Dark Emu above Mulligans Flat

Stars, songlines and quoll spots: a Ngunnawal Night Tour at Mulligans Flat

Publication date
Wednesday, 7 Jun 2023

As a resident of the self-described Bush Capital, I’ve long been wanting to find out more about the Indigenous connections with the land I live on. So I signed up for the Ngunnawal Night Tour at Mulligans Flat in Canberra to hear from Indigenous scientists about this environment.

Fire pit

In the mauve dusk, a crescent moon rises over the 20 or so of us on the Ngunnawal Night Tour of Mulligans Flat. Like moths, we all naturally flock to the flame, gathering around the most beautiful fire pit you’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a rusty-coloured steel ball, laser-cut with the silhouettes of animals and plants of the Mulligans Flat ecosystem, lit up by the licking flames inside.

“Tonight we’re walking in the footsteps of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people who have lived and cared for this land for 25,000 plus years,” Dhani Gilbert tells us. Dhani is a Wiradjuri woman and ANU undergraduate student who regularly leads tours at Mulligans Flat.

Mulligans Flat is a protected natural grassland and a special place for many reasons. A predator-proof fence and some good land management have meant it is thriving. It is home to hundreds of native plant and animal species, including the threatened golden sun mothstriped legless lizard, and superb parrot. Ecologists from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society are studying the ecosystem and reintroducing previously lost mammal species like bettongs and quolls.

But this landscape is also special because stretching through Mulligans Flat is a Ngunnawal songline. This is a series of sacred stories and memory codes embedded in the landscape, passed down by generations of Ngunnawal people.

To help connect Canberrans and tourists with nature and Country, Mulligans Flat is home to a new visitors centre, named Wildbark. That’s where we start our tour with Dhani and Aaron.

Visitor centre under the Dark Emu at night
Wildbark at Mulligans Flat. Photo: Ari Rex, supplied

Aaron Chatfield, a Gamilaraay man with close ties to Ngunnawal land, runs workshops to share his Indigenous culture and environmental passion. He shows our group − a mix of older and younger nature-loving Canberra locals − some of the ways that local plants can be used for food, weaving, and bush medicine.

In the Wildbark visitors centre, we each pick some leaves and taste the mountain pepper berry which Aaron brought along. Aaron warns us that the mountain pepper will be a little spicy. It is: it tastes peppery and hot, then has a tea-tree kind of numbness as an aftertaste. He explains that this plant may have been used as an antiseptic for toothaches, but it can be used for flavouring food too. We sip from cups of soothing peppermint gum tea to cool our peppery mouths.

I feel like I should write everything down so I can remember it. But being able to touch, smell, taste, and talk about the plants and Indigenous tools here allows us to learn in a much more interactive way. It gets embedded in your memory differently.

It’s time to venture back outside now. Dhani hands us each a red light torch and we start walking along the dark boardwalks of Goorooyarroo, the area heading into Mulligans Flat.

It’s autumn and the night air is chilly. In our puffy jackets and beanies, we wander along the path, peering into the grasslands hoping to see some of the sanctuary’s small nocturnal mammals that can’t be found anywhere else in the Canberra region.

We stop still to admire a barn owl, soaring over the landscape, and watch it dip into the grass, clearly hunting. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a healthy barn owl out here,” says Dhani, smiling.

Beyond the dancing red beams that we shine out into the grasslands, the eyes of a mob of eastern grey kangaroos reflect back.

Dhani explains how Indigenous cultural burning practices help to regenerate environments like this for the wildlife. Burning the landscape encourages new grass shoot growth. That’s what these kangaroos are grazing on, not the tall dry grass that they hide in.

The boardwalk of Goorooyarroo snakes through the landscape, and I imagine the path is a songline itself; I connect each natural element with something I’ve learnt.

The kangaroos and cultural burning is another snippet of information that lodges in my brain in a consequential way, connected with this place. I know this is a simplified form of the ancient songlines our First Nations people have, but it helps me to understand the concept as a way of learning, thinking, and connecting to Country.

Red torch light adn people
Photo: Ari Rex, supplied

As we reach the famous predator-proof fence that allows Mulligans Flat to be such a success, we can hear a small chirpy, clicky sound. That sound is coming from a species of micro-bat. Too tiny to see, but we can appreciate their presence.

Up on the bank of the dam, we all are instructed to turn off our torches. While we can see the lights of the suburbs behind us, the stars shine bright out here.

Up ahead, someone spots a small brown creature scurrying across the path. “It’s a quoll!” The message is murmured throughout the group, and we all stop still. There are around 50 to 80 eastern quolls living in Mulligans Flat, pretty much at capacity in this environment. Without foxes to compete with, these quolls can thrive. Soon this one has run off into the night, but we feel lucky to have glimpsed its beautiful spotty coat. It’s the first time many of us have ever seen a quoll before.

As we amble up the path, filled with awe and gratitude for this little pocket of thriving nature and First Nations history, we pass by our friend the barn owl still trying its luck for a hunt. “Bye owl,” one of the kids on the tour whispers.

Cover image: Ari Rex, supplied

Visit the Wildbark website to view upcoming tours and events at Mulligans Flat.

Read more

Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary general manager Jason Cummings releases a bettong.

In partnership with the ACT Government and CSIRO, ANU researchers are working to improve box-gum grassy woodland for biodiversity at the Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo Nature Reserves.

Learn more
Quoll being released

An experimental research project led by researchers from ANU has found a new way to boost the survival rates of eastern quolls reintroduced to the Australian Capital Territory.

Learn more
Dhani Gilbert

At the age of 18 Dhani Gilbert has a powerful voice, now she is headed to ANU to pursue ecology and science communication.

Learn more