Fern Gully, Tarra-Bulga National Park

Strzelecki Ranges, South Gippsland

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I have often wished when visiting some beautiful Australian location that I could see the place as it was before 1788; before European settlement and its accompanying rabbits, foxes, cats, sheep, cattle and feral weeds irrevocably scourged the landscape. There are still a few places in Australia where you can feel you have left the modern world behind, but mostly these places are remote. However, here in the Strzelecki Ranges in South Gippsland, only a couple of hours drive from Melbourne, is a relatively small park that protects some of the few remaining patches of cool temperate rainforest in Victoria. Here a short walk will almost take you back around 30 million years; back to when Australia’s climate was wetter and cooler and rainforest carpeted much of the land. Back to when the great continent had only recently been torn away from Antarctica and dragged on its slow (around 7cm a year) journey north. But you will also see towering Mountain Ashes that break through the rainforest canopy and soar into the sky: a neck-craning reminder of the current dominance of eucalypts in a now much drier land.
Tarra-Bulga National Park is one of my favourite places in Australia. And if you are lucky enough to visit, I suggest you allow at least an hour or so, leave your working day hurries behind, stroll slowly and stop often. Take your time to savour the deep silence, rich earthy smells and dripping tree ferns. Stop to observe the mossy twisted trunks of ancient Myrtle Beeches (known to live up to 500 years) and the sun-catching leaves of the epiphytes growing high on the upper branches. A highlight of the Fern Gully Nature Walk is crossing the suspension bridge that spans the gully and creek below: giving you a birds-eye view down onto the lush green tree fern canopy below, and eye-level views into the surrounding forest canopy. Take the opportunity to look closely at the tiny serrated leaves of the Myrtle Beeches and, if you are there in early summer, their equally tiny greenish flowers. I took advantage of the bridge to look down and capture the image of the tree ferns reaching up to the light.
By the early 1900s these rainforest gullies had managed to escape fire and the wholesale clearing that was almost a moral obligation in the 19th Century. They then found protection when, in 1903, the Albertonshire Council recognised their unique beauty and sought state government protection, thus saving them from the fate of much of the surrounding forests in the range. These had nearly all been cleared, primarily for dairy farming, by unbelievably hard and backbreaking manual labour. New settlers had to clear forests of towering Mountain Ash and dense undergrowth on steep slopes, all the while contending with poor or non-existent roads, short milking seasons, social isolation, cold winters and ravaging summer bushfires. And after all that, as much as two generations of struggle were rendered worthless as the land eventually proved to be only marginally productive, the markets too far away, and the land generally too steep for mechanised farming. And, as a final blow, the battlefields of World War One took away a generation of young men and did not return them. Families literally walked away and did not return. The hard won land was deserted and became a vast haven for noxious weeds and rabbits and gained a name — the Heartbreak Hills. And let’s not forget that part of that heartbreak should include the futile destruction of the original forests, along with the wildlife that lived in them.
However, by the early 1930s the process started a slow reversal, and now most of the deserted farms have been bought out by the Forestry Commission or by private forestry operations and been re-forested (with either Mountain Ash or Radiata pine). But these plantations are not the forests they have replaced. They have neither the species diversity, nor the old growth trees so necessary for many arboreal animals. They are a primarily a crop to be harvested when mature.
Getting there … The park is well signposted from Yarram, south of the range, and also accessible from Traralgon, north of the range. However, if you have the time (lots of it) then the winding and scenic Grand Ridge Road (mainly dirt) that traverses the range is well worth driving. From the car park at the bottom of the Bulga Picnic Area road, the short but sumptuous Fern Gully Nature Walk (720m) will take you through this lovely remnant of ancient Australia.

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images & words © Keith Mallett 2016