WHERE THE WILDFLOWERS ARE
(published The Age travel section 19 October 1996)
IT'S SPRINGTIME IN THE GRAMPIANS,
AND VISITORS FROM NEAR AND FAR
ARE FLOCKING TO SEE THE WILDFLOWERS.
CAROL MIDDLETON JOINED THE THRONG.
DRIVING into the mountains at dusk, the looming silhouette of the ranges seemed to suddenly close in on us. We had arrived at Halls Gap, the modest but thriving tourist hub of the Grampians that crouches in a natural gap between the Mount William Range and the Mount Difficult Range. Here visitors camp in the lee of sandstone bluffs which, in prehistory, overlooked the sea. Coast banksia, which is generally not found west of Port Phillip Bay, still clings to the escarpments of the Grampians.
We, like hundreds of others, had come to spend the weekend exploring the Grampians National Park in the height of wildflower season. The Grampians ranges, which attract 750,000 visitors each year, are arguably at their best in October, when most of the wildflowers are in bloom - although in the higher sub-alpine areas they can be found until Christmas. The poor sandy soils that characterise most parts of the Grampians mean that the trees are stunted and sparse, allowing the wildflowers to proliferate in the sunlight.
There are more than 1000 varieties of flowers and ferns, 600 of which occur in the Victoria Range alone. A third of all Victorian flora grows in the Grampians and 20 plant types grow there and nowhere else in the world. There are nearly 100 species of orchid and 15 of eucalypt.
A weekend is not long enough to travel the extent of these mountain ranges, unless you are happy to stay in your car. The Grampians are made up of four ranges running north-south: the Mount William Range to the east; the central range consisting of the Mount Difficult Range, the Wonderland Range, the Serra Range and the Mount Victory Range; to the west is the Victoria Range; and, further west again, the low Black Range. There are dozens of well-charted walks to take, offering arresting views, waterfalls, lakes, rock formations and wildflowers.
We joined Ann Kettle, an Education Officer at the Grampians Park Visitors Centre, on one of her informative guided wildflower walk through the Wonderland Range, which nudges the town.
It was a wet and wild morning as we set out from Sundial picnic ground, 15 minutes’ drive south of Halls Gap. Bushes of golden heath, thyme beard-heath and notched phebalium crowded along the edges of the trails. Their scents were sharp and fragrant between our fingers; their flowers and leaves gleamed in the rain. The colours were soft pinks, creams and yellows, oranges and purples, the flowers small and delicate. Where the rocks were bare of soil, even smaller flowers had found a way to survive, and peeped out at us from mossy hang-outs in the rock crevices.
Ann introduced us to pink bells - which are not necessarily pink and are strung on their stems like miniature Christmas bells; wiry bush peas - which are an endangered species; and white or pink common heath - which is Victoria’s state emblem and is depicted on the Victorian registration sticker.
Some plants, such as the prickly bushes called hedge wattle (Acacia Paradoxa) and spike wattle, are regarded by some as noxious weeds, but provide luxuriant hiding places for birds, protecting them from foxes, owls, hawks and feral cats. Other plants, like the delicate red and yellow sundews, adapt to leached soils by digesting insects. The plants may be protected, but this is not a safe environment for mosquitoes.
As we walked, Ann explained that danger to the plants comes from the most unlikely quarters. The introduced honey bee is attracted to the pollen, but is too big and clumsy to pollinate the plants, upsetting the natural reproductive process. Native bees are smaller and pollinate the plants effectively. Other secrets of the bush revealed on our walk include the recent discovery that many seeds in the bush do not need to be burnt to regenerate, but do need smoke. This was discovered when a waste paper basket in a laboratory, where plants were being tested for treating AIDS, caught fire.
We continued on to Venus Baths in the valley floor, about 45 minutes’ walk. The track has been worn by many feet since the 1860s, when Halls Gap was already a popular holiday destination, especially with bushwalkers. The path wound between snow myrtle, used by Aboriginals as body perfume, the orange bell climber and the intense blue of the love creeper.
Venus Baths is the name given to several person-sized rounded scoops of rock where you can slip into deep pools of swirling water, as the Stony Creek makes its way downstream. The creek is the habitat of a community of fern families: maidenhair fern, coral fern, fishbone fern and necklace fern.
We examined the rocks that slope down to the water, and studied their precarious life forms: the dainty fairies' aprons survive by consuming micro-organisms through their root chambers, and the vivid miniature sundews and other insect-eating plants attract prey into their mossy lairs. These 400-million-year-old rocks form the base of the Elephant's Hide, a huge rock face that tempts climbers up its slopes, but often leaves them stranded at the top.
If you plan to go climbing or do any serious walking in the ranges, consult the Visitors Centre at Halls gap for information and let them know your route. The weather changes rapidly and, with it, the conditions of the roads and the walking tracks.
We returned to Halls Gap to view the town’s annual Wildflower Exhibition, now in its 60th year. Held this year from 28 September to 6 October, the exhibition provides a focus for the wildflower season in the Grampians, which extends from May to December. The flower specimens on show at the exhibition are all endemic to the ranges and are displayed in simulated habitats: wetlands, heath lands, woodlands, fern gullies and sub-alpine areas, all created within the confines of the Public Hall.
Special permits are granted to pick the flowers for display, since the Grampians became a National Park in July 1984. But now a Grampians Forest Flora Botanic Garden is being set up at the edge of the Halls Gap, where the village meets the forest, and here seedlings destined to produce flowers for the exhibition are being grown in a protected area. Within a few years, the wildflowers may have acquired a touch of domesticity.
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