A tale of survival, freedom and beauty

A tale of survival, freedom and beauty

1 October 2015, Jason Tyndall

Each month Nature Play SA in partnership with the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) honours one of South Australia’s National Parks, with October seeing us celebrate Innes National Park.

Innes National Park is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, and I have to say, it didn’t disappoint. I have so much to share on this absolutely stunning location – one of the most wild, rugged and raw in South Australia – so it’s going to be a bit of a long blog. Bear with me folks, I don’t want to leave anything out!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to experience our National Parks as part of my job, so I decided to make the most of the opportunity and camp overnight. Two Adelaide families joined me, so five adults and five kids packed up their cars and we hit the road. Unfortunately, my little one is a bit too young to camp in the September chill, but I’ll be taking my family as soon as the weather warms up.

When heading to Innes it’s a good idea to leave nice and early as you’re looking at around a four hour drive from Adelaide with a quick pit stop in Port Wakefield to fuel up. From Port Wakefield, throw on your favourite play list (or the kids favourite if you need to save your sanity!), hit cruise control and enjoy the open road. You’ll notice the roadside vegetation turns yellow with thousands of flowering wattles as you get closer to the Park and slowly transforms to masses of red from the local ‘Flame Bush’, signaling your arrival.

Our first stop was the Visitor Information Centre where we met our guide, Mark.

The view when we arrived took me by surprise. The ocean is a deep blue and dotted with a network of islands, including the well-known Chinaman’s Hat Island. The family I travelled with, Claire, Dave, Milla (7) and Ari (3) were equally in awe, with Ari atop his mum’s shoulders excitedly pointing at the horizon.

A must see when visiting Innes is Ethels Beach. To appreciate its full beauty head down the staircase to the beach. Surrounded by weathered cliff tops, you can hear the crashing waves and unforgiving sea, evidenced by Ethel’s Shipwreck where the beach drew its name. The ship went down in the early 1900’s. Walking amongst the wreck, and imagining what might have happened, was a highlight for the kids, but equally fascinating for us bigger kids; the rusted, skeletal remains protruding from the sand just begging for exploration.

One of the more secluded beaches is Shell Beach. Although a bit rough for swimming, when it comes to nature play, it’s the perfect combination of adventure and risk. You’ll find rocks the size of trucks, open spaces to run and endless things to discover that, by their very appearance, raise questions about the natural world. From intricately patterned sponges, to giant feathers and delicate shells the beach is a treasure-trove. Before long Milla and Ari were climbing the rocks, finding the ideal launching pad and leaping onto the sand below. What’s great about this outcrop is the gradients of risk available. Ari watched as his sister conquered the biggest rocks she could find, but he was able to identify his own launching area, and although it was a small jump in comparison, he felt an obvious sense of achievement.

As a strong nature play advocate, the beach experience really resonated with me. The kids were free to direct their own play. Collecting treasure, exploring boulders, taking risks of various gradients, playing chasey 400 metres away or quietly drawing in the sand. We let them go. I don’t think they even knew we were watching – an important factor to consider when it comes to nature play – with the feeling of being unsupervised essential for development. On a crowded beach the experience is very different. The value of getting away as a family and being free range can’t be overestimated. On Shell Beach we were all engaged and immersed in the environment. Unplugged, yet connected in a non-electronic way. And that continued over the course of the weekend.

After our early adventures it was time to head to our campsite at Casuarina Campground. Mark lead the way, with a few interesting stops thrown in. The first was to let an Emu with chicks cross the road. We hopped out and watched as the male Emu lead his group of chicks into the scrub. Mark explained that in the Park female Emus are often observed dropping their chicks off to a male as if he were a babysitter, with the females returning a day or two later to pick them up.

Our next educational roadside stop was to relocate a slow-moving Stumpy Lizard from the road. Mark took the time to show Ari and Milla the lizard, while explaining they had just come out of hibernation and adding that their tails are quite shriveled because it’s where they store much-needed nutrients. Mark’s one of those Rangers who’s a walking encyclopedia of his Park, full of passion and love for what he does, with a special knack for communicating with kids.

When we arrived at the campsite, Claire and Dave got the fire started while I went on a quick drive with Mark to see more of the Park. Mark had kindly dropped off some firewood and used it as an opportunity to explain the importance of wood for wildlife. As if on cue, a gecko poked his head out of a crevice. The kids were ecstatic at yet another wildlife encounter and this time had the chance to hold the gecko and find a special place to release it. Seeing the hands of children nurturing wildlife with smiles and a sense of awe is nothing short of amazing. Adults play such a vital role in special places like Parks, passing on knowledge that empowers children to exercise their curiosity, ask questions and learn in an authentic and unstructured way.

The time I spent with Mark that afternoon highlighted one of the unique elements of Innes National Park. He told me about a program called ‘Baiting for Biodiversity’ that DEWNR has been working on. Baiting for Biodiversity is a fox baiting program, which has lead to previously threatened and declining wildlife returning to healthy numbers in the Park, including the Hooded Plover, Malleefowl, Bush Stone Curlew (recently seen for the first time in 40 years), Heath Goana, and the once extinct Tammar Wallaby, which was reintroduced from New Zealand in 2004. The mere presence of these animals provides children with an opportunity to learn about the importance of protecting them.

Tammar wallabies were extinct on the mainland of SA by 1930. The fact that they were reintroduced into the Park in 2004 and have since established a strong breeding population is incredibly exciting for a self-confessed biodiversity nerd like me. As the sun went down we embarked on a spotlighting expedition with Mark, and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first Wallaby. For those that haven’t tried spotlighting, you simply move the torch light across the landscape or across canopies until you see red eyes. In the Park, the Rangers offer seasonal Tammar Wallaby walks, but you can of course take the kids out to spy possums and kangaroos on self guided walks, with dusk the best time to spot wildlife.

Back at our campsite, we busied ourselves with the quintessential camping experience: cooking marshmallows on a stick over the fire. While the kids enjoyed their marshmallow cooking (and eating!) I chatted with Claire and Dave about their experience. I asked Dave why he thought trips like this are important for the kids, and he summarised it perfectly, noting the first thing they said when they got out of the car was, “lets go explore, Dad!” He explained that’s exactly what you want your kids to say, “you want them to know a world beyond electronic games, playgrounds and supermarkets.” Claire went on to add that their family has pockets of nature play at home, but in the Park it’s a concentrated block of time where you can forget about the clock and let the kids to do what they do best. Play.

After a night under the stars we woke to a chorus of birdsong, crashing waves and the lingering smell of the campfire. I’d promised the kids we’d make damper, an experience also new to me! We started with 2 cups of self-raising flour, 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of sugar and a pinch of salt. From there we kneaded it, made it into a long sausage-like shape, wrapped it around a stick and cooked it over the fire. The kids were a little underwhelmed, so they threw the remaining marshmallows into the next batch and were thrilled with their creation!

With a belly full of damper we made two more quick stops before hitting the road home: the historic township of Inneston characterised by old ruins of a once thriving township; and the Cape Spencer Lighthouse Walk, which boasts some of the most beautiful views the Park has to offer. To help families recognise the wildlife and guide their experience at the places I’ve mentioned, we’ve developed a ’20 Things to Discover in Innes National Park’ which you can download or pick up at the Information Centre.

This experience was truly wonderful. I saw first hand how this type of free range nature play adventure excited the children, instilled a sense of freedom, gave them permission to be independent and make their own decisions about play. And of course there’s the educational element, which was made all the better by Ranger Mark. What’s important isn’t necessarily packing up the car and going camping in a beautiful spot like Innes, it’s the play qualities that exist in a place and how we, the adults, value and embrace those qualities. Natural areas offer endless opportunities for high value nature play.

I would like to thank Mark for the time he spent with us. He’s a real asset to the Park and those who visit it.

As part of Park of the Month, Mark and the other Rangers at Innes will be offering guided Tammar Wallaby walks. There will also be other activities on offer that will give families a real taste of what the Park has to offer.

Note: if you’re keen to explore this Park, but would prefer some of the creature comforts of home, be sure to look into the Heritage Accommodation.