Sunday 4 December 2011

Further Down the Track

[The Leeaberra Track Part 4]

We’d spent two restful nights at a great campsite, and half a day blissfully exploring upstream. The weather had cleared and was fine and mild. What could possibly taint our time in this beautiful place?

Shortly after seven in the morning Tim wandered over as we emerged from the tent. Pointing downstream, he suggested we should have a look. We pushed through bracken, clambered over and around a fallen tree, and there it was. The actual second Douglas River campsite. It sat high on the river bank, with direct river views, filtered sun, sitting logs and cleared communal eating areas. Perfect!

The Real Campsite: Ah well ... still a good place for breakfast 
Apart from castigating ourselves for the eejits we’d been, we did the only other thing we could sensibly do. We carted our gear the whole 20 metres to the “new” campsite and enjoyed breakfast at the best address in the neighbourhood, smiling sheepishly as we basked in its sun, sounds and sights.

When you camp by a river, whether at the wrong or right site, your walk from there is likely to be uphill. At least we were right on that count. A steep climb for a little over an hour started to bring us into country full of grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis).

Lynne takes a break among the grass trees 
If plants can have characters, then grass trees are the kind that would wear striped suits with loud bow ties! Starting as small clumps of spiky grass-like leaves (hence their common name), they are notoriously slow growers, advancing perhaps only a few centimetres per year. Plants develop a trunk as they grow older. Xanthorrhoea recover strongly after fire and other set-backs, often responding with a quirky growth habit, such as bent or multiple trunks, or crazily crooked flower spikes.

A Western Australian grass tree reaching sky-ward ... eventually 
When/if they develop a trunk, the elevated leaf clump comes to resemble a grass skirt, while the flower spikes projecting above the skirts have a spearlike look. It was the spears protruding out of fire-blackened trunks that led Europeans to call Xanthorrhoea “black boys”, a name now considered offensive.

On this section of the track I was more than once convinced there was a walker coming towards us, only to find I’d seen a grass tree in my peripheral vision. We enjoyed meeting these characters of the Tasmanian bush, and the change in vegetation they brought with them. But as we moved south down the track, part of which is an old vehicular track, we started to find clumps of dead and dying grass trees.

It was not the result of drought or fire; the usual suspects in Australia. It’s been caused by the fungus-like plant disease Phytophthora cinnamomi (sometimes called dieback or cinnamon fungus). As we walked south the carnage grew, as grass trees, and other species such as banksia and she-oaks, were dead and dying along the track.

The pathogen is introduced  and spread largely via human action. It spreads via mud on tyres, boots and camping equipment. The north-south only direction of this walk is one way in which its spread can be confined: that and the careful cleaning of gear that’s been in touch with soil or mud in infected areas.

 Dead and dying: grass trees, banksias and she-oaks in a Phytophthora-infected area

The haunting aspect of this disease is that its effect is insidiously selective. In the long-term the affected bush will still be populated by plants. It may look perfectly healthy, but that will be an illusion. It will be made up of only by those species that are resistant to the disease. Gone will be those species – like grass trees – which are highly susceptible to Phytophthora.

One day, a few weeks after the Leeaberra walk, I am walking down the Hobart Rivulet Track on my way to work. Passing the primary school my children once attended, I hear the familiar sound of children playing. At this distance the voices are generic, indistinct, and I imagine my children playing there still. I imagine the always-child in me playing there too. I become wistful about time passing, things moving on – even in two generations.

It gets me thinking about the legacy we have left in Tasmania, after less than ten generations. Down the Leeaberra Track, for instance, where is the sound of the real black boys playing? Further down the track will we lose the grass trees too? Change may be a necessary part of life, but do we want to be responsible for change that is harmful; change that impoverishes; change that is preventable? 

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