OTHER than my school uniform, I’ve worn only two work uniforms in my life. One was during those high school days when, come Friday, I would swap my school uniform for my school army cadet uniform. The other was when I started work as a parttime national park ranger.
I liked that job. It wasn’t a regular ranger’s job. It was guiding. I was employed as a bush guide to take people on bushwalks, history walks, nature walks and low-risk lilo drifts along a stretch of the Hacking River. No fast rapids there, more paddling along large waterholes where the river was still and portaging along the rocky stream banks between pools where the river was too shallow.
Perhaps the tour I liked best was the two-day walk along the Coast Track that follows the Royal National Perk coastline south of Sydney. It’s a walk that includes steep climbs of high headlands followed by steep and slippery descents and lazy strolls along long beaches of yellow sand against which the Pacific’s swells expended their energy in loud crescendos. Like most of the activities we offered, those two day hikes appealed to families. It offered a family adventure with two rangers — these overnights always had two of us — where people could learn about the park and a little of its ecology and history as they went along. We would camp more or less half way along the track at a clearing by a creek, between a patch of rainforest with a small waterfall and swimming hole inside it, and a small beach. People liked seeing wildlife and on one trip we found the several thick metres-length of a diamond python restfully curled around a clump of grass taking the afternoon easy, as large snakes do on summer days.
Some time in those years I was introduced to a new ranger joining the staff in the national park. He was from the dry, semi-arid inland of the state and I was showing him around along the banks of the Hacking River. From what I remember, the parks management was interested in him leading bush food walks in the park, as he was an Aboriginal. Showing him the bushfoods I knew I found he knew few of them. As he explained, he was from a completely different climatic region and this place, this forested, coastal warm temperate ecology and the bushfoods growing in it, was to him like visiting a foreign country — largely unknown.
A Saturday in December
It was a Saturday. A Saturday in 1994. December. It was dry. It was already hot and destined to grown hotter as the morning moved into early afternoon. Any moisture that had been in the north-wester that had started to blow in that morning had been sucked out of it by its passage across a dry and hot inland. It was one of those desiccating winds that are no stranger to Australia’s hot summers.
I don’t remember where I was scheduled to lead a guided bushwalk that day when I turned up at park HQ early in the morning. There, I was to pick up one of the park services 4WD vehicles, the ranger who was to accompany me, a radio so we could communicate with parks HQ and other rangers in the field and to check on expected weather conditions. All normal things before leading a walk.
The weather conditions. Even by early morning we had started to become concerned about the day. The report predicted a strengthening breeze that would become a hot, dry wind as it blew across the park from the edge of the suburbs and the long asphalt line of Highway One, which fringes the inland edge of the national park, to the beaches on its far edge and out onto the sea beyond.
The dry summer had already raised the bushfire warning index to high but not yet to extremely high. If that happened it would trigger a number of actions, like cancelling our guided walk. No sense in taking adults and their children into the dry bush only to be trapped by a bushfire. There were other action that would follow too.
Late morning. Only a couple hours until people would arrive for the day’s activity. And the north-westerly? As predicted, it had picked up strength in the time since I had arrived at park HQ. Decision time was approaching.
On weekend days the parks fills with people. They go bushwalking, surfing at the beaches with road access, bicycling along Lady Carrington’s Drive along a road that follows the banks of the Hacking through moist eucalyptus and rainforest and was closed to motor vehicles some years ago, now given to walkers and cyclists. Others go picnicking down by the river where there is a cafe, shelter buildings and a place to hire dinghys and canoes to paddle upstream a little way. For some, there is backpacking their weekend supplies into their shacks on the coast at North Era or Burning Palms.
More come by ferry from Cronulla where the suburban train terminates, across the broad Hacking River estuary to the village of Bundeena where the Coast Track starts. Ahead of them are two days of walking and, in the warmer months, swimming at the beaches they pass along. Nights will find them perhaps at Wattamolla or the North Era camping area. Others enter the park from the south, the Illawarra end, but they will be fewer in number.
On the other side of the park day walkers come down to the Hacking and its swimming holes from the townships of Waterfall and Heathcote. They will return as afternoon moves towards evening, leaving that part of the national park and its eucalyptus forest vacated other than for those camping at the single campsite there.
The park can be a populous place. This is how it was as that December Saturday started. Decision time approached.
We were to start our bushwalk at one o’clock but by 11.30 there was an almost tangible concern among parks management at the deteriorating weather conditions. Then, at midday, the call came. It was state parks service headquarters. The fire warning index was going to extreme. Their message was unequivocal — evacuate the park.
People do not like being told to leave a national park, especially the motorists who had paid the park entry fee. Rangers warned all those who could be found to leave immediately. With the already-dry park being brushed by the desiccated and hot north-westerly, the fire danger was now at its peak.
The evacuation continued. Then, just a few hours later the inevitable happened. Fanned by the north-westerly the fire surged through the park incinerating the forest. Within four hours the park was a smoldering grayness of ash all the way from the other side of Highway One to those golden sandy beaches that fringe the coast. It was perhaps the fiercest, most intense and hottest fire that has ever incinerated the national park.
For months the park was closed but over those months we ranger guides took minibus tours of the devastated park now the grey of burned forest. We turned destruction into education as we toured the park to witness it slowly return to life as fresh shoots appeared first on the fire-adapted Gymea lillies, then the angophoras and then the eucalypts. We witnessed a resilient nature used to periodic burning in the process of regenerating.
After that year I hung up my ranger’s uniform. Other matters called. But now I look back on the time and realise what an opportunity it had been, an opportunity to introduce people to the park and its forests, its waterholes and river and an opportunity for me, too, to learn so much more about the place and to learn how first-hand experience of wild places can lead to understanding.
And that uniform? Gone are the green trousers and the khaki shirt with its lyrebird shoulder flash, gone the brown hiking boots. But I kept the green cap with its national parks service patch and whenever I come across it in my cupboard I remember fondly those days of adventure, of education through bush guiding when we introduced people to the hidden places where cool water offered respite from hot summer sun and the eucalypts of the forest dappled shallow gurgling creeks with their welcoming shade.