After vast swathes of Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve went up in smoke in the January 2003 firestorm, it took me almost a decade to return to those fire-affected areas.
I simply couldn't face seeing parts of the bush that had been so special to me for so long reduced to a pile of ash. I can't even begin to imagine the heartache endured by those who lost homes and loved ones.
In retrospect, however, I wish I'd returned earlier. As a result of my self-imposed ban, I missed the opportunity to watch my beloved mountains regenerate and to marvel at the rebirth of those places that meant so much to me and others.
When last summer's Orroral Valley Fire ripped through Namadgi, burning more than 80,000 hectares or 80 per cent of the park, I was determined not to make the same mistake twice.
So last month, as soon as parts of the park re-opened, your akubra-clad columnist took the Yowiemobile for a spin to have a peek. Sadly, it didn't take me long to wish I hadn't.
It is gut wrenching. The eastern parts of the park along Boboyan Road were burnt to a crisp, and more. Those rounded hills which mark your arrival in southern Namadgi resemble the carcass of a long-dead echidna. Once grand forests have been reduced to hillsides of lifeless quill-like matchsticks. The ground is devoid of anything but for ash, black stumps and chunks of granite, peeled off bigger boulders during the height of the inferno.
At higher elevations snow blasted by a late winter blizzard clings to burnt tree trunks as if someone has grabbed a giant fire extinguisher and sprayed one side of the trees with fire retardant. It's like walking through a black-and-white film. A horror film. Even the sky is grey.
While driving back out of Namadgi, and feeling pretty sorry for myself (and even more sorry for the park), a patch of bright yellow moss catches my eye. It's as if someone dropped a tin of Dulux fluorescent yellow on the charred forest floor. The sudden splash of colour gives me a renewed sense of hope.
The spectacle strikes a chord with others, for after sharing the photo on social media, I'm besieged with questions about the species of moss and its location. While I can easily answer the second question, the first one is a bit trickier. Heck, I don't know one bryophyte from another. Who does?
Actually, Judith Curnow at the Australian National Botanic Gardens does. But first I need a sample to send Judith and her team. It's against the law to collect anything from a national park without special permits, so I put in a quick call to Brett McNamara, ACT Parks and Conservation regional manager.
It turns out Brett's also keen to confirm the species of the moss. "It's certainly eye-catching," he says. "There are several other patches of it in areas of the park not yet open to the public."
Brett collects a sample which is promptly dispatched to Judith. And sure enough, the next day Judith calls to confirm the fluoro moss as Funaria hygrometrica - an early pioneer of fire grounds that are especially high in potash.
However my moss mission isn't over yet. One of the many messages I receive about the moss is from Rose Higgins of Kambah, a good friend of this column, who despite living in Canberra for most of her life has never set foot in Namadgi.
Rose had watched in horror earlier this year as the Orroral Valley fire burned closer and closer to Canberra's southern suburbs and like many nearby residents, had the family car packed with valuables in case she needed to evacuate.
Thankfully she didn't need to, but, like me, Rose is absolutely besotted by the vibrancy of the moss. Both its colour and what it signifies.
"Wow, I just have to see it," she emails, asking if I'll take her there.
Keen not to fall into my post-2003 fire rut of avoiding the mountains, I jump at the chance. In fact, maybe I jump a bit too high. Rose failed to tell me she was planning on bringing a dazzling yellow 1950s-style dress, red umbrella and shiny red patent boots.
"Think of the photos we'll get," she says, tossing what seems like half her wardrobe on the back seat of my Jeep. Let's just say, far from being (or wanting to be) a fashionista, it's not the sort of clobber usually sighted in the back of the Yowiemobile. Heck, I hope I don't see anyone I know.
We find the moss easily. How could you not? It's still glowing like a beacon. A symbol of hope.
Rose scampers across to the middle of the moss, and lies down as if it's her loungeroom floor. "It's as soft as it looks," she exclaims before retreating behind a tree to slip into her retro gear.
Complimented by the fluoro moss, the bright colours of her garish get-up contrast dramatically against the blackened landscape. I snap away. It was a flash of brilliance by Rose to bring the outlandish outfits after all.
While Rose is back behind the tree for yet another wardrobe change, a ranger drives past. He honks the horn and gives me the thumbs-up. Oh dear, I'll never hear the end of it.
Rose is already planning a return trip with her children. Not only to see the moss first-hand, but to discover more of the natural wonders of a national park, that before it made headlines during the fires, she'd barely heard of.
There must be other Canberrans recording Namadgi's recovery in their own unique way. If that's you, please let me know, but bear in mind I won't be returning for any fashion shoots. Ever.
Want to see the magical moss first-hand? Here's how
Namadgi National Park: Only some parts of Namadgi have reopened since last summer's fire. The Honeysuckle, Orroral Valley and Bimberi Wilderness areas remain closed as works continue to restore access to roads and walking trails. Best check with the Namadgi Visitor Centre (Naas Rd, Tharwa) on what areas are open before planning a trip. Ph: 6237 5307.
If you go: Heavy winter rains in fire-affected parts of Namadgi resulted in considerable soil erosion. As you drive in the park over the Nursery Creek and Naas River bridges, look at the silt in the river bed, it's over two metres high in parts. Not a good look.
The moss patch: The patch of Funaria hygrometrica featured in this article is located on the western side of Boboyan Road, about 4.4km south of the new Namadgi National Park sign. If you visit, be sure to park well off the road (but not on the moss!).
Closer to home: According to a spokesperson for the Australian National Herbarium, while Funaria hygrometrica can cover the burnt ground in carpet-like swathes as in Namadgi "it can also found in non-burnt areas, in locations as diverse as suburban gardens, muddy banks beside creeks or rivers, in the cracks of retaining walls and dry and wet sclerophyll forests".
Further afield:Funaria hygrometrica has been reported as common after fire in other parts of the world including Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Closer to home, there are reports of the fluoro moss spreading en-masse in burnt ground on the far south of NSW, especially in Ben Boyd National Park. Have you seen it? If so, please send me a photo.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Cryptic Clue: Can you make a cabinet from a dead Wollemi Pine?
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Peter Kercher of Holt who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo, below, sent in by Adrian Fryatt, as a mural on the western side of the William Hovell Drive underpass, just north of the old Weetangera Cemetery.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am on Saturday, September 19, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, The Home of Quality Cinema.
NAME THE LIZARD
The onset of warmer weather this week has resulted in many reports of Shingleback lizards basking in the sun on our region's roads. However, arguably Canberra's biggest shingleback is the wooden sculpture at Green Square in Kingston. Prompted by four year-old Domenik Weiss, who wonders "why doesn't it have a name?", as part of Kingston and Barton's Floriade Reimagined Festival, the Kingston Barton Resident's Group is running a competition to name the lizard. Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in a form at the Capital Chemist in Green Square. I best not reveal my suggested moniker as I'm the judge.
CLIMB A HILL
If climbing the Yass Valley Shire's highest point is on your bucket list, then beat a path to privately owned Bowning Hill on Sunday, September 27 where the Yass Valley Spin Foundation (YVSP) are hosting a fundraising walk (fancy dress preferred!) up the 796m dormant volcano. Entry is from 10am - 3pm and by donation to support those in the Yass area requiring assistance with medical needs. The walk takes about 40 minutes. More details are on the YVSP Facebook page.
CONTACT TIM: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick