This is a guest article by Michael Smith.
October is an ideal time for a gentle walk in the countryside. The extreme heat of December has not yet arrived and you can enjoy wearing some light clothing. I say, what a fantastic time to visit Northern Melbourne for a bushwalk!
About an hour north of Melbourne city, there is a smallish community nestled between Hurstbridge and St Andrews called Smiths Gully. Within this district there is a bushwalk, which begins at Peter Franke Reserve and follows the Smiths Creek all the way to St Andrews. The return walk takes 1.5 hours and is 3km long.
The vegetation along the creek consists of regrowth from two significant events. In the mid 1850s, gold was discovered in Smiths Gully, which convinced thousands of miners to try their luck. As a result, many trees were logged to create shelters and a community was built. After regeneration was well underway, a fire further decimated the bushscape in 1962.
Today, the gully has a diverse array of plants and ecosystem layers. This is thanks to the eucalypts which provided offspring following both events, due to birds and mammals dispersing seeds from nearby land and the efforts of the local Landcare group to conserve native vegetation.
As soon as you begin the walk, it becomes evident that spiny-head mat-rush dominates the understory along the lower slopes. Don’t be fooled though, as hints of purple and yellow can also be found. Love creeper twines around the mat-rush searching for light, and waxlip orchids pop up where space allows. As you encounter more disturbed areas along the track and the northern fence line, the glossy yellow leaves of native buttercup and Austral bear’s-ear become commonplace. Take time to look for pollinators when you find a decent buttercup patch. The wide petals provide an excellent landing zone for hover flies, Lasioglossum bees and native ants. In conjunction with nectar and pollen, buttercups are irresistible for many insects.
Within the midstory of the slopes, thorny plants such as prickly moses and sweet bursaria are dotted about. Scrubwrens and fantails can be seen darting to and from these trees. These birds feel comfortable feeding on the food provided by prickly shrubs because predators are less likely to risk receiving a thorn in their side.
One of the most magnificent facets of this walk is the array of tall canopy trees that you can see in one glance. Within the forest foothills, narrow-leaf peppermint, swamp gum and the ghost-like trunks of candlebarks tower over the ground story. Alongside silver wattles, these trees provide food and resting perches for honeyeaters and insectivorous birds. White-eared and yellow-faced honeyeaters, as well as spotted pardalotes can be heard regularly, providing a beautiful melody on your gentle walk.
As the track winds down the slope and closer to the riparian zone, the vegetation changes slightly. Swamp and manna gums now become the dominant eucalypt, and tea-tree adorns the riverbank midstory. Common froglets make their home in this zone, and their call, not unlike a ratchet, can be heard in October.
At regular intervals along the track, signage boards explain the unique relationship that the Indigenous people have with the Smiths Gully area. The local Wurundjeri tribe would move about the wider Yarra River catchment. Their movements were determined by the seasonally available flora and fauna, and some of the bulbous food they would have eaten, including yam daisies (Murnong in Woiwurrung language) and green-hood orchids (multiple species), are on show during the 1.5km stretch.
As you stop to read these signs, or rest by the river, it is easy to quietly reflect. One may think of the deep connections that the Wurundjeri people share with this land. The goldminers might also come to mind, their days spent standing in the cold creek for hours, hoping to finally come face to face with a gold nugget.
Once you reach the end of the trail, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to head back. If you continue down Proctor Street for five minutes, you will come across the small township of St Andrews. Here, you will find an old-fashioned pub and other eateries. What’s more, between 8am and 2pm on Saturdays the renowned St Andrews Market will be in full swing where you may find a trinket or have an interesting conversation with a local.
So, if gentle walks and encountering wildflowers, eucalypts and subtle changes in ecosystems sound like fun, have a crack at the Smiths Gully walk.
Birds identified on the walk: Spotted pardalote, striated pardalote, yellow-faced honeyeater, white-eared honeyeater, grey fantail, white-browed scrubwren, golden whistler, Australian wood duck, superb fairy-wren, crimson rosella, shrike thrush, fantail cuckoo.
Plants identified on the walk: Native buttercup, native violet, early Nancy, waxlip orchid, sweet bursaria, prickly moses, dogwood, prickly tea-tree, yam daisy, Austral bear's-ear, blackwood, silver wattle, snowy daisy-bush, narrow-leaf peppermint, swamp gum, candlebark, manna gum, tall greenhood, nodding greenhood, blunt greenhood.
- A 3km return walk from Peter Franke Reserve in Smiths Gully to St Andrews.
- Whilst in St Andrews, check out the eateries or visit the St Andrews Market on Saturday.
- Bring your binoculars for bird spotting and a camera to capture the magnificent scenery.
- Information boards along the track outline the significance of the area to the Wurundjeri people and the gold mining history of the township.
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Michael Smith is a trained ecologist who currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity.
Banner image of a yam daisy courtesy of Michael Smith.