I'm miles from the nearest waterpark, yet in front of me two bikini-clad twenty-somethings frolic in the mist spraying out from beneath a giant palm frond. They gaze cheekily in my direction. If they aren't models they should be.
I'll never forget my first visit to the Botanic Gardens, back in 1991. It was one of those stifling hot February days. Living across the road with no air-con at ANU's Bruce Hall, a friend suggested that the Gardens were an ideal place to 'cool off'.
"It's always much cooler in the Rainforest Gully, especially when they have mist sprays on," she told me.
And she was right, the mercury was a good six degrees lower in the mist of the gully than back on campus. That said, the spectacle that greeted me did little to temper the testosterone levels in an until then innocent 18-year-old Yowie Man. But that's a story for another day. And place.
One thing is for sure, in the subsequent 29 years I've never spotted anyone else parade through the gully in such skimpy swimwear. Heck, who has?
Unexpected encounters aside, the Rainforest Gully quickly became one of my favourite places in Canberra. Before exams I'd clear my head with an early morning stroll through the gully. There's just something about that cooler, fresher air, isn't there? Years later, I'd regularly escape the confines of a Civic office tower for some lunchtime respite from the summer heat. More recently, like others with kids in tow, I've wandered along the boardwalk by torchlight, searching for dinosaurs on those after-dark family tours the Gardens occasionally run.
I still marvel that there's a rainforest there at all, for in the early 1960s it was just a naturally occurring dry gully which only supported scattered eucalypts, shrubs and grasses. To transform the gully into a living showcase of Australia's rainforests was ambitious to say the least. But wow, what a success the Rainforest Gully has turned out to be.
Another Canberran for whom the gully is a special place is Barry Snelson of Calwell.
"My first job was to plant out what is now the gully with a heap of fast-growing wattles," recalls Barry who at the age of 17 began work as an apprentice at the Gardens in 1963.
"Stan Kirby, the head gardener at the time, explained that planting the wattles would create an understory that would allow rainforest trees ... to be protected from the winds and Canberra's frosts," Barry reveals while recently leading me along the gully's boardwalk (now one-way due to COVID-19).
"As the wattles and remnant eucalypts matured, plants were arranged to represent rainforest types along the east coast of Australia, with Tasmanian rainforest at the lower end of the gully and mountain rainforest of northern Queensland at the upper end," explains Barry. "Today, if you follow the trail through the gully, you can effectively walk the entire east coast rainforests in ten minutes." What's better, there's no state border controls. Phew!
One of the keys to the long-term success of the gully is its computerised mist system, which attempts to mimic the natural rainforest environment by increasing the humidity.
However, the advent of the mist jets in 1970, the year the Gardens opened to the public, caused quite a stir. It was a hard sell with many Canberrans questioning the 'exorbitant' cost of $8500. In fact, in a bid to win over community support, the head honchos at the Gardens even rolled out Miss Australia entrant Mary Cooke of Downer (no, not in a bikini) to help promote the concept of the man-made mist which wasn't only designed to help the forest grow, but also to provide a tourist attraction.
Warren Owens, writing for Canberra News on July 3, 1970, was far from impressed with the 'gimmick'. "Perhaps their next brainchild will be icebergs and polar bears in Lake Burley Griffin for the polar touch," he mused, "or maybe camels and a sand machine for the Sahara look.''
However, reminiscing about the development of the rainforest gully isn't the only reason Barry lured me to the Gardens. Barry reckons he also knows the whereabouts of 'the cave on the lower slopes of Black Mountain', the location of which has stumped this column for over a decade (The Curious Case of the Convict Cave, July 18). A cave which according to journalist and author John Gale in Canberra: history of and legends relating to the Federal Capital Territory of the Commonwealth of Australia (1927), had been "a shelter for several outlaws in the early days". Apparently it was also a hideout for hermits in the early to mid-1900s.
Escorted by Gardens staff to an area in the upper Rainforest Gully that is currently off-limits to the public, Barry stops at the opening to a small fanglomerate cave.
"I remember the first time I crawled into it, it was full of old newspapers and empty cans of baked beans, like someone had been living in there in the past, but it was terribly cramped," he explains.
While it's impossible to confirm that the cave is the same one Gale wrote about (there are reports that similar nearby caves were filled in, or collapsed), it is by far the most promising lead received by this column to pinpoint its exact location.
On completing his apprenticeship at Parks and Gardens, Barry had a career change, "moving across to ACTION buses".
"Buses were far more exciting, I could meet more girls on buses than planting wattle trees in a gully," he laughs.
Oh, if only he'd stuck with the Gardens until that hot February day in 1991. It would have been worth the wait. I can guarantee it.
Seven things you didn't know about the Botanic Gardens
1. When prime minister John Gorton opened the Gardens, 50 years ago this month, they were known as the Canberra Botanic Gardens. In 1984 they were renamed the Australian National Botanic Gardens in recognition of the national importance of the collection.
2. On the evening of December 20, 1984, a bushfire burnt out the entire extension of the Gardens and about a hectare on the existing site.
3. The Prince and Princess of Wales opened the Visitor Information Centre on November 7, 1985, and followed it with a walk through the Rainforest Gully.
4. The Garden's website was only the second .au website to go online in Australia (the first was ANU).
5. Lady Gaga celebrated her 24th birthday with an invite-only party at the Gardens in March 2010.
6. Not far from the cafe is an old gnarled Brittle Gum (Eucalyptus mannifera) nick-named 'Pryor's Tree' after Lindsay Pryor who was instrumental in securing funding for the Gardens and who planted many of the initial plants. The tree actually pre-dates the establishment of the Gardens, at a time when the land on the south-eastern side of Black Mountain was a dairy farm and cows spent much of their time nibbling eucalypt seedlings. This natural coppicing meant that seedlings sprouted with multiple trunks. When cattle left in 1952, 'Pryor's Tree' thrived, growing three trunks (one of which was removed in the 1970s), several with 'faces' making it a favourite among visitors and staff of the Gardens.
7. In 2004-05 thousands of beech orchids Thelychiton falcorostrus (syn Dendrobium falcorostrum) were transplanted into the Rainforest Gully, salvaged mainly from windfall in Werrikimbe/Banda Banda National Parks in northern NSW. For several years festooned on the trunks of the towering Antarctic beeches (Nothofagus moreei), they put on a vivid display of white flowers every October. Unfortunately, the effect is now greatly reduced mainly due to possums using the trunks of the trees as highways.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: This concrete block is in one of Canberra's oldest suburbs. Extra points if you can explain its purpose.
Degree of difficulty: Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Penleigh Boyd of Reid who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo as the northern roof eaves overhang the Australian War Memorial's Anzac Hall, with Treloar Crescent visible on the left. "The clue of 'axis' referred to Walter Burley Griffin's land axis (Mount Ainslie-Mt Bimberi) running smack through the centre of Anzac Hall," reports Penleigh who adds, "controversially, there are plans to demolish the award-winning Anzac Hall (only 19 years old) as part of a current $500 million expansion proposal."
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday October 17, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
From afar, many of Canberra's hills are currently cloaked in a purple haze - the result of a proliferation of that most invasive of plants, the conspicuous Paterson's Curse (Echium plantagineum).
However, in at least two places, eagle-eyed readers have spotted a variation to the weed's usual purple-coloured flowers. "In the hectares of purple along Isaac Ridge, six lone white flowers stood out," reports John Berry, who on further research discovered "the usual purple can sometimes be white, blue or pink". It is the first time in 30 years of roaming the ridge that John has spotted such a colour variation.
Frank Bergersen of Kambah noticed an even larger break-out of the white variant on Urambi Hill. "The mutant plant had half the blooms white and the other half the conventional purple," reports Frank.
Did You Know? In Australia,Echium plantagineum, a native to the Mediterranean, is named after the Paterson family of Cumberoona, (near Albury), who apparently planted it on their property in the 1880s. In some parts of the country, especially in South Australia, it is called 'Salvation Jane' due to its use as an emergency fodder.
CONTACT TIM: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick