Welcome Back Cotter

Sarah gets into the groove along the revamped Cotter Discovery Trail
Sarah gets into the groove along the revamped Cotter Discovery Trail

If your pre-schooler blubbers uncontrollably when you drag them away from a venue it’s a tell-tale sign they’ve had an absolute blast.  So it’s with mixed emotions that as we drive back over the Cotter Bridge towards Canberra that Sarah, my five year-old, bawls her eyes out. Her heart-tugging, teeth chattering, ‘‘No, no daddy, I don’t want to leave,’’ is quickly followed by her pleading, ‘‘Daddy – pleeease can I stay until Christmas – I love it here!’’

It’s not the first time tears have flowed freely today.  Just three hours earlier Sarah was more than a tad upset upon arrival at Cotter Avenue (that tree-lined avenue with barbecues which leads down towards the dam) to find the playground I promised to take her to was closed. Surrounded by an imposing fortress of cyclone fencing, it was awash with last-minute landscaping in preparation for the official reopening.  But try explaining that to a five-year-old whose life revolves around swings and slippery dips. As any father will testify, failing to deliver on a playground promise is a parenting sin right up there with switching TV channels to the footy while Prime Possum is still in the midst of saying his goodnights.

After enough tears to keep the Cotter flowing during a one in a 100-year-drought (well, OK, not that many, but it sure felt like a lot), I eventually entice Sarah to the revamped Cotter Dam Discovery Trail with the challenge of a race across one of its four footbridges.

Phew! My playground faux pas is soon forgotten and before long Sarah is bounding along the elevated walkway (don’t worry, it’s not too elevated) chasing her dad, oh and some unfortunate ducks which happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Along the path are an uncannily high number of tree stumps.  For me they are reminders of that fateful day in January 2003 when fires cut a swath of destruction through the Cotter. But not for Sarah, she wasn’t even born then, she sees them as life-size thrones (her beanie apparently doubles as a crown) and jumps up (or gets dad to prop her up) on every stump she can find.

A short scurry down the zigzagging path and ‘‘Queen’’ Sarah transforms into a trapeze artist as she edges, arms extended along the raised edge of the track. ‘‘I hope I don’t fall, daddy – there could be crocodiles down there, with big teeth!’’ she squeals in delight.  At every turn is a new game for Sarah’s overimaginative mind to dream up. Over the next hour she delights in rolling down grassy embankments, playing hide ’n’ seek among the casuarinas and having stone skimming competitions. And then there’s the beach – sure it’s no Manly or Bondi, but for Sarah the patch of river sand is ‘‘the beast beach in the whole world’’.

Heck, even the wooden barriers in the car park become an improvised canoe for a series of ‘‘row, row, row your boats’’. Just as I clamber on the back of the pine log and join in Sarah’s raucous rendition of the nursery rhyme, a car glides past with a group of camera-toting tourists (at least I hope they’re from out of town!) laughing heartily out the window at me.

And to think I’d avoided the Cotter for the best part of a decade, worried it wouldn’t survive the double whammy of firestorm followed by the prolonged closure with the construction of the new dam. But really it was never in doubt.  This is a childhood nirvana.  This is the magic of the Cotter – an opportunity to roam free and have fun.

But the revamped Discovery Tail isn’t just for kids, for us more mature (well in age anyway!) folk, it’s a walk back in time to the helicon days when Canberrans flocked here every chance they got.

Look down and you’ll see ground-level boards which contain key Cotter milestones while a number of images at eye-level take you on a journey back to the days like the one hot day in January 1970 when more than 10,000 people crammed into the Cotter to cool off. That’s more than the average crowd at Canberra Raider’s games this season.

It’s also a hark back to the carefree attitude of a bygone era. A couple of weeks ago after recalling a day she drove naked in northern NSW (a long story, you’ll have to ask her why), ABC radio’s Angela Catterns asked for callers with similar stories.  Much to her surprise the switchboard was swamped with callers remembering the day they drove back from the Cotter au natural after attending one of the Cotter’s ‘‘alternative’’ festivals. Given the palls of smoke of spurious origin that apparently hung over the river during many of these 1970s festivities, it’s a wonder the callers could remember any details of the events.

At one such festival, ConFest in December 1976, Geodesic Domes popped up all over the Cotter, turning the picnic grounds into some futuristic holiday village. Reports suggest that apple and goat yoghurt were provided by Hare Krishnas while ‘‘chanting was an optional extra’’. And from what I can gather, clothing was also optional with accounts of hundreds of clothing-free participants gyrating in the river while zestfully singing Give Peace a Chance.

Then there’s stories of the Cotter Pub (sadly razed in the fires as well, gee I miss its four-sided open fire) and information panels which recall the heady days of the Cotter Night Club where scantily clad hostesses lured customers in for a night of revelry.

After my trip down memory lane, I eventually catch-up with Sarah. She’s lying on the concrete footbridge near where the pub once stood, trying to hide from her reflection.

We live in an age where you virtually need to set off a fire alarm to wrangle kids away from video games and computers. A resurgent Cotter offers a refreshing opportunity to buck this trend and relive an era when kids (and big kids!) relished in making their own fun.

I just hope that car load of visitors who filmed me attempting to balance on the wooden barrier while belting out an out of tune chorus of ‘‘row, row, row your boat’’ doesn’t end up on You Tube.


Welcome Back Cotter: Today (Saturday 1 September 2012), 9.30am-3pm, Cotter Avenue, Cotter Road. Walks on the hour will be led by both an ACT Parks Ranger and an ACTEW Water representative to highlight local fauna and flora (did you know micro bats hang out here!) as well as the importance of the catchment and engineering feats of the new dam.  Sausage sizzle, live music (I hope the band plays Welcome Back, Kotter [sic]! No dogs. For more information, phone 6248 3131.

Parking? A shuttle bus will operate from the Cotter campground (where general parking will be available) to Cotter Avenue (where only disabled parking available).

Local secret: From the Cotter Dam viewing platform (at the turnaround point in the Discovery Trail) you can see some old ponds in the foreground – these are part of an old fish hatchery established in 1930. Some of the fish that were used to stock Lake Burley Griffin following its construction in the early 1960s came from here.

Father’s Day present idea: If your dad has memories of ‘‘good ’ol days down at the Cotter’’, then pick him up a copy of Michael Jones’s book, Cotter: Nature’s Gift to Canberra.  It’s overflowing with historic photos and dripping with nostalgia and will be on sale at Cotter Avenue.  A must for the bookshelf of every Canberra house.

Don’t miss: Katy Gallagher, the Chief Minister, officially opening Cotter Avenue at 10.30am near the new footbridge.  If she’s late, it’s probably because Sarah has convinced her to play an impromptu game of hide ’n’ seek under the bridge!


The jury is still out on what to name the new Cotter Dam’s giant smiley face (‘‘On the face of it’’, Panorama, July 14). Formed by hundreds of boulders assembled by a creative bulldozer operator at the junction of two man-made rock reefs, the five metre- in-diameter smiley face, which is best viewed from aerial photographs, has captured the imagination of many readers.

While ‘‘Macca’’ (named after Macquarie perch – the fish the rock reefs are designed to protect) was an early leader as the preferred nickname for the happy face, a number of late entries including one by L. Johnson, of Gungahlin, has pushed ‘‘Garrett’’ into contention. Why ‘‘Garrett’’, I hear you ask? Well, Garrett was the first name of the Irish-born convict sent to Australia in 1822 after whom the Cotter is actually named. Following a dispute in 1834, Garrett was banished by his employer ‘‘beyond the limits of settlement’’ to the area west of the Murrumbidgee, which included the river country we now call the Cotter, where he lived in a hut at the head of the river for about a decade.

While Macca and Garrett (although I question how much smiling Garrett would have done after being isolated in such a way?!) both strike a chord with me, I have a late breaking suggestion. Perhaps our giant smiley face should be christened ‘‘Con’’ in memory of the 1970 ConFest – when a happy face was one of the only things worn by many of the peace-loving participants.

This story Welcome Back Cotter first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.