18 Dec 2019


By Dr Stuart Blanch

Australian Forest & Woodland Conservation Policy Manager, WWF-Australia

The old black box gum leans over the campfire. Branches drooping, covered in dark grey bark, like arm warmers against the night cold. Thick blue-grey leaves catch the firelight. Flowers of white cluster on the branches, their scent strong in the evening spring air.

Peering down, a brushtail possum stares, unmoving, deep black eyes fixed on dinner sizzling in the frying pan. I marvel at her balance, fluffy black tail wrapping around the branch, baby clinging to her silver-grey back, thick orange fur on her belly.

Do the possums live in that big hollow in the tree where a branch has snapped off, I wonder. Or is it home to a secretive Murray-Darling carpet python?

River redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) with moon in morning light
River redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) with moon in morning light © WWF-Aus / Stuart Blanch

Across the dry floodplain forest comes the back-and-forth call of barking owls. A male koala bellows, seeking a mate.

Microbats, as big as my hand, in a whir, hunt mosquitoes. Perhaps they live in the tree hollow?

I wake to noises of plate and frying pan clattering, and sounds of eating. Perhaps the possums’ patience was rewarded?

In the still hours before dawn the smell of gum trees and dust settles.

The bees and birds arrive at first light.

The old black box, roots deep into the groundwater in the heavy black clay, catches the sun.

White-plumed honeyeaters calling ‘chickowee’ in the canopy flock to the blossoms, before being chased off by a pugnacious red wattlebird. Soon a flock of white-breasted woodswallows arrives, seeking trees to build their twig nests after migrating south to breed in the river red gums and black box.

A grey kangaroo, motionless, stares from the river red gum forest. A joey head poking from the pouch, she turns, concluding me harmless, and grazes the floodplain grasses and sedges lining the riverbank.

Rushing wings overhead herald a flock of little black cormorants, heading over the dry floodplain to the river for breakfast.

The sun climbs, the shade beckons me under the black box tree, and a pied butcherbird sings its mellow tune from the canopy above. The peacefulness sinks in, along with the heat. Only the bees seem unconcerned.

I settle into the cool dirt, leaning back, feeling the cracks in the bark in my back.

I look down. Patterns in the dirt, large animal tracks leading from the tree out onto the parched floodplain toward the river red gum forest. They’re from a lace monitor, a big powerful goanna as long as I am tall.

In the distance, faint sounds from a motorboat rounding the riverbend, kids yelling, and a crow calling.

The old black box is one of a dozen solid ancient trees ringing the small wetland, dry now with deep cracks in the heavy clay. The trees mark the extent of inundation from a flood long ago, which washed the seeds to this small rise in the floodplain soil, leaving them to germinate all in a row as the floodwater receded.

These sentinels tell the story of the river and the forest it made.

I scout around for their younger cousins, seeking signs that saplings and small trees have germinated and grown after more recent floods. I find only a few, a tell-tale sign. The floodplain forest is shrinking and aging. Lack of floods, and droughts made worse from declining rainfall and rising temperatures, are hampering the trees’ efforts to produce future generations.

I wander over to the riverbank, glad for the cool of the shade and moister airs under the big river red gums.

I look up. How old? I wonder. Two hundred years? A truly big old tree could be 500 years old. Or older.

It stands above all, perhaps 35 metres high with a big spreading canopy, and a massive trunk wrapped in smooth bark of silver-whites, reds, greys and creamy-yellows. It leans out over the swirling currents, knuckled roots grip the riverbank, plunging into the brown waters. A sacred kingfisher sits frozen on a root, a perfect perch for ambushing fish.

Little corellas and galahs wheel and screech, red-rumped parrots warble, a pair of peaceful doves call ‘doodle-do’ as they unassumingly peck for grass seeds in the shade.

Sulphur-crested and Corella cockatoos in tree
Sulphur-crested and Corella cockatoos in tree © Chris Farrell Nature Photography / WWF-Aus

In the tree hollows, which take a century or two to form, threatened superb parrots nest and brush-tailed phascogale raise litters of up to eight young. There could be hundreds of hollows in this tree. I wonder if this tree is on the goanna’s regular hunting rounds.

In a fork head-high in the tree, a log as thick as my waist is caught, debris from a long-gone flood. The 1974 flood may be? Or even the massive 1956 flood?

These floodplain forests are important to First Nations. They have provided much over many thousands of years. Food and shelter, places to hunt and gather and shape their land, to give birth and conduct ceremony, to rest and maintain connection to Country. Some trees bear scar marks in their trunk, signs of long occupation and use.

Leaning against the old tree, I look past the black box trees by the wetland in their long vigil for water, across the withered floodplain to where the land starts to rise. The big floods ward off major development on the floodplain. On the low hills beyond, above the floods, I can see crops, livestock, fences. But few trees, and a solitary magpie.

The black box was given the Latin name Eucalyptus largiflorens in 1855 for its many large flowers (largus in Latin meaning ‘abundant’, florens meaning ‘blooming’) by German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. But people living along the inland rivers knew it by other names for many years before. Guburruu to Gamilaraay speakers in northwestern New South Wales, and Pulty in Wiradjuri in the Murrumbidgee catchment.

River red gums were named by another German botanist, Friedrich Dehnhardt, who never visited Australia but described the species in 1832 grown from seed sent by English botanist Allan Cunningham to a noble’s garden in Naples.

The forests of river red gum trees and woodlands of black box trees grow on the floodplains of the rivers of the southern Murray-Darling Basin. They occur nowhere else on Earth. They are truly Australian, beautiful, and in decline. Not much of the large floodplain forests and woodlands in southern New South Wales, northern Victoria and South Australia are in healthy ecological condition.

The river red gums rely on flooding for water to replenish groundwater and dilute salt, and to germinate seeds. They are found in wetter soils than black box, closer to the rivers and around billabongs and backwaters.

River red gum forests and black box woodlands are a favourite of mine. They are where I trained to be a river ecologist. Where I learnt much about nature, and the quiet of the bush. They inspired me to become an environmental advocate. Their plight deeply troubles me still.

They can withstand floods, and drought. But the dry times are getting longer and hotter, and the floods fewer and smaller.

Dr Stuart Blanch
Dr Stuart Blanch © WWF-Aus / Adam Krowitz

I learnt about them from many people, and am thankful. Biologists, old timers of the rivers, fishers, Aboriginal communities who never gave up their cultural links to them, river engineers, ornithologists, river managers.

I hope you get to visit these special places, and help ensure they continue to be a place of wonder.