Have you ever been drawn to the idea of travelling to Asia on a path to mindfulness? Perhaps India's Rishikesh, a gorgeous mountainous getaway travellers flock to each year to experience meditation, spirituality, nature, yoga, and everything that makes one feel all that bit zen?
What if I told you there's a place for this just 90 minutes along the Hume? A small town called Bundanoon, about halfway between Canberra and Sydney, is a little piece of paradise.
The Hume Highway is known as a predictable stretch of road that doesn't give you much to look at. It all starts to feel repetitive: stripped-back land, the occasional herd of cattle, and suicidal magpies that I'm continuously dodging. I take the turn-off to Bundanoon and within moments, it feels like I've entered an alternate universe.
I'm suddenly surrounded by dense forest, kookaburras flying overhead, and windy roads. What is this oasis, and why do I feel like my chest is no longer tight and that I can suddenly breathe in fresh air? Maybe it's the soul-soothing sounds of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks blasting through my car, or maybe it's more than that.
First stop is a small Buddhist nuns' monastery called Santi Forest Monastery. One of three in Australia for Theravadin nuns, it is a residence for Bhikkhunis and other female monastics.
Buddhist nun Ayya Jitindriya greets me and while she shows me around, I notice that while it's modest, the tranquility here is both arresting and alluring. We sit together on the balcony and she tells me stories of how she came to Buddhism during 1987 in England, and at the age of 25 was first ordained at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Hertfordshire.
"I took seven years of training as a young monastic, and was there as a nun for 17 years in England," she says.
Many years later in England, she did a masters degree in Buddhist Psychotherapy and after returning to Australia, she practiced as a psychotherapist while also teaching meditation and Buddhism.
She has spent the past 12 years as non-ordained, and came to Santi Forest Monastery to take her robes again only 14 months ago. With knowledge of the monastery from the early 90s, she says she knew Bundanoon was where she wanted to be.
"The reason I came back to Bundanoon after all these years was because I was aware that it was now a nuns' monastery, and I wanted to support the growth of the nuns' community," she says.
"Bundanoon is just a very small town, there's not a lot of commerce, and there's not a lot of development. I think because the town borders Morton National Park itself, there's a lot of conscientiousness about wildlife and how to live in ways that don't impact adversely on the earth."
My next stop awaits me, I want to fit in as much as I can before the day is over.
I assumed that a small town would only have room for one monastery, but only 10 minutes down the road is another, the Sunnataram Forest Monastery. It offers meditation retreats, school excursions and programs and activities centred around Buddhist teachings.
And as if I wasn't already entranced, I learn that the monasteries are only 15 minutes from my third stop, Morton National Park.
Situated near Gambells Rest Campground I set off to Fairy Bower Falls. The information sign says it's a 1km loop from the car park, and a 45-minute return walk. Ignore this; give yourself at least two hours, or even half a day. You'll know why once you get down there. But beware - the walk is steep and there are lots of stairs covered in dried eucalyptus leaves in autumn, making it incredibly slippery.
King ferns surround me, I'm in the depths of this rainforest and I already know it's worth the steps. A few minutes later I reach a flowing creek with a small waterfall, surrounded by moss-covered rocks.
Across the stream, I'm met with cliff faces and panoramic views. I approach vines hanging from high above me and walls of moss covered in iridescent drops of water.
In the summer, this mystical fairy microclimate provides an oasis from the sweltering heat.
Next to the vines is another waterfall, and a mysterious stairway that leads to nowhere. When I reach the base, there's an even greater waterfall.
Luckily, there are plenty of spots to sit down and take it all in.
I've travelled to Byron Bay to experience some of Australia's waterfalls, and I promise you, these are up there.
As much as I'd love to sit on a rock and stare at the picturesque waterfall above me, it's getting dark and the boring stretch of Hume Highway awaits.
I have Ayya Jitindriya's words echoing through my mind, reminding me that you don't necessarily need to physically be somewhere as beautiful as this hidden gem to practice mindfulness.
"I think in this day and age there are so many Dhamma teachings and so many spiritual teachings available online. It's providing a lot of convenient and easy access for people to get into, which is good because it's hard for people to travel sometimes out of the places where they're living to find these resources," she says.
"Guided meditations are easily available, and the guidance is really important because the mind is really restless quite naturally."
- Santi Forest Monastery is open to the public 10am-1pm Wednesday to Monday. They offer the occasional meditation workshops, along with Dhamma talks.
- Sunnataram Forest Monastery is open to the public 1-4pm Tuesday to Friday and 10am-4pm on weekends.
- Morton National Park is always open and is easily accessible from Bundanoon, Kangaroo Valley, Nowra and Ulladulla.