Meeting the ancient giants of Errinundra

Meeting the ancient giants of Errinundra

‘Mum, dad, sister, dog – I’m moving to Australia.’ Mum looked at me, unimpressed. She kept whisking eggs. She was actually happy for me. That was over three years ago somewhere in Barcelona, Spain. Yes, I know, this is not how you expect a story about eucalypts to start. But I just need to tell you a little about my background so that you can maybe forgive my lack of knowledge of Australia’s natural history when I moved here.

A PhD on the ecology of Little Penguins brought me to Melbourne three years ago. Australia had always been on my bucket list, but I wasn’t particularly looking for PhD opportunities anywhere near this latitude. When I knew I was moving to Australia, only four things came to my mind: the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, kangaroos and koalas. Cliché? Yes. Even embarrassing, let’s face it. We learn pretty much nothing about Australia at school and university in Spain, so I knew pretty much nothing. However, this quickly changed within a few weeks of my arrival.

Rainforests and old-growth forests. The absolutely stunning forests of East Gippsland were a real eye-opener for me and changed my perspective on Australia. Four weeks after moving to Melbourne, I joined the Forests Forever Easter Ecology Camp, held by Environment East Gippsland and the Victorian National Parks Association every year since 1982. The camp was based in a farming settlement called Goongerah, between Snowy River and Errinundra National Parks. This unique area preserves the largest remaining cool temperate rainforest in Victoria and some of the most magnificent old-growth forests of south-eastern Australia. That was my first experience in a Victorian rainforest, surrounded by tree ferns taller than me and the first time I met giant eucalypts inhabiting ancient forests. It blew my mind. It was then I realised I only had a very poor glimpse of the complexity and diversity of Australian landscapes.

Kuark Forest, 40 km north-east of Orbost, is an example of old-growth forest in East Gippsland and a rare overlap of warm and cool temperate rainforest with centenarian eucalypts sheltering younger specimens. Image: Jill Redwood

Visiting Errinundra was a spontaneous decision. A few days before Easter, a friend sent me the camp information and it seemed appealing. Then I checked a satellite image of the area and thought, ‘Yes, this looks very green. I should go.’ Errinundra definitely is a greenery feast. From Orbost, we drove north-east on the Bonang Road to Goongerah. We quickly got into dense rainforest and I put my window down. The eucalypt scent was enveloping, a fresh and wild fragrance I had never experienced before and which would be my companion all weekend.

We camped in an idyllic spot by the Brodribb River, among Peppermint and Manna Gums. During the day, different activities and walks exploring the Errinundra Plateau were led by passionate and expert ecologists, botanists and forest campaigners. In the evenings, there were talks by the experts over dinner to discuss and learn about the enormous ecological values of these ancient eucalypt forests and the current threats they face.

The track to Woolly Butt Hill at Errinundra Plateau is a beautiful stand of Alpine Ash (Woolly Butt is another name for Alpine Ash). Image: Alison Kuiter
The Errinundra rainforest is dominated by ancient Southern Sassafras, an evergreen tree native to Australia’s cool temperate rainforests. Image: Alison Kuiter
My friend Jen, other campers and I having lunch at the base of an enormous Mountain Grey Gum, one of the ancient giants we met at Brown Mountain. Image: Alison Kuiter

The most fascinating part of exploring Errinundra was meeting the giant and ancient eucalypts of Brown Mountain. Jill Redwood, a tireless forest campaigner, led us into the depths of this old-growth forest of enormous Messmates, Errinundra Shining Gums – native to East Gippsland forests – and Mountain Grey Gums. As soon as we started walking, the forest swallowed us up protectively, hiding us from an otherwise omnipresent sun. Leeches were busy. We followed a rough track through the humid and dim understorey dominated by Southern Sassafras and overlooked by giant eucalypts. This combination allows for an extraordinary complexity of habitats that supports an even more extraordinary diversity of plants, fungi and animals.

Fungi are key players in the health and diversity of old-growth forests, associating with vascular plants, decomposing coarse organic material, and being food resources for wildlife. Image: Chris T
A Greater Sooty Owl chick in a eucalypt hollow in Bruthen, East Gippsland. Most species of eucalypt produce natural hollows that can take hundreds of years to form and are vital habitat for many native species. Image: David Hollands

Some of the ancient giants I met were 12 metres in girth and more than 50 metres tall, with some more than 600 years old. Running into these amazing trees rendered me speechless. They have sheltered generations of Greater Gliders, Yellow-bellied Gliders and Glossy Black-cockatoos, just to mention a few of the many species that depend on natural tree hollows to survive. These same species are facing difficulties, even extinction, due to habitat loss. Besides being home to precious wildlife, these ancient giants also capture and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere; old-growth forests are actually the most valuable carbon sinks in Australia. More than that, though, these ancient giant eucalypts are just incredible beings.

Now, when I think of Australian landscapes, Errinundra colours, shapes and eucalypt scent inundate my memories.


A special thank you to Jill Redwood for providing the photos for this article. 

Banner image courtesy of Alison Kuiter: Breathtaking views of the Brodribb Wilderness from the top of Woolly Butt Hill.

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