Visiting Goongerah

This is a guest post by Laura Jennings.

In November 2016, I was one of the many UK tourists who visited Australia. My UK friends found it eccentric that I was going to spend three weeks in Australia but not leave one of its smallest states. (‘What? You're not even going to Sydney?’) But, for this flora and fauna obsessive, Victoria has delights enough. In my day job I'm a botanist, so I have a deep appreciation of plants, and I'm also a keen amateur birdwatcher. I think I’m more of a nature lover than an average tourist, but I was lucky enough to have like-minded friends in Victoria who could take me on a road trip to some incredible wild places, one of which was Goongerah, in East Gippsland. 

I would hazard a guess that most visitors from the UK have a mental picture of Australia that includes its beaches, endless deserts, cities (the suburbs of which we recognise from Neighbours) and the Great Barrier Reef. The rainforests don’t seem to feature very prominently in the tourist literature which I think is a sad omission, because they are unbelievably beautiful and full of rare and threatened species.

Me at Goongerah. (I have never looked so British....!)

Me at Goongerah. (I have never looked so British....!)

We went on our trip to Goongerah in the early spring, and seemed to have the whole area almost to ourselves. As someone who lives in crowded southern England, I'm used to queues of traffic even in our "wild places" like national parks, and the noise of passing traffic being almost everywhere, so being somewhere truly quiet, where the dominant sounds were of birds and running water, was very humbling. The campsite is a series of forested glades with a small, clear river running through it. The stereotypical response of the first-time European visitor in Australia is to marvel at how huge everything seems, and even in the campsite I was no exception, as the eucalypt trees seemed to tower over us. I was told by my Australian friend, however, that these are comparatively small compared to true old-growth giants. 

A Gang Gang Cockatoo and a King Parrot.

A Gang Gang Cockatoo and a King Parrot.

I was amazed at the wildlife we spotted from just beside our tent. We startled a pair of Satin Bowerbirds when we arrived. We only got a brief look at the male, but the female became used to us, and we got a close look at her lustrous, olive-green feathers and bright violet eyes as she hopped around our camp. A group of Superb Fairy Wrens fed in short flights in some clumps of sedges, constantly flicking their tails. We saw Gang-Gang Cockatoos feeding on wattles next to King Parrots. In the evening, we were treated to a kookaburra concert in full surround sound as a group of them filled a eucalypt grove. Perhaps that's a common experience for lots of you, but I was mesmerised. You have no idea how lucky you are to live in a country where you can see parrots every day.

We drove around the area to experience some of the different landscapes and types of forest, and one of the things that particularly struck me was the sheer number of tree ferns. I see the same species, Dicksonia antarctica, grown in the UK in groups of two or three as a stylish and very expensive addition to domestic gardens, so to see a whole hillside covered in them beneath a tall Eucalyptus canopy was incredible. I have a particular love for the Proteaceae family, so seeing the Victorian waratah (Telopea oreades) in flower had me in open-mouthed wonder.

Dicksonia antarctica  hillside.

Dicksonia antarctica hillside.

I can see now why appreciating and protecting rainforests is so necessary. If Victorian rainforests aren't valued as they are now, intact and beautiful and full of life, then they're even more vulnerable to the wide range of threats that currently exist, such as overexploitation and climate change. I’m jealous that most of you reading this are only a few hours’ drive away. Visit, and bring your friends (visiting from abroad or otherwise), because they’ll go home dreaming of when they can come back.

Laura Jennings is a botanist working for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She specialises in ex situ plant conservation as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

All images courtesy of Laura Jennings.

A tourist's perspective of the Great Forest National Park

This is a guest article by Molly Manwill.

I was road tripping through Melbourne last month when I heard the “Great Forest National Park” (GFNP) mentioned on a local discussion station. Intrigued, but busily meandering through Melbourne traffic, I looked up the GFNP later that evening with the idea of visiting. I was surprised to see that it is simply a proposed park. Many national parks around the world were set up long ago, recognising the conservation and economic importance of natural areas. So as a conservationist and tourist in Victoria, it’s extremely interesting to see history in the making, the ongoing discussion from both sides, and also to develop my own view, purely from a tourist’s perspective, on this park.

The GFNP proposal stands to add 353,000 hectares of new protected forest to the 170,000 hectares already existing in the area. There are big arguments for the instatement of the new park, including conservation of the mountain ash ecosystem and especially conservation of flagship species such as the Leadbeater’s possum. Conservation also goes hand in hand with the tourism potential of the park, with visitors coming in and spending money to see species like the extremely cute possums.

Leadbeater's possum ( Gymnobelideus leadbeateri ).  Image: CC BY-SA 3.0,

Leadbeater's possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). Image: CC BY-SA 3.0,

Much of Melbourne’s drinking water catchment forms in the proposed park’s coverage and the proposals would protect this vital water supply, which is already under pressure. Health and spiritual benefits associated with nature are another important bonus to the increased park protection. Carbon storage is another reason to protect these areas, with programs even available to pay for this ecosystem service. Carbon storage has benefits beyond Victoria and even Australia – the violence of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in August this year, has been attributed to climate change and there are pressing needs for global climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.

However, with the designation of the proposed park, jobs associated with the logging of these areas would be lost. Coming from a farming background myself, I understand how daunting and scary this would be for families who rely on logging in these areas. A large company that commercially logs and sells hardwoods in the area is not only contesting the park, but also requires an increase in the amount of logging permitted to maintain expansion and to prevent the loss of around 280 local jobs.

There are arguments for and against the park that understandably impassion local residents who share a stake in the decision. Being a tourist and therefore having no stake in it, I can’t really comment on the topic further – but I can comment on an important perspective, considering that one of the biggest arguments for the park is the potential income from tourism.

Data from the Blue Mountains National Park Authority released for the year 2016-2017 suggested that the biggest majority of international visits to the Blue Mountains were from British tourists, aged 15-29. The most popular activities were visiting coffee shops and restaurants, visiting parks, bushwalking and rainforest walks. I fit into this demographic, and dutifully I journeyed to the Blue Mountains when I visited Sydney in 2015.

Image: Molly Manwill

Image: Molly Manwill

If I hadn't travelled through Melbourne with an Australian friend, I may not have visited the city with four seasons, but I would certainly have wanted to visit the national park with the tallest flowering plants in the world – the mountain ash – and with cute Australian wildlife like the Leadbeater’s possum. The popular demographic currently visiting the Blue Mountains is the Instagram generation in the era of “collect memories, not things”. That is, tourists visiting to trek and post their trendy mid-hike coffee on Instagram. Creating a vibrant, trending eco-park would be a huge draw to tourists wanting to get that “back to nature” selfie.

This may also be a wonderful time to add an element of rewilding to a newly formed park. It would be a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce species that will naturally “engineer” these landscapes for better ecosystem health. Researchers and scientific staff could then be employed to monitor these projects, adding data and findings to this highly regarded aspect of ecology. Lessons from Yellowstone show that natural reintroductions often have far-reaching positive impacts. Conservation has historically been about conserving species from extinction and this is as important as ever; however, rewilding brings fantastic opportunities to conserve many species at once, sustainably and long term.

The GFNP is an exciting opportunity for Australian wildlife populations and human populations. I think the proposal for this park presents wonderful opportunities: for new, modern tourist villages to evolve in the park, with lost logging jobs turning into roles as park rangers and hotel owners, creating a range of sustainable, innovative jobs and not only bringing tourists to the park, but to Melbourne.

Sydney has a network of easily reachable parks close to the city, and Melbourne has the scope to emulate this, but in a modern and innovative way. The proposals already in place, such as ziplines, skywalks and new campsites – to name only a few – suggest that this park will be the exciting, cool park for younger generations, but with the infrastructure set up for “grey nomads” as well. The GFNP could be an escape for tourists and city-weary Victorians alike wanting to see Australia’s wildlife the way it should be.

Molly Manwill is a conservationist with a passion for rewilding and sustainable development, and how these can work together. She loves making conservation issues accessible and involving community as much as possible.

Banner image courtesy of Molly Manwill.

Travel That Treads Lightly

Green tourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism, bio-tourism, ecotourism… At first glance these terms may seem counter-intuitive. We know that air travel is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and that human expansion creates pollution and habitat destruction. Jetting around the world to leave post-picnic rubbish in areas of outstanding natural beauty, traffic noise scaring wildlife out of their habitats - there are plenty of imaginable scenarios in which tourism has only a negative impact on the landscape. Ecotourism is not an oxymoron – it’s a response to this negative influence. It’s an attempt not only to reduce the impact of tourism, but, where possible, to make it a positive force for change.

So, who are the ecotourists seeking out these experiences? It could be any person at all – but they have two things in common. Firstly, they have a thirst for travel and exploration and secondly, they are aware of the impact of tourism and want to take steps to leave only a tiny, or invisible, footprint. Ecotourists want to travel in a way that causes the least pollution; to stay in accommodation run by local people who care about the area, environmentally, economically and socially; to take part in activities that show them the beauty and diversity of the natural world without contributing to its destruction.

As our understanding of climate change and the environment has increased, the ecotourism industry has only grown. Ecotourist businesses range from wilderness camps and lodges to treetop walking experiences and whale-watching boat trips. Here in Australia, ecotourism is considered ‘ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation’. There are many contributing factors to this definition from Ecotourism Australia, demonstrating that the concept of ecotourism is a holistic one.

As well as searching for whales and dolphins, there is always the chance of spotting seals in certain areas around Australia - especially in Port Phillip Bay.  Image: Alex Mullarky

As well as searching for whales and dolphins, there is always the chance of spotting seals in certain areas around Australia - especially in Port Phillip Bay. Image: Alex Mullarky

The first principle is sustainability. Eco-lodges and other wilderness-based accommodation often have purpose-built, environmentally friendly facilities that comply with green building codes, ensuring that the impact of construction and the ongoing impacts of managing the building – heating, cooling and so on – are minimised. The Karijini Eco Retreat in Western Australia is one of only a handful of certified eco-lodges in the country. It incorporates natural ventilation, solar power and the use of recycled materials into the running of its semi-permanent Eco Tent structures. The retreat operates within a national park and is owned by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, highlighting another aspect of ecotourism – fostering cultural understanding and recognising the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The only aspect that unifies all ecotourist destinations, however, is a focus on nature. Whether it’s a high-end outback retreat where guests can immerse themselves in the peace and stillness of the desert from the comfort of a safari tent, or a basic forest campsite maintained by a national parks authority, ecotourism is all about spending time in the natural environment we have largely banished from our cities. Ecotourist businesses can contribute directly to the preservation of those environments by donating part or all of their proceeds to conservation. Imagine Cruises in Port Stephens, NSW, is a whale- and dolphin-watching tour operator which contributes a proportion of the sale of every ticket to the Marine Parks Association. The business was also involved in creating a fund which sponsored research by Macquarie University into the dolphins of the area.

Karijini Eco Retreat offers a range of ecotourism experiences, including the ever-popular 'glamping'.  Image:

Karijini Eco Retreat offers a range of ecotourism experiences, including the ever-popular 'glamping'. Image:

More generally, these kinds of contributions are collected in the form of park entry fees. A study in 2015 found that there are roughly 8 billion visits to terrestrial protected areas every year (Balmford et al.). By charging a nominal entry fee, parks like Kakadu are able to develop and continue conservation and research programmes while maintaining the infrastructure of the protected area. Tourists can also participate in ranger-led tours at an additional cost, which is another essential aspect of ecotourism: interpretation. Guides and interpretive materials, like detailed signage, foster an understanding of the significance of the natural area in its visitors, imbuing them with knowledge that will spur them on to protect it.

There are, however, critics of so-called ‘egotourism’ who claim that ecotourists want to feel or be seen to be making ethical travel decisions for selfish reasons, rather than out of a genuine concern for sustainability. Whale-watching has been linked to disruptions in feeding patterns, stress, and habitat changes among whales. There have been suggestions that increased exposure to humans can make prey animals too docile and therefore more vulnerable to predators.

In an attempt to address these concerns, a recent study examined the effect of ecotourism on a number of different species (Buckley et al., 2016). Using population viability analysis, they found that for the majority of species surveyed, ecotourism had a positive impact. It wasn’t universal, however – for example, sea lions in New Zealand were adversely affected by the disturbance at haul-out sites. The principles of ecotourism are not necessarily enough to protect species; business practices must be rigorously monitored to ensure that they actually benefit the species from which they make their income. Ecotourists can and should take it upon themselves to assess destinations and attractions individually to ensure that they are ‘eco’ in practice as well as in principle.

Ecotourism needs to be a balance between exciting and safe animal encounters. Swamp wallabies and other macropods are often easy to spot, as long as one quietly keeps their distance.  Image: Alex Mullarky

Ecotourism needs to be a balance between exciting and safe animal encounters. Swamp wallabies and other macropods are often easy to spot, as long as one quietly keeps their distance. Image: Alex Mullarky

Knowing what we do about the negative effects of tourism, can we ever really justify tourism as environmentalists? The answer is yes, absolutely. It’s a personal experience that makes us care about the world we live in. Maybe we can appreciate images of the sandstone escarpments of the Kimberley when we see them on TV or on the internet, but we can’t feel the heat of the rock beneath our hands or the rush as a flock of cockatoos bursts out of the trees. It’s human nature; we can’t detach and think of the environment only in terms of numbers and percentages. The opportunity for ordinary people – not only ecologists – to experience the natural world is absolutely vital to its conservation. People protect what they care about, and ecotourism is one way for them to discover it.

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.



Banner image courtesy of Alex Mullarky.