A walk in the old country – Gibraltar Peak
Gibraltar Peak – Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Note to Australian Aboriginal people – this post includes reference to deceased Aboriginal people.
The Time Trail led us from the visitors’ centre at Tidbinbilla across grassy kangaroo fields to the Birrigai Rock Shelter. Over many years I had visited this place many times, occasionally in the company of Aboriginal People – Paul and Matilda House, Don Bell, Eugene Vincent, Laddie Timbery, Jonnie Huckle, Dale Huddleston and Bobby Jabbanunga. As staff at the Birrigai Outdoor School we had made great efforts to highlight the people with connections to this country. Josephine Flood had excavated the site and found dramatic evidence that confirmed that people had lived in this shelter for at least 18,000 years. Since the last ice age. We attempted to convey a sense of respect, awe and ongoing connection to Canberra students about the significance of the site and the living continuous culture.
On top of the grassy hill above I recalled lying on the grass in a circle with young students under the glittering night sky looking deep into the universe at light from stars so far away that it would have left when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. In winter we drew attention to the emu in the sky, a stunning feature of the cosmos visible in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the ancient Greeks the Aboriginal people of Australia storied the dark parts of the night sky, the areas between the stars. Beneath the southern cross is a dark section, the emu’s head, that links to a giant swathe of blackness across 2/3 of the Milky Way, the body, which then trails out in bent lines, the legs. Once appreciated it is impossible not to miss noticing it in future. Intriguingly its appearance seems to match the incubation of the emu eggs as the father sits on them for 8 to 10 weeks leading into spring.
We descended into an intimate glade, “Front Hollow”. Here we played hundreds of “web of life” games – kids having the time of their lives as carnivores chasing herbivores trying to hide out in the scrub or as higher order canivores chasing them all – learning about food chains as they dashed about. We had camp outs and cooked possum stew in camp ovens and spotted dick on sticks. As part of a cutting edge Earth Education program, Sunship III, we held one night a week an endangered species ceremony. Death sought out the troubled tales of the species, peregrine falcons and others then counselled the humans present. All very late at night. As staff we applied every bit of our creative educational energies to introducing, interpreting and building student relationships with the earth.
We followed a narrow trail up Bunyip Gully. The Birrigai Bunyip, a staff person in a fabulous costume with a tree stump head, was coaxed out of the woods here for special school kids with disabilities. They loved her to bits, sometimes hugging rather too hard. In a small clearing was the site “Cradles to Coffins” where students followed the cycles of a leaf growing, dying and decomposing. It’s nutrients to be used over and over again in the forest. Across a gully I spied Bunyip Castle. We had taken thousands of kids abseiling here.
As I walked on this ground and along trails that blindfold I could still pick out memories came tumbling in like a cascading river. Each small place deeply etched in memory.
Over Schoolhouse Hill I imagined how the grass trees would look in summer as their tall flower stalks fringed with white honeyed blooms.
On the trail up the ridge towards the back gate I kept an eye on the ground looking for the chert flakes from Aboriginal tool making left here over millennia. There were no remains of the site of the emus nest where we had watched a father and then the gorgeous striped hatchlings.
I had learnt how to manage groups moving through the bush up this trail to “The Peak”. Pacing was the key to keeping balance between the fit and the strugglers. These skills I learnt leading bushwalks I later transferred to leading snorkelling, canoeing, xc skiing, back country snowboarding, mountain biking, kayaking, caving, SCUBA diving, canyoning – wherever there is a journey of people in a “remote” landscape.
We rested at Eliza Saddle. Nearby the dramatic rock formation, Lizards Tongue, was the place where I had taken my own children to hold their teddy bears in outstretched arms like in the Lion King.
In a bushy gully high on the mountain a cacophony of birds all calling loudly from the same place turned out to be a lyre bird trying to attract a mate. We picked out at least 10 different bird songs.
The final section of the ascent is a narrow winding staircase of granite steps leading upwards. In spring yellow grevilleas line the sides making a “stairway to heaven”.
The summit is a very special place. There is a sense of presence on the smooth slab among rounded tors. The view is truly spectacular. You get a different perspective on the city and The Bush. The city is a distant smudge among the rolling hills. Namadgi is a rugged wilderness to the south.
This is where we had spread Shirley’s ashes. She had been a teacher at the outdoor school who had felt a deep spiritual connection to the place.
The Birrigai camp was visible below – rebuilt after the fires. Sounds of happy voices drifted up from way below. I could pick out the ropes course and the gold village near the creek where we buried gold painted pobbles for the students to pan for and relive the experiences of the early gold diggers. Memories of conferences and Earthkeepers programs flooded back. These were days of magical learning experiences. I was reminded of the thousands of students that we worked with. Bushdances at night in the hall. Memories and deep emotion flowed in like in the latest Pixar movie Inside Out – lots of joy but also sadness. Sadness that we were not there facilitating all that fun and learning and being in the bush, working in the most wonderful team, spending days and weeks then years in a single bush landscape that slowly etched itself into our beings.
We had established a garden, Gael’s wood, near a massive pine that must’ve disappeared in the fire. She had died too young while teaching with us.
In the middle distance I could make out the road to the deep space tracking station where the first footage of Armstrong stepping onto the moon were beamed. Gladdie had dinked me there on her new Harley. Life is short and death random. She had passed away after falling down some stairs holding her big dog shortly after.
I walked down quietly. Through the wetter forest where we used to read about diprotodons, giant megafauna, as we “walked the boundaries” and helped students adventure into the past. To the new viewing platform.
We lunched on the way back down into the Nature Reserve within a mob of kangaroos. I felt calm and at peace. I made a pact to walk this old country and feel it regularly.
Gibraltar Peak circuit. 12 km from Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve via the Birrigai Time Trail and Eliza Saddle.