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2 Dec 2022-14 Feb 2023. I do know that it’s been wetter than usual, that Canberra has had one of the wettest springs on record. But I don’t really connect the dots until I get there.

The very first day after our arrival in Australia we set out from my sister’s place to hike to the top of Red Hill, something we’ve done many times on previous visits. It begins with a twenty-minute walk on a treed trail, the fenced backyards of houses on our right and a major highway on our left. It’s a six-lane freeway, but on one occasion, on Christmas day years ago when there was no traffic, we saw a big old-man kangaroo flying down that freeway trying to find its way back to the bush. All Canberra suburbs are interspersed with nature parks covered mostly in small forests and vegetation, and inhabited by kangaroos and other wildlife. But it was really something to see one out on one of the main roads.

We walk the trail alongside the freeway and soon arrive at Red Hill Nature Reserve and start climbing. The rains have brought wildly luxurious vegetation. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And they’ve brought a glory of golden flowers covering the hillside in a dazzling carpet. I smile. Every part of my being rejoices. This is something special.

Red Hill Nature Reserve is a 724-acre protected area on the eastern edge of Woden Valley. It consists of a forested ridge extending more than 3 km, and includes Davidson Hill (750 m) and Red Hill (720 m). The reserve is a part of the Canberra Nature Park system of urban and suburban reserves that enables wildlife movement throughout the region. It is home to more than 175 species of plants, and is a significant habitat for numerous lizard and grasshopper species. And not insignificantly, it is also home to about 800 or so Eastern Grey kangaroos.

And then there are the birds: bright red and blue Crimson rosellas, red blue and yellow Eastern rosellas, pink and grey galahs, and the ubiquitous screeching white cockatoos. They fly overhead, and flit in amongst the trees playing a teasing game of hide and seek with us. They rarely pose for the camera, but their chirrupy squealing and bright colours always give them away.

We hike up the hill almost every day for two months. In places we wade along trails so narrow the long grasses have almost obliterated them. We pay special attention here, wary of snakes.

We know they are there; the expression “a snake in the grass” keeps coming to me. Something dangerous. Hidden. Unpredictable. Jeesh! I’ve lived in Canada too long and lost my Aussie nerve. I’ve seen snakes several times while growing up in Oz and on visits back from Canada, and they actually are largely predictable. They feel you coming and take off.

We all know how the story goes: Australia is a dangerous place what with all those deadly snakes and spiders, not to mention sharks and crocodiles. It’s a wonder the country has any population left alive at all.

So my three sisters, my brother-in-law, plus Don and I are all sitting around at dinner one night and get talking about this. Don gets online and finds an article listing the confirmed animal-related deaths in Oz from 2000 to 2010. Top of the list? Horses, cows and dogs. We all fall over laughing. Kangaroos and emus accounted for eighteen and five respectively, (mostly related to car accidents). Other deadly animals included fish, sheep, goats, camels, cats, and jellyfish, which caused 39 deaths combined. Over ten years. Sheep? Goats? Camels? Cats? We’re all still laughing. Bees are apparently more deadly than spiders. There are on average 1.4 deaths per year from snakes. It’s not a statistic that has me quaking in my boots.

Anyway back to Red Hill, and all its rare golden lushness. Last time we were in Oz about seven years ago the country was in the middle of a drought so all was brown and seer. Now it is flourishing, abundant, in a way I’ve never seen before, in a way I never even would have imagined.

We hike up to the trig point, the highest point on the hill,

and never tire of the 360 degree panorama.

Usually we see one or two other people, and occasionally a resolute runner or cyclist tackling the steepest slopes,

but most days it’s just us

and the trees, and wildlife, and flowers.

We discover that the great expanse of yellow flowers is St John’s Wort. We also see yellow thistle,

and Verbascum (Common Mullein) that has a flower spike containing about 100,000 seeds which can survive for decades.

All three of these plants are invasive. But this:

This is Everlasting, or Paper Daisy, and is native to Australia. It doesn’t command the hill like the St John’s Wort does, but it still seems to be doing well.

The first week or two I’m disappointed to not see any kangaroos. Always in the past we’ve seen kangaroos every time we climbed Red Hill, but this visit, day after day, nothing. And then there comes a cool overcast day. I’m hiking alone when I see them, just three of them a little way off from me. When kangaroos become aware of you they don’t immediately hop away. They sit up and look at you first.

And if you’re not an obvious threat they just keep on munching.

They only hop away if you get too close.

Don’s disappointed he had not been with me, but not for long. On every subsequent cool and overcast day we see kangaroos, their alert heads poking up from the flowers;

or out in the open;

or hopping away. It never gets old.

It didn’t take long for us to figure out that when it’s hot the kangaroos are lying down in those lovely long grasses in the shade sleeping during the heat of the day; and that’s always when we go out. Mad dogs and Englishmen . . . . I know I know. That picture of me above was taken on a (centigrade) thirty-plus day. No wonder I look a little roasted. Anyway one day we’re walking along on a narrow trail, me first, Don behind when suddenly he shouts at the top of his voice “Hey! Sleepy kangaroos! Wake up!” I just about fall over with shock. And then I looked over to my left and sure enough a little way off in the bush three heads have popped up. We laugh and laugh.

One day we see skinks sunbathing.

Another day I’ve gone up alone and taken the hardest trail up, narrow, steep, and rocky, and come to a shaded grassy area where I sit for a while. The sounds of the bush rise up around me – magpies warbling, crickets chirping, the occasional screech of a cockatoo as it flies overhead. But mostly it’s silent. Still and silent. I let it fill me.

For two months in Canberra and two weeks at the coast south of Sydney we are out almost every day – coffee and brunch and lunch and dinner, galleries and museums, and rellies visiting from Melbourne, and of course Christmas shopping and prep, and not one but two big Christmas gatherings. The Red Hill hike is roughly nine kilometres, and usually takes about two hours, including a stop for ice cream on the way home. It keeps us grounded, and fill us with joy and beauty. It’s such a magical place. 

While in Oz I took a three month break from blogging, the longest break ever. It wasn’t planned; it just never felt right. I could have made the time but there was no psychic space for it, no energy for it. It feels good to be back.

I have a lot of catching up to do; many more stories to tell from our time in Greece, and then all the stories from Canberra and the coast. All to come in the next several posts – Crete, Santorini, Naxos, Milos, Canberra coffee culture, Aussie beach culture, and much more.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.