Down by the River

Down by the River

6 August 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 August seeing us celebrate two joint Parks: Onkaparinga National Park which begins at Old Noarlunga, goes through Hackham and McLaren Vale and extends to Clarendon and Blewitt Springs; and, Onkaparinga River Recreation Park which spans from Port Noarlunga and Noarlunga Downs through to Seaford Meadows.

The Recreation Park is defined by the Onkaparinga River (South Australia’s second longest river), an estuary that forms part of the Encounter Marine Park Sanctuary Zone, wetlands, floodplains, boardwalks, fish and bird breeding areas, and is a relatively flat landscape. The National Park, however, is more rugged. It offers stunning views across the Onkaparinga Gorge, several nature hikes, historic ruins, plenty of wildlife and amazing displays of wildflowers from late winter through to spring.

Having worked for the City of Onkaparinga in previous roles, and growing up in Southern Adelaide, I know the area surrounding the Parks quite well, but had never ventured too far into these two southern gems.

First up, an early morning river session in the National Park at the Old Noarlunga Swing Bridge – a narrow, somewhat wobbly, bridge that crosses the Onkaparinga River. Joining us for the morning session was local family Merenia and her two children Aria (8) and Nikolai (11), Diane and her three children Eddie (2), Hunter (5) and Maggie (8) and Katelyn and her two children Zara (10 weeks), Maya (2) and their family friend Hayley.

Beneath the old swing bridge the adults took a step back. We observed the children exploring the banks of the river where dense pockets of sedges, small ephemeral islands, old stumps, uneven ground and natural material provided ample opportunity for nature play. Creativity, teamwork, problem solving, language development and even mathematical skills were at play. Two-year-old Maya cast a line out with her ‘fishing rod’ and natural materials were tested on the water in order to build the optimal stick boat to depart the ‘harbor’. Although the bark proved the most robust and fastest travelling item, Maggie discovered the floating potential of a Nasturtium leaf, which held her concentration for almost twenty minutes. She tested the weight of different ‘passengers’ – seedpods, flowers and even a caterpillar (who was later returned safely to dry land). Like all natural environments, there is so much potential for children to express themselves in creative and imaginative ways. We, as adults, just need to give them the time and space to do so.

Our morning adventures lasted a little over an hour, although we could have spent the day there. For the next morning session we met up with Ranger Steve where we set off from Gate 11 for our first view of the Onkaparinga Gorge at the Sundews Lookout (in the National Park). There are quite a few good walks around the Sundews Lookout suitable for families, such as Echidna Hike, which features historic ruins from the 1800’s along the trail.

Although we were keen to arrive at the Lookout, as adults we are often too focused on getting to our destination. Something children have taught me, is that for them it isn’t about the destination at all. It’s about a collection of encounters, observations and moments. They explore, analyse, follow their curiosity and begin to ask questions if we allow them the time. It can be difficult to avoid rushing from place to place – as a busy parent I absolutely understand this – but when it comes to quality family time, allowing the children to lead and set the pace is incredibly important. The benefits really are immense.

As the children wandered ahead, I noticed Aria and Nikolai exploring together with cameras in hand, examining mosses, fungi, tree bark, patterns and animals tracks, photographing whatever peaked their interest. It was a beautiful display of how technology can enhance a child’s experience. Often the notion of nature play and technology can appear at odds with one another, but ultimately it comes down to whether its use disconnects children from engaging in the sensory experiences that the natural world offers, thus eliminating the incentive to explore. In this case, that wasn’t the scenario at all; in fact, it was just the opposite.

As we continued to the lookout we came across the common, and rather fascinating insectivorous Sundew, a sticky plant that emerges in winter and becomes dormant over summer and autumn. We all got down to ground level and looked closely at the sticky dew-like substance that attracts and traps unsuspecting insects that the plant absorbs over time – much to the wonder of the children.

We also came across Echidna diggings, something that turned out to be quite powerful for Maya. As we continued, I noticed her pick up a seedhead. She paused, looked at it closely and began to pat it, whispering, “precious kidna”. Introducing new words or reaffirming recently learned words is a powerful form of communication that we can provide to young children. It can also help them understand more about the place they are in, developing bonds, memories and positive affiliations with the natural environment. It was a beautiful moment and a wonderful example of what open ended play can lead to.

Ranger Steve spoke about nature play in National Parks being valuable for their future protection – something I’ve touched on in previous blogs. Ranger Steve explained that Parks are places for kids to explore and engage with the natural environment. “If they’re out [in Parks], they will feel more connected and be our future protectors of places like this”, he said. I wholeheartedly agree.

Maya continued her exploration of this beautiful part of the National Park and came across a fallen tree. Before saying anything she climbed it testing her balance, seeing how far she could comfortably go. Once she settled she began to ask questions of Hayley, a passionate educator.

“Uh oh, tree fall down”, Maya proclaimed.

Hayley asked, “How do you think it fell down?”

Thinking for a few moments… “It went like this”, Maya said, to which she used her arm to represent a falling tree.

Hayley: “Why do you think it fell?”

Maya: “Wind!”

Hayley: “And where is the wind?’

Maya: “Up there!” (Using her hands to point and fingers to simulate the canopy moving).

It was fascinating to hear Hayley’s line of questioning coupled with Maya’s responses. The questions were being asked in a way that encouraged expression and thought, and occurred as a result of providing permission and space for Maya to explore on our way to the lookout.

There is something very peaceful about the height factor of lookouts; the wind is a bit stronger, the air a bit cleaner, and the tranquility that arises from staring over the landscape has a restorative effect on the mind, making these types of places as important for adults as they are for children. The gorge is steep with tree-covered slopes that lead down into the Onkaparinga River. The depth of the landscape looked wild and almost remote with the song of Kookaburras filling the valley and floral scent of Golden Wattle carrying on the breeze.

From the lookout you can see a weathered rock face – a popular rock climbing zone for experienced rock climbers. And, as Ranger Steve pointed out, home to unique wildlife, with a Peregrine Falcon cleverly spotted. We all snapped photos while exchanging facts about this fascinating bird (did you know it’s the fastest animal in Australia?) After the excitement, we headed back to check out on the Recreation Park. Other places within the National Park that families can visit include: Hardys Scrub, various trails around Sundews Lookout, and Chapel Hill Picnic Grounds and Lookout.

The final stop for the day was the popular Wetlands Loop Trail. Ideal for fishing, kayaking, bird watching, paddle boarding, picnicking, walking dogs (on leads), geocaching, bike riding and nature photography. Here we met up with Ranger Steve and Ranger Amy; Graham, Andy, and John from the Friends of Onkaparinga Parks; and Jodie and Elijah from the local NRM Board. Upon meeting it was great to hear their passionate discussion about the importance of managing the Park and the enjoyment they got from doing so.

The Trail meanders between the samphire and reed-covered banks of the Onkaparinga River and wetlands the size of a couple of football ovals. Merenia and her kids were discussing how the wetlands hadn’t seen water for almost two years, but after recent rainfalls, it was now teeming with swans, cormorants, ducks, pelicans, herons, fish and the almost deafening sound of hundreds of frogs calling. Their discussion and observation highlighted the benefits of families visiting their local Parks or nature reserves regularly. They begin to notice seasonal changes and the cycles associated with the natural world, such as drought, flooding, migratory movement of birds or other animals and breeding seasons of animals such as frogs and Koalas.

As we headed along the loop walk Graham pointed out various bird species, like the brightly coloured Superb Blue Fairy Wren. He also introduced an element of technology to us and the kids – an app that is able to play bird songs, show identifying characteristics and provide information about the bird itself. Like the cameras, this type of technology has the potential to enhance nature-based experiences. For example, by playing a bird song and asking children to listen out for it provides incentive to explore through their senses.

Before too long we had learnt about ‘Gary’. Gary is a goat that has been adopted by a mob of Western Grey Kangaroos. “He thinks he’s a kangraroo,” said Graham. Apparently he’s quite the local celebrity. The best place to see Gary is the open fields along Commercial Road (Park entrance at Gate 10)

Along the walk there are a number of bridges and boardwalks. One in particular caught the children’s eye. Before we knew it, Nikolai, Aria and Merenia had their shoes off dipping their toes in the water sharing laughter and excitement. It reiterated the importance and potential of families having this type of quality time in nature. We often talk about how days gone by we would roam with our friends, but today it is very much about roaming as a family and creating memories together.

One of the standout areas along the walk is the boardwalk that winds for a couple of hundred metres through the swamp-like wetlands. There are a few places to sit and take it all in, which is exactly what we did. Watching the water birds wade amongst the reeds as the sun began its descent was a beautiful way to end the day. I was so fortunate to have so many passionate people accompany me on the visit to this beautiful Park.

To help families make the most of their experience we have developed a list of 20 Things to Discover in Onkaparinga River National Park and Recreation Park. To celebrate Park of the Month, the Rangers are organising a Family Day and Guided Tours of the Noarlunga Downs Wetland, which are great opportunities to get experience the Parks. Offering another perspective is some recently filmed drone footage, which is quite spectacular.

I would like to thanks all those who contribute this blog: Steve Johnson (Senior Ranger – Fleurieu & Willunga Basin) Staff from the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges NRM Board: Jodie Woof (Volunteer Support Officer – Fleurieu); Elijah Bravington (Aboriginal Engagement Officer); Amy Anderson (Senior Ranger – Southern Vales), and Alison Perkins (DEWNR). The very knowledgeable members from the Friends of Onkaparinga Parks: Graham Thomas (President); Andy McKinnon (Secretary); and John Bekkers (Committee Member). And, of course, the amazing families and their adventurous children for exploring with us.