From Bomb Disposal To Blue Mountains Birdwatching

tawny frogmouth

A Tawny frogmouth, often mistaken for an owl. Mat: “They’re beautiful and so well camouflaged.”

Story by Julie Nance, photos and video: Mat van der Aa   

Mat van der Aa swapped detonating explosives in the Air Force for life as an outdoor educator and guide. His ‘office’ is the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, and his mission is to inspire teenagers to respect and love the bush as much as he does. The lower Mountains resident shares some of his favourite wildlife photos and videos, including his most memorable moment – a Superb Lyrebird mimicking other birds and dancing.


Key Points:

  • The evidence is strong and growing that people tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive, creative, active and engaged in community life when nature is a meaningful part of their lives. They are also more likely to care for it. (Source: Connecting with Nature to Care for Ourselves and the Earth: Recommendations for Decision Makers)
  • Mat immerses himself in nature every week and enjoys motivating young people to gain the physical and psychological benefits he does.   

Mat was having a rough day when he chanced upon a lyrebird on Prince Henry Cliff walk in Katoomba. He had spotted lyrebirds in the bush plenty of times but this was the first time he saw one dance. The biggest bonus was being able to sit and watch its performance for 15 minutes.

“It actually moved me quite a lot,” Mat says. “I was a little bit emotional driving home and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed. It was magical.”

Carol Probets, Blue Mountains birding guide of more than 30 years, explains what the lyrebird is doing in each of the videos:

Video 1: This is a typical stream of mimicry of other bird calls interspersed with the lyrebird’s own territorial song. Other bird calls include Pied Currawong, Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Laughing Kookaburra, Eastern Whipbird, Grey Shrike-thrush and Satin Bowerbird.

Video 2: Male lyrebirds generally display on a scratched-up mound of earth, but they also display on logs and in trees, as this bird is doing. Here, his tail is inverted over his body and spread wide. You can see the right lyrate feather is broken off with only a short stub remaining. A new feather will grow the next time the bird moults. The repeated clicking sound is part of the bird’s normal breeding display and may serve as an invitation to females.

Q and A with Mat

You are a 19-year veteran of both the Army and Air Force, the latter part working in explosive ordinance disposal. That sounds more nerve-racking than your current role.  

I wanted to give back to society. Defence around the world has put a lot of explosives out there and I wanted to get rid of at least some of them. It didn’t end up agreeing with my body so I thought of another path and that’s what I’m doing now.   

I help facilitate school camps and Duke of Edinburgh programs which involve a hike but at times a paddle too or just a paddle program.

It has an emphasis on service, volunteering, learning new skills and sport. It’s an adventurous journey which basically puts the students outside their comfort zone and builds resilience. I get to have fun and run around in the bush as well. For the school camps I run activities including confidence courses, kayaking, canoeing, bushwalking, abseiling, climbing, a bit of archery and an obstacle course.

Mat van der Aa   

Mat climbing in his spare time: “I grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand. Since moving to the Blueys, I’ve developed a strong appreciation of the Australian bush.”  

How important is connecting to nature for you?

It’s integral to good mental health. We’ve come a long way from sticks and stones and having to run our prey down but we didn’t evolve to live inside four walls.

I just know that previously dealing with depression and anxiety, if I’m out in nature it really helps. A Sydney Red Gum loves a good hug and it’s super nice when it’s a really hot day and the tree is quite cool. It’s the same if I’m in a kayak, canoe or on a stand-up board; you realise you are very small in the grand scheme of things. While my problems are very real, they don’t particularly matter a whole lot to everything else that’s going on. Being out in nature just gives you a bit of perspective every now and then.

a caterpillar

“Some kind of cool caterpillar. He was just down below Martin’s Lookout where there’s a rock climbing crag, Slab World.” 

Are students nervous in the bush?   

I obviously do a brief on snakes before we start running around. All the usual things like stop and back away slowly. Snakes aren’t by nature aggressive and they’re not going to attack unless you step on them or they feel threatened or cornered. Normally though, they’ll go the other way quite quickly.

You definitely get a lot of squeals with spiders and that’s something we have to drum into students, that a spider is not an emergency. Don’t wake us up if there’s a spider in your tent.

diamond python in the blue mountains

Diamond python: “That was the second one I saw that morning. You respect their space and they won’t enter yours.”

sawfly larva

What on earth is that? Mat: “Sawfly larvae. They love gum leaves.”  

What do you like most about sharing your bush playground with students?

A lot of kids are book smart but don’t venture outside much. Some haven’t been exposed to the bush at all. At the start of a camp everything seems very unachievable to them. When we’ve gone up a hill, down into a saddle and back up and you’re sitting there looking back at the hill; it’s not particularly high by an adult’s standards but these kids look back in disbelief. And then there’s a little light in their eyes like ‘I just did that. I can do these things’. It’s pretty cool to watch the evolution of the thoughts in their minds and the looks on their faces.

The group I had last week, it was wonderful watching the growth from the first day to the fourth day of camp when they were leaving. I like being able to impart a little bit of love and curiosity about the environment, how to have minimal impact and all the different animals we come across.


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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.


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About Julie Nance

Julie Nance is a community storyteller with the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative. In her coverage of the Lower Mountains area, she brings 30 years’ experience in communications, publishing and journalism. After specialising in health and social issues as a journalist, Julie led creative teams in the government and not-for-profit sectors including the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, YMCA NSW, Cancer Council NSW and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Julie is passionate about empowering people with quality information to help them make informed choices.

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