• Tatiana Collier

Come to your senses

Walking tracks through native bushland are plentiful in and around Ballarat, yet on the edge of the Woowookarung Regional Park in Ballarat’s east lies a path offering something different.

The Dementia Friendly Forest and Sensory Trail is a series of installations and viewing points linked together by winding stone pathways that provide an opportunity for people of all abilities to immerse themselves in the bushland environment.

It is the first trail of its kind in Australia and was developed by the Bigger Hearts Dementia Alliance and Parks Victoria, in collaboration with people living with dementia and their carers. The thoughtful design aims to evoke positive feelings, sensations and memories for people living with dementia.

It’s been 12 months since the trail was officially opened, and Ballarat and the broader community have welcomed this new and unique experience. Co-founder of the Bigger Hearts Dementia Alliance, Anne Tudor has been overwhelmed.

“We’re so proud of the way the community has embraced the trail. It was always planned to be a place of inclusion. If something is dementia friendly then it’s accessible to all, including those with challenges, whether it be physical, cognitive, or mental health. It’s limitless.

“We’re really excited by everything we have seen so far.”

While it may have been designed with a particular audience in mind, the many avenues for discovery and opportunities for learning make it an ideal outdoor experience for children. Families frequent the trail for a weekend stroll, and students from primary schools around Ballarat have delighted in the chance to experience all aspects of the native setting.

“It’s extraordinary – we’ve had 400 people a week visiting the trail, and while you’re there, you may think you’re the only one because it has so many separate paths and special features. You can still feel like you’ve found your own sanctuary.”

The Sensory Trail is strategically positioned within the main 10,000 Steps Trail to support community inclusion, and this enables everyone who comes across the paths to appreciate and connect with nature.

At the foot of the trail is the Welcome Shelter, displaying large scale, colourful maps for planning the sensory experience. From the outset, visitors are encouraged to take their time so they can see, smell, touch and hear nature.

The aptly named Welcome Wander is the first section of the trail, which extends 450 metres from the car park to the furthest trail installation. Seating is spaced throughout the path to ensure an easy and relaxing experience.

Time for reflection is a key aspect of the Welcome Wander, which culminates at the Stone Circle. In this place visitors are invited to “rest their heart and soul” and reflect on some treasured memories as they take in their bushland surrounds. Because of this, it has become a popular place for the practice of Tai-Chi.

As the stone pathways wind their way through grasslands and across wetlands, information boards and QR codes invite explorers to look up, down and around to spot a wide range of plants and wildlife.

“Two students from Federation University designed the QR codes that tell the tale of Nanna Kookaburra. Children love this as it makes them look, listen, and think about their surrounds while enjoying a beautiful story.”

For those who seek a little more adventure, the Forest Trek awaits. This is the second section of the Sensory Trail and extends a further 650 metres. Just like the Welcome Wander, the Forest Trek holds discoveries of its own with installations, information boards and opportunities to move, connect, feel, and think.

One such place is the Lizard Lounge - an area comprising two sunlounge-style chairs made from stone. Here visitors can recline and sun themselves, just as a lizard would, and gaze up into the treetops to gain a different perspective of the bushland.

A visit to the Bush Window installation completes the journey, with a final opportunity to engage with the trees and capture a photo.

“We planted 4,500 trees when we established the trail and we have made a commitment to plant 1000 more each year, bringing the area is back to what it was before the gold diggers and lumberjacks came through.

“It’s become more that we could have hoped for. Subliminally, people are getting used to the word dementia, which will de-stigmatise it. Through the garden, people associate it to something lovely.

“It’s not for anyone to determine its purpose. People are using it is so many inspirational and creative ways.

“That’s the magic of the trail. The things that are coming out of it are boundless. You never quite know what will happen next.”

The Dementia Friendly Forest and Sensory Trail is located on Katy Ryans Road in Canadian. Everyone is encouraged to visit this innovative experience, including the pet dog who can be walked on lead.

The Welcome Wander is accessible for wheelchairs, and all pathways on the trail are designed to cater for community members who require assistance from carers, assistance dogs and walking aids. The wide pathways are ideal for larger groups from schools or residential aged care facilities.

For information relating to the trail, visit the Bigger Hearts Dementia Alliance or Green Scripts .

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