From Oaxaca to Blackheath in Ferns

Oliver Sacks was many things — neurologist, author, essayist, swimmer, thinker, partner to Bill, fern enthusiast. His fascination with ferns features in his 2002 book, Oaxaca Journal, tells of Sacks' expedition to Oaxaca in southern Mexico in early 2000.

Having recently finished reading Oaxaca Journal, it was Sacks and his ferns on my mind during my most recent trip out to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.


With a neurologist's eye for detail and an uninhibited sense of wonder we could all do with, in Oaxaca Journal Sacks recounts his 'fern foray' with 'botanical companions'. Companions Sacks characterises as "a splendid group...enthusiastic, innocent, uncompetitive, united in our love for ferns."

Sacks describes his trip as "a wonderful fern adventure, with novelties and surprises, great beauty at every point" — but of course, it becomes more than that.

During his time in Oaxaca, Sacks — in discovering the region's botany, culture, people, and history — ponders the profundity of immersion in an unfamiliar place. 

"The fern tour is turning out to be much more than a fern tour," he writes. "It is a visit to another, a very other, culture and place."

The dedication in Sacks' Oaxaca Journal is for his 'botanical companions' and for us all. It reads:

For the American Fern Society
and for plant hunters, birders, divers, stargazers, rock hounds,
fossickers, amateur naturalists the world over.

While it is the Oaxaca fern foray we read of in Oaxaca Journal, Sacks' delight in ferns was nurtured in regular trips closer to home. Sacks often visited the botanical gardens of New York City. There he spent time "discharg[ing] the tensions of the day", and writing.

"I start to think among the plants," Sacks told PBS in a 1989 interview. Likely true for us all.

 Govetts Leap overlooks the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains National Park.

Govetts Leap overlooks the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains National Park.


Walking the Cliff Top track from Govetts Leap to Evans Lookout

Most of the way from Govetts Leap along the Cliff Top walking track to Evans lookout runs parallel to the cliff edge and offers a dramatic panoramic view across the valley.

The Grand Canyon track at Blackheath

The Grand Canyon track, which starts (and ends) at Evans lookout, is a six kilometre loop of glorious greenery — big old moss-covered trees, running streams, a waterfall or two, and plenty of ferns.

The walk from Govetts Leap to Evans Lookout, around the Grand Canyon track and back to where you began at Govetts Leap is about 12km all up.

Of course you needn't tackle Cliff Top and Grand Canyon tracks together, but it does make a good full day walk — particularly if you're commuting via train and walking to the start of the track from Blackheath Station (Govetts Leap lookout, and the start of the Cliff Top track, is an easy 3km walk from the station).