Victoria’s wild frontier, Gippsland

By Quentin Chester | September 4, 2014

Nestled into the continent’s south-east, Victoria’s Gippsland offers a wild frontier, harbouring rich histories and varied landscapes, from the snow-frosted Australian Alps to the rugged and remote coast.

THE CROWN OF MEALING HILL is barely 100m off the main access track in Coopracambra National Park.

Kept trimmed for use as a helipad, this 528m-high bald knoll also serves as a handy lookout. In fact, after a day roaming forest-shadowed tracks on Victoria’s far eastern border, the view’s a heart-stopper.

Taking the detour up through the tree canopy you feel like a diver from the depths surfacing to open air. Suddenly there’s clear sky galore and a sea of green spreading to every horizon.

Stretching from the western watershed of the Mitchell River, to the dizzying heights of the Great Alpine Road and the Croajingolong coast at Victoria’s easternmost reach, many stirring features set East Gippsland apart.

These include its roiling rivers; a throng of mountains, lakes and wetlands; flood-cut gorges; and a far-flung coast of dunes and headlands. Yet the living force that draws the region together – and stalks your every move – is tall timber.
For British botanist David Bellamy this wedge of the continent represents “the most diverse range of temperate forest ecosystems on Earth’’.

Indeed, more than 75 per cent of the shire’s 21,800sq.km bristles with forests – ancient and modern. Their ebbs and flows have always defined this natural stronghold and the people who carve out a hard-won life here. In the headlong tumble from the highest peaks in the land, all the way down to one of our wildest shores, it’s the trees that tell the story.

North from Mealing Hill the view spills across forested ridgetops in a smoky blue haze to distant summits like 700m Mt Merragunegin and 840m Mt Wakefield.

On paper this park marks out 38,800ha of wilderness, including the largest warm-temperate rainforest in Victoria. However, as with so much of East Gippsland, the human-drawn boundaries seem arbitrary. In truth this park’s patchwork of forests – including those guarding the rugged Genoa River gorge – just keeps rolling across the NSW border all the way to the Monaro Tableland.

To the south, Coopracambra NP appears to blend just as seamlessly with woodland extending 40km to the coast. Look closer, however, and clear-felled slopes are plain to see. Elsewhere the tree cover seems thinner and unusually uniform. This is regrowth forest, a legacy of the logging industry that has a history reaching back 160 years among East Gippsland communities.

You soon learn, first hand that in this neck of the woods, there are forests and then there’s old-growth.

Errinundra National Park, Gippsland

ERRINUNDRA NATIONAL PARK is an island in the sky, a 1000m-high plateau that snags clouds pushing inland from Bass Strait. To walk this lofty, 25,600ha kingdom is to confront the gifts of antiquity.

Here the wet eucalypt forests are home to mighty shining gums and cut-tail – many more than 400 years old. The park is also one of Australia’s outstanding havens for cool-temperate rainforest. In some areas the tall gums unusually intersperse with rainforest species like southern sassafras and black olive berry – a rare get-together of Gondwanan descendants and the all-conquering eucalypts.

At ground level, among the filigree of ferns and vines there’s a damp stillness to the filtered light. All around, the forest echoes to the trills and chirrs of lyrebird song. Every now and then among the moss-smothered trunks there appears a pale, massive, milky-grey column: the unmistakable tower that is a shining gum.

With some specimens more than 12m in circumference at their base, and shooting skyward to heights of 90m, these mountain giants have endured over time and are among the largest and oldest living creatures this continent has ever harboured.

Long-time forest defender Jill Redwood has lived close to the plateau since 1980. For her the ancient forests are a potent link to a forest grandeur before European settlement: “When you’re sitting under one of these enormous gums it really puts you in your place. It’s awe-inspiring. From the giant trees to the smallest lichen growing on its bark, the diversity – and all the interactions – is just amazing.”

Errinundra has more than 700 different types of plant. No fewer than eight possum and glider species call these tree canopies home. The park is also a refuge for the threatened long-footed potoroo and spotted-tailed quoll, not to mention about 140 bird species, including six types of owl. All this is but a hint of the richness only old-growth forests can nurture.

With less than 10 per cent of such realms surviving in East Gippsland, a park like Errinundra is a store of priceless treasures.
As communities go, the high country is also very much alive and kicking. The winter of 2011 brought some of the heaviest rains for a decade to the region. On one June day 158 mm fell around the township of Cann River.

Coupled with wild gales, these soil-loosening downpours saw trees of all stripes crash in the forests and tumble across tracks, thus giving a nudge to the slow-turning wheel of forest decay and renewal. For Matthew Walsh and Adrian Young from Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment it also meant a week wielding chainsaws to clear Errinundra’s roads of debris.

“With these rains it’s going back to what it was like in the ’70s – that’s what some of the old blokes reckon,” says Adrian. The pulse of floodwaters also provided much-needed environmental flows for local rivers. Among the beneficiaries was one of the best known in the land: the Snowy River.  

The diversity at work deep in old-growth forests is also writ large on landscapes unfolding across East Gippsland. Less than 20km north-west of Errinundra’s dripping canopy everything changes. As McKillops Road dips towards the Deddick River, fern-filled valleys give way to scraggly slopes of white box and white cypress – dry-land trees that mark a twist in the tale.

Snowy River National Park

THERE’S MUCH MORE to the imposing Snowy River National Park (1145sq.km) than its fabled waterway. The bulk of this expanse is a tangle of outcrops and ridges cloaked in alpine ash forests and cut by remote tributaries like the Rodger River.

Such is the dominance of these highlands over south-westerly weather that they cast permanent rain-shadow over country around McKillops Bridge.

With its bleached blue-grey foliage and stony hills, this woodland has an outback character like nothing else in the region.

In 1835 George McKillop followed in the footsteps of naturalist John Lhotsky to pioneer a stock route from the Monaro that crossed the Snowy and moved cattle to the lush pastures of Gelantipy and beyond. Some 170 years on, little has changed on the narrow, crumbling tracks that snake into the valley on both sides of the river. Driving this road remains an authentic overland adventure – not least for the chance to cross McKillops Bridge.

Spanning 250m and poised 15m above the river below, this hidden marvel of Depression-era engineering is a classic timber stock bridge held aloft by concrete and steel supports.

To hear the bridge’s thick wooden deck rumble under the weight of rolling wheels is to connect with a sound that’s echoed for generations across East Gippsland’s rivers. While the Snowy’s modern flow is piddling compared with the days when the bridge was built, the surrounding country still packs a wallop.

Even a nearby tributary like Little River reveals a startling 500m drop into a sheer, 4km-long chasm.

For most of its run through Victoria, the Snowy is tucked out of sight in deep valleys and ravines, such as Tulloch Ard Gorge, where a new walking track descends through wonderful messmate and stringybark forest to a lookout perched atop the gorge entrance. Here the river is but a slender ribbon of water wedged between mighty cliffs and timbered spurs.

It’s no wonder the gritty challenge of this landscape has lodged firmly in folklore. “I got to a place where the hills are kissing one another… I turned back, I did, 20 times or more,” declared settler Davey O’Rourke in the 1850s.
Indeed, everywhere you turn the scale is as daunting as the terrain is defiant. Weaving 40km north past Wulgulmerang and Suggan Buggan, the route overland edges gingerly along the Snowy’s valleys and craggy hinterland.

Make no mistake, the backdrop evoked in A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s immortal ballad The Man from Snowy River – “Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough” – lives on.  

The natural barriers that feed East Gippsland’s mystique straddle the Great Divide and keep going. The Alpine National Park – Victoria’s largest (6460sq.km) – is a high-country archipelago fortified by tall mountain ash forests. Higher still, where winter brings a crusty cap of snow, bare ridgetops are fringed with snow-gum woodland. The summits of these ancient mountains are mostly broad, domed affairs. Often they merge gently into undulating high plains.

Mt Loch is just such a feature, a mere blip on a ridge just north of Mt Hotham’s busy ski resort. On a clear day, however, the view north from Mt Loch takes in one of Australia’s most sharply etched peaks, 1922m-high Mt Feathertop. After a flurry of winter storms, this ravishing summit – Victoria’s second highest – is plastered in a wind-blown cornice that dangles precariously over its eastern flanks.

With rocky buttresses and plunging gullies, aptly named Avalanche and Hellfire, this face of Feathertop hurtles hundreds of metres into the depths of the Diamantina River. There’s nothing else like it on the mainland.

Mt Loch, East Gippsland

JUST BELOW THE SUMMIT of Mt Loch is a small patch of snow gums. Ancient, ice-caked and contorted by the elements, these are arguably the most stoic and vividly hued of all the eucalypts. This patch is extra special because it’s among the few in the region that are intact.

On a crisp, bright and calm winter’s morning it’s impossible to imagine these snow-bound ranges engulfed in flame. Yet climb to almost any crest in the Alps and you’re greeted by valley after valley filled with thousands of ghostly stalks, the torched skeletons of entire forests.

In the space of three years, Victoria’s high country was hit by two of the most brutal wildfires southern Australia has ever known. The first, in January 2003, burnt some 1.2 million hectares. The second, which started in December 2006 and raged for 69 days, wiped out about 1.1 million hectares, including large tracts of country that had been charred just three years earlier.

Whether exacerbated by global warming or not, the full ecological impact of these successive infernos is virtually incalculable. Yet, tiptoe off Mt Loch to the edge of the snowline, and more affirming signs await: new growth sprouting on the snow gums and mountain ash, gurgling creeks feeding into the Diamantina and East Gippsland’s ubiquitous ringtone: lyrebird serenades.

Bushfires have scant regard for any barriers, natural or otherwise. From the highest peaks to the humblest coastal heath, this is a region where fire is like a fifth season. Just ask Ranger Phil Reichelt from Parks Victoria at Mallacoota.

His patch covers the far eastern quadrant of Victoria, including parks like Coopracambra and Croajingolong, an outstanding Biosphere Reserve with a lavish smorgasbord of coastal habitats extending 100km from Cape Howe.

On a map as big as a picnic rug, Phil has marked an intricate quilt of areas on his beat that are variously burnt, unburnt and slated for possible fuel reduction. It’s a daunting patchwork to look after but given all the attractions on his doorstep – from offshore islands to highland forests – the task has its compensations.

“If you look from northern NSW to Wilsons Prom it’s really only this corner of the world that’s truly wild and offers this variety of experience,” says Phil. “Put it this way: I came here in ’87 for three years, and I’m still here.”

One of Phil’s favourite haunts is a 15km walk east along the ocean beach from Mallacoota Inlet. Just past tiny Tullaberga Island you scramble up the dune face and onto a vast sand blow. On the horizon stands Howe Hill and spread at your feet is Lake Barracoota.

Here the sound of the breakers gives way to frog song, red wattlebirds gabbling in the banksia scrub and trumpeting pairs of black swans out on the lake.

It’s a captivating hideaway created by thousands of years of shifting sediments and sands isolating an eastern arm of the inlet. Among the nearby dune swales are scattered shell middens and stone tools left here by the Bidawal people.

Before this lake was a lake, and long before the advent of bullock drays and dashing blokes on horseback, the entire region was country where Aboriginal clans lived and worked. From the gatherings to feast on Bogong moths near Mt Feathertop to those who met for a feed around Lake Barracoota, it’s always been a place of bounty.

On these shifting sands the continent turns a corner. East meets south. Mountains merge with forests. Rivers run free to the sea. In the continuing struggle for its preservation, East Gippsland  is emerging as an immeasurable gift, a land where the past is vividly present and old-growth seeds new hope.