Australian Diary: June, 2017

From suburbia to the nearby countryside, we took a little adventure. And that was thanks to Candace’s co-worker Joanne. Her ageing, resilient minivan took us to three notable spots: the new Cotter Dam, the Canberra Deep Space Station Communication Complex (the CDSCC is operated by NASA), and the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Thankfully, it was a pleasantly sunny day on Saturday (June 3rd). But it’s still winter. There was a chilly, pinching breeze throughout the day, making itself felt every time you moved from sunlight to shade. Although the temperature peaked at something like 15 degrees (Celsius), by the late afternoon you could see your breath.

Stop two was at the CDSCC. The complex was initially built as part of a project to help sustain growth in the ACT, and the first phase of the space station was completed and operational by 1964. In the later 1960s the CDSCC assisted with NASA’s Apollo missions. In fact, one of the antenna, now known as Deep Space Station 46, was originally at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station. As the website puts is, this was the antenna “which received and relayed to the world the first historic TV images of astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon in July 1969.” Joanne mentioned to us as we were visiting that she has a distinct memory of the video being shown on tv while she was at school. By the 1980s the CDSCC was assisting with the Voyager mission as the robotic probes Voyager 1 and 2 passed Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. While some of the antenna at the CDSCC have been decommissioned in recent years, either because of outdated technology or wear and tear, other antenna continue to be used for deep space projects.

Canberra is situated in the southeastern part of Australia. It’s about a three-hour drive northeast to Sydney, and about an seven-hour drive southwest to Melbourne. Rather like Ottawa, Canberra was created as the capital city in part to avoid a rivalry between existing cities and states. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the federal zone in which Canberra is located, has a relatively high elevation (650m above sea level). Combined with the fact the ocean is a three-hour drive east, this means that the region experiences four distinct seasons, at least by Australian standards. Summers can be quite hot (highs in the 40s), and winters are frequently very cold (lows in the -10s). The morning fog is often so thick as to cause delays at the airport. This morning, as I write this, I can’t even seen the horizon it’s so dense. In general the ACT is both mountainous and hilly, covered by forest and woodland. Of course, from the time colonial settlement began, there’s also been significant clearing for grazing sheep and cattle. Since we arrived in Canberra in March the landscape has been more or less the same mixture of colours: green, yellow, and brown. Given the prevalence of evergreen trees, this isn’t likely to change too much until we get spring.

The new Cotter Dam, located to the east and south of Canberra, was completed in 2013, after four years of construction. It is an impressive dam, at 87m in height, though certainly not as monumental as Hoover’s 221m. The newest Cotter Dam is in fact the latest in a series on the Cotter River. As the city and area population have grown over the past century, and as drought threatened the region’s water supply in 2004, successive attempts have been made to secure fresh water for the ACT. The original dam was built in 1915. That was then expanded in 1951. Together with the Bendora and Corin dams, this has been the area’s principle source of fresh water. When we visited the Cotter Dam we decided to meander up to the lookout point. As we did so several kangaroos and a couple of emus watched us carefully.

Our last and longest stop was at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (TNR), which is now part of the national parks system. According to the website, this area of Australia is the traditional country of the Ngunnawal people. The name Tidbinbilla comes from “Jedbinbilla,” a word which refers to Ngunnawal initiation ceremonies in which boys become men, performed on the area’s mountaintops. On our visit of TNR we were lucky enough to see quite a range of flora and fauna. As we arrived the staff happened to be feeding three protected koalas. The one in the photograph was only 10 months old, but was nearly the same size as the adults, who were sleeping nearby. As the koalas were napping or chomping on eucalyptus (their main diet), we also spotted several potoroos skittering about. Potoroos are a small marsupial that looks something like a mouse, is about the size of a small house cat, but which hops like a kangaroo. Around TNR there were dozens and dozens of kangaroos, mostly of the Eastern Grey variety. We also saw two or three wallaby, but they seemed more wary than the kangaroos, and ran away quickly. As we walked along the trails in TNR itself, we paused at two different shallow bodies of water, hoping to see a platypus. We waited for about five or 10 minutes until one eventually popped its head up. It is quite difficult to see a platypus in full, at least from where we were standing, since they were only coming up for air for a few seconds at a time. To look at they seemed something of a cross between a beaver and a muskrat. And they were smaller than I had imagined.

In the past dams were regarded as marvels of human ingenuity and engineering. Standing on Hoover can be awe-inspiring. But dams are increasingly ambivalent symbols. For they seem a testament to humanity’s predilection for seeing nature as something over which to gain mastery, to manipulate for our own narrow purposes. To speak of an area’s fresh water supply as if human beings were the only living things of interest is one example of how you might define anthropocentrism. If dams can inspire awe, looking through a telescope into the vastness of seemingly meaningless space can evoke a wondrous dread. Since Galileo, human beings have come to know that they are not at the centre of the universe, either cosmically or metaphorically. Likewise, humanity has been further displaced by Darwin. For as natural beings we no longer picture ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. Since our journey to the Tidbinbilla Valley I’ve learned that a koala and a human fingerprint are so similar that they can’t be easily distinguished.

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