For most, the Australian alpine is celebrated for its novelty of snow. When winter rolls around, people from Melbourne and surrounds temporarily vacate suburban life for a few days of enjoying what is, on this continent, a true rarity. Yet there is much more to our unique alpine and subalpine ecosystems than the glistening white fields of a snowboarder’s dream.
For most of the year, the tops of Victorian mountains are bare of snow and ice. The alpine environment itself is variable and harsh. Summer, Spring, and Autumn all prove difficult for the flora and fauna found atop our iconic mountains. When winter comes and snow finally settles over the vegetation and rock, it is often a great relief for the life forms that call this alpine environment home.
Snow provides warmth. It may seem counterintuitive, but as some experienced snow-goers may understand, snow is an excellent insulator. Layers of this glaringly white stuff provide protection from the cold climate, offering safe harbour to the many small animals that thrive in the Australian alpine. They tunnel through it, burrow beneath it, and live out the coldest months in the ironically warm product of freezing temperatures.
When the snow melts and Summer comes again, new problems are presented to alpine critters - the Australian bush is prone, and often adapted, to fire. At the current rate, particularly large, intense fires blaze across our bushland every decade or so. Such events can be devastating, the tragic consequences being too well known to Australian residents. However, these natural disasters also significantly affect our native wildlife.
Life in the alpine is never easy - snow, fire, or neither. The winds are relentless, the nights bite hard with frost, and there is little or no shelter. It is no wonder then that many of the plants and animals adapted to such a brutal environment are truly unique. Such special wildlife deserves special interest and special care. As climate change threatens to reduce our already rare alpine habitats, we must make it a priority to ensure our mountain-dwelling species are capable of enduring, lest we lose something very special: our alpine heritage.
What are these unique plants and animals?
How do they survive such an unforgiving landscape?
And just why do they matter?
In this article, I hope to answer some aspects of these questions, and shed a little light on our glorious and fragile alpine ecosystems.
Stepping out of my car at the Ski Resort, I am instantly aware of just how much my Commodore is capable of sheltering me from the elements - what a luxury. The thin air is whipped around my body by the wind. It moves me with such force it’s as if each little pocket of oxygen were trying to rush past me to board a train at Flinders Street during rush hour. Not unlike crushing an empty can of coke, I’m grasped hard by the cold and with a shudder, retract into myself.
“Welcome to Lake Mountain,” I say, my words stolen by the wind, to Rachel and Emma who are in hysterics from the harshness of the atmosphere they’ve stepped into. Soon, as if on cue, my body cranks up the heat and my thermals and thick ski jacket do an excellent job at insulating my body temperature. I smile; humans are never really that far from comfort, our ingenuity allows us to get by in almost any environment. Yet, extraordinary though we might be, it is not our adaptability I have come here to see.
Lake Mountain, only some two hours from Melbourne’s CBD, is a world in itself. Leaving the Ski Resort behind, we move into what would soon become the tourist-enticing snowfields of fame. For now though, there is no glaring white power. The snow would be here soon enough, but we had come to discover the alpine environment as it is for most of the year. Cold and wet, yet breathtakingly beautiful.
On either side of the path we walk we are surrounded by the towering white figures of snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora). They are dead, or at least the main body of each tree is dead. The 2009 bushfires that swept over this area and devastated the region surrounding Marysville and Kinglake were of such intensity that they destroyed thousands of these trees. However, the snow gums live on; the same individual plants re-sprout from lignotubers at the trees base and now, while the canopy is bare, the base of each plant is a glorious soft green. Life here is resilient. That is the first lesson of the alpine environment.
We emerge from the forest trail into lesson two: life here is diverse. Before us is an open span of alpine grass and heathland. It is a mosaic of wonderfully pleasant tones of green and brown. Moisture hangs in the air, and as a cloud passes over us, it’s as if the whole landscape has been delicately painted with dew. The silence of this world dawns on me. I breathe quietly, unwilling to offend the serenity.
We opt for the path less travelled – which for us means neglecting the path altogether. The only trails we will be following are those made by the wombats that call this place home. While the common wombat has trouble moving through thick snow, it is nevertheless an abundant species at Lake Mountain, their trails appearing everywhere.
Less than 50 species of mammals can be found in the Australian alpine and most, like the wombat, are common at lower altitudes. However there are some species that are endemic to the alpine environment, such as the Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus) found no lower than 1200 meters. The small diversity of mammals here is a signature of the environment’s harsh climate.
Studying my late grandfather’s compass, I make a note of our intended direction, and with a quiet enthusiasm we pass into the forest of snow gums. They form an obvious border against the alpine grassland – the tree-line, as it is called. There are various ecological reasons for why such a boundary should exist, but one is that the abundant and fast-growing grasses out-compete and therefore disallow the emergence of snow gum seedlings. During the mighty fires of 2009, these grasses were wiped from the earth, allowing seedlings to establish, and so there is some speculation that the tree-line may move beyond its current position. Certainly, young saplings dot the grassland just beyond the tree boundary, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming decade.
Inside, the forest is silent. The wind wrestles with the occasional leaf, and everywhere, the stark white trees reach for the sky: they are monuments to the devastation of this place’s past. We walk for some time, through grass, over rock, bending under and twisting between the low hanging snow gum branches. Unlike the temperate forests some kilometres below, there is little movement here. For one thing, the weather is hardly conducive to activity, but in general the alpine is a quiet, unassuming place.
Of course, there are animals. We see the occasional Flame Robin dart from branch to stump. In warmer weather, I’ve seen them here in great abundance feeding in plain sight, seemingly prone to showiness. The males are gorgeous little birds with dazzling red breasts and handsome grey heads and wings. We find the scat of wallabies, wombats, and even owls. Everywhere, the forest grasses are flattened with criss-crossing wombat trails. We follow them but are unable to find their architects. Nevertheless, it is an adventure, and each step brings with it the exciting purity of the Australian bush.
After some time spent exploring the maze of snow gums, climbing large boulders that have emerged atop the mountain, and looking out for the unassuming life forms of the alpine environment, we find ourselves entering a grassy clearing smothered in a grey cloud. We appear to be at a high point of the mountain, as the tree line is nowhere above us - only below. In the centre of the grassland is a bog, and in the midst of the bog is a freshwater spring. The water is clear and the scene is one of serenity. There is silence but for the odd breath of wind, faint bird call, or croak of tiny frogs. Visibility is halted by the foggy cloud, heightening the sense of exclusivity we feel up here in this otherworldly place. We are alone, and the feeling is refreshing.
Peering into the shallow, pure water, I consider the journey that the contents of this bog will embark on. It will trickle its way down the mountain, turning into creeks and mighty rivers, eventually flowing into wetlands or out to sea. There is a feeling of genesis up here on the mountaintop: from this private place in the clouds, water will flow on to sustain life across vast expanses of land. It is a beautiful thought. But there is life sustained here also. The diverse bogs are riddled with tiny creatures: frog, spiders and various insects that survive without thermals or ski jackets. They live here all year round amongst the grasses and mosses of this breathtaking environment, and their sustained existence is essential to the health of this ecosystem, and in turn the health of the connected lands below.
Skinks can be found here also, some adapting to the cold climate by giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs that would otherwise be vulnerable to the climate. Juvenile Crimson Rosellas spend time here in large flocks before pairing up and moving further down the mountain as adults. Currawongs thrive throughout the warmer months, descending to the lowlands during winter. There is much to experience here if you have the will to look and the patience to listen.
Frequently, as the cloud rolls over and around us, I ponder the astonishing resilience of life here. The abundance of vegetation is a testament to the extraordinary adaptability of life, and the stark white snow gums and their re-sprouting shoots stand in defiant memorial of the fiery devastation of times passed. In spite of the silence, the entire landscape seems to sing to us. It is a melody of the enduring hardiness of life mixed with the sense of reality that one is confronted with in such wild places. It has character - that much is certain.
After we spend a while in reflection, we make our way home. Following my compass, I lead us to a creek flowing with water of mountain origin. Through thick vegetation, up slope and downhill we find our way back – though I am aware Rachel and Emma were at times doubtful of my orienteering skills. Tired, hungry, cold and wet, we slump into my Commodore. A bite to eat and a nice hot shower would see these woes dealt with, but what would not dissipate was our respect for Australia’s alpine, nor our desire to preserve it and the unique life it supports.
We live in a very special land, surrounded by unique habitats. As you sit reading this, spare a thought for the irreplaceable organisms that are, at this moment, living out their lives atop our majestic mountains. Consider that, while astonishingly resilient, these plants and animals are also vulnerable, and the ecosystems in which they live fragile: that is the final lesson of our alpine. Can we afford to lose such places and the biodiversity that they nurture?
The steps we take now in minimising the effects of climate change and maintaining a healthy alpine environment will ultimately determine the survival of our alpine heritage. The first step for each of us should be to visit these extraordinary places, snow or not, and come to terms with the profound significance of their existence in our world.