Just for a change of theme, I would like to talk about a particular environment that has not received any mention in magazine articles on wildlife or in television documentaries. At least none that I have seen. And in talking to people it has become apparent to me that this particular habitat type is virtually unknown by South Australians. Although it is predominantly found in Queensland, many South Australians do visit that state, yet they pass it by unaware of its existence. Or in most cases the remnants, as it is possibly one of the most seriously threatened eco-systems in Australia. And sadly its disappearance is going unnoticed.
Mention to anybody (in S.A.) the Queensland Bottle Tree, and if one doesn’t receive a blank look, the query comes, ‘do you mean the Baobab Tree?’. No, I don’t mean the Baobab Tree (Adansonia spp.). The Bottle Tree (Brachychiton spp.) is found in the south-eastern quarter of Queensland, and grows in ancient volcanic soils. In certain areas, of now cropping and grazing country, they can still be seen dotted about the paddocks around the districts of Mundubbera, Monto, Biloela, Banana and Theodore. And other places too, that escape my memory just now. They were too large for the clearing machinery of the day to be pulled over.
A good specimen of these trees looks just like a beer bottle. The bark is rough and extremely hard, while the ‘wood’ inside is a pulp filled with water. They are closely related to the more familiar Kurrajong Tree. At one time, on the Burnett Highway between Monto and Biloela, somebody had painted XXXX on a roadside tree. This being the brand name of a popular beer in Queensland.
Occasionally one can see, hanging from their boughs, an indication of the vegetation type they were once surrounded by. Prior to clearing! These are the leftover vines from the ‘Dry Rainforest’, known locally as ‘Vine Scrub’, or ‘Softwood Scrub’. An ecosystem rich in numbers and variety of wildlife, that once covered many thousands of square kilometres, judging by how widespread the Bottle Trees are, but now only to be found in isolated pockets in the less accessible areas, most of them small and still dwindling in number and size.
My grandfather and later an uncle of mine once owned a property south-west of Monto, of about 400 hectares (1000 acres) at least half of which at the time was still uncleared. It was one of those undiscovered wonderlands, a paradise for anybody interested in nature and birds in particular. Most of the land was inside what appeared to be (and probably was) the crater of a huge extinct, eroded volcano; with the south- eastern side collapsed. And the district is in part of the Great Dividing Range. This gave the area a C-shaped configuration, reminiscent of a giant wagon wheel, the spokes of which were represented by high stony ridges with deep intervening gullies with the ‘spokes’ running into a hub represented by land cleared for cultivation. The collapsed portion was also cleared.
A road, or more of a track really, wound its way around the broad rim, thick with tall straight forest trees with a bush under-storey. This approximately denoted the southern, western and northern boundary. Then about 400 acres swept away on the eastern side with a delightful view of the twin peaks of the ‘A camp’ mountains to the north-east. This area was largely cleared, but elegantly dotted with Iron Barks, Spotted Gums, Brigalows (Acacia spp.) and a magnificent Bottle Tree together with a handful of smaller ones.
As mentioned, the rim and collapsed section of the crater formed a giant C shape with the centre cleared and fenced into paddocks for cultivation. It was cut out here and there with old lava flows that now substituted for dry creeks. But as one moved away from the cultivated area you ran into steep wooded gullies and high stony ridges. The gullies contained Dry Rainforest (with Bottle Trees) that gradually gave way to tall forest as you ascended to the tops of the ridges. These ridges were covered in Iron Barks and Spotted Gums with a thin under-storey of shrubs. And so an Ecotone was formed at the transition on the slopes – a gradual decline in the thick Vine Scrub of the deep gullies to an increase in shrubbery on the upward slope, then eventually the tall straight forest type trees on the ridges. (Ecotone is the word given to areas where two habitat types meet; and are the richest places for wildlife).
Added to this was the ‘regrowth scrub’ that formed around the edges, between the undulating cleared land and the natural vegetation. On its own this regrowth was a bird-watcher’s paradise.
The homestead was a typical ‘Queenslander’ (house on stilts) situated on a lesser slope on the southern side commanding a view of the spoke-like ridges with their intervening gullies and the centre hub of cleared land. But even this cleared area was fascinating, as it was mostly tall grassland, dotted with groves of Brigalow Trees and with patches of ‘Dry Wetland’ in the lower ground. Early in the mornings the mist would rise from these lowlands, hovering still and silent under an absolute clear blue sky and total calm atmosphere. Disturbed by the persistent woop, woop, woop call of the Swamp Pheasants in the tall grass; the indescribable haunting flute of Pied Currawongs from the forest and a rasping note from a flock of Apostle Birds in a grove of Brigalows.
Inside the ‘Vine Scrub’ were Pittas, Whipbirds, Logrunners, Scrub Wrens, Rufous Fantails, Regent Bower-birds, Brush Turkeys and much much more. In places the vegetation was so dense one had to get down on your stomach and ‘worm’ your way along a Wallaby track, several species of which made their home here and on the ridges. You would hear them hopping effortlessly away as you struggled with the dense grey vines tangling throughout the shrubs and hanging from the taller trees. Cursing as you freed yourself from the clasping thorns of a ‘Wait-a-while bush’. But, being ‘Dry Rainforest’, the prevailing colour was grey, rather than green and the canopy less dense than in true ‘Rainforest’. I could go on for pages to describe all this.
But not anymore. A few years before my uncle died, he sold this lost paradise to a wealthy station owner. The gully sides were so steep that a second bulldozer was required to winch back the one pushing down the scrub as it descended to the bottom. Grass was sown by broadcasting from a plane and after it had grown, reseeded and dried off, it was set on fire. This effectively killed any regrowth from the scrub.
And now, a place I frequented in my younger days and often dreamt of revisiting, no longer exists. I missed seeing it one last time, and showing it to my children, by just over a year. They got to see ‘pockets’ of it, left over before the cattle grazing demolished it all. Sadly, much much more sadly, you missed seeing it altogether!