Water plunges 40m off the cliff top with so much gusto that the morning sun rising upstream creates a rainbow through the water spray. It reaches from one side of the falls to the other. Overhead, a lone wedge-tailed eagle flirting on the updrafts is dwarfed by the gaping gorge which opens up like a giant’s yawn in the ancient landscape below.
Downstream, the torrent of water slices through harsh terrain, leaving tortured walls of rock where cypress pines precariously cling on for dear life. They must like it, for these stands are among some of the most impressive in the country. It’s as if these native pines, which are slow to reach maturity and are killed by fire, have been protected and somewhat nurtured by this near impenetrable gorge.
Can you imagine a natural wonder like this located within 30 minutes drive of the centre of Sydney or any other major city? It’d be a major drawcard. But this is Ginninderra Falls, and – just five minutes drive from the back yards of expanding northern Belconnen suburbs – it is sadly off-limits to the public.
Once open as a private tourist park, from the late 1990s the owners progressively restricted public access and eventually closed the site completely in 2004, citing escalating insurance costs. This has resulted in a whole generation of Canberrans (and visitors to our city) being shut out of the park and many newcomers are completely unaware of its existence.
Thankfully, there’s been a push recently among some passionate locals, including prolific author Graeme Barrow and The Canberra Times’ fishing columnist (and past director of ACT Parks and Conservation) Bryan Pratt, for the falls to change from private to public ownership, and become a national park for all the enjoy. Bravo, bravo. Bring it on, I say.
It’s not just the grand upper falls which make this a prime candidate for a national park, the gorge downstream is also blessed with many natural features. For a start, there’s the little known lower falls, which, although not as majestic as the upper falls, are equally, if not more, spectacular. Here, the creek drops about 10m then gurgles along a naturally occurring race for about 25m, before tumbling another 5m into a plunge pool. Surrounded by a natural amphitheatre, but for the lack of crocodiles and tropical vegetation (oh, and the cold water), you could almost be excused for thinking it was part of Kakadu. The lower falls truly are a stupendous sight (and very hard to completely capture in a photograph). If Pavarotti had known about this place he would have wanted to perform here. If Christo knew about it, he’d want to wrap it up.
And what have we done to the place? Locked it up!
The gorge is also home to a diverse range of wildlife, from majestic birds of prey to wallabies. Between the upper and lower falls are a series of platypus pools where you can spy on these iconic yet shy monotremes as they embark on their daily feeding forays (just look for a trail of bubbles).Also hiding in the gorge among rock shelves is the plant Crowea exalata ‘‘Ginninderra Falls’’, which is conspicuous in winter by its pretty pink star-shaped flowers. This gorge is the only place it can be found occurring naturally in the Canberra region.
When operating as a park, the most popular activities were picnicking, sightseeing and swimming, both up and downstream of where the Ginninderra Creek flows into the Murrumbidgee River. This is a long flat stretch of water which is tailor-made for kayaking. The river flats are also perfect for river camping. An archaeological dig here in 1988 revealed a number of stone artefacts that suggest Aboriginal people may have also used the river corridor.
The area is also rich in European history, including tales of myth and legend. Old-timers talk about the bullock wagon that was washed away in the 1800s just downstream of where Ginninderra Creek meets the Murrumbidgee River. The driver’s body was apparently found several days later, wedged into a swimming hole, which ever since has been known as Dead Man’s Hole. Heck, the river flats have even been the site of supposed bunyip activity – one website (Bunyip Sightings – in search of an origin) reveals that in the early 1900s, ‘‘a strange animal the size of a three-month-old calf was seen basking on a sandbank near water’s edge. The creature wriggled into the water and disappeared from view.’’
For the more adventurous, the falls’ precinct also boasts some challenging hiking country and the cliffs offer rock climbing and abseiling opportunities. At the other end of the scale, you can drive to within 50m of the viewpoint of the upper falls – a carefully constructed path here could make the viewpoint wheelchair accessible.
To have this wonderful series of waterfalls and dramatic gorge closed off to the public is akin to knocking over the Great Ocean Road’s Twelve Apostles. Well OK, that might be going a bit far, but it’d certainly be like diverting the road away from the Victorian coast so the only way you could view the apostles would be by helicopter. Sure there are cross-border issues (the falls sit just 3km across the border in NSW but are only accessible by road from the ACT side) and current private ownership hurdles to overcome, but with a burgeoning population in Canberra’s north, if managed appropriately Ginninderra Falls can once again become an irresistible magnet for day trippers. With the ACT Centenary fast approaching, precious funds are being poured into ways to mark this significant milestone. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than to turn the Ginninderra Falls precinct into a National Park – a place for future generations of all Australians to enjoy.
Ginninderra Falls: Located at the end of Parkwood Road, about five minutes drive from Macgregor. The falls and surrounding gorge country are privately owned and there is no public access.
Best of the rest: Gibraltar Falls, located in Canberra’s deep south on the Corin Road, about 30 minutes drive from Tuggeranong. Make a day of it and have a picnic at the nearby Woods Reserve Camp Ground.