YD Bar-Ness is a conservation ecologist based in Fremantle, Western Australia, on a long-term quest searching for the Kalpavriksh, the Wish-Fulfilling Tree of ancient Indian myth. He hasn't found it yet, but will make sure to tell you when he does.
Photographs of Tasmania often show the thick emerald greens, the blanketing moss, and the ancient green trees. But fire-singed landscapes are also part of the natural scenery. You could think of Tasmania’s natural vegetation as careening between the unburnt Southern Hemisphere rainforests and the fire-loving Australian bush. And as traumatising as the recent fires were, it helps to remember that blackened landscapes of charred trees have been part of the Tasmanian landscape for millions of years. Fires are also a conscious and careful part of human land management over many thousands of years.
For photographers, the changes have brought in a new, inkier colour palette, and an opportunity to see the forest develop after a major disturbance. If you’re keen on seeing the changes yourself, the best way to do it is to travel up to the Hartz Mountains National Park west of Geeveston. Let’s take a closer look…
Over the course of several wintry weeks, I was fortunate to be able to join the Bookend Trust‘s Andrew Hughes for yet another amazing Expedition Class. Andrew has been linking up with primary school classrooms across Tasmania while exploring this marvelous planet, and conducting a unique educational program regular trip reports and curriculum-based lesson plans.
For the Treehouse Challenge, we set up a fantastic hanging tent provided by Tasmanian-based Big Wall Gear, and Andrew used this treehouse as a hub for connecting with classrooms. I joined along to help set up the treeclimbs and to serve as one of the forest scientists answering questions from students online.
We climbed into a veteran brown-top stringybark at Hollybank Reserve near Launceston, into an ancient rainforest myrtle in the Tarkine, and into the giant Eucalyptus regnans of the Southern Forests.
You can see Andrew’s excellent trip reports online, and you can enjoy some of the photos I snapped along the way!
Believe it or not this is our tenth year of adventure here at Expedition Class. To celebrate we tackled something that scares us witless. Climbing way up into really big trees. The Tree House Challenge explored forest types and what makes them different and special by climbing the trees that grow in them.
The swift parrots need our help. This endangered parrot, dependent on tree hollows in old Tasmanian trees, has been in serious decline as the forest landscape is altered. Breeding only in Tasmania, it has been the subject of ongoing research and community conservation. Earlier this year, the public was surprised and shocked to hear that illegal forest logging had destroyed critical nesting habitat, and a team of Victorian arborists realised they could contribute their skills. As a swift response to help the swift parrot, an expedition to Tasmania was planned by the Victorian Tree Industry Organisation to help build emergency nesting habitat.
Working with chainsaws and tree health, the arborists are uniquely experienced in the long term growth and structure of living trees. I was fortunate to join on the fieldwork on Bruny Island and help out as ground-crew while branches were carved into the size and configuration preferred by nesting swifties, and to learn a bit about the practice and theory of artificial habitat creation.
Grant Harris, of Ironbark Environmental Arboriculture/ Tree Climb Australia, shared his thoughts on the project: ‘We’ve use this technique of artificial hollow creation with the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo in North-western Victoria; where we had very promising results. So I’m optimistic for success of this project.”
‘One advantage we have is the years of data on natural Swifty hollows, collected by Dejan Stojanovic and his team at Australian National University” he continued. “This data is extremely valuable as it gives us direction on the dimensions of the hollows we should be creating, to meet the Swifties breeding needs.’
Pat Kenyon of Tree Tactics recalled his work developing and championing the hollow carving technique:
In 2009, Philip Kenyon (Dad) and I started playing with the idea of carving hollows with chainsaws, this was mainly done on the end of branch stubs, we also met James Smith at Tree Net in Adelaide where he did a presentation on habitat and hollows in trees. I had done a reasonable amount of research into what sizes to create hollows but struggled with information off our Local Government Bodies with receiving any clear information (in Arborist terms) as to; height above ground, orientation or how big to create hollows and entrance holes.
After the 2009 fires the concept of habitat stumps became a real hit due to hundreds of thousands of trees needing to be removed. It became common practice for Councils to leave habitat stumps behind as it was cheaper to do this than remove the whole tree. The only part that Councils didn’t realize was that it can take up to 50 years or greater for a hollow to form, there are now thousand of solid upright logs left on road sides as habitat stumps that have little more value than perches.
This is when the idea of habitat hollows really began. In 2010, Philip Kenyon and I did a presentation on how to create hollows at TreeNet, Adelaide. I caught up with James Smith there again and he gave me a range of modifications for our hollows and some science to develop these hollows further so they would successfully work. The most significant changes to make was locating the entrance as far from the bottom as possible rather than in the center, sloping bases so that they would drain and not cleaning out all the rough edges so that chicks can climb out.
With James Smith’s input we also came up with the Bat Maze, various forms of aquatic and ground based habitat that can be created in a matter of hours so you do not have to wait 50 or 100 years for them to decay and become useable. James also created the “Hollows for Habitat Guidelines” and put them into practical sizes that we could cut with chainsaws and provided an Orientation Chart which he made available on the VTIO website.
Since then we have run Habitat Creation workshops in, Victoria, Adelaide, NSW, Northern Territory and Queensland. With all of these workshops we have had plenty of positive input and feedback from people attending, and with every workshop we have made advances on the design and construction technique.
It been great to see the enthusiasm from everyone at the workshops and to change their views from cutting trees down to how they can keep them for creating habitat. From starting with the concept until now I have been directly involved in carving more than 200 hollows across Victoria.
Grant expressed his surprise at how well the expedition turned out: ‘I’m overwhelmed by the response of the VTIO members, it’s just fantastic! We’ve got over thirty professional arborists giving their time, providing their own equipment and sharing their skills. We’ve also had amazing support from the local community; it’s really a privilege to be working in such a beautiful place’.
‘We’ve installed over sixty artificial hollows, which it a great effort from the VTIO vols. This is the first step, the true measure of success is to see if these artificial hollows produce Swifty fledglings. It’s important to recognise this technique [artificial hollow creation] is a short term fix…a band-aid for hollow dependent species. It’s not a long-term solution or a substitute for conserving forests, which are managed to allow the development of natural hollows.”
The Eucalyptus forests of Tasmania contain the very tallest flowering plants on Earth. A handful of living Swamp Gums, or Eucalyptus regnans, stretch into the sky at a phenomenal height just below one hundred metres. It’s very possible that, within geologically recent years, the tallest tree on Earth was a Tasmanian Eucalypt.
The tallest known living flowering plant grows near the Tahune Airwalk canopy bridge, in Southern Tasmania. Here, visitors can experience the treetops walking on a sturdy walkway. Throughout Tasmania, a number of tall and giant trees have been recognised and surveyed. Several of these have been measured by handheld lasers, aerial sensors, and treeclimbers dropping tape measures. You can easily see some of these giant trees on the road to the Airwalk at the Zig Zag track, at Mount Field National Park, or in the Styx Valley.
On one hot summer day, I joined two visiting German tree experts in their studies of the Tasmanian forests. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to climb and study in some of the tallest, oldest, and most picturesque forests on Earth, and we had decided to work together to visit one of the Tasmanian giants. Our skills matched well.
Henry and Werner had known each other for several years, and had just the day before climbed the narrow dolerite spire Totem Pole, one of Tasmania’s most famous and striking rock climbs. Henry has been learning the local flora as a tree doctor, or arborist. Werner was on a short visit from Berlin, where he works as an arborist, climbing instructor, and stunt rigger.
Their professional enthusiasms and experience, like mine, went beyond the ecology and growth of forest trees and to the techniques and history of climbing. We also wanted to share our explorations and discoveries of the arboreal world in a novel and effective way.
On this excursion, we brought up a handful of smartphones to test their capabilities for structural measurements and innovative documentation. One major goal was to produce several photospheres – immersive photographs that could be either mapped to the interior of an sphere, or projected as an interesting flat image.
We met up in the forest early in the morning and pooled our resources, including: hundreds of metres of ropes, metal tools to grasp and release the ropes, and a box of home-made anzac biscuits. After navigating the twists and turns of the dirt forestry roads we arrived at an overgrown road, and from there began our trek into the forest.
The entire forest smelled of evergreen and mint, and the rainforest trees of the understory are covered in moss and lichens. Tree ferns reached outwards with delicate fronds and make viewing upwards difficult. But soon we were near the base of this single tree: the world’s tallest flowering tree, the tallest tree outside of Western North America, and the tallest tree in the Southern Hemisphere.
The world’s tallest flowering plant is, at first glance, indistinguishable from the other ultra-tall eucalypts in the valleys of Southern Tasmania. It has a base with stringy bark, and a long, bright, trunk that shoots into the sky. Large dead branches were being hidden by younger green resprouts. Ribbons of bark hang peel of this long spire, and branches of all sizes are holding a heavy load of this flammable material. This tree was notable in that it was surprisingly asymmetrical, with most branches on one side, and it was fantastically tall.
Like most of the very tallest eucalypts, the tree was beginning to decay and die from the top down, and it’s conceivable that it would lose height and another superlative tree would gain people’s attention. But unlike most other tall eucalyptus trees, this one had living and healthy uppermost branches, and the very highest point was therefore a green leaf – not a grey flake of rotten wood.
Henry and Werner began setting the lines, and I scouted the hillside for clear points where we could look into the tree with cameras and binoculars. The tree ferns and the rainforest canopy made this exceptionally difficult, and once they were in the branches of the tree they would be shaded by the leaves.
Climbing into the lowest branches of a massive tree always gives me a few moments of philosophical thought. I’ve learned to control it, and to simply climb on up the rope, but hanging in space on a tiny cord sparks important questions worthy of strong consideration. What am I doing here? Has anything changed from our initial assessment of this branch’s strength? And, what will I discover when I enter the wooden arms of these titanic living creatures?
My two colleagues moved from branch to branch efficiently and effectively. Henry observed that it was just like climbing any other tree, only higher. This also meant that we were handling larger quantities of rope, and that it was harder to communicate. By throwing the ends of the rope, or a throw line with a weight, over successively higher branches, we were able to position ourselves higher and higher, and to protect ourselves from the alway-present danger of falling.
Watching these two arborists, I learned new ways for combining different rope work disciplines. In addition to to the static, non-stretchy ropes of the tree climbers and cavers, we also had the dynamic, stretchy, ropes of the rock climber and mountaineer. These allowed us to move more fluidly between branches, and to use the hands and feet that we have all inherited from our tree-climbing ancestors.
From branch to branch to branch to branch, and eventually highest point on the stem was reached. We set a direct line – just a few centimetres short of one hundred metres – down to the ground, and with this access point secured, began the serious business of hanging out in the hammock and having a picnic lunch.
At the top of this tree, the stem had broken off. The stub was still larger than we could put our arms around, and this hinted that at one point it was substantially taller. Undoubtedly, this tree had been taller than one hundred metres in the not-so distant past.
You could look into the stub and see a collection of leaves and fruit. In other trees I’ve climbed, in wetter climates, this would have been a green aerial garden of moss and ferns, but in this tree it was dry and empty. This indicated that the tree was not yet so rotten as other ultra-tall eucalypts, and that it perhaps had several years remaining in its lifespan.
From the sides of the stem, just below this stub of dead wood, several strong, healthy, and slender branches reached outwards and upwards. One of these was the actual high point of the tree, and the tree was doing an incredible job of bringing water up to it at such a height. While these branches will continue to grow, it is unlikely that they will ever again attain the height of the unbroken stem.
These “epicormic” resprouted branches allowed us to set up a spider web of safety ropes and to explore our immediate surroundings with as much security as could be attained more than three hundred feet off the ground. This also allowed us to relax and reflect on this amazing experience.
We were surrounded by fragrant leaves and small, compact fruit. Depending on your choice of words, these gum nuts were the world’s highest fruits!
We compared notes about the growth and decay of this tree and its neighbours. A large eucalyptus nearby, while substantially shorter, had a much fuller crown of large branches, and clustered on the ridge above us were other soaring ancient trees. Below us, the rainforest sassafras, myrtle, and blackwoods were clearly distinct as their own arboreal islands. Below them, the tree ferns were like starbursts of green lace.
We could clearly see the Huon River and harvested forests of different ages in the valley. In the distance were the jagged mountain peaks of the Tasmanian Southwest wilderness – dolerite in giant crystal columns, and shining white quartzite carved by glaciers.
I began the long descent, but stopped regularly to take the photospheres. This involved spinning on a rope and leaning in all directions, taking overlapping photographs linked to the gyroscope of the phone. Sometimes, the branches hindered my ability to move and other times, they allowed me a comfortable place to stand. The smartphone software struggled with the complexity of the environment and the constant change: the wind was blowing the leaves gently and the algorithm could not match up the branches in the overlapping photos. The wind and the distance of rope above me meant that I also was drifting slightly in space. On other documentation projects, I’ve set up a tripod with a custom-made swivel to take clean photospheres – refining this technique is the next step for this project. For all of these concerns, I still managed to produce a small handful of spheres which you can explore – you can view them on the internet and look in all directions, up into the branches and down along the trunk to the forest floor. They’re linked below, and there are images included of them projected as “tiny planets” and as rectangles.
When I reached the ground, I sat for a few moments to let the circulation return to my legs. I then untangled from the lanyards, clips, and ropes that had been so organised when I was in the air. Henry began his descent, and had the remarkable experience of abseiling one hundred metres in a single drop. Weaving his way through the branches, he came down to the ground much more quickly and landed gracefully.
Werner began the difficult and slow process of derigging the tree. He had to untie and manage all of the separate pieces of rope we had left above. When two long ropes hang in space and are threaded past branches together, they cannot resist becoming involved with each other. No matter how good your rope management, you can find yourself inevitably dealing with unexpected tangle. In addition, the weight of the rope hanging beneath you makes handling them difficult — sometimes managing a line requires pulling up dozens of metres of rope.
He sorted it out speedily and safely, and was soon standing on the lowest branch before his final abseil. Before I could even set up the camera into position, the professional stuntman had jumped off of the branch and slid perfectly down the rope to land on the forest floor.
With everyone safely on the ground, we pulled down and packaged up our ropes, and trudged on out to the forest road and civilisation.
There are many tall trees in the forest, and the great height that makes this one so notable does not necessarily mean that its crown is the most complex or intricate. It felt like climbing in other tall Eucalyptus regnans, but with the added element of phenomenal height. In a word, the world’s tallest flowering tree could described as focused. It had put tremendous energy into growing upwards and had not put resources into branching out.
Within our lifetimes, this tree may very well lose more upper stem, and another flowering plant may gain the temporary and invisible prize of being the world’s tallest. It may also stand as the tallest for another century – who can say? In the meantime, during this short interval, we were honoured to safely ascend into its branches,and happy to be returning safely to the solid ground upon which we all live.
View the immersive photo-spheres:
You can explore these interactive photospheres by touching the screen or dragging the mouse. You can zoom in, look in all directions- including straight up and down! Look for clickable information points, and for portals that will take you to another place within. To experience this environment in full screen, click the small button in the upper right.
➤ Let your eyes wander around a world map. On the edges of the giant continents, islands are home to unique people, places, and ecosystems. Some are wild, and some are developed. All are unique- Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Iceland, Vancouver Island, Tierra del Fuego, Hawaii, Hispaniola- and all are destinations that any traveller would be wise to investigate. But one island stands out to me as particularly remote, unknown, wild, and magical. Tasmania, on the farthest corner of Australasia, is fortunate in being blessed with both extensive wilderness areas and highly developed cities.
Rock climbers on the dolerite columns of the Lost World, Mount Wellington
One of the states of the Australian Commonwealth, Tasmania is a rugged, mountainous island, with the largest area of the glaciated terrain in Australia, Elements of the unique alpine biodiversity have more in common with far-away Chile and New Zealand than they do with mainland Australia. The world’s tallest flowering plants, deep and wild cave systems, untouched rivers, and legendary walking tracks are all hidden in and around these mountains. Tasmania remains one of the most wild and natural islands on Earth.
A climber reaches the dolerite summit of Mt. Picton, Southwestern Tasmania
Let’s explore the southern half of the island, and learn about the mountains and rocks of the spectacular landscape.
We’ve arrived into Hobart by air (an easy hop from Melbourne), and as we cross the Derwent Harbour bridge we get our first view of the mountains. Mount Wellington rises up steeply from the harbour, and the city clings, picture perfect, to the forested slopes below. The best way to experience this landscape is by foot, and let’s prepare for our journey by having a good look at some of the high mountains across the map.
Afterwards, we can visit the vineyards of the Derwent Valley, dine on fresh fish at the harbours of the capital of Hobart, and see the sad remains of the British prison colony at the Port Arthur. Once we’ve gotten our feet muddy, we can climb into the forest canopy at the Tahune Airwalk, learn about the tragedies endured by the first peoples of Tasmania, and delight in the friendly mayhem of the Salamanca Farmer’s Market.
Mt Wellington is indeed, Hobart’s local mountain, and no other city in Australia has such an impressive backdrop. Snowcapped in winter, there’s a road to the top that makes access easy in all seasons. But there’s more challenging ways to the top. Countless trails lead through eucalyptus forests and past waterfalls to the summit, sometimes visiting a simple hut in which trekkers can spend a night.
Rock climbing routes lead up the spectacular columnar cliffs of the Organ Pipes, formed by volcanic dolerite. It also makes for effectively unlimited exploration for the vertically inclined, and piled in a heap below dolerite cliffs, an intrepid adventurer can always find some sheltered caves between the shattered columns. Charles Darwin climbed Mt Wellington when the Beagle landed here in 1836, and while the city below has certainly grown, the view on the mountaintop plateau is still just as wild and windswept.
From Mt Wellington we can look into Tassie’s Southwest, one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses and truly one of the most approachable. An army of mountains stand tall and catch the raging storms coming in over the Southern Ocean. Hartz Peak is one of the higher and most easily climbed of these mountains, and is protected in its own National Park. As we travel through the eucalyptus gum forests, there is a controversial and complicated story to be told about the Tasmanian forests. The lower altitude forests, containing both the largest flowering plants (the eucalypts) and the rare Southern Hemisphere rainforest, are the basis for Tasmania’s forestry industry.
The Hartz Mountains reach into the treeless alpine zone. After walking past crystal clear lakes, and seeing the ridges and valleys carved in the dolerite by Ice Age glaciers, we can make it to the summit and look even deeper into the wilds, towards the quartzite peaks of Southwestern Tasmania.
The quartzite bulk of Frenchman’s Cap stands prominently in of the western Tasmanian mountain ranges
Frenchman’s Cap is one of the most striking of the Southwest mountains, and it’s our first real good look at the shining white quartzite geology. Seemingly razor sharp, these mountains of the southwest strike up from the soggy buttongrass moorlands with arrogance born of glacial carving. Frenchman’s Cap is massive, and it’s huge southern face is exposed to the fury of the storms.
Picton Lakes, from the summit of Mt. Picton, SW Tasmania, Southwestern Tasmania
Our walk in will be a test of our endurance, as we wade through the deep muddy pools in the sodden buttongrass plains. Once we climb out of it, things will get steeper and steeper until we are walking the sharp ridges to the slightly gentler side of the mountain. We’ll keep our head for heights, though, and make it up safely enough. And if we get spooked by rock scrambling, we can sit snug and cozy from the rains in one of the lakeside huts along the trail, drinking hot chocolate and cooking dinner as we desperately wish for our socks to dry out.
A walker descends the buttongrass-covered ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness
The Southwest Wilderness is a region of World Heritage significance and National Park status. It occupies almost a third of the island. Within the park are range upon range of mountains, some rarely seen and even more rarely visited. Beneath the ground are Australia’s most challenging and vertical limestone caves, and running in the mountains are the wildest and strongest rivers. Here, it was far too rugged, stormy, and infertile to ever be settled in modern times, and remains an isolated, wistful place.
But within the park are some signs of prehistoric occupation by the first Tasmanian inhabitants, stretching at least 40,000 years into the past. In the Southwest, rock paintings offer an artistic insight into their lives. These paintings are of world significance as evidence of the southernmost extent of pre-Ice Age humanity. A more modern and severe evidence can be seen in the 1970’s and 80’s hydro-electric use of the Southwest’s water. The political firestorm and protests surrounding the inundation of now-submerged Lake Pedder, and later the never-built Franklin River dam, showed a strong divide in the people of Tasmania and Australia in how they viewed wilderness preservation and utilization. From these protests and environmental campaigns came the world’s first Green political party. The only road that goes deep into the Southwest was used to build the hydroelectric dam, and as we travel by road over to the West Coast, we can use it to look deeper into the windswept buttongrass plains and white quartzite mountains.
Quartzite ridgeline of Sentinels Ridge, in the Southwestern Tasmanian Wilderness
But since we love the rain so much, we can return to the highway and continue down to the west coast of Tasmania, to the mining town of Queenstown. After driving through such lush rainforests, the route descending from the mountains is eerily bereft of vegetation. Queenstown has a unique history: a once phenomenally wealthy town exploiting the metal deposits from nearby Mt. Owen, it is now a subdued place beneath an altered landscape. Forest cutting combined with toxic mining fumes has changed the biology of the valley- it is now marked as “Queenstown desert” in the official vegetation maps. Further down the road, the fishing harbour of Strahan is a more subtle destination, seemingly on the edge of the world. From here, it’s easy to visit the smashing waves on the coast, or to arrange a boat into the natural harbours penetrating far inland into the Southwest Wilderness.
Looking deeper and deeper, the quartzite, dolerite, and other rocks dance on in an array of strange and challenging mountains. There are likely peaks in the Southwest that have never been climbed, and it’s this sense of wilderness, of truly untouched natural land, that makes Tasmania such a rare treasure.
Looking into the steep quartzite mountains of SW Tasmania, from Mt. Picton
No matter how much we are soaked by the rain- no matter how much we would like to avoid the mud on the trails- we are fortunate to be able to see such a place. It’s an island that beckons the mountain enthusiast like no other place in Australia. We are all welcome visitors.
This article appeared previously in Jetwings International (India)