The Bunya Mountains - Olivier Vachez

In the following article, I wish to talk to you about a unique place on earth. The Bunya mountains national park is situated 240 km from Brisbane, capital of Queensland in Australia.

Thirty million ago, the Bunya mountains were formed on the slopes of an erupting volcano. Huge lava flows solidified, sculpting a relief of basalt, its highest point culminating at 975 m. Rock erosion created a deep soil, rich in nutrients, on which different habitats, isolated from each others, established themselves. There, diverse communities of plants and animals thrive. A mix of wet rainforests and dry schlerophyl forests. In fact, nine different types of rainforests grow on the slopes of the Bunya mountains. The park contains also grassy plains and woods, forming a patchwork of diverse environments. The whole scenery looks like an island of wilderness in an ocean of farmland. A refuge for the local biodiversity, a shelter for ancient species, some of them being considered rare or threatened by extinction.

These mountains are inhabited by several species of birds, composers of beautiful early morning concerts. Here are some of these birds* :

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Paradise Riflebird, Ptiloris paradiseus
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Crimson Rosella, Latycercus elegans
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Noisy Pitta, Pitta versicolor

Birds of prey are also present.

Grey Goshawk, Acipiter novaehollandia.

Wedge Tailed Eagle, Aquila audax.

At night, many animals come out of their hiding-places, foraging for food.

RingtailPossum, Pseudocheirus peregrinus

Tusked Frog, Adelotus brevis.

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua.

Sugar Glider, Petaoroides volans.

The largest known Australian colony of the Chocolate Wattle Bat, endemic to this continent, nestles in the roof of an old school, a wooden building preserved on the national park camping ground. The Chocolate Wattle Bat is on the IUCN list of endangered species.

Chocolate Wattle Bat, Chalinolobus morio.

Another twenty or so species of bats inhabit the Bunya mountains.

These two species of macropods are easily seen on the national park’s camping ground during daytime ; although there are more active at night.

Red Legged Pademelon, Thyolagale stigmatica.

Swamp Wallaby, Wallabia bicolor.

I won’t mention in details the patchwork of grassy plains contained within the national park boundaries. Put simply, let’s say that those plains are the habitat for several other species of plants and animals. The Blue Grass, botriochloa bunyensis, found only in the region is part of a 119 other species of grasses thriving in the Bunya Mountains national park. The grassy plains environment provide a habitat for animals which could not survive in the denser rainforests nearby.

Swamp Rat, Rattus lutreolus.

Superb Fairywren, Malurus cyaneus

The Bunya Pine, ambassador from prehistoric times.

In the wet and lush rainforests, the Bunya pine, Araucaria budwillii is the tree you will notice straight away. With its cone shape, it dominates the canopy of the forest from about 40 meters.

Le pin Bunya.

A stroll through the national park forests carries you into prehistoric times, when ferns dominated the plant world, long ago before gymnosperms, plants bearing cones, and flowering plants appeared on earth.

Conifers, including the ancestors to the Bunya pines, gradually replaced the ferns, the main family of plants of that era. Despite their name of pine, Bunya pines are not categorised as such by botanists. They belong to the family of Araucaria which used to be present all over the globe. Today, Araucarias are found only in Papua New Guinea, New-Zealand, a few islands in the Pacific, as well as South America and Australia. The Bunya mountains national park is the only place in the world where you will find such a great numbers of these trees. Also present in the forest is the Hoop Pine, Araucaria Cunninghamii. The seeds of the Hoop Pine are equipped with a sort of “little wings”, allowing them to be easily transported away by the wind. In contrast, the Bunya Pines produces very large pineapple shaped cones, the size of a soccer ball. The cones hold 50 to a 100 edible seeds ; each of the seeds are wrapped in a tough layer inside the cone.

As you can imagine, such big cones are not very efficient at dispersing the seeds away, unless they land on a steep slope. If need be, brushtail possums, Fawn Footed Melomys and other animals will take charge of dispersing the seeds around.

Brustail Possum, Trichosorus vulpecula

One can only imagine the species of dinosaurs feeding on the Bunya nuts, more than a 100 millions years ago, before the marsupials took over that part of the world.

The aborigines and the Bunya Pines ; a spiritual relation.

Once a year, from December to March, the Bunya Pines drop to the ground their cones loaded with edible seeds, the famous Bunya nuts. On average of every three years, a bigger harvest is produced.

There were no aboriginals living all year round in the Bunya mountains, due to the cold winter temperatures. However, for immemorial times, numerous groups of aboriginals gathered there to collect Bunya nuts. The two clans, traditional custodians of the area were the “Jarowai” and the “Kaiabara”. Every three years, they invited other groups, coming sometimes from as far as several hundred kilometres away. It was a time for sharing, to participate to ceremonies, resolve possible disputes, create new bonds, pass on customs and knowledge. These “festivals” were spread over a period of 3 months. The place provided them with shelter, medecine, food, water, tools etc. But food for the body was not the only nourishment the forest would give to these people. A spiritual food was given to their souls as well. Lives have been changed in these mountains. Birth for some, deaths for others, rebirth…the cycle of life. The forest, like the integrality of their environment, was sacred in the eyes of the aboriginal people. And so it should be for all of us.

The Bunya nuts, too fresh to be cooked, were eaten raw. The riper ones were crushed, transformed into flour and cooked to make a kind of bread, which could be eaten several weeks afterwards. During the gatherings, harvesting and hunting were controlled. Indeed, the sudden upsurge of human population could have caused the rarefaction of food source. The aboriginals had also understood that they had to leave some seeds to the animals so they could get their share as well. And they also left cones on the forest ground, so that in future times, Bunya Pines would be there for the generations to come.

The beginning of the end The first Europeans brought with them habits and uses of the land unknown to the aboriginals of Australia. Logging and farming deeply disturbed their way of life. The aboriginal clans travelling from afar were not able to use their ancestral routes to participate to their yearly gatherings in the Bunya Mountains anymore. From the 1840’s, the first woodcutters arrived in the region. Red Cedars were, then, abundant. When they became more scarce, the woodcutters shifted their interest to the Bunya trees, the steep terrain had spared them from an earlier exploitation. The last great gathering of aborigines linked to the Bunya nuts harvest occurred in the late 1800’s. Afterwards, the custodians of the land were “removed” from their ancestral grounds.

Nevertheless, today still, some aboriginal, native to the area, have been able to keep their traditions alive. Singing, storytelling, exchange, trade. The gatherings are much smaller in size, but groups which were traditionally not part of them are now invited. The collect of Bunya seeds is not allowed though. Indeed, all plants and animals are protected in a national park.

Among the first europeans to visit the forests of the Bunya Mountains, some of them saw something else than natural resources to exploit. From as early as the 1860’s, the interest for the Bunya Mountains grew among the general public. And it helped saving them from complete annihilation. The serene beauty of the forest had touched the sensitivity of some of the new comers. They understood what was obvious to the aboriginals. To nourish the physical body, and take time to resplenish the soul by living in a symbiotic relationship with nature.

In 1842, the governor Gipps declared that no exploitation of the Bunya Pines would be authorisedin regard of aboriginal traditions. Yet, a great number of trees were felled. Already at that time, some had to fight in an attempt to save these primary forests. Long ago before such laws were edicted, an old system of rules and protocols had been established by the natives to decide when, how and whom could harvest the Bunya cones.

In 1903, the forestry inspector, G.L Board summed up the general feeling of the time by declaring : “…it would be a disgrace to leave such a beautiful area vanish forever.” And at last, on the 1st of August 1908, 9112 hectares of national park were established in the Bunya Mountains. Later on, old state forests were added to that territory, which covers today an area of 19493 hectares.

In the memory of the aborigines. The Bunya pines survived the dinosaurs and saw a great number of other primitive plants disappear, replaced by more modern plants. These trees have survived the decline of their contemporaries, going from a family very present in the Australian landscape of the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods (65-210 millions years), times when the atmosphere was warmer and more humid, to a status of refuges on top of a few mountains. Today, protected from modern man’s greediness, one can wonder what the effect of climatic change could have on these prehistoric survivors. For the custodians of the mountains, the Bunya Pines are considered to be important symbols, representing food source, harmonious gatherings and satisfaction of the soul. It is said that the region is a spiritual place in which you can find serenity if you leave yourself being immersed into its majestic beauty and its energy. Some feel revitalised, amazed by it and leave with a feeling of respect for the forest. The spirit, the memories, the philosophy of the aborigines are still present in the heart of the Bunya Mountains.