We often go off in search of new experiences and amazing places without exploring what many of us have – right on our doorstep. I know this is the case for the Gondwana remnant forests of ancient Antarctic Beech forests that only occur in a few places in Australia – one of them about an hour away from me in the World Heritage listed Border Ranges National Park. Most locals I know are unaware of their existence and have certainly never been there – they are venerable and fascinating trees that have a special presence that seeps into me every time I am standing amongst them – I fully expect a Hobbit to pop out on the track in front of me.
Antarctic Beech is one of three species of Nothofagus – meaning false beech – found in Australia. Once a dominant feature of the flora of East Gondwana when it was a single, ice-free land mass that formed more than 550 million years ago
Some 35 species of Nothofagus still survive today in the Southern Hemisphere as Gondwana remnants – in Australia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Zealand and in the southern part of South America.
The few remaining pockets of Antarctic Beech in Australia occur here in the Border Ranges; one near Dorrigo – inland from Coffs Harbour; another at Barrington Tops – close to the Hunter Valley and some in Tasmania. The Antarctic Beech species in the Border Ranges is Nothofagus moorei.
WHY ARE THESE FORESTS SPECIAL? They are, quite possibly, the oldest living terrestrial organisms in the world. When you research this, the Aspen forests of North America are often cited as being the oldest because they, and the Antarctic Beech, regenerate in the same way – through suckers (lignotubers) shooting from their roots and not relying entirely on seeds for regrowth – they form clonal colonies.
SO, WHILE EACH INDIVIDUAL TREE IN THIS FOREST IS PROBABLY ONLY TWO TO THREE HUNDRED YEARS OLD – the biomass under the ground is around THREE THOUSAND years old. That is how they have been able to withstand everything that nature could throw at them from storms, floods, cyclones and catastrophic climate events.
BECAUSE OF THEIR ABILITY TO SHOOT FROM THE BASE you notice that they come in dense stands of trees – not individual specimens. They are an evergreen tree with a straight trunk and buttress roots – between 20 and 50 m – tall that occur in fire-free areas at high altitudes. The bark is scaly, dark brown and often covered in moss and epiphytic rainforests plants – like orchids and ferns. They can be deciduous in cooler areas with bright red leafy new growth.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE? The experts conjecture that a seed probably blew in on a cyclone about three thousand years ago – when the Roman Empire was getting up a head of steam.
WHERE ARE WE? Looking east towards the ocean and Murwillumbah, this is the view from The Pinnacle – the Antarctic Beech forests are just behind us, down in the gully. We are looking over the rim of a vast and ancient volcano that stretches 85 kilometres from east to west and forms the largest and oldest shield volcano in the world that blew its top 23 million years ago. The peak in the distance is Wollumbin (Mt Warning). I live on the southern edge of this caldera, close to Mullumbimby, with the volcanic plug of Mt Chincogan as the backdrop to my garden. Most folk just come here for this magnificent view. I hope you are now persuaded to take a walk as well?
SINCE THE LAST ICE AGE PEOPLE OF THE BUNDJALUNG NATION had roamed this land. The Border Ranges is the traditional home of the Galibal language group of the Bundjalung Clan with these forests offering everything they needed to sustain them until they were displaced by white settlement from 1788. A sacred and special place of significance to our First Nations people – and I honour them.
THERE IS MORE. These ancient forests are also home to a rare orchid that does not occur anywhere else in the world. Sweet smelling and flowering in springtime the Beech Orchid Dendrobium falcorostrum clings precariously in the nooks and crevices of the Antarctic Beech trees – and has also been a magnet for thieves!. There is a loop walk that you can take that leads you through this unique flora and you may also be lucky enough to hear the amazing Albert’s lyrebird that mimics all of the noises made by the creatures of the forest – plus the odd chainsaw and motorbike. I was fortunate enough to not only hear this incredible bird, the last time I did this walk, but to also see it scurrying around in the undergrowth and throwing up its fanlike tail of feathers.
HOW TO GET THERE? Coming from the south, we take the Kyogle Road out of Uki and the park is 38 km west of Murwillumbah or 15 km north of Kyogle from the Summerland Way.
NOTE: Roads in the NP are unsealed and were closed after the floods this year. The Park is now open, but some walking tracks may still be unsafe or under repair. Check on the website or give them a call before you go.
In loving memory of my dear husband Michael who died in November 2020. The last excursion we had, before he got too sick, was to these Antarctic Beech forests that held a special place in his heart – a last walk on the wild side.