September 15, 2019 • Toby Ley
7 min read
A thousand shades of green paint this ancient enclave of prehistoric rainforest hidden in the Strzelecki Ranges, south-east of Melbourne.
Tarra Bulga is an ancient place, one of those primeval forests that feels indescribably old just standing beneath the shrouding canopy. It’s a place that hasn’t changed in millennia; a verdant enclave of gnarled trees, delicate ferns, carpeted moss, mist-shrouded forest, gurgling creeks and calling birds.
The cool temperate rainforest here is one of only four major areas in Victoria, and represents a unique type of forest found only in southern Australia, New Zealand and South America, remnants of when the landmasses were once joined as the Gondwanan supercontinent. It’s an important area both biologically and ecologically, with a wealth of unique and localised flora, fungi and wildlife.
The area was first set aside for protection in 1904, and was one of the earliest reserves of cool temperate rainforest in the world. It sits at the eastern end of the Strzelecki Ranges, discovered and explored by Pawel Strzelecki, whose exploration of this high country led to the European discovery of Mount Kosciuszko. It’s one of the most interesting, beautiful and least-visited national parks in Victoria, and like a lot of people, we almost drove straight past it.
Towards the end of our exploration of the East Gippsland coastline, strong winds had us pushing away from the coast for a night, where we wound up at the Yarram Holiday Park. Yarram is a small town on the South Gippsland Highway, about two and a half hours south-east of Melbourne. I had read about the park once before, only to have completely forgotten about it, until a brochure in the caravan park sparked my memory. With a couple of days of cold and rainy weather forecast, switching out beaches for rainforest seemed like an easy choice.
While damp and dreary in town, the miserable weather added an otherworldly quality to the drive up the narrow, winding road into the ranges. It snakes along ridges and around deep gullies; streams, waterfalls, towering gums and thick ferns painting the scenery, while lyrebirds shot across the narrow road. It’s one of the few places that really does benefit from rainy weather, with the lush forest to either side shining vibrantly. The road passes through the small locality of Balook, with scattered views across the blue ranges to the west, before arriving at the park’s visitor centre.
From here, a network of walking trails cross the landscape of wet gullies and forested ridges, from short strolls to multi-day treks. Most of the park’s tracks can be combined to form a continuous 66km loop, while the 110km Grand Strzelecki Track connects the park with Morwell National Park to the north-west. We headed off along the Lyrebird Ridge track, combining it with the Ash Track and Fern Gully Track, which delve right into the unique ecological conditions of the rainforest.
It’s a vastly different place to the warm rainforests of northern Australia. Here, beneath the canopy, the twisting, moss-coated branches form a dark and damp world of cathedral-like enclaves, with fewer vines and climbing plants to choke the open space. When it isn’t raining, the shadowy green realm often lies shrouded in mist. Gnarled trunks and tangled roots creep across the ground, thick with carpets of moss and lichen. Flowering plants are sparse, but in autumn and winter, a colourful menagerie of fungi dot the dark labyrinth.
The most prominent tree in here is often the Myrtle Beech; ancient trees with root systems that can date back a thousand years, and stand as remnant descendants of the forests that once swathed this landscape millions of years ago. Today, they are found in only in Victoria and Tasmania.
While the Lyrebird Track provides a change of vegetation along the ridgeline, the Ash Track leads into the dense forest, descending through sheltered gullies thick with Myrtle Beech, Sassafrass and Austral Mulberry. It drops into a wide gully, where a metal suspension bridge crosses a sea of tree ferns. From the bridge, we stood level with the colourful canopy of prehistoric beech. High above us, the towering and imposing Mountain Ash gums rose from their shroud of mist, reaching into the dark sky.
These are the tallest flowering trees in the world, spectacular sentinels rising into misty heights, towering over the cool forest. Huge, domineering and long-lived, the Mountain Ash are gradually but constantly pushing in, slowly devouring the receding rainforest. But the gums require fire to be reborn. Without a bushfire, the rainforest might someday fight back, taking new ground as the gums eventually die of old age.
After a short detour along the Fern Grotto Track, following a rust-coloured river beneath the low canopy of interlocking tree ferns, the return track passes through dry forest again. An understorey of Balm Mint Bush, Daisy Bushes and Mountain Pepper fill the air with distinctive floral scents.
Even in the rain the trees were filled with a chorus of birdlife, from Whistlers and the melodic mimicry of Lyrebirds, to the trilling Honeyeaters and screech of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos overhead. The forest is a haven for wildlife of all sorts, with wombats, possums, gliders, platypus and even the occasional koala calling Tarra Bulga home.
Heading back down, the Tarra Valley Rainforest walk delves into another pocket of wet forest, crossing small streams as it twists its way to Cyathea Falls. Parasitic plants and frilly Kangaroo Ferns cling to the trees, and the air is rich with the earthy scent of life and rot. Decomposition is always in motion here, from fungi and bacteria to small animals like crayfish and earthworms all contributing to the ever-moving circle of life. Everything is always in motion. When the larger trees in the canopy die, more light reaches the forest floor, allowing new plants to grow from the decomposing remnants of those that once stood in their place.
As there’s no camping facilities in the park, we spent the night in the Tarra Valley Caravan Park, located in the lush green valley at the base of the park. Set beside a gurgling river and beneath towering eucalypts with resident koalas, it’s a good place to base your visit. We spent the afternoon on their verandah, enjoying some home made scones as some friendly King Parrots and Honeyeaters hopped across the table.
Tarra Bulga may not be a huge park, but the surrounding area is ripe for exploration. From the tourist drives through the Strzelecki Ranges, the rich history and sawmill heritage trails, to a trove of spectacular waterfalls hidden all across the region. And, chances are, you’ll only have to contend with a fraction of the crowds you’d find on the coast, too.