ANZAC Day and Christmas Creek Memorial Assembly special address to the School

Mrs Sue Lanham (nee Gordon, Head Girl, 1978 and past staff member, who along with her husband, Mr Tim Lanham, were the inaugural Outdoor Education Directors, 1987-2000)

Today’s assembly is an opportunity to celebrate a unique aspect of Brisbane Girls Grammar School. On the ninth of August this year, Marrapatta — as you all know it — will celebrate thirty years of operation. This time thirty years ago, my husband, Tim and I were preparing to take on an opportunity of a life time – to set up the new outdoor education centre facility at Imbil in the Mary Valley and develop the outdoor education programmes at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. In June of 1987, we arrived at the Marrapatta site full of enthusiasm and excitement about the challenge ahead: there were still building works in progress and a dirt road leading up to the buildings. Everything was new — there was a whole new environment to scope out, activities and programmes to plan, and relationships to build with the local community. Daunting, but exciting challenges.

This morning I’d like to reflect upon the early beginnings of Marrapatta, share a little of our aspirations for the Centre (why we did what we did), some memorable highlights (how we did what we did) and lastly, embracing the future — the Marrapatta experience.

Why we did what we did

When Marrapatta first began it was called Brisbane Girls Grammar School Memorial Outdoor Education Centre. It was the memorial that was formalised from the Girls Grammar community in response to the tragic bus accident at Christmas Creek in 1979. Today it forms a permanent living memorial to the lives of teacher, John Stamford, and his wife, Janelle Stamford, and two students, Helen Gahan and Jillian Skaines, who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Today is also about remembering these people and others in the Girls Grammar community affected by the accident.  

Life is full of connections … as with many a Girls Grammar story there’s often a connection somewhere with the School and this is so for both Tim and me. I had attended Brisbane Girls Grammar School and had the honour of being Head Girl (some thirty-nine years ago!) and Tim’s mum and aunties (nee Wiles) had also attended the School during the 1940s.

Tim and I had (and still have) a huge passion for the outdoors — both on a personal level and also on an educational level — as we had experienced how the ‘outdoor classroom’ presents a unique learning environment for both personal and interpersonal growth and understanding. Experiences and teachers at school often act as catalysts for future aspirations and this was certainly the case for Tim and me in relation to our careers in outdoor education. For Tim, it was the opportunity to participate in a six-week expedition to Tasmania as part of the Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society. For me, the pursuit of a future career in outdoor education resulted from possibly the School’s first outdoor education camp run by then teacher, John Stamford in my final year of school in 1978.  Tim and I had experienced and learnt to value how the outdoors — with its natural beauty, associated activities and physical challenges — provided an environment where responsibility for choices and decision-making were very real, mistakes made were transformed into stepping-stones for success, new-found self-confidences would emerge and new friendship bonds would form. It can empower young people in such a way that quiet, shy students can shine, new leaders can emerge, and appreciations for the simple things in life are valued (such as ‘family’ and ‘home-cooked meals’).

Memorable highlights … how we did what we did

Years 8, 9 and 10 students all visited the Centre in their class groups and the programmes had a strong expedition focus. These programmes aimed to enhance students’ personal growth (self-esteem, self-worth, discovering strengths and weaknesses) and interpersonal skills (being part of a team and working towards common goal/s, finding one’s role within a group and developing an appreciation of the diversity of people within the class). Marrapatta also provided students with an awareness and appreciation of the natural environment.

‘Challenge by choice’ was encouraged and a common thread through many of the activities. It empowered students to find their own level of success; for example, a ‘fear of heights’ success might simply be climbing to the top of the ladder to access the ropes/pole jump.

There were many challenges for us to begin with. Originally students were accommodated in large six-person tents located where the current dormitory is now. This area had no trees and was very exposed to the elements, particularly the wind. It wasn’t uncommon to return from activities to find the tents flattened and student gear scattered over in the next paddock. There was no dining room facility — just a barbecue, a few fridges and a preparation table under the toilet block! The construction of the dormitory and the dining room facility occurred some years later — a labour of love by the Fathers Group.

An early learning curve for us was working with a single-sex group. Having worked previously with co-educational groups, being in an all-girls school had some unique benefits:

  • Setting up tents while out on expedition was no longer such a major issue — allocating girls in one area and boys in another and setting yourself in between — we just all camped together.
  • The girls showed a greater willingness to take risks and be involved in activities such as group problem-solving exercises (pole jump, the wall, ropes course).
  • There was no attitude of ‘this is just for boys’.

Expeditions formed a major component of each camp and were varied according to Year level but usually involved the group undertaking a journey of some kind utilising canoes, bikes, rock climbing/abseiling and always walking. Navigation, food and equipment planning, co-ordinating ‘who’ll carry what’, and catering for the different abilities within expedition groups were all part of the decision-making opportunities and the responsibility of students.

Each expedition had a unique set of experiences: watching sunsets and full moons from Kenilworth bluff, spotting platypus or lung fish in the Mary River, abseiling waterfalls in Summer Creek, waking up to frost-encrusted tents on the banks of the Mary River in winter, late arrivals into campsites due to navigational dilemmas, extended stays at the Centre due to flooding. The immersion in the different expedition environments helped students to discover and draw on their own personal strengths and recognise strengths in others — the nature of expeditions allowed for mistakes to be made, the opportunity to learn from them, and to readjust to situations and move on.

A memorable (and somewhat unusual) activity in the Year 9 programme was the canoe expedition on Borumba Dam. It involved canoeing to the back reaches of the dam during the day, cooking a meal on the foreshore and returning at night. The night journey was very special — students had spent the afternoon using ropes and poles to lash their canoes into ‘catamarans’ in preparation for the night paddle. There was always an air of nervous anticipation when on dusk our catamarans were launched into the impending darkness. Light sources mainly came from the blinking green and red safety identification lights on students, the noise of the clunking of paddles on canoes amplified off the surrounding hills and occasionally we’d all stop paddling, sit in silence and soak in the stillness of the night, star-filled skies.

There was another group in the School who utilised the Centre as an extension to their School curriculum. These students were responsible for the construction of the buildings currently located in the fruit orchard (chicken and pig pens).

These were Year 11 and12 students in the Integrated Studies Programme. In this programme there was a strong emphasis on the development of practical skills and problem-solving. It differed from the other programmes in that it was primarily residential (10–14 days) with a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. The main focus for the students was in the design and building of a specific construction project — hence the construction of the chicken and pig pens, and the building of bridges across dams using poles, ropes, and pulleys.

Embracing the future — Marrapatta experience

Marrapatta is unique in many ways:

  • Brisbane Girls Grammar School is one of only a few girls’ schools in Australia to have a dedicated outdoor education centre and staff.
  • Thirty years on from the establishment of Marrapatta there is still a focus on providing experiences outside of the traditional classroom.
  • The Marrapatta experience is very much an integral part of the School’s curriculum and the School community has embraced the value of the outdoor education programme and the role it plays in providing real-life skills.

An experience in the outdoors is like hitting one’s ‘pause’ button on the highly-technological lifestyle that we live — no phones, no internet … no problem — just the basic gear of a tent, a backpack and food, and the challenge of a journey. The outdoor education experience presents not just the physical challenge of the activity but the social challenge of living with — and supporting — a group of people where you are all in unfamiliar territory.

The staff and programmes have changed at Marrapatta over the thirty years but the essence of what the outdoors can offer young people has not. Outdoor education will perhaps be even more important into the future as a tool that continues to reconnect young women with themselves and others.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
-Mark Twain