For the Walker Who Seeks
By Sarah Cains.
Surprisingly close to Bowral town is a hidden bush track with a story…
The Steps can hardly be called a secret, being hidden, as they are, in plain sight. They snake up the south-western flank of the mountain, zig-zagging through the bush to moderate the steepness of the climb. They’re a shortcut to the top, or nearly to the top of Mount Gibraltar, The Gib, as its locally known. At 860m, it’s the highest point in the Southern Highlands and the site of a nationally listed and protected nature reserve.
There’s a feeling amongst those who climb The Steps that this is a route for insiders, a place for the few. As you slip quietly into the sheltering forest, it’s easy to feel yourself to be part of a group of custodians. Walkers pull out weeds, pick up rubbish and look crossly at dogs off the lead, concerned for the little and Swamp Wallabies and Eastern Grey kangaroos occasionally to be glimpsed as they thump through the bush. Gliders and microbats are known to live there too, but they’re harder to see. Sometimes, at night, if you’re walking in town, you’ll see flashlights of ‘spotters’ as they go out searching for forest life at night; souls tuned to the natural world who are hoping to record and protect these all-too-rare and precious creatures.
In Covidtime, (2020) more walkers are finding their way to The Steps to discover for themselves this challenging and picturesque track.
Built in the 1930s as result of a depression relief programme, workers skilled in quarrying trachyte rock from the mountain turned their hands to construction works in the towns. This resulted in some handsome ‘public works’ stonework still to be seen around Bowral and on The Gib. There are workers’ cottages, too; there’s one in Cliff St, and others in Park Road, Victoria St, and Clearview St.
But the steps were not a handsome piece of work. Until recent renovations set them right, they wiggled and rocked their way up from the town, forming an erratic and ankle-turning pathway, with no regard for the safety and rhythm can be achieved by steps built to a given formula for risers and treads. After rain, the tilted surfaces were treacherous and slippery. Mighty hunks of trachyte seemed to have been hauled roughly into place. They would move under a boot and toss the incautious walker off the path at a misplaced footfall. Where the steps bring the walker close to the cliff edge that descends into the quarry, a frail-looking handrail is the guide to set the you straight again. The route suffered badly from erosion caused by storm water that cascades down its way in downpours.
A recent renovation has been skillfully executed, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that the job was done with love. Funded by grant money raised by Mt Gibraltar Bushcare and Landcare volunteers and supervised by locals working in coordination with a sympathetic construction company, the work was performed using stone already cut on the mountain and in line with NSW Heritage Council guidelines.
The result is a well-graded climb on stable steps.
Likely the steps were originally built as a short-cut to the top of the mountain for quarry workers living on the ‘flatlands’ of the town below, creating a situation something like the reverse of an Italian hill town. Pictures of these charmed places are lodged in the imagination of every Italophile; the town built of ancient stone and terracotta perched atop it’s hill, the buildings clustered, close and warm and dribbling down the hillside like runny icing from a cake. Workers would descend from the town into terraced fields, farming the lower hill slopes with their olives and grapes, then ascend in the evenings to inhabit towns of churches, tiny shops and tall houses that step straight out onto shared communal squares. In the evenings, ‘passeggiata’ still happens in Italy’s hill towns. Locals of all ages come out to walk their town squares, the older people dressed in their Sunday best. This traditional stroll is an opportunity for communal gathering and exchange.
A worthy model for local living?
For many decades The Gib was used by townspeople as a dump for garden rubbish. This resulted in the extensive swathes of ivy and other ‘garden escapes’ racing away to blanket natural forest plants and block habitat crevices. The area around the steps was no exception. Over twenty-seven years, Bushcare team members have clambered and crawled through this mass of weed, digging, pulling, winding and cutting to achieve a huge reduction in the weed burden on the mountain.
Always shaded, it is often cold on the south side where the steps ascend. Many photos show the Thursday weeders in soil-stained jumpers and an odd assortment of headwear, strapped with tool belts and grouped around the tried and true, oft-mended picnic basket that bears coffee and biscuits for morning tea. Occasionally a home-made cake appears to be shared with enthusiasm. Once, as the morning tea party sat chatting, an echidna waddled into the circle, its woofly snout testing the air cautiously as, with rolling gait, it wandered in and out of the picnic space. It seemed unafraid.
Near the top of the track is a stone seat comprising two hefty uprights topped with a slab. It’s a welcome spot to rest if you don’t mind a cold backside. Being still for a while, regaining an even heartbeat after the climb, the walker might be fortunate to see and hear small birds, though there are fewer these days. Sometimes there’s a quick lizard, too. Lace Monitors have vanished, and even Bluetongues are not often seen in this, their natural habitat. They’re more commonly sighted in town parks and gardens. There’s one that lives at Bowral Railway Station. But, together with a few of its other skink relations, the shining, bronze-skinned Eastern Water Skink can be seen on The Gib as it darts amongst the rocks. A sighting of the Coppertail Skink in its smart, black and white striped livery would be a treat.
The little birds of the forest are the ones to look for; Blue Wrens, Shrike Thrushes, Eastern Spinebills, Tree Creepers, Thornbills and the like. Hopefully some of their number have escaped the ravages of drought and a seriously over-heated summer to revitalise this place.
Just off the track, below the seat, a fresh-dug wombat hole gapes beneath a fallen wattle. Soil unearthed during construction of this creature’s complex burrow has lumped into a pile beside the hole, displaying the marvelously rich, ochre-coloured basalt soil from inside this ancient volcano.
On the second last bend, where the pathway levels out and you are done with the steps, you will pass an old Persoonia linearis; the Geebung. The catchy name for this tree has been imprinted on our national consciousness by Banjo Patterson with his poem, The Geebung Polo Club. The attractive little tree has thick, black bark that peels off in layers and in wet weather, the cherry-red underlayer displays an almost luminescent glow. Sadly, the most recent prolonged drought has killed off this particular old tree, though there are others of its family growing in more sheltered sites, back from the exposed area of the Bowral Lookout where the track spits you out. These days, the black carcass of the old Geebung is a reminder that it used to feed pairs of seed-eating Gang Gangs. In their scarlet and slate-grey plumage, these unusually quiet cockatoos would flicker through the tall forest, revealing their presence by the sound of their strong beaks cracking seeds. There are few breeding sites left for these ghostly creatures since few large, old nesting trees escaped the axe and the saw of earlier days. But a new generation of trees is slowly maturing due to protection of the area.
Gang Gangs are another of the many native species now struggling to find habitat on the mountain. Described around 2000 by Richard Jordan in the book, The Gib, as ‘uncommon’, Gang Gangs have now largely vanished from the reserve.
When you arrive, puffed and triumphant amongst the tall, drought-ravaged wattles that surround the Bowral Lookout, you will count yourself lucky to have found The Steps. You will hear the wattles before you raise you head to see them. Rising like masts on rocking sailing boats, they clack gently in the wind.
Beside the picnic shelter stands a trachyte plinth that was topped with a brass plaque directing the viewer to local landmarks. This plaque was stolen, then found again on a farm, remounted, then stolen again.
A new plaque has been designed and is soon to be mounted with what will hopefully be seriously theft-proof method. The wording reflects the thoughts of the Mount Gibraltar Bushcarers whose ongoing work honours and preserves this precious place.
Title words: Philippa Nikulinsky/Botanic Artist, WA