Watching the Orroral Valley Fire spread further and further into the vast tracts of Namadgi National Park was like a dagger to the heart for nature lovers, including your akubra-clad columnist.
First the out-of-control blaze raced through inaccessible bush flanking the Orroral Valley, sparing the historic Orroral Homestead; and then our city held its collective breath as giant flames leaping off the top off Mt Tennent could be seen as far away as Murrumbateman. A wind change saved Tuggeranong's southern suburbs from a direct hit, but rural properties across the park's eastern border weren't as lucky.
Thankfully the welcome rain earlier this week has all but extinguished the fire, but not before more than 80 per cent of the park was razed.
Due to its size and intensity, the fire has thrown the spotlight on a part of the ACT rarely in the headlines. In fact, over past weeks, while poring over projected fire spread maps, some anxious Territorians discovered for the first time that the ACT does extend beyond Tharwa.
During the height of the State of Alert, one visitor to my facebook page even wrote to me for clarification. "Does the ACT really stretch almost all the way down to Adaminaby, I thought it stopped at Corin Dam?"
Remarkably, despite the ferocity of the fire, through some nifty preparation work involving scraping vegetation, mounting sprinklers and removing flammable boardwalks, the ACT Parks and Conservation staff were able to protect almost all the mountain huts and cultural sites of significance in the park. In fact, to date, the only reported loss is Demandering Hut, a circa-1940s hut near our southern border that was termite infested and slated by the Kosciuszko Huts Association for rebuilding in coming years anyway.
Despite these extensive cultural ''saves'', undoubtedly the big loss from the fire is Namadgi's fragile sub-alpine and alpine areas, and it's treasured flora and fauna. While it will take years for our natural environment to recover, initially it will be treks to the ''saved'' huts, that will lure people back into the park, with many of these walkers striding out in Namadgi for the first time. I guess it's a case of you don't know what you have until you've almost lost it.
These are sentiments shared by Brett McNamara of ACT Parks and Conservation, who after the loss of Demandering Hut last week emailed this column with the following prediction. "During these dark days our ''beacons of hope'' along with the green shoots of recovery will be the huts that we have saved ... I sense that these jewels will be treasured by a community looking to reconnect with the mountains."
And if anyone should know it's Brett who was also at the fire front in 2003 when he saw much of his patch burn including his family home at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
"Personally to witness the park burn once in a career is disappointing, for it to burn twice with such intensity is slightly confronting," he laments.
But Brett and his team are already looking to happier days in Namadgi.
"With time, various recovery programs will require a sophisticated level of coordination - we can draw from our collective post-2003 experiences for guidance," he says.
One group which will work closely with ACT Parks and Conservation on this recovery will be National Parks Association (NPA) ACT, a community volunteer organisation established in 1960 to advocate for a national park in the ACT. In fact, members were putting the finishing touches to their 60th anniversary celebrations (on March 1 this year) when the park which they fought so hard for a quarter of a century to establish, went up in flames.
"The scale and intensity of the fire has been staggering, causing enormous damage to the special flora and fauna of the park - some of it unique to Australia's alpine regions," reports NPA ACT spokesperson Cynthia Burton. "Our beautiful and critically important watershed has also been impacted, likely including some of its delicate sphagnum moss, the 'sponges' that help give us our drinking water."
Despite the heartbreak, Cynthia is heartened "by the concern and love for our park shared by the Canberra community".
"We were there in the years following the 2003 fires to support Namadgi's restoration and our volunteers will be there again after these fires," she says. "We are determined to continue to lend a helping hand to ACT Parks to nurture this special place, and to introduce its many treasures to current and future generations."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
RIP Demandering Hut
Built in the 1940s by Bill Cotter for his brother Jack, both from the Michelago area and grandsons of Garrett Cotter the convict after whom the Cotter River is named, the hut was burnt to the ground late last week. The fire was so intense that it boiled the water in the hut's tank, causing it to split. According to Matthew Higgins, author of Bold Horizon: High-country Place, People and Story, "the particularly interesting thing about the hut is that Bill used bullocks to drag the corner post timber to the site; bullock teams by that time were rare in the area."
The brothers used the hut during stockwork on their land in the upper Naas Valley and also when taking stock through to their summer snow lease at Kellys Plain (now mostly flooded by Tantangara Dam). "Subsequently the hut was owned by Colin and Daphne Curtis of Mt Clear," reports Matthew. In more recent times, the hut was a popular rest stop for walkers on the 16km Naas Valley to Horse Gully Hut (which survived the fire), in southern Namadgi.
Update: Since this article was first published the ACT Parks and Conservation Service announced that Max and Berts Hut was also lost in the Orroral Valley Fire.
All set for the Sausage Sizzle Slipper
This column is often asked for suggestions for weekend forays into the country around Canberra. After this week's refreshing rain you'd be hard pressed beating a drive through the rolling green (they actually are!) hills of the Southern Tablelands to Laggan (near Crookwell) for their annual Pig Races.
This year's program features five races including the Ham Stakes and the Ham Handicap, which promise to be closely contended by athletically trained 10-week-old trotters lured by a bowl of milk to traverse an obstacle course.
The quirky races are the brainchild of Kevin ''the Pig Whisperer'' Kiley who from his base in Queensland has spent the last 20 years touring his pig races around Australia.
The Pig Whisperer has a simple recipe for the success of his quirky races. "It's not just about the fastest snout in the trough, but it's also about putting smiles on people's faces and at the same time raising much-needed funds for the community," he explains.
In fact, over the last 20 years the Pig Whisperer claims he has helped raise more than $5.5 million for national charities like Variety for Children and Make A Wish Foundation.
If you can't make it out to Laggan, Kevin's pigs will also be racing at the Royal Canberra Show later this month.
When: Saturday 15 February. Gates open at midday and the first race is at 1pm.
Where: The Laggan Pub. Laggan is located 15km from Crookwell, which is about a 90-minute drive from Canberra.
Expect: A fun day for all the family. Other activities include food (mostly pork!), live music and children's jumping castle.
Tim's Tip: Arrive early for the Laggan Village Markets, where you can sample and buy fresh local produce to take home.
Cost: $5 per person (under 18 free). Funds raised go to the Upper Lachlan Foundation who support local community projects such as sprucing up village halls and providing student scholarships.
Did You Know? The races coincide with the Crookwell Irish Heritage Weekend which is a celebration of traditional Irish song, music and dance.
CONTACT TIM: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Cryptic Clue: River n' Wheat
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Ian McKenzie of Fisher who was first to correctly identify last week's photo taken from Kingston Harbour looking south-west along Giles Street. Ian just beat Peter Kercher of Holt, Tony Hrstic of Gilmore and Mardi Linke to the prize.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday 15 February, 2020 WILL WIN A DOUBLE PASS TO DENDY - The Home of Quality Cinema.
IN THE NICK OF TIME
With the widespread rain earlier this week, it seems that ecologist Mark Lintermans and his team rescued 142 Stocky Galaxias fish from the Tantangara Creek in the Snowy Mountains (''First it was drought and now it's ash'' January 25) just in time.
"It would have been Armageddon for fish in fire-affected areas over the last few days," says Lintermans, referring to the ash washing into the creek and coating the endangered fish, which only live in a short section of Tantangara Creek.
As to those 142 fish rescued and transported to a holding tank at a NSW Department of Primary Industries facility near Jindabyne, Lintermans says "they are doing really well, feeding avidly and very happy".
The Poile family of Collector are grappling what to nickname this Xanthorrhoea tree near Lake George (which incidentally has more than a few puddles of water in it this week). While Felicity thinks it resembles a Teletubby complete with aerial on head, husband Gary thinks it's more befitting of a Leunig character. What do you think? Perhaps Ted Prior's fictional ''Grug'' or even the giant loop at the National Museum of Australia?