Hello all! It’s finally my blog day now and all the exciting activities I foretold of a month ago have come to pass. Our stay at the wonderful On the Wallaby lodge has been a very interesting experience. I’ve made friends in the past few days from Norway, Germany, Canada, and of course a few locals of Yungaburra. I was also excited to see that the lodge (which is an open air structure with no doors! Welcome to the tropics) has its own garden where it grows oranges, passion fruit, pineapple, avocado, mangoes, peppers and a few herbs. We were able to go out back and pick some fresh tropical fruit for breakfast. It’s a great place to stay.
So we set of on our daily activities with our fearless bus driver and owner of the On the Wallaby lodge Paul to our first visit with a rain forest ecologist named Simon.
Simon first took us to the lookout at the top of Halloran’s Hill. This gave us a great opportunity to survey the landscape and see what the Atherton tablelands are all about. What we saw was a lot of farm land. Mainly pasture for dairy cows and sugarcane fields. This area has had about 99% of its original rainforest cover removed to make room for farms. It’s a hard thing to deal with as the tablelands are Australia’s most productive agricultural region so returning it to it native state is really not an option economically. The tablelands are so productive because the red basalt soil which is full of minerals from millions of years of volcanic activity. While this makes the soil quite resilient, especially compared to most rain forest soils, some areas that have been growing continuous sugarcane for years have begun to have issues.
As we left Halloran’s Hill I stopped and looked at a monument they had there of an upside down tree with a poem engraved on it entitled “Rhythm of Life”. It read “Two hundred years! It’s hard to imagine the change we’ve achieved. Change so great and so profound that the rhythm of life has been turned around. This upside down tree says “please, please slow down!” let the rhythm of life again be found.” The rain forest here had persisted for thousands of years and supplied people for generations with everything they needed and now it is simply gone. It really shows the impact humans have when you see this landscape and the utter lack of diverse vibrant wild life that once reigned supreme as one of the most bio diverse areas in whole world. It was really powerful to leave Halloran’s Hill with that message on my mind as we headed out to see one of the remaining sections of rain forest in the area.
Next stop, still with Simon in tow, was Wongabel forest. Simon explained to us that the rain forest in this area is a Class 1A complex mesophyll vine forest. 1A complex means that it has the highest level of bio diversity. Mesophyll simply means that it has medium-sized leaves usually 8 to 12 cm long and vine forest refers to the large amount of vines that grow between the trees to create a living fabric on the canopy. The rain forest in Queensland has the distinction of being the oldest continuous rain forest in the world at 110 million years and is unique in that it has remained relatively the same for that time making it an evolutionary time capsule. This is due to the fact that the Australian continent never collided with any of the other continents as South America did with North America or Africa did with Eurasia. When the other continents collided, the different species began to mix and compete which altered their evolutionary path. As Australia never had this type of species interaction it became the natural history museum it is today.
Wongabel forest was a great example of the high bio diversity that is found in the rain forests of Australia. Every acre has hundreds of species of trees. One important species is the black bean tree which was heavily logged by westerners for furniture, along with the prized red cedar. The seed of the black bean tree, which is about an inch and a half in diameter, is toxic. The aboriginal people, however, discovered that they could soak it in the river for a week to leach out the toxin and then would grind it in to bread. The Tula poke tree is a beautiful tree with wide buttresses to help support it due to the shallow roots. These wide roots also collect fallen debris to decompose around its base for nutrients; a really great innovation. This tree was also interesting because there was a cluster of them all in the same place, a rare occurrence in the rain forest. This happened because the seeds are wind-blown so several of them tend to land in the same area.
Many of the seeds in the rain forest are distributed by a very rare, ancient and critically endangered bird that stands just shy of 2 meters tall called the cassowary. Today there only about 1200 cassowary left in the wild. The cassowary will eat the fruit of certain tree whole (fruit with giant seeds the size of your palm!). These seed depend on the cassowary’s digestive system to activate the seeds germination process and distribute them far and wide to promote good genetic diversity within the forest. If the cassowary goes extinct it will take well over a hundred species of trees with it because they will have no other means to germinate.
The Cassowary is having issues because they require about 17 acres a piece to support themselves and the rain forest has become very fragmented and dispersed. When most plots are only 80 to 100 acres each you can imagine how they might have issues surviving and raising new young in these confined areas. The Australian government isn’t responding to this problem and it has been left mostly to private projects to build rain forest corridors that connect the different preservation areas to allow this keystone of the rain forest to have a chance.
Our next stop was the giant curtain fig tree. It is an absolutely massive and beautiful tree that truly inspires awe. Its canopy covers an entire acre of the rain forest! For all its majesty the curtain fig is actually a bit of a parasite. First the seed is deposited, often by a bird, on its host tree, is germinated and its roots begin to descend to the forest floor. Once it reaches the soil it begins to grow aerial roots which encircle its host and strangle it. On this particular tree its host fell over into a neighboring tree and vertical roots went down to the soil creating the curtain appearance of the tree. Eventually the host rotted away leaving just the curtain fig standing as we see it today. It’s amazing that something so beautiful could come from such a destructive origin.
Once we left the fig tree it was time to say goodbye to Simon. After a quick stop back at the lodge for lunch it was time for the visit I had been looking forward to the whole trip; the permaculture site. Kym Kruse has been around the world studying permaculture design principles and has spent the last three years on this site building his own permaculture homestead. Kym started off by outlining the three principles that govern the practice of permaculture. They are care for earth, care for people, and share the excess. I thought it was really interesting how these principles line up so well with the strong sustainability model and how it emphasizes care for the environment first, then creating a healthy social structure and last supporting economic needs.
When Kym first started working his land he spent the first year just observing it to see how water flows through the property. Before he made any alterations there was a huge erosion gully down the center of it and the soil was just bare dirt. The area where his land sits only gets rain for three months out of the year so keeping the water from flowing down to the river without seeping into the soil is vitally important for sustained production during the other 9 months.
He first modified the land by digging large “gutters” 90 degrees to contour called swales and then piling the dirt from the swale on the down slope side called a berm. He built these swales in conjunction with small ponds. Together these structures in the earth collect the water, which usually runs off the land in minutes eroding the hillside, to hydrate his soil. Today grass grows where bare earth used to be and the collection pond provides a place for his two sons to swim and play.
Now that his land can hold water and grow vegetation, he needed a way to keep the keep the nutrients fresh and cycling in the soil to build its health over time. Careful observation of nature shows that the most productive and healthy soils in the world are grasslands that grow in conjunction with a ruminant species like cows. Kym keeps 13 cows on his 6 acres and uses electric fences to graze them intensively and rotate them around to eat old vegetation to make room for new growth and leaving their dung and urine everywhere they go to build the carbon in his soil. Soil with more carbon also holds water better as well as mitigating the cause of global warming by sequestering carbon (CO2) out of the atmosphere. This means that the longer Kym stays on his land planet actually get healthier. He is also very meticulous to make sure no nutrients leave his land even going so far as to collect his own…ehem…”humanure” to close every last loop in the nutrient cycle. Daryl Hannah had visited his property for a training session and we got to see a barrel that contained her poo!
As I mentioned earlier, Kym’s site is still in its early stages of development and is not yet totally able to support all of his family’s needs. One of the principles of permaculture design is that it uses many perennial plants rather than annuals which allow Kym to avoid the need to till his soil and replant every year. The thing about perennials is that they usually take a few years before they produce a good crop and many years to reach their full potential. Kym says he doesn’t expect to see his property reach its full potential in his lifetime. His dream is that his property still supports his family for the next 5 generations and beyond as a veritable garden of Eden. The life is hard in the beginning to build a site like this but when it is complete the only work will be walking out your door and harvesting the produce. Working so hard to leave something for the next generation is a selfless act and really epitomizes sustainability. I really admire what Kym is doing and hope to have my own permaculture garden one day and Kym has been a great resource to get me pointed in the right direction. I really think this type of mindset and culture is the best bet for creating a sustainable future.
We really had a busy day. As we headed back to On the Wallaby Lodge, we stopped at the beautiful Millaa Millaa falls for a swim. Even though it was cold and raining we didn’t let that stop us as the group dove in to enjoy the beautiful location. It was great to stop and recharge for a bit before our next speaker.
When we got back to the lodge our Aboriginal speaker, Doug, was waiting for us. The aboriginal people of Australia have the distinction of being the worlds’ oldest culture, being at least 40,000 years old! Of course the aboriginal people are not one culture but actually a collection of 250 tribal groups that separate in to even more clan groups. Before the intrusion by western culture the Australian continent was home to over 750 different unique languages and ways of thinking about and relating to their environment.
Doug is a member of the Yidinji tribe. He explained to us how the different tribes distributed themselves across the landscape only as densely as their environment could support, with elders deciding when it was okay for members to marry and have children. The small area of the Yidinji tribe which sits in the lush tropics of the tablelands might have the same population as an area 10 times that in the comparatively sparse central plains. This is part of how they were able to sustain their culture for so many years.
Today aboriginal peoples have become fragmented and torn apart by western settlement and their cultural identity is being challenged. Aboriginal people suffer from societal ailment like domestic abuse, drugs, lower rates of education and high incarceration rates. Even though aboriginal people are only 2 % of Australia’s population they make up a staggering 80% of the prison population! Doug has spent time working in the prison system in hopes of rehabilitating his people and helping them find their way in today’s society. Many young men who are of aboriginal descent will go to the prison system for a chance to be a part of their own culture or as a new rite of passage as they have lost their cultural identities. When many of your siblings and cousins are in the system and the opportunities aren’t there for you in society it seems like the only option is to go to prison where you can be around your culture and will be taken care of. While Australia has made huge strides in recent years to begin making amends for its past treatment of aboriginal people, they still have a long way to go to before their relationship is reconciled.
Once I finally had some free time I raced out to Patterson creek before sunset and was lucky enough to actually see a platypus! Cross that off the bucket list. I also went night canoeing with one of On the Wallaby’s guides, a Canadian named Andrew as well as a friend of his (also from Canada) named Ian (hey that’s my name!). We went out on Lake Tinaroo to do some wildlife spotting of the Australian rainforests nocturnal species. Everyone else in the group decided to stay back so they could write a paper! So I was the only one who went out.
While out on lake we traveled along the shore with flashlights scanning the trees. I saw a bush possum, a couple of ring tail possums, many fruit bats (also known as flying foxes), some pademelons (like a wallaby) that were right on the shore only a few meters away, and even a few of the world-famous Tinaroo barramundi jumping out of the water. Oh and I can’t forget to mention the stars. They are absolutely breathtaking. It’s so clear out here without the light pollution from the city. The Vivid Sydney Festival doesn’t hold a candle to what nature does with light!
(Sorry no pictures. There are some moments that camera’s just can’t capture)
This has been the most amazing day of the trip so far that I will certainly never forget. Tomorrow we head up to Cape Tribulation where we will have our best chance to actually see the rare cassowary in the wild. I am really falling in love with the tropics here and can’t wait to see what else they have in store and what else I will learn.