From BTU to the Blue Mountains and back again

As she heads back to Germany to continue her studies at  Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU) in Cottbus, dual award student Angela Jones reflects on her internship experiences while in Australia.

Being lucky enough to be selected to complete a World Heritage / Cultural Heritage Dual Masters Program with BTU, Germany and Deakin University, Melbourne – I immediately rationalised that I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the myriad of World Heritage Sites Australia has to offer in my six months of studying here.  Between May and August, I’ve squeezed in three unique volunteer roles, in three completely different environments, each with distinct management systems.  

First was the spectacular Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, New South Wales.  I was based at the World Heritage Institute in Katoomba, with Director John Merson and Annabel Murray who heads up the Low Carbon Living Program.  This is an inspirational community initiative which audits local businesses according to their water, waste and energy usage, providing them with a rating and advice on how to minimise their carbon footprint.  As a reciprocal program, businesses who join, are guaranteed promotion through the Low Carbon Living website, targeting official research proving that visitors to the Greater Blue Mountains region are aware and actively concerned about environmental issues. 

View over the Blue Mountains (Angela Jones)

John and Annabel were keen for me to make the absolute most of my time there and encouraged me to get out hiking as much as possible – which I definitely did!  Two full weeks of unbroken winter sunshine took me all around the Prince Henry Cliff trail and most of the Dardenelles Pass track.  I realised after a few days that I’d actually begun talking to myself on these hikes, exclaiming loudly how spectacular the scenery was. Weirdly, I found myself swearing more than I ever have!  Not an effect I was expecting, but seemingly the only way to add exclamation to how breath-taking the vistas are.  Even though this is a natural World Heritage site, I was fortunate enough to spend time with Chris Tobin who is a National Park Ranger and also heads up the Aboriginal concerns of the region in a variety of differing capacities.  He opened my eyes to the connection of the Indigenous community with country, and explained the complex negotiating processes which have taken place, and continue to do so, over land rights and representation in the area.  There is no doubt that there are fundamental cultural values present throughout the million hectares of beautiful eucalypts, however, whether these should be exposed to public consumption is still a matter for debate.  In the meantime, the rolling out of the Low Carbon Living Program and John’s frequent lectures on an international basis continue to raise the profile of the impact of climate change and land management concerns of natural World Heritage sites. 

Secondly, I ventured south in the midst of winter to the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania.  Here the Conservation and Infrastructure team inspired, enthralled and completely entertained me for two amazing weeks.  Based in the on-site administration building on the Tasman Peninsula, I worked on developing ideas and resources for the Education Department to be used in the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.  I was fortunate enough to spend a portion of time researching the fascinating history of female convicts as an attempt to create a civilising force within the colonial system. Furthermore, by following a personal interest in the fate of Welsh political prisoners transported to Van Diemen’s Land, I was also treated to a completely geeky weekend of touring the Coal Mines Historic Site and the Tasman peninsula with the hugely knowledgeable Dr David Roe, Head of Archaeology.  To get insight into the development of a ‘Peninsula Penitentiary’ was something pretty unique, which really made the entire convict colonising process ‘click’ for me in a way it simply hadn’t previously.  As a flagship historic site in Australia, Port Arthur itself bears a huge responsibility in its planning and promoting of heritage management.  The staff there are testament to exceptionally high levels of professionalism, commitment and rigorous self-evaluation, where their modesty often prevents them from resting on their laurels, and always sees them striving for excellence. 

Sunrise at Port Arthur (Angela Jones)

They are without doubt the most passionate and dedicated group of people I have had the pleasure of working with, living and breathing their various areas of expertise, yet communicating this on a lay basis with ease, whilst welcoming new ideas and people with warmth and compassion.  It was fascinating to understand the running demands of such a prestigious site on a daily basis, observe the planning for a major new visitor centre and all the interpretation strategies which are being integrated, comprehend the shift into a streamlined collections management system and experience the educational program.  Similarly to the Blue Mountains, whilst Port Arthur is inscribed on the World Heritage List for it cultural significance, it is also adopting a pioneering approach to the impact of climate change in the region, and migrating to a system of loss management which is ahead of current practice, in terms of asset mitigation. 

Finally, in August I ventured as west as I could get, to Shark Bay World Heritage Area which took me up close and personal with marine wildlife and its associated concerns. I volunteered on the ‘Dolphin Experience’ at Monkey Mia for 10 days. Before the area became regulated and designated as a conservation site, people would feed the wild Indo Pacific dolphins from the shore and their fishing boats.  Since 1991, Rangers give designated sessions to a controlled audience every morning between 8am and midday.  The role of the volunteer is to prepare the fish for feeding, monitor and record sea, weather and visitor figures and choose audience members to participate. It’s a huge thrill to be so close to these beautiful animals, and even though there is strictly no touching of the dolphins they are incredibly affectionate towards you.

Dolphins at the shore waiting for one of the daily experiences (Angela Jones)

I definitely bonded with Puck, the oldest of the five females who are offered one third of their daily diet during the sessions.  Her and I are the same age! She would hang out right by my side throughout the experiences and nudge my legs whilst waiting for her next fish. Pretty special.  I was also lucky enough to meet with Cheryl Cowell the World Heritage Officer and Chair of the local World Heritage Committee.  She sat with me firing questions at her for nearly 2 hours and it was a revelation to learn of the multitude ‘hats’ she wears on a weekly basis in her role.  Perhaps one of the things which was most striking in this conversation was the fact that in Shark Bay, the World Heritage values are not necessarily obvious, unless you have researched beforehand or have a special interest in the area.  The presence of Stromatolites in Hamelin Pool which give an understanding of the evolution of life on earth over the millennia is pretty mind blowing, but the interpretation of this to the general public is no mean feat! Monkey Mia was a very different experience to the others as it is primarily a holiday destination.  The only accommodation option here is the RAC resort, which makes it a place where either people are basing themselves for a good whack of time, or they are just passing through.  From my 2 weeks, it was noticeable that although not necessarily motivated to visit Shark Bay for the World Heritage values, everyone I spoke to was suitably impressed by them and genuinely wanted to find out more.  Something else which I discovered – a car is essential here. Getting stuck in Denham and having to hitch a lift back with a fantastic Californian family taught me a thing or two about how remote the place really is!

As well as these three experiences, I haven’t even begun to describe what a privilege it has been to be part of the Cultural Heritage program at Deakin University.  It has meant access to a wealth of expertise, rich class discussions and absorbing field visits.  I also managed to secure a place on the ICOMOS mentoring program which is offered annually and really gets under the skin of heritage legislation in Victoria, heritage impact assessments and conservation management plans from the fantastic Architect and Heritage Consultant Ruth Redden, who has also put up with me bombarding her with interview style coffee meetings on a monthly basis! So all in all, Australia certainly has been the land of plenty for me.  Only here has it been possible for me to experience urban, cultural, natural, marine and intangible world heritage values, which have rounded and expanded my enthusiasm and love of the field even further. 

Angela Jones, currently following a dual awards degree Masters Program with Brandenburg University of Technology, Cottbus, Germany and Deakin University, Melbourne.  Originally from Wales and a ex-History teacher. 

More information about World Heritage Studies at BTU can be found here