Balingup Heights Hilltop Forest Cottages

Written by Hannah Mulvany

When approaching Balingup Heights I could certainly tell where the proprietors had got the name from, for the hill I was about to scale was one of the steepest I have ever encountered. The ascent was absolutely worth it, both for the panoramic views over the Blackwood River Valley and the beautiful property that I had come to visit.

Once ensuring my handbrake was on the highest setting, I was greeted by Deb and Brian Vanallen who welcomed me into their beautiful farmhouse - the first dwelling to be built on the land almost 50 years ago.  Due to the steep ascent, the original European settlers in the area had left the original bush alone for many years. Technology soon caught up, allowing them to access this hilltop forest. Most of the 46 acre patch now known as Balingup Heights was logged and later grazed by cattle. Just a few old-growth jarrah trees remained, and the land then changed hands once more. This time the land was left to its own devices and, before long, nature had begun to reclaim it.

The Eucalypt forest surrounding the homestead

As the bush began to grow back, the previous owners saw an opportunity with their land. Rather than converting it back to agricultural land, they decided to allow the bush to continue regenerating and invited others to share their patch of young and evolving bushland by building holiday cabins around the property.

Balingup Heights was put up for sale at just the right time for Deb and Brian, who had repeatedly visited the southwest on holiday and had made the decision to make a permanent move to the region from Perth, along with their two young daughters. On seeing Balingup Heights it was love at first sight for the couple, who were passionate about continuing the habitat regeneration project that the previous owners had begun. My visit came after 50 years of rewilding.

As the forest regenerated, wildlife returned

Since taking over Balingup Heights the couple have continued allowing the bush to thrive and are completely dedicated to their reforestation project. Their land management techniques, which include constant monitoring and removal of invasive plants including blackberry bushes brought over from the UK and pines that have travelled from local plantations, are passive and designed to ensure that they do not damage the biodiversity that they have worked so hard to encourage back onto their property. The couple know every inch of their property and their knowledge and passion shone as they escorted me on the 1.2km circular walk around the 25 acre hilltop forest, which they encourage all of their guests to do.

Balingup Heights boasts an array of wildflowers in the warmer months

As we walked around the property, you could see that nature had very much reclaimed an area that rightfully belonged to it all along. The canopy created by the mostly marri trees, with a few scattered jarrahs, creates a beautifully shaded forest floor, dappled with a sunlit pattern that seems to dance along the ground as the wind blows. This small amount of sunlight has allowed the growth of ferns and mosses, as well as saplings who are all striving to gain their place at the top of the canopy. Unfortunately, I visited at the wrong time of year to see the incredible array of wildflowers and orchids but Brian, a keen photographer, showed me photographs of them, subsequently giving me serious envy for those who did get to visit at this special time of year. We did, however, spot one small pink orchid conspicuously growing amongst the otherwise brown leaf litter. Any logging of this land is now a thing of the past as the couple do not harvest any wood from the property, rather leaving it to rot and contribute to the organic health of the soil.  The couple have regular visits from an arborist who offers expert advice on the health of the trees and any actions that need to be taken to protect their patch, as well as the cabins. They are particularly proud of their ‘king jarrah’, a 200-year old tree that managed to survive the logging era and is the biggest tree on the property. Jarrahs are notoriously slow growing but this individual dwarfs the new-growth trees that surround it, having had a 150-year head start.

King Jarrah, a 200 year old Eucalypt

The ground was alive with insects of all shapes, sizes and colours – centipedes, millipedes and beetles - as well as an army of extremely hard-working ants who were fascinating to watch as they scaled one of the many trees carrying items that completely dwarfed them in size. Beautiful butterflies fluttered amongst the flora, visiting any flowers that may have contained a sugary stopover snack, while the birds chatted amongst themselves in the canopy above. Wedge-tailed eagles can be seen scouring the ground for prey from dizzying heights, while blue wrens, scarlet robins, silvereyes, New Holland honeyeaters and cockatoos endlessly survey the undergrowth. Owls have also been heard and seen perching on branches around the forest throughout the night. Two previous guests to the property just so happened to be birdwatchers and helped Deb and Brian to compose a field guide to the birds that can be seen at Balingup Heights, which is continuously added to.

Misty View Cottage, a guest cabin on the property

At dusk and dawn, emus and a mob of western grey kangaroos emerge from the adjoining old-growth bush to graze the pasture that surrounds the property. They are eagerly anticipated by the tourists occupying the cabins who try their best to keep as still as possible, as to not scare the visitors away. A few of the larger roos manage to scale the small perimeter fence that separates Balingup Heights from the agricultural land that surrounds the property, allowing them to graze within the property’s boundary. This fence helps to keep the neighbourhood cows off of the property to prevent overgrazing. The roof of the Vanallen family is also home to an undetermined quantity of western ringtail possums who are obviously reaping the benefits of the huge quantity of food on offer at Balingup Heights and limited competition.

There’s not just a lot on offer for wildlife at Balingup Heights, as Deb and Brian wanted to design a sanctuary away from the city where people could ‘get away from it all’ and kids can enjoy some screen-free fun. They want their guests to really connect with their surroundings by giving them ‘immediate access to nature’. They believe in the intrinsic value of nature for both adults and children who, in today’s urban-based society, are frequent sufferers of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and see their property as a remedy. The varied guests that visit Balingup Heights range from older friends and couples who come to relax and enjoy the surroundings, to active young families who explore the bush, build bushcubbies and whose muddy boots at the door of their cabins show the type of holiday that they have enjoyed. Some families even come back year after year to add to the bushcubby that they have started to make the year before.

The view from the property of the surrounding farmlands

Due to the couple having a young family of their own when they bought the property, they have always had the enjoyment of children that visit at the front of their minds. When exploring the bush after buying the land, they found a clearing where there was no growth due to a few invasive pine trees that had grown and changed the biology of the soil. This natural clearing provided the family with the perfect picnic spot and play area. Seeing how much their children loved the space, the couple had the idea of turning it into a ‘secret garden’ and used a brushcutter to create two separate paths leading to it from the cabins. They have placed many items within this nature playground for the enjoyment of children, including garden gnomes and chess pieces, giving it a very Alice in Wonderland vibe. On seeing the secret garden I could imagine all of the fun I’d have had as a child, creating stories about fairies and pixies and other forest-dwelling creatures, probably getting covered in mud in the process. It seemed like a place where lots of childhood memories had already been made and would continue to be for many years to come, as well as being an important play space for kids who may not usually have the chance to interact with nature.

'The Secret Garden', where children can explore and play in nature

Despite being at Balingup Heights at the totally wrong time of year for the wildflowers, I was there at the exact right time to see the mists that fall on the Blackwood Valley below early in the morning which my abode for the night, ‘Misty View Cottage’, was perfectly positioned to see. After waking up just before sunset, I witnessed the mists that the couple spoke so joyously about and could see why. Despite this, Brian later informed me that the mist I’d seen was actually rather small and showed me some even more impressive photographs. Something that the couple really enjoy about the property is that their view is completely different every time of year, which is a benefit of the temperate area in which they live. In April, as expected, there is a lot of dusty light brown land surrounding the property but after the rains begin, green floods the landscape and seasonal visitors flock to the area to replenish the fat supplies that have been severely depleted during migration, adding more species to the Balingup Heights field guide. The couple have created two lookout points on their property for their visitors, and for them, to be able to take in the magnificent views.

Fallen trees provide shelter for animals and help to nourish the soil

Deb and Brian want to continue improving the health and biodiversity of their property for many years to come by continuing with the land management practices that allow the habitat to thrive, naturally. They also want to do more surveys of the property to find species that they may have overlooked and add these to field guides for their visitors. With the secret garden very much being seen as a ‘work in progress’, they are hoping to continue adding different features to it that will create even more outdoor enjoyment for visiting kids.

There are nature-orientated events on the property including wildlife and landscape photography workshops, drone piloting and bird-watching, which they hope to do even more frequently in the future and add an even more diverse selection.

Most of the surrounding properties are working farms

I left Balingup Heights with an overwhelming feeling of peace and absolute tranquillity. As I descended the hill, the recognisable sound of cars and human activity came flooding back, uninvited, and the hill had never looked less daunting. 

It’s clear that Deb and Brian are living their dream within their hilltop forest and are completely dedicated to making it the kind of habitat that their local wildlife will benefit from. At this point in time, nature certainly needs more people like them!