1900 Footprints: A Journey for the Plight of Threatened Species

This is a guest post by Tristan O'Brien.

With a growing list of over 1900 Threatened species in Australia and an ongoing struggle for resources to combat this issue across the country, what does the future of sustainability and biological diversity look like in Australia? 

As the world’s population migrates into cities and leaves the countryside, our physical and emotional connection to natural places is being broken. Indeed, the first modern ‘urban’ areas in Europe have existed for only around 200 years, a mere fraction of the eons our species has spent living with a much closer connection to the land. Globally, more than half of the world's population live in urban areas, whilst in Australia, the number of people living in cities dwarfs those living in rural areas at a staggering 89%. 

How many people in this country are now able to experience the Australia described by Banjo Patterson? ‘For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.’

Surely, this is having an effect on our motivation for and understanding about why protecting ecological integrity is important here in Australia. In protecting threatened species and responding to climate change, we are struggling to fulfil our responsibility to lead as a developed nation.

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species.  Image: Camilo Mateus

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species. Image: Camilo Mateus

Reconnecting with our HumaNature for the long term

It is clear to me that as Australians, we have a unique opportunity. We are economically stable, and have a high standard of living, low population density, and some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes on Earth.

Developing a greater outdoor culture in Australia will ensure that future generations are equipped with the knowledge to protect biodiversity. Getting our city populations outside and reconnecting with our amazing environment will go a long way towards developing motivation and political will to restore our fragmented landscapes into the future.

This cultural change can happen at a grassroots level, by taking friends and family to our own favourite spots and sharing our enjoyment of natural places. This is why organisations working towards these changes are so important, especially if they are able to reach a wide audience and involve them in environmental issues in an engaging way.

Another exciting movement is the way our understanding of what it means to have nature in a city is changing, particularly by changing cities themselves to contain and function as unique ecosystems. Side effects of including nature in the function of cities include greater social cohesion, a decreased chance of developing a mental illness, reductions in crime*, and increased productivity**.

Logo design: Bel  én Elorietta.

Logo design: Belén Elorietta.

But what about responding now?

Unfortunately, many environmental issues are pertinent now, and cannot wait for future generations to make the first response. For example, historical land clearing in Adelaide’s Mt Lofty Ranges ending in the 1980s has left an ‘extinction debt’ of nearly 50 of the 120 bird species that originally existed in the region, eight of which have already disappeared.

Continued land clearing, mining activities, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change are just some of the pressures threatening many species around Australia that require immediate action to prevent further species loss.

Therefore, it is important for Australians to support organisations that are actively carrying out restoration works right now.

So what are we going to do about it?

1900 kilometres for 1900 threatened species

In my own efforts to highlight these issues, from mid-September I will be undertaking a long-distance walk called 1900 Footprints to raise awareness and funds for conservation projects in Australia. The walk will take me from Adelaide to Melbourne and across Tasmania.

In walking one kilometre for every species listed as Threatened in this country, I hope to garner interest from individuals, groups and organisations for changing the way we think about our connection with natural environments and to fundraise for on-the-ground conservation initiatives.

Funds raised will go towards two organisations that are making a real-world difference in these areas:

BioR is a volunteer-run, scientifically-informed restoration organisation that reconstructs habitat for declining species in cleared agricultural landscapes. They will use funds from 1900 Footprints to install a nursery and nesting boxes for declining bird species in a 1700ha restoration site near Monarto, South Australia.

Wollangarra is an outdoor education centre that helps young people connect with themselves, their peers and the natural environment by taking them hiking in wild areas of the Victorian High Country. In these places, they perform important, on-the-ground conservation works, including weed removal, track maintenance and tree planting. Funds from 1900 Footprints will be used to sponsor disadvantaged young people to attend these life-changing courses and connect with the wild Australian landscape.

Please help me with 1900 Footprints by sharing this project with your family and friends and by donating to the project.

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Tristan O’Brien has worked in ecology, sustainability, outdoor education and eco-tourism. He is passionate about communicating environmental conservation through design, writing, photography and outdoor education. He completed an Honours year in Environmental Biology, investigating habitat use changes of woodland birds following controlled burning.

You can find him on Twitter at @TristanAvella

Banner image courtesy of Tristan O'Brien.

*Wolfe, M.K. and J. Mennis, Does vegetation encourage or suppress urban crime? Evidence from Philadelphia, PA. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2012. 108 (2–4): p. 112-122. 

**Nieuwenhuis, M., et al., The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2014. 20(3): p. 199-214.    

Walking Amongst Giants

In the Taungurong language, Toolangi means ‘tall tree’. True to its name, Toolangi State Forest is home to many of Victoria’s most astonishingly lofty trees that are primarily of the mountain ash species. The scientific name of the mountain ash is Eucalyptus regnans, meaning ‘reigning’; it too is a fitting title for the tallest flowering plants in the world. These kings and queens of the forest grow to great heights, can live for centuries, and provide habitat for an abundance of species.

Towering 73 metres above the forest floor, with a girth of 16 metres at chest height, the Kalatha Giant dominates Toolangi’s treeline. After the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, a short walking track was created around the tree with signage explaining its significance and the ecology of the area. Following this track up into the forest, you may not at first be able to see the tree for the woods – but peer up through the understorey and you’ll be staggered to find yourself right at the foot of this old dinosaur.

Kalatha Giant Tree Walk entrance. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Kalatha Giant Tree Walk entrance. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The Kalatha Giant has stood for centuries; it is believed to be between 300 and 400 years old. In its time, it has seen multiple fires tear through the surrounding forest, and though they did not fell it, the tree still bears the marks of their passage. The enormous ‘Cathedral Door’ hollow at its base is a burn scar, a charred gothic doorway between sprawling buttress roots. The older the tree, the thicker its bark, and the more protection it has against fire: by now, the Kalatha Giant has an impressive organic armour. The path leads the walker past a stag – the dead trunk of a tree that was killed by fire some time ago. Although they are no longer alive, these trees have a role to play: before their eventual collapse, they provide vital nesting hollows for animals.

Somehow, the Kalatha Giant also escaped the hand of man. Nearby, a colossal, moss-covered stump bears axe-scars where planks were wedged into the trunk of this former giant as platforms for early loggers to hack it down by hand. It’s a kind of labour that is hard to imagine in an era when machinery can fell trees in a matter of minutes. Who can say what saved the Kalatha Giant from a similar fate? The surrounding stumps and stags seem to point to the unlikeliness of its survival, but at the same time are a reminder of the cyclical nature of the life of the forest.

The Toolangi Forest. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The Toolangi Forest. Photo: Alex Mullarky

At different stages in its life, the mountain ash tree attracts different mammals to its heart. Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, tends to prefer shorter, dead trees, possibly because the ongoing decay generates warmth. Greater gliders and yellow-bellied gliders, on the other hand, use living, hollow-bearing trees as their home base. Among its branches is the rich birdlife of the montane ash forest, from satin bowerbirds to fairy-wrens, flame robins and fantails. The voice of the superb lyrebird resounds among the trees. Innumerable species of beetles, spiders and other invertebrates live in its bark, its litter, its soil. This is more than a tree; it’s an entire world.

The area surrounding the Kalatha Giant is now a Special Protected Zone. Whatever is next in this tree’s epic life story, this giant won’t be brought down at the hands of humans. It has already reached an extraordinary age; will we live to see it pass into its next phase, the nourishment of other species in its death and decay? This inevitability isn’t something we should try to prevent; instead, we must ensure that its children and grandchildren – the young trees of this forest – have the opportunity to grow ancient in their turn. 

Cover photo by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra

Go and get lost

On the map, Licola is the last dot on the south-western edge of the Alpine National Park. Somehow our imaginations conflated this into an alpine hub on the edge of the mountains, when in fact, it is a green, beautiful, but very tiny village centred around a general store. Just out of Licola are a series of campgrounds along the Wellington River, 14 in total, each with plenty of spots to pitch a tent. My partner Lachy and I set up ours at no. 5, Manna Gum Camp, which was far enough off the road and had easy access to the river. All night we only heard one car go past, and even that was a surprise. 

The sun was already behind the rocky hills when we made camp, but it stayed light for a couple of hours more, until we brought our stew into the car to eat and to escape the moths flitting around our head torches. When we stepped out again, the sky was bright with the Milky Way.

Although we had woken up on our usual city clocks, we fell asleep early with the darkness. It's a beautiful feeling to wake up without an alarm because the light has subtly changed, and hear the insects waking all around you. Apparently I had slept through the sniffing and pacing of some creature outside our tent in the night. 

We drove up into the mountains along the gravel road that hugs spurs and then unfurls through the Howitt Plains. Two hours or so later we parked up in the Howitt Car Park under snow gums. In the Intentions Book we noted down our planned route and cast our eyes over the previous authors from all over Australia and New Zealand, who’d triumphantly printed RETURNED.

The walk out from the car park to Macalister Springs is a simple one – signposted, well-trodden and relatively easy going. At this time of year, each footstep sends ripples of grasshoppers scattering through the grass. At Mac Springs, an angular wooden composting toilet sits on the edge of the ridge, with a wide window overlooking the mountain range – the best view from a drop dunny in Australia, surely. Just down the slope is the Macalister Hut, another surprising and stunning piece of architecture, and no doubt a comfortable place to spend a night or two. Within, a logbook holds notes from the hut’s many guests. One of the more recent entries, from the Murderers & Sadists group, recounted how the group of hikers witnessed their friend’s slow death from MSG. The next was a list of Catholic school group members, punctuated by hearts. 

After fiddling with an old piece of pipe that previous hikers had used to channel the slow-running creek high enough to fill a bottle, we restocked on water and continued on to the summit of Mt Howitt. The views of layers of bluish mountains like a watercolour painting are so prevalent along this route, you almost become used to them. We descended from Mt Howitt along a tricky narrow path. I hadn’t done an overnight hike in 10 years at least, and my out-of-practice legs shook all the way down – fortunately tough boots saved my ankles from twisting too badly. 

The campsite at Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The campsite at Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

We rounded Big Hill and reached the campsite at Mt Magdala. This place is unlike anything I’ve seen before – it glows. The grass is soft underfoot, there are rosellas in the snow gums, and the whole site, despite being alone atop a ridge, feels sheltered. Even when a thick grey bank of cloud crossed the sky and the storm broke, our tent barely rattled. It was so silent, and when the storm passed over, the rocky outcrop of Big Hill was lit up rosy pink. 

There was one flaw to this apparent paradise. Soon after we arrived, we dropped our packs and followed the steep trail down to the creek, our steps strangely springy without our packs weighing us down. When we reached Hellfire Creek we found it was appropriately named – dry as hell itself, not even a trickle. 

We went back up to the campsite and took stock of our options. Most of our food was dehydrated, but we had protein bars, nuts and fruit that we could survive on for the night. We had three litres of water and another 10km to walk before we reached any, with a forecast of 30 degree heat the following day. We could hike back to Macalister Springs and get there just after dark, or continue on and change our route to the King Billy Hut so that we could fill up on water there, but that would be no shorter.  

We decided the easiest thing to do would be to ration our water, eat protein bars for dinner and hike the next 10km first thing in the morning. The creamy pasta pictured on the packet of freeze-dry food had never looked so appetising as we munched on tasteless nut and berry bars. When the storm passed overhead, we set out all our bowls, pans and cups and got into the tent feeling hopeful. Sadly it wasn’t much of a storm, and we each had only about two sips of what must have been the freshest water we’d ever drunk.  

Hells Gap on the way to the summit of Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Hells Gap on the way to the summit of Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

In the morning we woke with the dawn, broke camp quickly and headed up the steep slope to the King Billy ridge. Fuelling ourselves on nuts and sweets, we reached the 4WD track that would lead us down the mountain about an hour and a half later. Although the downhill slope wasn’t as hard on my unfit lungs, after 6km my feet were humming from the concussion of the rocky 4WD track, and we stopped more than once to rest our feet. 

All the way down the mountain, sharing our last two litres of water, we were dreaming of an open, rushing river like that which we had camped beside on our first night, where we would fill our water bottles, cook a big meal, maybe even have a swim. We almost didn’t realise when we had reached it, tucked into a densely vegetated gully at the edge of the track. We kept ploughing ahead until we finally accepted that this wasn’t just a creek, but the Macalister River we had been waiting for. Fortunately there was plenty of water, though it wasn’t the idyll we had expected. We cooked our creamy pasta at last. I don’t think I had ever known the meaning of wolfing down a meal until that lunch. 

All along the gully we had been noticing fallen trees collapsed into the river or leaning against the gully’s edge like gravestones. I wondered aloud what it would be like to see a tree fall. As I stood in the river to fill my water bottle, I heard a creaking overhead, and then a CRACK. A branch splashed into the river beside me, scraping me as it dropped. 

We had been passed at this point by a few 4WDs and found that the track beside the river was narrow, with no place to camp. Since this was our first hike in however long, we had only set ourselves 10km a day to walk, but it was still only 2pm and we didn’t really feel like calling it a day yet. So we decided we would keep going, following the next day’s planned route, until we found a good place to camp. After the soft footing, gentle breeze and beautiful views of the ridgeline, we were becoming less and less impressed with the dense ferns and oppressive heat in the valley, so once we started walking up, we just kept going. Several hours and many breaks later, we reached the snow gum line, and soon afterwards our car. 

We were halfway through our collective six litres of water once again, so we drove to the Howitt Hut where an older map told us there would be water. Unfortunately the tank was stickered with a warning not to drink – it was only suitable for the horses penned there. We cooked our dinner anyway with some of our river water and made camp overlooking the Howitt Plains. 

Parked on the edge of Howitt Plains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Parked on the edge of Howitt Plains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The following day, still recovering from mild dehydration and, let’s be honest, pretty god damn tired, we drove back down to the Wellington River to restock on water and make breakfast. We passed through Licola and bought an adventure map to figure out what to do with our last day, since walking was effectively out of the question. There was an unsealed road from Licola to Jamieson on the other side of the High Country, about 92km in length, so we decided to follow it and camp near Lake Eildon. In our partially-dehydrated state the day before a 4WD driver had passed us sipping a cold can of lemonade, and we’d promised ourselves we’d each down a can of lemonade the second we had a chance. In Licola we finally got to drink more than we needed. What a luxury.  

The drive was beautiful, but when you aren’t on foot so much passes beneath your notice. We tracked through the mountains in a few hours, then drove around the mostly-dry Lake Eildon for a while before returning to Grannys Flat campground on the Jamieson River. 

The Licola-Jamieson road. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The Licola-Jamieson road. Photo: Alex Mullarky

This was a completely different kind of camping. Here, whole families had brought marquees, barbecues, chairs, tables, even rakes. When we went out gathering twigs to make a fire for some marshmallows, we were offered some proper firewood by another camper (shocked by our gatherer methods), but when we went to drop off our twigs, we found that someone else had already given us a stack of wood to burn. Lachy had to go and tell the first camper that we already had some, and he replied that if we wanted any bigger stuff, we should come to him. 

Dehydrated food didn’t seem quite as appealing without a day of hiking in front of it, but we watched trout drifting in the river and a wallaby grazing on the far bank until the sun went down. By lunchtime the following day we were back in Melbourne. 

There’s no moral to this story – I suppose I learned that I was physically capable of much more than I had anticipated. Even being out of shape, mentally, you find that you can just keep pushing on, and then your food tastes so much better, and you sleep so much more soundly because of it. It’s easier than you might expect to get out there and hike and camp and be self-reliant. As long as you have a good map and plenty of food and water, the trail is usually well-trodden and easy to follow. On the other hand, don’t underestimate how dry it can get in the High Country, even now as we are crossing into autumn. Above all, get out there, get away from the city from time to time and remember what quiet sounds like. Go and get lost. Figuratively, anyway.

Cover image by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.