An old favourite in a new light.

An old favourite in a new light.

9 September 2016, 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 September seeing us celebrate South Australia’s oldest National Park – Belair National Park.

Belair National Park (approximately 13km south-east of Adelaide) is well known to many South Australians for its recreational value, with regular sightings of kangaroos, koalas and other wildlife, a broad range of picnic facilities, bushwalking trails for all fitness levels, the State Flora Nursery and the much-loved Adventure Playground. It’s also a popular spot for community events that connect families with nature through Parks including the annual Cubby Town, up-coming Open Day, and a few events as part of the Nature Play Festival. But like all Parks, once you begin to explore the lesser-known places, you uncover a whole new world.

To begin our adventures we were lead by Ranger Kerri, her adventurous son Riley (4), Ranger Donna and Ranger Amanda. We were also joined by Sandy Pitcher (Chief Executive of DEWNR) and her daughter Tess (3); Sarah Sutter (our CEO) and her kids Tommy (10) and Jazzy (8); Frank Wanganeen (Kaurna); and, Pearce, Sean, Georgia, and Ali from DEWNR and Natural Resources – Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges.

Early on we encountered grazing kangaroos and a koala cuddling her joey in a tree adjoining the Gums Oval. Frank took the opportunity to share his knowledge, explaining that Kaurna recognise six seasons based on the availability of food, movement of wildlife and other factors within the landscape. He explained how Kaurna used the coast in summer for fishing, and retreated to the hills in winter for firewood, skins and to hunt kangaroos and emus. He spoke of the way Kaurna children played in nature while at the same time learning to look after the land. Frank’s was a timely reminder. For thousands of years children have played in nature in an unstructured way, simultaneously developing an appreciation for the natural world.

After our wildlife observations and learnings from Frank we headed to Playford Lake. A beautiful man-made lake surrounded by old gum trees and home to a variety of water birds, frogs and tortoises. The lake is also a drink supply for emus, kangaroos and other marsupials of the Park. In spring, ducklings begin to appear in and around the lake. On a clear sunny day the reflection of the sky, clouds and surrounding vegetation on the water look like a painting. But the most popular element of the lake for children is of course the water. For children water is not only a critical element for survival (like it is for all of us), but is a fundamental part of childhood play. From investigating the depth with a stick, assessing what sinks and floats, determining what makes the loudest or softest splash, searching for tadpoles, imagining what might live in the water and understanding water safety, the list goes.

Riley and Tess waded into the water together. Having never met one another, they instantly bonded. Like most children who play together in nature, common ground was established quickly, enabling them to connect with one another. When children of this age are engaged in play, it’s not about who ‘fits in’ but the role others play in their story. For the most part it’s someone to communicate with, play with, and share discoveries and experiences.

The other interesting element along the lake that formed a significant part of the children’s experience was the rocks. Tommy and Jazzy bounded across them like they’d done it many times before, while younger Tess decided to take it a little slower and did so barefoot (a valuable activity for children of all ages to do). Her level of satisfaction was almost immediate as she jumped from rock to rock, with each leap getting bigger and the reward of success even greater, testing her balance and agility. It’s at this point where children learn about their own limitations.

Before long, physical play turned to imaginative play. Tommy and Jazzy discovered a ‘couch rock’ where we found them seated, staring across the water as if they were watching their favourite TV show. And Tess led her mum into her own imaginary world. “Mum! Mum!” she called. “Lets go adventuring!” Tess took her mum’s hand and off they went along the rocks. “Let’s go passed the creeky tree,” she said.

When many adults of today were children they’d play with their friends for hours unsupervised. Imaginations alight. It was common not to come home until the streetlights came on. But things have changed. And now we need to focus on finding ways to allow our children to have that unstructured play. I believe the solution lies in family-based play, which is exactly what Tess and her mum Sandy were doing. The important thing is to let children lead the way, allowing them to shape the story, not us. At times we will need to step back and allow children to problem solve, embrace their own learning opportunities and take risks to test their limits – much like the rock jumping, wading in the water, going barefoot and exploring for ‘couch rocks’.

After our lake session we stopped by the Adventure Playground for morning tea. Frank provided some insights into one of the old hollowed-out River Red Gums, easily 400 years old. He explained that trees like this one were used for canoes, shields, and shelter. “We want people like these here children to be able to touch this tree and learn about it, and with that, they can appreciate it”, he said. We all headed over to the tree for a closer look. The kids were amazed by its size. Tommy and Jazzy climbed to the highest points while Tess tried varying levels based on how comfortable she felt. The tree was a perfect example of how children of different ages can not only play well together, but take risks that suit their readiness regardless of the limits pushed in line with maturity and capability of those around them.

The kids were excited about our next stop, Echo Tunnel. The tunnel itself is an old passageway under the railway line. It stretches about 40 metres and gets quite dark in the middle. Adults will need to duck a little to get through but it’s certainly a thrill. A slow flowing creek runs through the tunnel, with tadpoles quickly spotted. Before long the kids were again engaged in play with Tommy and Jazzy racing to the highest vantage points and Riley fishing for ‘sharks’ in the creek.

We could have stayed longer at Echo Tunnel, but still had some exploring to do. I had seen Amphitheatre Rock marked on the Park map and was quietly excited to see it. The rock is a giant cave with rich brown, red and orange colours layered in its walls. Inside was cool with a damp smell and spongy feel under foot. It had been raining the day before so water was softly falling from the ceiling. While we were there Tommy learnt a very important lesson about the thorn-covered blackberry bushes that surround the slippery walls of the cave. He was very eager, or as he put it, “in a rush,” to race around. He treated the rocks as if they were dry, when in fact they were wet. He took a tumble and suffered some minor scrapes from the thorns. These types of errors in judgement help to teach children to be a little more cautious and aware of the variable nature of their surroundings. The more children understand their limitations, the greater their risk assessment skills become. I’ve since learned Tommy was quite proud to show off his ‘adventure wounds’ to his schoolmates.

For lunch, there was no shortage of picnic facilities. We stoped at Long Gully where we kicked the football, explored the creek and raced leaves under the bridge. A short walk from Long Gully is the RSL Walk where my wife and daughter, Eloise (20 months), joined us. The walk begins at the historic Cherry Plantation where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. A bridge with a short boardwalk led us to a beautiful forest-like walk that traversed through Sparkes Gully along a gently running creek. Flowering Periwinkle carpeted the forest floor. The sound of frogs and chatter of birdsong provided a fitting chorus. A bandicoot darted across our path. As an endangered marsupial, bandicoots depend on places like Belair National Park for survival.

The other highlight of RSL walk was an old Sequoia plantation where imaginations and little feet ran wild. Eloise and Riley set off into the distance, dwarfed by the size of the towering giants. Children could easily spend hours of play in this unknown corner of the Park. For me, as a parent, it was nice to let Eloise run ahead and observe how she interpreted her surrounds; stopping to look up for a few seconds, glancing around and wandering through knee-high Periwinkle. When we let children explore the natural world by themselves, the unfamiliar begins to take shape as their senses tune in, shifting from a foreign place to their own little world.

Our final stop for the day was the Upper and Lower Waterfalls. Many who visit Belair regularly (like myself) have never been to the waterfalls within Belair. While not as mighty as those at Morialta Conservation Park, they add to the already impressive traits of the Park, particularly in winter and early spring when they’re flowing.

The Upper Waterfall doesn’t have any protective barriers in place and is better suited to more experienced hikers, but the Lower Waterfall is well suited to adventurous families. It is quite a hike to get there but the boardwalk, viewing platform and impressive views are worth it. Staring out over the gorge to the sound of cascading water, smell of wattle and wind on our skin was a fitting end to our adventures in Belair National Park.

I would like to thank all the all the wonderful adventurers that joined us for the day: Sandy Pitcher (Chief Executive of DEWNR); Sarah Sutter (Chief Executive of Nature Play SA); Kerri Villiers (Ranger in Charge); Donna Ferschl (Ranger); Amanda Dudgeon (Ranger); Frank Wanganeen (Kaurna), Sean Benz (Senior Ranger – Visitor Services, Natural Resources – Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges), Piers Brissenden (District Manager Adelaide and Central Hills, Natural Resources – Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges), Alison Perkins (Engagement Adviser, DEWNR), and Georgia Gowing (Senior Media Advisor, DEWNR) and my wife Michelle. And of course our junior adventurers Tess, Tommy, Jazz, Riley and Eloise. I would also like to mention the hard work of the Friends of Belair who contribute significantly to the preservation of the parks flora and fauna.

To celebrate Park of the Month the Rangers are hosting Belair Open Day with a range of activities for all ages such as cubby building, catching waterbugs, orienteering, bird watching, nature walks and more. We have also developed a ‘20 Things to Discover in Belair National Park’ for families. It is worth noting that entry to Belair National Park for education sites and the home-schooling community has recently been made free – a great initiative by DEWNR to get more children engaged and connected to the natural world.