I remember it well. How couldn't I? Long days in the mid-1990s cramped in a tiny booth collecting entrance fees at the gate to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. It was one of my first paid jobs.
I also clearly recall a regular visitor, an eager photographer, who, about once a week, would arrive at the reserve late in the day, almost always complaining about the "restrictive opening hours". He drove a clapped-out Subaru, and was desperate to catch the late afternoon light on the western side of the Tidbinbilla Range. However, as the reserve closed promptly at 7pm, it was often impossible for him to trek to his vantage spot and scurry back to his car before the gates were locked.
At the time, the shutterbug's gripe made me reflect on the reserve's opening hours. Given much of Australia's wildlife is nocturnal, opening a nature reserve only during daylight hours did seem overly restrictive.
When I took the prospect of extending the opening hours up with my khaki-clad boss of the time, he knocked back the idea, explaining it would be a "logistical and safety nightmare" with visitors "wandering around the park after dark". Not to mention forking out overtime for staff.
Over the last 25 years, I've often considered Tidbinbilla's daylight-only opening hours to be a missed opportunity to showcase the main purpose for the reserve's very existence - to see its precious native fauna. It's akin to only allowing visitors to enjoy Enlighten, Canberra's annual nightfest in the middle of the day - you're not about to be dazzled by colourful light displays while the sun is shining, are you?
So, when the Experience Nature Group and Tidbinbilla recently joined forces to create a regular school holiday camp, it grabbed my attention. Finally a chance for visitors to discover what happens at Tidbinbilla after dark.
Keen to see how the camp embraced its unique location, I recently booked the yowie clan in for a night under the stars.
We arrive mid-afternoon, our six-metre Emperor Bell tent already erected in a clearing near the Flints picnic area. Unzipping the fly and stepping inside, it's clear that we won't be roughing it. There are luggage racks, fluffy floor rugs and real beds, complete with bed side tables with solar lights. Really!
But there's not much time for eight-year-old Emily and 11-year-old Sarah to "bags" their beds for the night, for the excited chatter of other kids arriving entices them back outside for an impromptu game of hide-and-seek.
This is clearly a kid's nirvana, and it's been cleverly set up that way.
"We ran adults-only glamping in the NSW Southern Highlands and our customers kept begging us to let them bring their children," explains Amanda Fry, founder of the Experience Nature Group and one of our camp hosts tonight, adding "so we teamed up with Tidbinbilla to develop a program purpose-designed activities just for families".
The first of our ranger-guided activities is a snoop around Hanging Rock, a giant rock overhang with deep significance to Indigenous people of Tidbinbilla. The yowie clan has explored here before, but never at this time of day. As the sun drops lower in the sky and shadows lengthen, this secluded site takes on a much more spiritual feeling than in the middle of the day. It's also much easier to imagine people sheltering here thousands of years ago and huddling around a fire when there's a distinct chill in the air and the only light you have is from your flickering torch.
While Hanging Rock is a journey back in time, an after dark sneak through the "eucalypt forest", which is home to Tidbinbilla's captive breeding population of koalas and a number of other endangered critters, is quite the opposite. In fact, it's to a chorus of "wows" and "how cools", the ranger hands out night scopes and infra-red cameras. Some of the children even have to wrangle them off their curious parents who want the first look through them. Sorry Sarah!
"The kids never tire of this," explains ranger Heather Gow-Carey, as we wander through the forest, spotting long-nosed potoroos and southern-brown bandicoots. The night scopes really work!
"If the kids are having fun, they don't know they are learning," whispers Amanda, as Heather explains to the wide-eyed audience, "these creatures are smaller ecosystem engineers, they dig for tubers and smaller insects and turn the soil over and make it a lot softer and healthier". Sadly, due to feral animal predation and habitat loss, outside of the enclosure there aren't many of these cute critters left in the wild.
We could linger, scanning the forest for sugar gliders and possums, but eventually grumbling tummies signal other priorities.
At most bush camps, dinner means baked beans and sausages, but not at Camp Tidbinbilla. Oh no, we indulge in a three-course feast dished up in a heated marquee. For me, its beef stroganoff, roast chicken, broccoli cheese bake and haloumi veg skewers Divine!
After dessert of chocolate brownies and blueberry cheesecakes (or both...), while mum and dad enjoy a quiet drink around the fire, Amanda's equally as energetic offsider Jessie lures the kids away for an obligatory game of shadow puppets followed by star gazing.
But before long, all the kids, including the yowiettes, are exhausted and it's to the sounds of kangaroos grazing on grass behind our tent that we drift off to sleep under our luxurious doonas.
While the overnight camp at Tidbinbilla may not help my old mate in the clapped-out Subaru to more readily capture his award-winning shot, it does, however, allow our younger generations to shine the spotlight and discover what really happens after dark in the Australian bush.
Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve: Paddys River Rd, Paddys River is about a 45-minute drive from Canberra City via the Cotter or Tuggeranong. For day trippers, current opening hours are 7.30am - 6pm but this changes to 7.30am - 8pm during daylight savings.
A Wild Night Out: Tidbinbilla Pop Up Family Wilderness Camp with educational ranger led experiences returns Friday, September 27 - Saturday, October 12. From $195 per night. www.wildfest.com.au/tidbinbilla
Camp activities: Each night includes five ranger-guided activities which vary from day to day but include CSI-inspired animal tracking, a fireside cultural chat with an Indigenous ranger, and a behind-the-scenes peek into the reserve's vet centre.
Suitable for: Ideal for wrestling the kids away from their screens for a couple of days and to get back to nature. If you are after a romantic glamping experience with your partner the Experience Nature Group offers adults only wilderness glamping near Bowral. See: www.wildfest.com.au/glamping/
Tim's tip: In the eucalypt forest (by day or night), look out for the female koala joey. Maybe you can help name her? So cute.
Did you know? Koala joeys only start sticking their head out of the mother's pouch at six months.
Don't miss: The annual Tidbinbilla Open Day on Sunday, September 29 (10am - 3pm). The theme this year is "Explore, Relax, Recharge" where the good folk at Tidbinbilla encourage you to explore the 5000-plus-hectare nature park with "renewed curiosity and a focus on the many benefits that can be gained from spending a day immersed in nature and culture". Embrace the opportunity to engage in many forms of nature-based activities or just take some time out to have a deep breath of fresh air, sit back and enjoy the festivities.
On show: After a year-long residency with Tidbinbilla, Canberra artist Emily Birks' solo exhibition, Connections, which explores the links between animals and their environments, and the connections we visitors have with them, opens this week at the reserve's visitor centre.
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Clue: The Wool Road
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Steve Leahy, of Macquarie, who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo, taken by Rose Higgins, of Kambah, as the old flour mill in Crago St, Yass. Steve just beat Pat Garner to the prize.
A number of readers incorrectly identified the building as the back of Queanbeyan's Byrne's Mill, another of our region's historic mills, and one that is in much better condition than its Yass counterpart.
The "cyclone" clue related to a storm of that swept through Yass about midday on November 11, 1891, badly damaging many buildings including the mill, and heaven-forbid, the HQ of the local newspaper. In 2017, The Yass Tribune recalled that fateful day when the roof of their office "was blown off, wrecking the building and destroying all but one column of that day's paper", adding, "luckily, no injuries were reported as the staff had only recently left the office for dinner." Heck, leaving at midday for dinner. I can only wish.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday, August 31, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
While recently fossicking around the forests of Murramarang National Park (there's a great whale viewing lookout at North Head), just north of Batemans Bay, your Akubra-clad columnist stumbled upon this striking spotted gum. Is it just me, or does it resemble a giant ladle? As to its origins, my best guess is that its unusual form is the result of the original tree breaking off, leaving a stump which has died off and new growth has calloused around the base and produced a shoot.
Among the mounting correspondence on buildings facing the wrong direction, Susan Hatch, of Farrer, reports that the famous Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta, Canada was built back to front. "When it was built in 1888 a mistake by the builder changed its intended orientation, turning its back on the magnificent mountain vista," exclaims Susan. Thankfully, adjustments were later made to ensure guests could still be wowed by those knock-out views of the Rocky Mountains.