Coolgardie Farm Visit

After a break of 15 years BSL members revisited Crystal Hill, the Coolgardie property of Stephanie and Julian Lymburner.

Stephanie and Julian Lymburner’s property, Crystal Hill, was the venue for BSL’s  latest ‘farm visit’. Crystal Hill is on the Big Scrub escarpment about 10 minutes drive south of Ballina.

That drive south from Ballina follows the line of the escarpment, known here as the Blackwall Range, and it is not hard to visualise a huge wall of basalt lava creeping across the land to the right, eventually freeze-hardening into our Alstonville Plateau. Of course, the Mt Warning/Wollumbin story is not so simple as my ‘disaster movie’ visions and our region’s geological history began long before 20 million years ago (see The Moving Mountains, page 18)… but I wander from the present and from the road!

Stephanie and Julian were once again hard at work preparing their property and organising the day to make BSL members feel welcome. I say ‘once again’ because not only had Stephanie and Julian jointly organised and coordinated our last Myocum farm visit (see Myocum Farm Visit, Newsletter 40) with Alan and Diana Rowe, but they had also previously opened their property for our inspection on a September weekend in 1996 – almost 15 years ago!

I was one of the BSL members lucky enough to have attended that farm visit, leaving me with an impression of stunning views across the cane fields of the Richmond River, stony cliff faces supporting glorious waterfalls and a huge amount of work – work done, and to be done. Taking the forewarned blind corner and seeing the Land for Wildlife sign foretold in the directions, I turned into the Lymburners’ tree-lined driveway and made my way to the gathering point on the deck: I could glimpse portions of those remembered views… but, had they been so framed by encroaching trees 15 years ago?

The weather was kind and, with only one light shower, 14 people fronted for what would be an interesting and educational bushwalk. The Lymburners thought  it best to contain numbers, due to the rocky nature of the property, and so had requested that people telephone prior to the day to confirm their attendance. The Lymburners had made arrangements with two late starters for a private tour in the near future.

Stephanie began by welcoming us to Crystal Hill. Armed with an impressive array of aerial photographs, maps, photo albums, species lists and vegetation plans, she explained that Crystal Hill’s 22 acres incorporated 3 distinct vegetation types and numerous waterfalls. Stephanie explained that her mother, Di Mercer, had the foresight to ‘protect’ the property in 1968 by removing the invasive weed species, mainly camphor laurel, lantana, crofton weed and mistflower, and to enhance koala habitat.

Stephanie said that she and Julian had returned to the property in 1993 and then, in 1994, they did the Bush Regeneration Course at Wollongbar TAFE with the express desire of fulfilling her mother’s vision. In 1997 they were successful in obtaining a Voluntary Conservation Agreement (VCA) from DECCC National Parks and Wildlife Service Division – again fulfilling a wish of Diana’s, to protect the property in perpetuity.

Having heard the history and the admonitions of slippery rocks and the need to ask questions only at the designated stop areas, so that all could hear, we were all keen to see for ourselves what delights the forest held. With my trusty iPod recording device in Stephanie’s pocket and a camera I was prepared to gather all the facts and information I could for the newsletter readers.

We set out on a well-made rock path into the forest. Our first stop was at a massive dead camphor laurel that Julian had poisoned some 15 years ago. The first hatchet treatment was only partially successful, perhaps, Stephanie confided, due to the size of the tree, but the subsequent drilling method “killed the ‘old Man’ off”. It is still a large freestanding skeleton and, after passing several more, Stephanie was asked why so many dead camphors had strangling-type figs attached (see picture above). Stephanie explained that she had put figs in several camphors, waiting until the figs were established, before Julian poisoned them.

The sight of a healthy macadamia sapling near the track caught my eye (see picture above). With my dual roles of macadamia farmer and Big Scrub enthusiast, I have a keen interest in our wild macadamias. Had the Lymburners planted this one next to the track? A quick count confirmed the neat arrangement of four leaves at each whorl, as opposed to three, a distinctive characteristic of the local Macadamia tetraphylia that differentiates it from the other three wild macadamia species found further north: perhaps this was a naturally occurring macadamia tree.

A quick photo and I scampered down the track to catch the group. In fact, far from being slippery, the track was an amazingly constructed rock path! I was just in time to hear the question “WHO did your rock path building?” Short of breath and at the back of the mob I decided to rely on the iPod to record the details while I focused the camera on the meticulous stonework. While there were lots of stones to work with, it was apparent that not just any stone was used in a particular position and that equal care had been used in choosing and placing stones, from the deep foundation to the top pavers.

Our accompanying botanist, professional bush regenerator and often BSL field day tour leader, Darren Bailley, commented on a large patch of fishbone fern, saying that where it was growing, amongst a rocky scree slope, was its natural environment and while it would be a good idea to “keep an eye on it”, it was unlikely to pose a threat to the remnant. He said that it is, in fact, a native to the area but frequently it “gets away in the more lush environments of the North Coast”.

We continued on past massive rock cliff faces that supported all sorts of epiphytes, including huge staghorns and birdnest ferns.

Stephanie made the observation that when they first started poisoning the camphors, they focused on the large trees that had either a significant number of native seedlings or small trees under them, or ones that had large native vines throughout the canopy: with so many camphors to treat it took about 10 years to complete the poisoning program. Now the area has a healthy mid-storey and understorey of native species but also some large dead ‘camphor stags’ – staghorns that were growing in the doomed camphor laurels but now wither on the rocks.

Moving along, we gathered in another clearing. We were on the southern side of Randle’s Creek, Stephanie said, and the vegetation here was predominantly dry rainforest species – rather ironically I thought as the sound of rain on the treetops grew louder.

The question was asked as to what was the dominant vine that scrambled across the rocks and up into the canopy. Stephanie and Darren answered in unison that it was native hoya vine. While many of us thought it, someone stated, that it looked a lot like the dreaded madeira vine, with its shiny oval leaves and scrambling habit. Stephanie said that once you saw the hoya flowers there is NO doubt about any similarities – with its large umbels of highly perfumed soft cream and pink flowers!

We followed the winding path further down to the bottom of… the first waterfall! “Ooohs” and “aaahs” abounded, along with a little embarrassment on my part that I couldn’t tell the difference between the roar of a waterfall and the sound of oncoming rain! It was an impressive rock face and equally impressive waterfall – one participant promptly whipped out her mobile phone, took a photo and sent it to her husband to show him what he was missing out on!

Stephanie spoke of the rock path builder, who was also a keen abseiler, and how he had spent a number of days abseiling down the rock face removing mistflower from the face of the waterfall! Who was this man and how keen was he? Not to worry, all the details were on the iPod and all I had to do was linger behind and get more shots of the falls.

The group had retraced some of the path to a spot where there were several large dead eucalypts (see picture above). Stephanie explained that her mother had wanted to enhance the koala habitat of the area and had sought advice from the Queensland Herbarium. She not only got advice but also a large packet of seeds from them. The seeds germinated and she planted and gave away the seedlings to others to enhance the koala habitat in the Coolgardie area. Unfortunately, the eucalypt species that she propagated were the WRONG species for koalas in this area! “We’re speaking here of the early 1970s”, Stephanie added. Stephanie said that it had pained them to poison the trees but they had planted the correct species in other areas of the property for the koalas – to replace the ones that her mother had planted.

“The eucalypt trunks still stand tall and clean providing wonderful bird perches,” Stephanie said, “but since the eucalypts have died, the response of the native rainforest species and grass species has been phenomenal. With the water and nutrients now available, there has been an amazing resurgence of the native species. The area now looks healthy instead of dry and stunted as it did a number of years ago before the eucalypts were poisoned.” She was right. The viewing bench was succumbing to native carpet grasses and a wall of in-your-face shrubs – too much of an ironic picture to miss (see picture previous page).

The group had disappeared down a cleft rock, and as I hurried to catch up, I tried to remember what Stephanie was saying about “leaning into the rock face”, “taking your time” and other things about “watch out for the rock orchids”. With eyes to the ground through the descent, in no time at all I found myself once again behind the group peering over shoulders at yet another magnificent waterfall and pool. Stephanie mentioned that when her mother first saw the property and before she bought it, she was aware of the first and the third waterfalls but not this major fall. She mentioned that a photo exists of her, Stephanie, scrambling up the rock face to remove mistflower and that “she wouldn’t do it now!” Nor I Stephanie!

The group gazed about looking at the species diversity while Darren noted the similarities between Crystal Hill and Hogan’s Scrub, a Big Scrub remnant well known for its cliff face and rock scree.

Still further down the property we came to the third falls. These are more like a series of large cascades finishing in a wonderful large pool with overhanging trees and vines (see picture above). Palms and tree ferns abounded, as did lomandra – all much improved, Stephanie said, since the removal of the camphor and mistflower.

Stephanie indicated an even steeper rocky slope on our left and told us that when they first came to this area, it had been covered by a massive infestation of monstera (see Monstera, right); they have a photo of Julian standing in amongst the patch with the plants up to his shoulders.  They had tried a series of methods to eradicate the weed, with a marked lack of success, until they started cutting it into short sections and wedging it between two trees ‘ladder fashion’ and then moving the sections around each time they passed. Stephanie said that this seemed to work but to give us an idea of how difficult monstera was to kill she pointed out a small section of stem clinging about 4 metres up a red cedar trunk – it was still alive even though it has not had a root touch the ground for at least 15 years!

This area around the third waterfall is some distance from the house and very near the property boundary and escarpment base. Some unscrupulous person, just prior to Stephanie and Julian’s return to the property, had removed a large number of bird’s nest ferns.  Now, with the removal of the mistflower and lantana, Stephanie said that the bird’s nest ferns are re-establishing.

Julian pointed out a difficult to reach steep rock face that recently had an infestation of wandering jew covering the rocks. He sprayed the area two months ago and he said that there was no visual evidence of the wandering jew now, but that it would require regular monitoring for the next 12 months at least.

I was missing much of Stephanie and Julian’s presentation as I scurried around taking pictures and I was looking forward to hearing the full version from my iPod. There was, however, a pattern emerging. The huge camphors had been targeted by hatchet and drill until they succumbed, even allowed to stand for a few years while strangler figs established, but nevertheless they were gone in 10 years; eucalypts of great sentimental value were replaced by appropriate koala-friendly species; tenacious monstera was hounded from its stronghold and its last survivor, literally treed, watched carefully for 15 years; ubiquitous mistflower had been begrudged a toehold, even in the most remote cliff ledge, and now a lone wandering jew outbreak was being targeted and put on the watch list. This was a very disturbing pattern that, while it spoke volumes for Stephanie and Julian’s dedication, knowledge and meticulous nature, it provoked pangs of inadequacy in those of us who employed the far less successful ‘hit and miss’ strategy of the very unprofessional.

It was time to retrace our steps to the bottom of the first waterfall and so up the steep climb we all went, taking small breaks to admire the vegetation, glimpses of the waterfalls, creek and views… surely not just to catch our breath.

We then headed into the bushes, and off our beautiful path, to cross the creek and head up into the southern section of the property. The change in vegetation type was immediately apparent with the more familiar subtropical rainforest species crowding in and cooling us down.

Stephanie pointed out an aristolochia vine – the preferred food of the Richmond River birdwing butterfly caterpillar; she had planted this vine before discovering a large naturally occurring plant further into the property.

The area nearby, Stephanie said, had been densely covered in lantana, lawyer vine and whip vine when they first came and, if my memory stretches back 15 years, this area was in their ‘work to do’ category. I could still see the delicate leaf-tip curls of the whip vine over some trees and I wasn’t totally disappointed not to find the sharp barbs of the lawyer vine, but there was certainly no sign of lantana. Evidently Stephanie and Julian had had a difference of opinion on how to stack the lantana canes to dry but, either way, my money was never going to be on the lantana. In the long haul it didn’t matter, as the area now is lush with native ginger and a mix of native trees and vines – an excellent example of natural regeneration.

In a few moments’ scan of the canopy, I could see four species of butterfly: one I couldn’t identify, a blue triangle, a caper white and the smallish black and yellow of a regent skipper – only the third time I had ever seen the rare adult regent skipper! Darren pointed out that vine thickets were great habitats for butterflies while John Gillet reminded me of an unresolved conversation that we had as to whether skippers were, in fact, butterflies; I’ve done some research, John (see Regent Skipper – Moth or Butterfly, previous page) and I’m happy to agree with anything you say!

John Gillet then called my attention to a relative large macadamia tree off the track: John confirmed that there were indeed several naturally occurring Macadamia tetraphylla trees on the property and he suspected that their locations were even GPS recorded.

An expectant ripple moved through the group when Stephanie announced that we were about to head towards the only flat area of the property. The rock pathway reappeared, with even more masterful workmanship, to ease our way to the top of the hill. We passed fern-covered rocks, flowering turnipwood trees, white quandong, red cedar, native ixoria and more macadamia trees.

We crossed over Randle’s Creek about 20 metres from the precipice and lingered by its edge in companionable groups to admire the views of the Richmond River, to reflect on what we had seen and to just be lulled by the proverbial babbling brook. The topics discussed varied from regeneration techniques, the natural beauty of the area to the obvious achievements of the Lymburners. Some were keen to come back in spring to see the large orchids, in the white fig overhanging the water, in flower. Another was keen to trim the trees from an overgrown viewing platform to improve the view! Stephanie indicated that ‘Plan A’ was to let the trees grow taller until the view reappeared through the trunks but the rapid tree growth and loss of the view was a bit of a quandary.

The easy walk through the highest, and relatively flat, portion of the Lymburner’s property brought its own revelations. The trees were bigger, denser and more diverse as the rocks gave way to soil. Darren, ever the botanist, noticed a silver croton, a tree that he said was normally associated with much higher elevations and a very large stand of brown myrtle that he thought was usually found further south.  Darren also noticed evidence of  myrtle rust on several species and pondered whether it would spread or, perhaps, decline with drier weather. We stopped and looked at a large grassy area that the Lymburners are hoping to establish as a native grass plot.

Back onto the deck and there were glasses of water all-round before coffee and carrot cake – and much more discussion and convivial talk. Attendees all went home inspired, and tired, after having had an extensive and interesting walk.

Thank you, Julian and Stephanie, for a marvellous afternoon. Thank you, Stephanie, for carrying my iPod, even though it wasn’t switched on! Thanks too for supplying details and a written report, which were the basis of my otherwise very pictorial report. My apologies to the readers for missing so many of the details that would have given justice to Stephanie and Julian’s efforts – I am reading the iPod manual!

Driving back toward Ballina I had more time to reflect on what I had seen, if not heard. As with our last farm visit at Alan and Diana’s Myocum property we had seen what two very dedicated, hard-working people could achieve. Crystal Hill is an enchanting property but it was not, and is not, an easy gig. The almost total lack of topsoil and steep slopes over the majority of the property had made extensive tree planting out of the question and regeneration and weed control very hard work yet, unbelievably, I couldn’t recall seeing one weed!

Stephanie and Julian have an obvious love of this property that they have blended with knowledge and relentless hard work to create a place, a forest, very much worthy of Diane’s vision.

 

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