Nathan Smith


Environmental Film Maker

Interviewee: Nathan Smith, born 1978

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 1 May, 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, May 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Life in our Backyards - Exploring our region and its native bushland


So tell me what was it like for you growing up at Kenthurst at that time? We are talking now about the 1980’s aren’t we?

I think Kenthurst is a little Eden of sorts out there, there was really no troubles. For us in particular my family moving out there, they were trying to adjust to the community themselves. Having just moved out there quite recently, I do recall a situation where we were trying to get the feel of the neighbourhood and the region. There was always very much integrated with the natural surroundings. We were on a five acre bush block, a rough bush block. My Dad was an excavator and he had an ambition to turn this bush block into a landscaped property which he did. So most of our weekends were spent out there or camping. We used to camp up the Hawkesbury River. My enjoyment was always associated to the outdoors and to the natural landscapes. School and local friends and communities they were just so great. There was never really much conflict in our area. It was very peaceful and very quiet.

Did you get much freedom as a child to spend time in the bush?

Yes Mum had a bell. So that might indicate just how much freedom we had. She had to ring that bell if she wanted to get us to come back. Yelling was never going to work. So basically down the back of the blocks in Kenthurst. You’ve got a five acre bush block and it goes down to the creek. Depending on how big the valley is you might get the five acres up the other side. But as a kid you don’t see any boundaries and no fences so we used to play warriors and adventure games down in the forest, down in the bush every afternoon.

Did you encounter much wildlife then?

Oh definitely, definitely.

What sort of wildlife?

Everything from big goannas to snakes to spiders, yabbies were a particular favourite because we would try to catch them to cook them. Occasionally you’d get something rare like an echidna or a wallaby. Not particularly rare as a species but rare for our area. Insects I suppose for kids as well. They’re great cause you can put them in containers. Cicadas and things like that.

Huntsman Spider photo by Adam Rose

Did you have a big butterfly net to catch anything with?

No, no not until I went to university did I discover the joys of a butterfly net.

What did the neighbourhood look like? You’ve mentioned the five acre block but how close was your next door neighbour and how big were the properties generally in Kenthurst at that time? Were they all five acre blocks?

When my family moved out there it was tending towards… they used to call them… there’s a main road through Kenthurst called Pitt Town Road and as a little bit of a joke the first people coming out from the city used to go out there and call them the Pitt Street farmers. It used to be a lot of poultry and a lot of fruit that was out there at that time. All those ridge tops in the hills that were covered in shale still didn’t have the shales washed off. They’d been farmed from very, very early on, maybe a decade or so after the first arrival. It’s been rural for so long. It wasn’t until the 1960’s, 70’s until people like my parents started moving out there. They started dividing up these blocks. The area when I got there was mostly built. It was a lot more humble than it is now. I see big mansions, big fences, big gates. You can rarely get to a front door before you have to press a buzzer on a gate these days. People went out there for the lifestyle. A lot of people for the horses and for other aspects they really wanted the room. Whereas today it’s changed in a sense that people go out there for I don’t know. It seems a lot of people go out there to build a big house and have privacy, not so much about the lifestyle anymore it’s just a lot more about privacy.

Kinnish family farm with citrus trees and poultry sheds 1954

So I’d imagine then it was a stronger sense of community at that time, than there is now?

I wouldn’t want to judge because I don’t live there so much at the moment. Community is very hard unless you’re within community groups. Schools and different associations, I daresay there’s a sense of community. Nowadays you definitely have to access that community through other means. It’s not as easy to just meet people on the streets or just to wander down to see you neighbours. I don’t see that happening so much especially in my street no.

Going back to your younger days, what sort of people were living then in Kenthurst? What were they doing?

Well that was one of the great things was the variety. You had people who had their typical city business jobs and just loved the lifestyle out there. It took a lot longer to get out to the city in those days before the roads were upgraded. To local farmers some of the Chinese farmers that were out there. We had such a diverse mix of people. People like my Dad who were excavators and in the building trade, it’s really hard to classify the style of people out there. I think it was good because there was a mix between the western suburbs and the northern suburbs of Sydney. It was quite a nice blend. So some of your friends were from really wealthy families and other ones were… their parents were on benefits. It created a healthy atmosphere for you to grow and get a better understanding and appreciation of the diversity in the world.

Was there also a diversity in the ethnic origin of the people?

Not so much, not so much but we did have a good Chinese influence there from the start. Their history goes way back. The immigrants who came from places such as Lebanon and a lot of Eastern Europeans, Italians had set up market gardens around the region. So there was some diversity there. Nowhere near as much as the western suburbs or southern suburbs of Sydney, but a lot more than out in the country.

The Chinese that you mentioned were they mainly market gardeners?

I don’t know because I only remember people like friends of mine, Cameron Chan and those at school. I knew that there was some market gardeners around but surely they weren’t all market gardeners, I don’t know.

Chinese market garden in the Dural area 2006

Now you have an early interest in photography I believe, tell me a little bit about how that began?

I have vague memories of my first trip down to Canberra when I was about ten. Every school kid goes down to Canberra to see the Parliament House. I remember getting my Mum’s camera and letting loose on the film that was inside. That was my first fascination certainly with photography. That ability to capture images and it did stay with me through to high school. But later on I used to go over to New Zealand when I was younger by myself starting from the age of fourteen. My relatives were over there and I’d do a lot of trekking and tramping around. That’s when I really started getting into photography. I had that ambition to present to my friends at school how beautiful this landscape was. I started realising at those times well there must be a skill here because I just can’t get it looking as good as it seems to do. That was the start of it. It took off in a big way, in a very big way with my first video camera. I got a scholarship to join the Defence Force Academy down in Canberra and I spent that money on a video camera. I never went to the Defence Force Academy. So that was the grounding of my interest in photography and filming in particular.

What sort of subjects were you interested in capturing on your camera and video camera?

Those days I was certainly interested in trekking outdoor adventure, landscapes. Prior to doing my education in science, zoology and ecology that’s where my heart was in terms of filming. I was always in places such as New Zealand and Tasmania and out and about on treks that I would take my camera and capture things.

Nathan James Smith filming in The Hills Shire photo by Adam Rose

So you also got interested in ecology to quite an extent. Tell me after you left your high school did you go into further studies in that field?

I started doing biomedical science here at UTS here in Sydney. I left school not really knowing which way to turn. I loved filming and I loved being out in the mountains and things like that. Coming out of school I think I’d been very much socialised into the sense of I’ve got to get a good job. I did well at school and I got good marks in the end. So I went into biomedical science interested in things like disease research. I very quickly got frustrated at the amount of time I spent looking through microscopes. I left that and I went to four or five universities after that. It wasn’t long after that I went up to Lismore. I kept transferring my credits so I found out that you could take credits from one university to another and just add them on. I went up to Lismore and started to study coastal resource management and that’s where it all took off, my fascination with science. It’s such a beautiful location up there. That’s when I started to appreciate what we had in the region of The Hills too because that’s where my travels began. Since then I haven’t been one place for more than eight months. I’ve travelled over fifty countries now. That was the start of something. I’ve got such a strong curiosity for this world. It all keeps drawing me back to the love of the place that I grew up.

Its mind-blowing to come back home having been to places like Africa or Japan or South America then to come back here. The bushland that we grew up in is from an ecological standpoint is incredible, is incredible. For this latitude region of the world it’s got one of the highest regions of biodiversity that I’ve ever come across. After that I went on to study in Cairns, tropical biology, zoology. I went to UWA to study animal behaviour. I think it had been two summers before I’d been trekking in Tasmania on this twenty one day trek. I came up to the top of the Ironbound Ranges and my friend who I was trekking with, he was a long way ahead or behind, I can’t remember. I was up there with my little video camera doing the typical thing. Telling everybody how great it was in this place and that’s when it really hit me that this is what I want to do. I want to use this tool to share with people. This sense was growing at that time so passionately inside of me I wanted to share my sense of amazement at the world. I’ve always been amazed I don’t know how people can get bored in life. It fascinates me every day does. So it’s been a great tool since then. I just went on and studied different subjects and finished university. I’d started doing some underwater filming by then. I’d done a couple of little documentaries in Cairns. That’s when I started travelling around the world.

Dwarf Green Tree Frog photo by Adam Rose

So you managed to combine your two loves, one of cinematography and the other of ecology and nature?

Well I see cinematography as probably a lot of people do. An artist with a paintbrush, the paintbrush is just the tool. What they really love is communication and different forms of communication. I just see the video is a really powerful form of communication. I love still photography probably more than video but the fact is video is I think more powerful. So I’ve taken that as much with choice as I have with passion.

Did you get inspired by any particular film makers or documentary styles?

No I mainly got inspired by the world around me and I realised I had this tool to tell it. Younger days no, later on yes, now I see the power of what I can use that media for. I’m inspired mostly by things such as inconvenient truth. I mean how a documentary can change the ideas of a nation, of the globe so to speak. Such a powerful form of media if you can get it right, so that’s inspiring for me, certainly in the younger days I was just inspired by the world around me.

So when did you actually start filming the fauna and the wildlife of the Baulkham Hills Shire?

Late 2002, I went over to Europe for a year and a half, just back packing around and I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I didn’t really know if I should go back to university. I was a little bit scared of following up with the video camera because I realised in university how tough and industry it was. It’s extremely difficult to get work and maintain work as you’d well know. Then I thought I was getting too involved in how society needed me and rather than think of that, I started thinking about what I loved. Being over there was very powerful. I was with my friend Peter at the time and we were living in a little house in the Isle of Man, a little island between Ireland and England. We were about to start a big bike trip down from Liverpool, through England through France down to Spain, down to Gibraltar on pushbikes. Before that happened I said to him “ I want to go back to Kenthurst and make a documentary”. My idea initially was just to go for two months, two months out in the bush. Film all these great animals. I’d started getting an amazing appreciation of just how wonderful our area was. I really felt a sense of ooh I can see it disappearing.

I could see it disappearing and I can still see it disappearing. There was an obligation to do something about that. Even in my childhood I saw animals and species get knocked off from our region. There was a sense of having to do something. I think that’s very instinctive, that sense. So we did this bike trip. Along the way somewhere in the middle of France he took a wrong turn. We weren’t riding together and I didn’t see him again. We were meant to get down to Gibraltar and buy a catamaran and sail to Greece. It was a big trip that we had planned. I lost him and I didn’t see him for another month. He thought I was going to Lyon and I thought he was going to Nice. No it was the other way round. Anyway I got down to Gibraltar and he wasn’t there so bought this video camera. A little Canon XM1 that was it and since then I haven’t looked back. That documentary was a lot longer than two months I think it took five years. It expanded out to do the whole north west of Sydney, I just loved it. I just became so passionate about it.

Rainbow Lorikeet photo by Adam Rose

So what sort of animals did you encounter in those five years?

Everything that’s what’s so great about our area, we can get everything from some of the world’s deadliest snakes and spiders to these cute and cuddly mammals like sugar gliders, yellow belly gliders, some of the most beautiful birds in the world. Lizards that are over two metres long, just so many amazing creatures that we’ve got. One of the most fascinating things about Sydney you can get right into the city and see these animals. Because of the geographical features in the north of Sydney, there is all these wildlife corridors. Essentially following the creeks all these big corridors that allow creatures to penetrate into the heart of some of the densest suburbs in Sydney. It’s fascinating what you can see. That was the background to producing a documentary Life in our Backyard. I’ve got a market here, literally in their backyard for a lot of people in my area. There’s a big wildlife documentary waiting to happen.

You have to get up early in the morning to see them don’t you? I mean are they living right amongst us and we’re not aware of them?

You’ve got to go out and be quiet just the old principle of sit and wait. The other thing of course about Australia being a hot country especially the mammals are adapted to survival at night time. When it’s cooler rather than using energy to conserve heat, they use that energy foraging at night time. Then in the day time when the temperatures are around about their body temperature they can rest and maintain. You do miss a lot of the creatures in Sydney unless you’re prepared to get a spotlight and go out at night.

Is that what you did?

I would spend most of my time out at night if I was looking for animals.

 Devastated bush after Glenorie 2002 bushfire

Like possums you mean?

I’d be looking for things like wombats. Pythons are quite common at night time so they’re quite good to see. Yellow belly gliders, which are a rare endangered species, that we’ve got in the area, just the brush tails and the possums. We’ve got a whole range of small mammals down to little bush rats that arrived here five or six thousand years ago. A lot of it is just chance encounter. I went out to try and get wombats on film. I spent a week… now wombats on average will have about eight different entrances or exits to a burrow. I think it’s a good strategy they can jump on one and if a predator was to try and chase them down they can pop out another one. So I thought if I got two cameras recording non-stop I put them outside of one burrow and another burrow and I walked away. I thought I’ve got a one in four chance. I thought I have to go out four nights in a row and I’ll get it. But seven nights in a row and I still didn’t. So you can imagine and I couldn’t film anything in the meantime. A lot of the work is like that, it’s really frustrating, it’s time consuming but if you’re passionate about it like I was I didn’t even see it as work it was enjoyable.

So what was your biggest surprise in filming wildlife?

My biggest surprise that’s a good question I’d say in terms of surprises I’d have to say… I’d say there were three things. One would be the bushfires of 2002, 2003 I think it was. I was going out to visit a wombat. Heading out to Glenorie and those big bush fires popped up that popped up in Glenorie. I happened to be the first car at the scene.

That was scary, that was a surprise. I managed to get some footage there sitting in my Mum and Dad’s four wheel drive. That was really, really scary. I never realised how ferocious bush fires could get. I saw the bush in front of me just erupt into flames, it was very scary. Then in terms of creatures one of the most fascinating moments is I found this little praying mantis. Normally you think of a praying mantis as that green creature with the big claws. They’re predators one of the ultimate predators in the insect world. They’ve got these massive forearms that just crunch anything in front of it, these big googly eyes looking around. But I found one of these little brown ones that run up and down the tree trunk. I was just watching it for a while thinking “wow look at this”. I got my macro lens out and I started filming it and it was just sitting there. The next thing I see is these ants, little black ants that run up and down the tree trunk. Watching this thing through my macro lens it would just take a swipe and just eating these ants one after the other, after the other. Little interesting things like that, that I’d never seen as a kid before were fascinating. Then I found a four and a half metre python down in our area, four and a half metres. They really don’t get much bigger than that. I thought all those big snakes had gone. There’s countless things that I’d come across spending thousands of hours now that I’ve spent out in the bush. Those sorts of things represent what I’ve seen. What’s great about being able to put it onto a DVD is I know unless you’ve got that sort of time to dedicate you won’t get to see this. That was great to share with so many people and say “look what’s in your backyard” though you’ll probably never get to see it.

Go To Part Two