The Blue Mountains

“People aren’t against you; they are for themselves” (unknown)-

Well, that seems to be an awful bleak quote to introduce the Blue Mountains trip. And yet, this is probably what I have been reminded of during the three day trip to the Blue Mountains. For those who don’t know, my Outdoor Education class went hiking for three days in the Blue Mountains National Park near Sydney. And what I’ve been reminded of is not that people are selfish, but that I tend to forget that people are similar. Once you engage with people in an open and positive manner on both sides, you are reminded that we basically need and want the same things, which I suppose we forget in daily life and competition.

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We started our weekend early Friday morning, and although everyone, including me, seemed excited, we were a bit shocked about the weather in Katoomba- fog and rain! But once we started it was all good, it fit the rainforest environment. Analogously, what I seem to remember of the first day is foggy as well- we went down, down, down and then up, up, up again. It was a rather short hike, but the challenge lay at the end: the Big Staircase with a thousand steps that were carved into the cliff. We started as a group, and Nikki, our team-leader, made sure we arrived at the top as a group: the higher we got, the more slowly we walked together. Close to the top, we reached the Three Sisters; a rock formation that resembles three stone columns and depicts, according to Aboriginal legend, three enchanted sisters. It was a beautiful panorama, and the first time we could look at what was ahead and where we’d been already.

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We slept in cabins a bit outside of town, which were more comfortable than expected. Our fire oven (which was supposed to act as a heater) had the nice side effect of bringing us together as cabin mates, especially during the attempt to light a fire (that never really worked- and we adhered strictly to the method that was presented to us at the campfire!). The campfire was beautiful, and its smell reminded me of the bonfire we build at the summer camps I mentor; it’s quite funny how fire has something primeval to it. The fire activities served as a nice conclusion before we all literally fell into bed in anticipation of next day’s seven hour hike.

Saturday started early, but I was excited for the longer and more remote hike of the weekend. I think we were probably all a bit sad that it was still cloudy when we arrived at the lookout, but morning yoga and Bulgarian folkdances warmed us up. Once we could get an overview over the terrain we would hike through, I was really excited for the trip! Luckily, I joined the last group which meant we didn’t need to worry to bump into the other groups (what had happened the first day all the time). The path was more impressive than Friday’s, with lots of creeks, rocks and lush green plants. Once the sun came out, it became rather picturesque:

...reminded me a little of Hawaii's Jurassic Park landscape.

…reminded me a little of Hawaii’s Jurassic Park landscape.

The primeval raiforest...

The primeval rainforest…

My map and compass reading skills definitely improved! Following the paths on the map was simple enough, except for one junction that didn’t look like a path at all, rather like a big rock in a stream! Luckily, Holly knew where to go and gave subtle hints by charging ahead… And although I’ll probably never forget the mnemonic rhyme ‘Red net in the shed’, I would not trust my compass reading skills to navigate freely.

The next part of the way became interesting rather than beautiful (although it was that, too), we could climb a bit and help each other if needed. We also received lots of information about the flora and fauna around us. Especially Ben could tell us a lot; it was nice to see that he himself seemed genuinely interested, although he has probably hiked in this area heaps of times (I’m trying to incorporate my newly acquired Australian language here, such as bush tucker, i.e. bush food).

The resting places were beautiful; especially one next to a waterfall was a little paradise we didn’t stay long at. At this point, I felt the way had already been longer, and it was a nice change to lead, go in pairs and speed up our pace. The way back up was hard but truly magnificent; so to speak the right mix of work and reward: I huffed and puffed on the way up, and yet the view, the steep winding path and occasional brash from above were definitely worth it. Because we were the last group, we finished the hike at the perfect time. Every time we moved up the path, the sun set a bit more. It was nice to observe that the group found a good mix between going at one’s own speed and waiting for the others to arrive as a group.

Our new, fifth cabin member!

Our new, fifth cabin member!

Our cabin worked well together (except for the fire making-part, that is). I enjoyed how the cabin talks became more open and interesting; although I knew most of my cabin members before, it was good to get to know the others a bit better and compare and exchange travel and local experience. It was an interesting mix of political views and trying to understand where the other came from. At the fire, the stars were most striking to me; I’ve never seen anything like this in Europe! Then we’ve discussed if they are the same stars as in the Northern hemisphere- only some, and from a different angle (in retrospect, that seems pretty logical).

On Sunday morning, we got up earlier to find some kangaroos. I supposed we were too late and too loud because we didn’t see any, yet the empty farm with the sun over the dewy fields was beautiful and a nice variation to the city. Every time I do something like this, get up early to see a sunrise, anything that disrupts the usual rhythm really, it makes me feel so content, although it is an inconvenience of some sort. At the same time it seems somewhat ‘sad’ that these tiny alteration have such an effect, i.e. that that is all it takes yet it remains rare.

During the hike, I could feel the physical activity of the last days, we were all really tired. However, the route was a beautiful mix of the previous days- uneven terrain, “valley of the waters” and rock formations. At Govett’s Leap, a waterfall, some people went swimming. It was freezing and I really admire those who went in, using every opportunity they could during our trip. It was good to see how everyone else cheered for them and was ‘proxy proud’. On the way back, it became very warm and I realized I’m not sure what to do during the summer- I felt very Central European and sunburnt. Going up ladders was a different, fun way to get back up; and personally I was very happy that we skipped the steps this time! What was different from the other tours were all the other tourists on the path, from which I felt strangely removed (although we were, by all means, tourists). It’s very pretty up there, but I am glad that we saw more than just the surface; hence, more than what one can reach by car.

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Looking at the photos, I’ve realized that the Blue Mountains do not seem to be mountains to me: they are more similar to table top hills, very different from the pointy grey Alps. And they are definitely not blue- although I understand where the name comes from. What is actually blue is all the fog- the misty mountains may be more fitting.

Back at the top, we started to be in a rush to get home. I personally missed a bit of debriefing (although we did that later during the week). When I arrived back in Sydney at Redfern Station, it was strange to see all these people in a hurry to get somewhere, and that after only two days away from the city. I really enjoyed the walk home through the empty and dark city. I felt positively empty headed- my first thought was not “What’s left on my to-do list?”, rather I experienced a calm feeling that was encouraged by the clear and concise daily schedule. Yet, I felt restless at the same time- as if I needed physical activity. The trip reminded that I do indeed need more exercise; a resolution that has lingered in my head for some time now- tennis, I return!

Besides the resolution to exercise more, what do I take away from the Blue Mountains trip? It is not so much the realization to I can overcome physical challenges, which seemed to be what a lot of other people took away from it. It’s rather to be open and trustful to others. I was reminded that most people are similar and generally open-minded by seeing how helpful and open-minded everyone was to everyone else; and how genuinely, almost childlike happy, everyone was to get away from their daily lives for a couple of days. I always try to be open to new experiences and to new people, and challenging oneself through new hobbies and surroundings (for example through university exchanges like this) really helps; yet, I think also approaching more ordinary, daily interactions with a more positive attitude will do me some good (I suppose I’m trying to say that using your time well and enjoying yourself should be the aim (this article visualizes the concept very well: http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/life-weeks.html )). It is rewarding to go into a situation knowing that one can trust people- or at least rely on them and yourself- enough to figure it out.

Lastly, I take away how enjoyable it is to be outdoors for longer periods of time (especially with newly acquired skills that allow one to discover new things), and how worthy it is to protect the outdoors. Here, I’m always amazed by the dichotomy between the ‘untouched’ emptiness of large stretches of land and the mastery of nature through mining and farming (and in some areas, tourism). And although I am excited to see more of this very beautiful, very different country over the course of the next few months, I can’t help to wonder at these antagonisms.

Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcHk6kEKO3U

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BONUS

How do I feel about using a blog as a reflective tool? I do believe the reflection process is essential to make Outdoor Education an educational experience (as in Dewey’s experiential learning cycle). A blog is a good tool to allow for multiple forms of presentation in text, videos and pictures, which makes the author’s message more powerful. Yet, I think many of the problems mentioned by Dyment, O’Connell and Boyle (2011) are very true: finding a clear aim and an expressive, yet entertaining writing style, being reflective without giving up things preferred to remain personal, and all this without feeling “journaled to death” or too teacher-oriented. Personally, I would never blog publicly about what I think personally (I’ve embraced Voicethread, though: my semi-regular updates to friends and family back home now take the form of a narrated slideshow of the latest pictures, and everyone really enjoys it!). I have a difficult time presenting more personal thoughts to a wider (and theoretically infinite) audience in a medium that leaves little control over who reads it and how it is perceived(this was particularly true for the videos which are even more personal; it’s strange to know that someone would watch them and it was hard to find a clear message right away). Digital journals can also limit creative input because it’s hard to incorporate drawings and memorabilia, a technique I’m personally fond of. I know this is a very personal unease, and by no means one that limited the usefulness and advantages of a reflective blog! I believe in today’s classroom blogs or online journals are the most efficient reflection tools because of their ease of use and familiarity.

Day Trip to the Royal National Park

Australia has been- and still is- a land of pictures for me. Before I came here (or before I even knew I would come here) what I knew about Australia came from unbelievably beautiful pictures of its natural heritages and distinct fauna. What fascinated me most was the seemingly endless vastness and emptiness; I’m German, and my home state is the most crowded one in Germany, which is in turn by far the most crowded country in little Europe. Hence, when we started the preparations for our one-day tour to the Royal National Park, what excited me was to finally see a bit of what makes Australia so beautiful.

I wasn’t disappointed. Now, the Royal National Park is by no means wilderness or empty- it’s a national park just one hour south of Sydney, Australia’s biggest city. Yet, in Europe I would have to try much harder to find a place similarly ’remote’. I actually looked like I was prepared to stay in the wilderness- my backpack was about three times the size of anyone else’s…

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The first part of the way led us through bush land…

... before we reached the main part, the cliffs.

… before we reached the main part, the cliffs.

When we arrived at the Royal National Park, we split up in groups. Mine walked from Wottamola to Bundeena, along the Coastal walk. I did not really know anyone, which was a good thing- after all, one point of this was to talk to other people. Most of us had some experience in the outdoors, mostly from going hiking. The Coastal Walk was not particularly challenging by itself- for me, it was more the landscape and the views that made this trip really special. And although the weather wasn’t typical Australian sunshine, it was just right for a long walk (and it looks quite amazing in the pictures). Something else that made this trip special was that it was actually university- just in a very different form from what I knew from home; I had never heard of Outdoor Education in Europe. I feel it intuitively makes sense though; some skills, especially the ‘soft skills’ that everyone needs independently of their work field can be primarily acquired through direct experience. So we were about to experience what experiential learning is, or what David Kolb (1984) calls “the process whereby knowledge is created. . . the combination of grasping and transforming experience.”

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A yellow-tailed black cockatoo (not my own picture, they were too fast for me).

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A grasstree or Xanthorrhoea- who knew that their flowering is stimulated by bushfire?

We started off through some bush land, and because there was only a narrow path and no far view it felt a bit like following a maze. I tried to spot animals and plants I did not know or had not seen in the wild before (the anticipated kangaroos and echidnas sadly did not make an appearance), but we all learned quite a bit about the plants and birds. I fulfilled my one-plant/ one- animal goal: I now know of the whipbird and the grasstree.

When we reached the cliffs, the view opened up and we could see quite far ahead on our path, along bays and beaches. Here, the landscape really became interesting for me, especially the rocks. It’s a lot of sandstone, rather uncommon from where I’m from, and mostly golden-red, in stark contrast to the very rich and moist black earth I’m used to as a Central European! There were a lot of streaky sandstone patterns, followed by darker, more holey structures caused by erosion. I can’t really explain why I found the rocks so interesting, but I am spending quite a few words on them; it’s probably their (to me) unusual quality. On one of the cliffs we also found a rock engraving in the shape of a man; Aboriginal peoples used to live in the area of the Royal National Park. We also passed Ice Cream Rock, a creamy white rock that looks as soft as a marshmallow. As we had been told before, it was the spot where a French international student had died falling off the cliff just two months before. And although we had learned about the dangers at (porous) cliffs in class and knew about safety rules around cliff edges, I think this story really brought the point home to all of us. Although it was (luckily) not a first-hand experience, the concrete example could teach us more than any guidelines; obviously, it is very different to simply hear about an accident or see where it happened.

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On the cliffs, we also had some personal time to reflect on the experiences we had made during the trip. I have already talked about some aspects- the very different and beautiful landscape, the fun of being outside. What I also noticed then were sounds which are hard to detect in a group. It was relatively quiet, except for some birds and the waves, which is a very calming sound for me because it never changes. I could also see airplanes leaving Sydney Airport every few minutes, a reminder of how close we were to the city and normal (uni) life. What probably surprised me most was that I had troubles just sitting there- I am usually quite good at busying myself with something but consciously just SITTING there made me fidgety. I suppose I felt a little unproductive. This thought probably annoyed me most because I don’t like the rather economic view of the need for constant productivity. Now, it reminds me of Dewey’s contrast between traditional, structured and achievement-focused education and experiential education, or rather the focus on results versus the focus on process and results (see Neill (2005) on Dewey). Watch the video here:

At the end of the day, everyone seemed positively exhausted- we had achieved something, even if it was (most basically) only a ten kilometres hike. It was a great day for meeting other people, getting out of the city and finally seeing something of this indeed very beautiful continent. According to Dewey, we are always influenced by past experiences- they so to speak act as a lens through which we can assess the present situation. The Royal National Park trip embodies this for me: the reminder how reviving and fun outside activities can be, and how the trip can hopefully serve as an instructive past experience that helps me to assess future situations.

Next, looking forward to the mysterious Blue Mountains…