dams were crystal clear back then," says Brown as he casts his line.
"They weren't turbid like this. The fishing was really good, there were fish moving everywhere, and you had the opportunity to catch them."
Indeed, he could almost catch a trout from the club's lodge, which was perched above Main Dam.
"You could sit on the verandah and watch the fish," he recalls.
In the early 1970s, the lodge was shut, when the agreement with the Wright family broke down.
According to the club's history, the reasons for the "dispossession" were not clear but it may have been due to a member not paying for fish taken.
The relationship was patched up, and by 1975 the lodge had been moved further up the hill to its present position.
While the club pays an annual rent, both the members and Dale Wright say the relationship is not about money.
"I suppose the tradition of it, and a lot of them are good friends," says Dale Wright, as to why he keeps the arrangement with the club going. He adds it brings a little bit of income, but "it's not an outlay for me either".
"For me personally, that land is my anchor. It's the reason for most of the other stuff I do, it's nice to share that with other people. So I think that gives some understanding of the land and nature."
The "lodge" is a fancy name for this rustic structure.
It has a kitchen/dining room, a shower room, and a sleeping area with six bunks in it. The lodge has solar power, a stove that runs on gas, and a large open fireplace that does more than provide warmth and stoke conversations.
"It's a fine art in summer to have the fire going," explains Charles Atkin. "So you have to make sure it doesn't get too hot, but it does stop the blowies coming down the chimney."
Out the back is a pit toilet. When I ask if they can imagine the day a flushing toilet is installed, the reply is resounding: "No!"
During my visit to the hut, no women are in residence. While partners and families come along for weekends and holidays, there is only a handful of independent female members. But the Barrington members make it clear this is not a boys' club.
"There's nothing to stop them, and there's no resistance whatsoever," Atkin says.
Patricia Dunlop, who is the club's patron, says in the early days there were few women members as well.
"I don't think I was ever up there with women," she recalls. "I don't think they were all that keen. It was pretty basic."
Did she ever feel like the odd one out?
"No, that didn't worry me," the 90-year-old replies. "I can stand on my own feet!"
To maintain the lodge and its grounds, along with the dams, the club members hold working bees.
Keith Boyce is a retired builder from Caves Beach. He's come up for a few days to oversee the re-roofing of the lodge. He's been a club member for about four years, having been initially brought here by his in-laws.
"There's fish here, and that's what got me going," Boyce says.
To join this club, it is who you know.
The member nominating you has to have known you for at least a year and to have accompanied you to the lodge. The member seconding your application has to have known you for at least six months.
The club's leaders insist those rules are not about being exclusive.
"The membership is a real cross section of the community," asserts Barry Brown.
They seek people who are respectful of the club's traditions, the landowners, and the environment.
So to have a minimum impact on the Tops, and to derive maximum enjoyment from the place, the club reckons membership will remain limited, and the selection process tight.
"Probably the key in additional membership and investment is to get people who are conscious of the history and the significance of the area, things like that," Charles Atkin says.
"Otherwise, it could become a four-wheel-drive centre or motorbike centre."
TO the uninitiated, fly fishermen can seem like a funny lot.
For a start, they speak their own language. It is a strange, arcane tongue. It is as though they are conversing about characters from a fairy tale, as they talk of nymphs and damsels, rainbow warriors and black phantoms.
They are but a few of the names of the flies fishermen attach to a line to lure a trout. A frowned-upon term among fly fishermen is "live bait".
"That's fishing, but it's not fly fishing," says Charles Atkin, explaining that using a fly is "more the art of replicating bait".
Instead of live bait, these fishers use an artificial fly, a delicate assemblage of materials to create the look of an insect.
Many, including Barry Brown, tie their own flies from whatever they can find and fossick.
"Ooh, rabbit fur," says Brown, as we hike along a track on Wondecla. "That makes beautiful flies."
When Barry Brown opens his fly box, it is like an Aladdin's cave of angling. A swarm of colours and feathery textures grabs the eye.
"I've got boxes of spares at home," he says, explaining he has hundreds of flies. "The others are 'desperation' ones."
To help increase the chances of catching a trout, the club members stock the dams each year. In November, they are planning to release 2000 recently hatched fish. Most will go into the two largest dams, but there are at least nine other waterholes across the property that can be stocked.
The survival rate is hard to determine. But Charles Atkin estimates that at one smaller dam, of the 20 trout released last year, 15 survived.
Atkin helps fish survive in other ways. He regularly tests the dams, as well as the streams tumbling through the valleys around Wondecla, using a probe to monitor the water temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen levels.
"I'm testing for the ability to support life in the water," he explains.
The waters on Wondecla, Atkin says, are "pure as", and the high reaches of the streams have next to no pollutants in them, due to minimal contact with human activity.
Atkin will pass on the readings to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, to help build knowledge about freshwater streams and fishing, "so everybody has a better understanding of what's going on up here".
Barry Brown feels the jerk of a fish on his line at what is called Suicide Dam. The club members gave it that name because the fish here seem intent on being caught.
Brown gently pulls the small rainbow trout to the bank and unhooks it. There is a flash of quicksilver back into the water.
"That was one we put in November last year, I'd say," he murmurs.
Brown and Charles Atkin are taking the chance to fish while they inspect the dams and plan for the release of trout.
On these walks through the paddocks, they usually see kangaroos and wallabies, occasionally a wombat.
But Atkin says a couple of years ago he saw the legendary black panther. It was gone within seconds, but it is seared into his memory as being more than a metre long and easily half a metre high.
"It was a very large cat, black, and I think bigger than any domestic cat or feral cat."
Fishermen can be cagey about revealing their favourite spots, but Atkin says that doesn't really apply to chasing trout.
"I don't think there's anyone too secretive about spots," he says. "Trout are too fickle."
Anyway, as Thoreau advised, it is not about catching the fish. To Atkin, who has been a club member for about 36 years, there is something therapeutic about casting the line, hearing it whistle through the air, and landing it near where a fish may be.
Then there's the location itself, especially in the sweet light of the late afternoon, when the landscape is reflected on the water and the world gently wobbles.
"Just look at it," he says. "It's a beautiful spot."
Yet all concede there is something special in catching a trout. It is more than sport.
"The first time you come up here and get a strike, it is like an electric shock up your arm," Max Dunford says. "It is still like that. But it doesn't happen very often."
It does happen for Barry Brown. In a corner of the large Bottom Dam, he catches a 1.4-kilogram trout, providing him with a satisfying feed - and yet another tale to tell in front of the lodge's fire.
"I thought, 'You tinny bugger!'," he says of himself landing the fish.
"There's always a bit of luck. You've got to find them."
Yet here, high above the valleys and the cares of the world, the members of The Barrington Club always find something that enriches their lives.
"An appreciation of the environment, camaraderie, and an understanding of the Hunter," says Charles Atkin.
"It's a spectacular place to be."
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