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…
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.”
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.
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…
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Neil, J. (2005). John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education. Retrieved August 23rd, 2014 from http://www.wilderdom.com/experiential/ExperientialDewey.html
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company (several other editions available).