Tasmania — Australia’s island state
By Vanessa Wells
In October 1997, the overnight ferry from Melbourne docked in Devonport early in the morning; it had been a long night, but I was determined to keep awake for the three-hour bus journey to Hobart. We passed through only a few small towns along the way. The rest of the journey was somehow disappointing and made me rather sad. The surrounding countryside was grazing fields, which had occasional groups of Eucalyptus in them, many of which were dead or dying. It was not until later in the trip that I heard of their plight. One rumour was that the possums ring-bark the trees, but another told of how these areas were once heavily wooded and the destruction of the habitat caused the remaining trees to suffer; I think the latter sounds more probable. In the distance I could see the mountains of Cradle Mountain National Park and couldn’t wait to explore.
Unfortunately, the course that I had intended to attend in Hobart had been cancelled, so the trip was now to focus on botanising in the wilderness and to spend a few days observing and assisting with education programmes at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens. My first day experienced the madness of `Arbor Day’ at the gardens.Well, I say madness, but in fact it was nothing of the sort, which was quite amazing considering there were 800 school children attending all at the same time! There were 10 activities including propagation, story telling, worm composting and drawing. The activities were demonstrated by garden and office staff, which seemed to be a good morale booster and bring the staff together.
My first trip out of Hobart wasn’t far; a visit to Mount Wellington, which looms over the city. Mount Wellington is 1,270 metres high and it was very interesting to see the progression of habitats and growth forms as we made our way up the mountain. The first stop, at the base of the mountain was breathtaking; temperate rainforest. These low-altitude forests take up to 300 years to become fully developed under conditions of consistent humidity and freedom from fires. This dark, damp forest was dripping with moss and lichen and it was there that I first saw the magnificent tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica.
Evidence of forest fires, from 30 years ago, could be seen further up the mountain in the wet and dry sclerophyll forests. The ghostly white carcasses of the Mountain White Gum, Eucalyptus delegatensis, loomed over the green forest, which, even 30 years on, was only half the height of the dead remains. Wet sclerophyll forest has a high, open canopy formed chiefly by Eucalyptus delegatensis, E. regnans, E. obliqua and E. globulus. The open canopy allows for the development of a shrubby understorey and, in sheltered gullies where humidity is high, rainforest species will grow.
Higher up, the forest became drier, shorter and more open; this forest is known as dry sclerophyll. The dominant gum in this area is E. pauciflora, the Cabbage Gum. The open canopy allows Acacia dealbata, Banksia marginata, Allocasaurina littoralis and Exocarpos cupressiformis to occur as understorey trees. A lower shrub layer was formed of Leucopogon, Epacris and Tetratheca spp.
The top of the mountain was very barren, pillars of stone jolted out of the ground as if the scenery of a sci-fi movie. At high altitudes the vegetation is known as Montane; there are five different types of Montane communities: dwarf mountain forest, mountain shrubbery, swamp, grassland and mountain fell field. The poor rocky soil and exposed situation found here forms a community of mountain shrubberies, including species such as Richea scoparia, R. sprengelioides, Olearia ledifolia and Epacris sp.
My next expedition was to the Cadbury’s chocolate factory, which really is another story, but armed me with pockets full of freebie’s for some serious `bush walking’ in Mount Field National Park. I met with Andrew Smith of the Parks and Wildlife Service, who dropped me at the Russell Falls where I walked for two hours through rainforest and `wet mixed forest’ (which seems to be another term for wet sclerophyll), whilst he gave a lecture to the park rangers. All I could hear was the gushing of water and the strange, but wonderful bird songs. I glimpsed the occasional wallaby hopping off into the undergrowth of Climbing Heath; Prionotes cerinthoides, Native Laurel; Anopterus glandulosus and Native Plum; Cenarrhenes nitida (all of which are Tasmania endemic). Taller tree species found within this area include Sassafras; Atherosperma moschatum, Myrtle; Nothofagus cunninghamii and Leatherwood, Eucryphia lucida.
I met up with Andrew and we headed up the mountain. Again, I could see the continuous change in environments, from the wet sclerophyll to the dry and the rain to the snow. This is where I saw the first few Richea pandanifolia, which I thought was, at the time, an amazing sight. Further on there were two, quite different Montane habitats; mountain fell field and dwarf mountain forest. The mountain fell field was the first community encountered; another tree-less, barren landscape, but this time partially covered with snow and the plants hugging the ground as tight as possible to retain the heat. These included cushion-plants, of which Tasmania has five species. The species seen here were probably Dracophyllum minimum or Abrotanella forsteroides, but as these plants are very difficult to identify when not in flower, it is very difficult to say which they were. The dwarf mountain forest, as its name suggests, contains small trees such as the Deciduous Beech, Nothofagus gunnii and the prostrate conifer, or Strawberry Pine Microcachrys tetragona. A short walk around a lake lead me to the most amazing sight, the Pandani forest — Richea pandanifolia as far as the eye could see! Wow! This tall (up to 12 metres), spiky plant, along with the beech, pine and cushion plants mentioned are all Tasmanian endemics.
Another adventure took me to Bruny Island. Just as Tasmania is a unique part of Australia, Bruny Island is a unique part of Tasmania. This sparsely populated island has five state reserves and only its varied topography, climate and wildlife match its chequered history. Just four kilometres across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, off the south-west coast of Tasmania, Bruny island was named after the explorer Rear-Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux. In the 17th and 18th centuries the island was visited by many intrepid explorers including Abel Tasman, Furneaux, Cook, Bligh and Cox. Besides the whalers and loggers of the 19th century, little on the island changed until the car ferry started in 1954. An isthmus joins the north and the south island; this strip of land is barely wider than the road along it.
Barely five minutes into the trip I had yet another surprise; masses of grass trees, kangaroo tails or `Black Boys’, Xanthorrhoea australis, growing on the sandy heath. The flower spikes on these amazing, black-trunked, spiky plants were in full bloom, rising up to 1.5 metres above the foliage! Well, that made my day for a start!
At the base of Mount Mangana a track leads through the lush rainforest of Stringybark, or Mountain White Gum Eucalyptus delegatensis, myrtle Nothofagus cunninghamii and the graceful tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica. Amongst this forest grew the Tasmanian endemic, Celery-top Pine or Phyllocladus aspleniifolius, which gave me fond memories of Systematic classes in the School of Horticulture, spending hours painfully drawing the quirky characteristics of the flattened stems, or `cladodes’.
The winding of the coastline around the island ensures that it has an abundance of bays and lagoons. On this sandy soil, low in nutrients, the plants rarely reach more than 2 metres high, many of which have hard leathery leaves. The trees on the open coast are small, stunted by strong winds; they include Eucalyptus nitida, Banksia marginata, Acacia terminalis and Allocasuarina monilifera.Other species seen include; Pimelea sp., Epacris sp. and Hakea sp.
Returning to `mainland’ Tasmania, I travelled north to Launceston. From here I took a day trip to Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake. I did not have time to stay overnight, which was unfortunate, because the bus took most of the day to get there and I only had half an hour to investigate once I arrived. This is Tasmania’s best known national park, which is 1,262 square kilometres. The view across Dove Lake was beautiful and this Montane habitat of mountain shrubbery was freshly covered in snow. Pencil Pines, Athrotaxis cupressoides grew sporadically amongst the shrubs of Richea sprengeiloides and Grevillea sp.
The following day I took a much more relaxed trip to Coles Bay and Freycinet National Park on the east coast. The small township of Coles Bay is dominated by the spectacular 300 metre high pink granite mountains known as the Hazards. The town is the gateway to many white-sand beaches, secluded coves, rocky cliffs and coastal heath habitats in the Freycinet National Park. The park, which incorporates Freycinet Peninsula, Schouten Island and the Friendly Beaches, is noted for its coastal heaths, orchids and other wildflowers and for its wildlife. Sitting eating lunch on the cliffs overlooking Wineglass Bay, I watched the flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flying overhead across the vivid blue sea. Amongst the heath of Epacris sp., Baekea mosissima and Exocarpus cupressiformis, wallabies could be seen foraging. We went down to the `squeaky-clean’ beach, so called because the fine, white sand squeaks beneath your feet as you walk. Little rock pools housed small crabs and brightly coloured algae and reminded me of my days working in the Marine Display at Kew. On the dunes grew Sea-box, Alyxia buxifolia, Native Pigface, Carpobrotus rossii and Coast Wattle, Acacia sophorae.
This was my last day in Tasmania, which was very sad, but this wonderful trip was certainly a great day to finish on. It left me with fond memories of beautiful and varied countryside, special and unusual flora, weird and wacky fauna and the wonderful, friendly people. Tasmania is a very special place and, even though on the other side of the world, is high on my list for a return visit.