Mt Warning: Early warning

By Quentin Chester 2 July 2009
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Mt Warning is the beating heart of the Tweed Valley. The core of an ancient volcano, it stands as a sentinel.

“HERE THEY ARE,” says New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) ecologist John Hunter, stepping among a huddle of trunks perched 1000 m up in the rainforest of Border Ranges National Park in far northern NSW. He’s beaming like a new father, yet his charges are as old as the pyramids. These gnarled codgers are Nothofagus moorei – aka Antarctic beech. In the damp, balmy grandeur of Gondwana, long before the empire of eucalypts, Nothofagus was the Australian tree. Their common name proclaims an ancestry spiralling even further back in geological time, back when Australia was still rafted up with Antarctica and South America. That their descendants live among us 80 million years later on a continent notorious for its arid, topsy-turvy climate is the stuff of miracles.

The Antarctic beech shares its lofty stage with a troupe of fellow Gondwanan refugees: from birds and snails to lizards, worms and butterflies. Their saga of survival was founded on volcanic turmoil. It continues today on the strength of a very different uprising; a push by people of science and conservation to ensure these highlands – home to the largest array of subtropical rainforests left on earth – remain on the World Heritage register. Less than an hour’s drive from the hoopla of the Gold Coast, you can stroll beside burbling forest creeks and rub shoulders with Gondwanan relics that live and breathe before your eyes.

In the cool morning mist the forest has a luscious feel. Every fern and vine is glistening. Swathed in a frizzy moss and draped with hoary beards of lichen, the Antarctic beech possess an ageless air. It feels as if a hobbit could bob up at any moment from among the wild scrum of roots at our feet. “In the rainforest it’s all about the light,” John says. “These blokes have developed a coppicing strategy for holding their ground and grabbing a share of sunlight. See here: the original tree has gone, but new growth sprouts from the surrounding roots.” We peer into a ring of trunks forming a ragged circle almost 6 m in diameter.

Mt Warning heralds climate change clues

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Mt Warning area View Large Map

John has been tracking the secrets of these forests for 35 years. Climate change, however, presents an altogether different quarry. “There’s a big experiment running and we haven’t a clue where it’s going,” he says. “It’s frightening in terms of potential extinctions and biodiversity.” Despite such fears, it’s possible the Antarctic beech might stick around. Having persisted through millions of years of ice ages, cyclones, droughts and fires, this species knows a thing or two about survival. “The beech are catastrophic regenerators,” John says. “In the right conditions, like after a huge knock-down storm, you can get a mass of new seedlings. Old stagers like this one might just sit here and bide their time. They operate on such a different time scale.” 

Under the shaggy cloak of forest it’s hard to read the terrain along these ranges. But here and there you stumble across telltale, charcoal-grey rocks. They don’t look much, but rewind 22 million years and these fist-sized chunks were molten lava bubbling along at more than 1000ºC, the topcoat in a series of immense flows that stockpiled 3200 cu. km of basalt in the region – enough to fill Sydney Harbour more than 5000 times.

For any living thing trapped in their path, the lava flows were indeed catastrophic. But fast forward a few centuries and the basalt soils they formed became fertile ground for recolonising Nothofagus and a suite of other plants and animals. Not only that, these massive uplands precipitated their own version of climate change, luring rain-bearing clouds from the coast to create the perfect hideout for the Gondwanan gang. 

It’s arguably one of the most revealing five-minute detours in the land, a short signposted walk from the The Pinnacle Lookout car park on the Tweed Range Scenic Drive in the Border Ranges NP. The track rolls through a final flourish of subtropical rainforest to the exposed eastern rim of the park. A few more steps and you’re atop Pinnacle Hill, a long fin of rock with a crest no wider than a kombivan. It’s like standing on the midpoint of an enormous “W”. The cursive edge of the escarpment sweeps left and right, while its concave face drops 1000 m to the basin – the caldera – that is the Tweed Valley.

Slap-bang in the middle of the valley looms 1156m Mt Warning, or Wollumbin – the relic core of the Tweed Volcano. During its three-million-year reign, this 30 km wide landform was the main outlet for lava ebbing and flowing from a hotspot below the earth’s crust (see “Blasts from the past”, page 52). Yet for the local Bundjalung people this is no impersonal rock: Wollumbin is both sacred ground and a spiritual force. In their tradition, only select people are permitted on the mountain and its influence endures as a source of lore and law, gathering and ceremony, echoing across many hundreds of generations.

Even to the uninitiated, Wollumbin, which translates to “cloud catcher”, is a haunting, inescapable presence. Farms and towns ring the massif. From coastal highways and main streets to verandahs, clothes lines and schoolyards, the mountain’s prominent profile catches the eye, the morning sun and evening light, squalls, lightning and the occasional rainbow.

Prominent, yet often girt by cloud. During the first six days of 2008, 397 mm of rain dumped on the Tweed’s main town of Murwillumbah. Nearly twice as much crashed onto the encircling high ranges, where in big years annual falls can nudge 3500 mm. From the Tweed Volcano’s earliest days, its cooling magma was besieged by the scouring rains its hulking presence encouraged. In its prime, the crater rim stood 2 km tall with lava flows sprawled across more than 7000 sq. km. Erosion has stripped away almost a kilometre of softer material from Wollumbin’s crown to expose the tough, crystalline rocks – trachy-andesite, rhyolite and syenite – that plugged the volcano’s magma chamber. The surrounding caldera – especially close to the coast where rainfall was highest – copped an even greater battering as rivers such as the Tweed, Oxley and Rous muscled their way to the sea. What’s left resembles a gigantic pop-up book of living treasures and supercharged natural forces.

Cycles of life around Mt Warning

Jim O’Brien – one-time dairy farmer and schoolteacher, now cattleman and timber-getter – has lived most of his 68 years in the cradle of the caldera. Tall and sapling-thin, he sprints like a fast bowler from the cab of his four-wheel-drive to open one last gate before we arrive at his farm’s high point, a steep spur looking across a tumble of hills where fat-bellied cattle wallow thigh-deep in new grass. Beyond that, the rest – a high panorama taking in the caldera rim, towering Wollumbin and craggy 933 m Mt Burrell – is simply eye boggling.

For Jim, the view is as much about seasons and struggles, memories and family: “Dad turned up here in 1923 with a horse, an axe and a brush hook. This property was one of the last nine selected in the Tweed. He took leave from his council job as a pick-and-shovel man. Within three months he’d brushed, felled and ringbarked 100 acres [40.5 ha] out of his 248.”

Glowing reports of rich soils, ample water and lavish growth had been luring settlers to the region for 80 years before that. Its fame was shored up by red cedar and hoop pine, hauled out by the bullock teams of early timber-getters. The big change came in the 1860s with the free selection of farm blocks, conditional on ‘improvements’. During the next 40 years vast tracts of forest were cleared, mainly for dairy farming. These included the Big Scrub, 75,000 ha of rainforest on the red volcanic soils east and north of Lismore, 50 km south of Wollumbin.

Today, less than 1 per cent remains of what was the country’s largest continuous expanse of lowland subtropical rainforest.

“The powers that be were seduced by the luxuriance of the timber crop,” Jim says. “They thought all they needed to do was knock the trees off, plant grass and they’d be rich forever. But no-one knew much about the nutrient cycle.” By the 1960s, most dairy farmers were struggling with high costs, falling butterfat prices and declining pasture vigour. Some on the plains turned, with success, to growing sugar cane, but hill farmers like the O’Briens had to scrape by with a few beef cattle and some off-farm income. “One time there were 800 dairies in the Tweed. Now I s’pose there’s about eight. In fact, I’ve lived through the death of three industries – dairy, beef and timber,” he says with a rueful glance.

The big-time timber industry might be gone, but in recent years Jim has made a fair cut of his living wielding a chainsaw. As well as forestry jobs, he’s harvested mill logs from a forest block nearby, which has yielded the equivalent of 380 semitrailer-loads of hardwood. “And we still have a forest,” he says. “I’ve planted a few little areas, but the majority looks after itself. There’s enough to keep us going – as long as Barbara doesn’t take up any expensive hobbies.” He and wife Barbara bought their timber block back in the 1970s during his teaching days. “There was enough Irish in me to think if you owned a bit of land you were somebody. The block is a long-term operation but sustainable. In fact, I happen to believe that national parks could be harvested and still maintained.”

Such a notion might be anathema to some people. Yet there’s no denying the knowledge and deep affinity that many timber workers have found in the forests. It’s a connection that even prompted moves to conserve the caldera’s treasures. The creation of Lamington NP in 1915 and Border Ranges NP 77 years later was boosted by the efforts of Romeo Lahey and Jack Lever respectively, both sons of sawmillers. But these were just two branches of a new ethos. The past 40 years have shown the ability of rainforests to nurture a highly diverse following – and stir up a very different kind of pioneering.

The outer slopes of the Tweed Volcano are slashed by long forest ravines radiating like spokes on a wheel. Cascading south-west off the Nightcap Range, Terania Creek forms one of the biggest of these valleys. In 1974, Melbourne uni students Nan and Hugh Nicholson were on a journey along Australia’s east coast, heading back to nature. They found it deep in the forests of Terania Creek.

They weren’t alone. The Aquarius Festival a year earlier in the nearby and once drowsy dairy town of Nimbin drew thousands of students and other experience seekers from across Australia. Hundreds stayed, buying cheap local land to start a new life based on cooperative ideals. For most that meant going bush and having a crack at living sustainably. Almost overnight our biggest volcano had its own bubbling, cultural hotspot.

The new residents found rainforest haunts tucked above villages, including Nimbin, Dunoon and The Channon. In tribes and groups and pairs such as the Nicholsons they pitched their tents and started to build log cabins and slap mud bricks together. The forests were the perfect sanctuary for free spirits. Or so it seemed. “We’d only been here three weeks when we heard trucks up the valley,” Hugh says. “We went up and asked what was going on. They said, ‘We’re clearing a road for logging.’ We were horrified.”

This encounter sparked a determined campaign to save the rainforests. It was low-key lobbying in the early years but feelings boiled over in August 1979 as a new road was pushed into the forest. Locals quickly rallied to blockade the bulldozer and over the next four weeks loggers, police and a growing throng of protestors jostled for position in Terania Creek.

Passionate lives of local in the Tweed area

It was all a whirl for the Nicholsons, with their home now protest HQ and as many as 1000 activists camped on their land. “We were babes in the woods really, but we were ahead as far as media goes,” says Nan. “People worked round the clock preparing leaflets and press releases. And we got our message out on TV news bulletins. It was easy for us to be passionate about rainforest – I mean it’s so beautiful.”

Events at Terania Creek prompted a bitter year-long inquiry that subsequently changed the face of environmental protest in Australia and led to the creation of Nightcap NP. They also cast a spotlight on a great flowering of rainforest science and appreciation. Pathfinding researchers such as Len Webb and former forester Alex Floyd revealed myriad botanical wonders to new enthusiasts like the Nicholsons. For nearly 30 years Nan and Hugh have repaid the favour by expanding this ecology of knowledge, spreading rainforest wisdom through popular guidebooks (see “Further reading”, page 57) and an innovative plant nursery where they pioneered the propagation of local forest species for home gardeners and revegetation projects. “Our life together has been a deepening relationship with the rainforest,” says Nan. “You feel this profound connection that makes you aware you’re a small part of a much bigger thing. It has kept us very, very joyful. And when you’re an activist a little joy is important.”

Joy for a flying-fox is a forest full of fruit and a lowland roost in which you can hang with your mates. From camps in the Tweed Valley, some 30,000 of these night-shift workers commute up to 40 km each evening in search of a feed. They’ve been doing this for thousands of years and, in the process, helping to disperse native hardwood forest seeds. But lately they’ve been having neighbour problems. Just ask NPWS Northern Rivers ranger Allan Goodwin: “With new housing near the camps, people often complain about the smell and noise. Usually, there’s not a lot we can do – we try to create buffers for the homes and educate the public as much as possible.”

In the past 30 years the Tweed Shire’s human population has more than doubled to 80,000. For park rangers, sharing knowledge about native wildlife, weeds, feral animals and bush regeneration has become a big job. They also look after 15 nature reserves and five national parks – part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area that hosts 2 million visitors a year. And the pressure of people and development in the Tweed shows no sign of abating. On the coastal strip, new designer-housing estates continue to spread.

Meanwhile, freeway extensions will soon cut the drive from Brisbane to Byron Bay down to 90 minutes or so. For an extinct volcano, this is one booming caldera.

At the same time the hinterland is looking greener every year. With more farm properties becoming ‘rural residential’ the forest is bouncing back. “We are probably the only local government area in the State with a net gain in vegetation,” says Allan. “Take cattle off and in a couple of years you’ve got forest regrowth.”

Even on the coast there are dedicated teams of locals working to protect beleaguered stands of lowland and littoral rainforest. Tweed Valley revegetation guru Rhonda James leads the way into a ribbon of coastal vegetation on council land at Hastings Point, 30 km east of Wollumbin. Just a few years ago this patch was suffocating under bitou bush, an invasive weed. Now, it’s a haven for an array of coastal rainforest species. “We haven’t planted a thing. It’s all come back naturally. You just have to knock out the weeds,” says Rhonda. She has a kindly, self-effacing manner but if you’re a bitou bush, watch out. Her avowed aim is to control this curse right along the coast.

“I believe in doing what we can to restore and retain what we’ve got of these forests – it’s an obsession of mine. It might be bloody hard work but it’s very satisfying.”

Travelling up the coast from Hastings Point everything looks new: the houses, the gardens, even somehow the people. Evidence of a past, volcanic or otherwise, is hard to spot. Until, that is, you reach Fingal Head, just shy of the Queensland border. Here, just offshore, upright columns of basalt, like a big handful of liquorice sticks, rise from the sea. Not far away, in a house his grandfather built, lives Kyle Slabb and his family. A few streets further on, Kyle’s sons attend the school where in the early 1900s his grandfather was one of the first students. North from the headland is the Gold Coast high-rise jumble. But turn and gaze south-west and your eye follows the line of the Tweed River, straight past Wollumbin to the grand forests beyond.

Kyle is a Goodjingburra man, a member of the Bundjalung nation. For him the past is ever present. Wollumbin is always there too. As a member of the steering committee that oversees joint management of the mountain, he also has to look to the future. It’s a job he takes seriously. The fact that many thousands of visitors make the steep climb to the top of the most sacred place in Bundjalung culture poses plenty of challenges. But Kyle hopes some good may yet come out of it all.

“We would like people not to climb Wollumbin,” he says. “But if they do, let them go away with new respect and understanding. We want to get to a point where ours is the voice that speaks for the place and people know us as the face of that place.”

Kyle’s a relaxed, good-humoured bloke who likes a surf and a spot of fishing. But he also thinks a lot about keeping up traditions and the kind of world his sons might inherit. “Being in the caldera has been a blessing for us for generations and generations,” he says. “We’ve got an abundance of everything we need here. For us the management of the land has always been critical to our people, our identity. With what’s happening these days it’s not just us who needs to think that way – it should be everyone.”

Source: Australian Geographic (Jul – Sep 2008)