It’s 6.00am on a bitterly cold Canberra July morning. I’m rugged up with scarf, beanie, sunglasses and gloves which barely stop the cold from seeping in. However, the sun is shining and the air is crisp—one could even say bracing. Luckily, there is no wind or the minus 5 temperature would feel something closer to minus 10. But Canberra is like that, it is a place of extremes. Bitterly cold in winter (we’ve had -10 Celsius) and blistering hot in summer (mid 40s are not unusual).
I walk down the small cul-de-sac from my house towards Ginninderra creek which winds itself from way up in the low hills of Gungahlin to the north-east, through the northern Belconnen suburbs of Giralang, Evatt, Melba, past the socially shunned Charnwood, then through Latham and finally past my house in Macgregor. From here it disappears through Dunlop and then out into the open paddocks and fields on New South Wales before cascading over the spectacular, but inaccessible (this is a long and sorry story) Ginninderra Falls into the Murrumbidgee River which flows from north to south, through the Australian Capital Territory and onto the southern Monaro Plains of New South Wales.
But I am not on a blustery, treeless plains of the Monaro. Instead I am in suburbia and the little creek, no more than three to four metres wide, bubbles along happily, its water cold and grey in the early morning light. The sun is low and the parklands and ovals that border the creek are covered in a thick white frost that crushes delightful under foot. Near the cricket oval I notice a set of tracks in the frost, they are kangaroos—one is never far from nature in this city.
Walking along the black strip of tar that follows the creek, I notice that the path is empty except for a short dumpy figure, wrapped up against the cold in a bright red coat and knitted scarf held tight around their face, walking a small dog in a fluffy coat. The dog looks unimpressed. I say good morning and get a muffled mumble in return which I take for a greeting. I continue on.
I reach a bridge that straddles the creeks floodplain—in rare rainy periods this creek can turn, in places into a 50 metre wide torrent—and pass underneath where I am assaulted by faded graffiti, each piece over painted by a new piece which in turn has been over painted again thus rendering the concrete wall a messy jumble of greens, blacks, blues and faded reds. And to top it off, some mindless idiot has then tagged the wall with what looks like a bad attempt at Egyptian hieroglyphics. It looks awful.
But from here I suddenly find myself surrounded by bush. The tall gums glisten in the early morning sunlight, their shadows long across the path. Frozen water droplets glisten like diamonds in the scrubby undergrowth and the cold black path is covered, in places, by sheets of ice. As I push further along the track I come across a wooden walkway, actually a low bridge, which crosses a swampy area with reeds that point proudly to the blue sky above. Even at this time the frogs are croaking, as if greeting the day.
A thin mist rises from this swampy area and gently blurs my vision. The sunlight furtively tries to penetrate the mist leaving brilliant shards of light which hit the icy ground and flash like a broken mirror on the ground. It is indeed a vision splendid and its beauty only an artist could capture. And yet, I am no artist so this vision will have to remain mine and mine alone for all time.
Beneath my feet the wooden boardwalk creaks and cracks and my footsteps seem obscenely loud in this early dawn environment. The walkway curves around to my left and I stop for a moment to gaze downward at the creek where it has slowed, deeper and a bit wider, almost pond like. A couple of small bluish green ducks paddle rapidly into the reeds leaving a small wake which soon dissipates. Looking around I notice the ice is beginning to melt leaving small puddles on the ancient granite rocks that rise above the boardwalk. In summer these rocks hold a myriad of reptiles, Cunningham skinks, geckos, Eastern Water Dragons and Brown Snakes. However, at this time they are in a deep slumber, safe beneath the rocks, waiting for the first warm rays of spring to rise them from their enforced torpor. This place can be very beautiful no matter what time of year.
This area is now part of Umbagong District Park, a 50 hectare area of open space and part of the Ginninderra Creek corridor. The first inhabitants of this area were the Ngunnawal people and a number of axe grinding grooves can be found in the volcanic tuff that lines the creek—a poignant reminder of the importance of this area to these ancient people and recorded by archaeologist Josephine Flood in the early 1980s. Surrounded by grasslands, the creek itself would have provided a reliable source of water as well attracting animals, birds and supporting a variety of plant species. It is thought that the creek would have once been a chain of ponds and remnants of this can be seen on the northern side of the creek across from Macgregor oval where a largish pond still exists.
European settlers first established themselves in the Canberra region in the late 1820s with three men, George Thomas Palmer, John Langdon, and Richard Popham, settling alongside the creek which in those days was generally grassy open forest.
Palmer, it could be said, was responsible for the first European settlement in Ginninderra, then known as Palmerville (which we shall visit later in the book). He was born in 1784 in Kent and achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the British army and it is believed that he fought in the Napoleonic Battles of the Nile and Alexandria. He later married Catherine Pemberton and in 1806 they arrived in the new colony on the ship Albion. In 1826 he sent out a party to establish his own land at what was called by local Indigenous people as 'Ginnin-ginnin-derry'. Incidentally, the first written record of the word ‘Gininin-ginin-derry’ was around 1829 on an Aboriginal breast plate bearing the the inscription ‘Mickey King of Gin and Gin and Derry’. Breastplates, to this country’s eternal shame, were a form of recognition used in pre-Federation Australia by white colonial authorities to recognise local Aboriginal men who they perceived to be leaders. The aforementioned John Langdon was the landholder along Ginninderry Creek at that time.
By 1836 Palmer had expanded his landholdings to over 10,000 acres and was quite successful. Having made his money, Palmer and his wife returned to England in 1839 where they retired to a comfortable lifestyle. He later died in 1854 at Bath and his wife Catherine followed him to the grave the following year.
By 1910, just prior to Commonwealth government resuming the land for the Australian Capital Territory, surveyors noted that the land along the creek was mostly cleared and by the 1950s, the land was entirely clear of trees, with the exception of some willows along the creek. Before long the willows spread and pretty much invaded the complete length of the creek, clogging the waterway and shading out much of the native vegetation. It stayed this way until well into the 1990s when a concerted effort was made to remove the willows and replant natives, allowing the creek to flow freely and attracting the abundant birdlife and other fauna that exists to this day.
In 1968, development began in the area to form the suburb of Latham which borders the suburbs of Macgregor, Higgins, Florey and Flynn. Named after John Latham, the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1935 to 1952, its streets are named after prominent Australian judges. Latham himself was born in Melbourne in 1877 and studied arts and law at the University of Melbourne, later serving as Attorney-General of Australia under Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons, and was Leader of the Opposition from 1929 to 1931 as the last leader of the Nationalist Party. He died in July 1964.