Wingecarribee Reconciliation Group Chairman Kim Leevers holds a mirror to reflect the sun for the annual mirror flash. (ABC Illawarra: Sean O’Brien)
Every autumn in the Southern Highlands of NSW a group gathers on top of a hill, known as the Gibbergunyah, to make contact with another group 82kms to the north-west in Katoomba.
It’s not good mobile phone reception they’re after, but rather the ideal location to communicate via heliography — the art of flashing mirrors.
Led by chairman of the Wingecarribee Reconciliation Group, Kim Leevers, the mirror flashing groups include members of the traditional Gundungurra and D’harawal people of the Blue Mountains.
As Mr Leevers explains, the mirror flashing and Koori flag-raising event is an enjoyable way for people to acknowledge the traditional owners of the wild country between the Southern Highlands and Katoomba, and pay respect to the elders past and present.
The event, which has been running for 16 years, regularly attracts crowds of 100 or more, making their way up the bush tracks of the Gibbergunyah to the scenic lookout.
“It’s a funny thing in this world of modern communication,” Mr Leevers said. “The excitement it gives people to know that they can see a mirror flashing from 80kms away is palpable.
“At our end we’re using a mirror from an old dressing table, and we’re experts now in knowing the exact angle to focus it, and in autumn the sun is at the ideal point in the sky — science at its simplest.”
Origins of the mirror flash
Arthur Beasley, respected bushwalker, educator and community leader, attends the first Gibbergunyah mirror flash. (ABC Illawarra: Sean O’Brien)
At the Gibbergunyah lookout a memorial plaque pays tribute to respected bushwalker, educator, community leader and originator of the mirror flash, Arthur Beasley.
Mr Beasley, who died in 2009, had a passionate interest in Aboriginal reconciliation, and was known fondly as ‘gurancayen’ — old man of the mountain.
Serving in the armed forces in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in the Second World War, Mr Beasley was an expert in the military practice of heliography, communication by mirror flashing.
In his retirement, Mr Beasley would walk the bush tracks around the Gibbergunyah regularly, and one day while resting at a beautiful lookout known traditionally as the Place Between the Rocks he caught a glimpse of reflections far off across the mountains which he realised must have been from cars in the streets of Katoomba.
Seeing a great opportunity, Mr Beasley organised for access to the roof of the historic Carrington Hotel in Katoomba and, with the assistance of Gundungurra elder Aunty Carol Cooper and the Blue Mountains Reconciliation Group, in 2006 the mirror flash was born.
In the far distance a mirror reflects the sun causing a flash across the Blue Mountains of NSW. (Source: Kim Leevers)
Local Indigenous mentor and historian Peter Swain has recognised that the line of sight of the mirror flash, across the rugged country of the Nattai, Wollondilly, and Wingecarribee Rivers, follows a traditional mountain path which in turn follows an important songline.
For Mr Leevers, this remarkable fact lends important significance to the mirror flash, making it far more than an enjoyable afternoon outing.
“I believe the mirror flash really helps people to focus on the beauty of the land itself, and how it’s been home to the Gundungurra people for many thousands of years,” Mr Leevers said.
“This enormous distance between here and the Blue Mountains, which looks so incredibly daunting, has always been tied by visual lines of communication.
“In the old days, the young people of the tribe would go ahead, set up camp and light a fire, and then the older people would know where the camp was and navigate through the bush by the rising smoke.”
There is also evidence that flashing has been used across the mountains for thousands of years, with polished shells taking the place of mirrors in pre-colonial times.
“We’re just continuing a great tradition,” Mr Leevers said.
As interest in the annual mirror flash grows, Kim Leevers has plans to expand the event, including leading a five-day walk across the mountains in the lead up to the flash, and establishing a flashing network.
“The dream is to connect up a series of flashing points, with mirrors from Katoomba, to the Gibbergunyah, and from here down to Goulburn, and potentially right around the state.”