Shirley LaPlanche

journalist / photographer / author

The Tree that Time Forgot

In 1994, in the mountain barrier between the western plains and the sprawling city of Sydney, a young man made a discovery that would reverberate around the world. At 29 years of age David Noble was as fit as any man could be. Most of his life had been spent in these mountains, inspired by his parents’ passion for plants and his own daring sense of adventure.

When not working as a ranger for the National Park and Wildlife Service, David was abseiling down escarpments of golden sandstone dangling from rope as thin as a twig and tramping into the tangled, unexplored valleys of rainforest and icy streams.

His domain was a million hectares of ancient mountain wilderness with an incredible diversity of microclimates. In the Permian and Triassic periods some 250 million years ago it was a large shallow bay. About 90 million years ago a period of tectonic unrest began, the land was pushed up, wind and rain eroded its landscape, rivers found themselves leaping off the edges of rising cliffs and drastically lowering the valleys. By the time Noble’s boots crushed the spongy rainforest floor the tableland was 1,000 metres above sea level and the wild grandeur of the canyons had become a major tourist attraction.

But human impact has remained minimal. Although not high by world standards, the mountain range was formidable to the European pioneers. They wrote in their diaries that it was “a rude peculiar world”; with “waterfalls and frightful precipices”; that men would wake in the night “dreading the awful solemnity of the place”. But by 1813 a crossing had been found and in the 1850s gold was discovered in the west bringing the hopeful and the foolhardy flooding over the mountains. Next came the railway line and by the 1880s the privileged class was escaping the foul air of fledgling Sydney for: “re-invigoration of mountain air and the refined pleasure afforded by the contemplation of beautiful scenery”. Then came the artists, craftspeople, bushwalkers and lovers of nature drawn to the clear air, sense of space, stunning vistas and verdant canyons.

As Noble and his two companions abseiled into an unexplored canyon in September 1994 they left behind the eucalypt dominated sclerophyll woodland and shrubland and dropped into dense rainforest. Walking through the forest of vines, coachwood and sassafras Noble came to an area where erosion had created a clearing and a strange tree was benefiting from the additional light. The foliage lying at his feet was unknown to him and the tall, dark green trees had an unusual bark that reminded him of Coco Pops (a breakfast cereal). Intrigued, he put a piece of foliage into his bag and continued on.

When he showed the foliage to his parents and naturalist Wyn Jones they were puzzled. The plant looked like a fern but grew to a towering 35 metres. Finally, Jones showed it to Dr Ken Hill, senior research scientist with the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (RBGS). “It looked like a Cephalotaxus, a member of the Chinese conifers,” Hill said, “but later, when Wyn and Dave brought in some reproductive material, I was able to identify it as a new genus belonging to the Araucariaceae family.” A genus only known as 150 million year old fossils that dated back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The botanical world reacted like a child on Christmas day. Botanists were stunned that a plant so old could have survived and yet not been found, just 150 kilometres from a city of four million people. They called it a “living fossil”. The director of the RBGS Professor Carrick Chambers said: “the discovery is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth.”

As so a period of intense and sometimes secret studies began. Scientists are still puzzled by its lack of genetic variation which is thought to be fundamental to the health of a species, and was the basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Will the pine prove that some systems can have an exceptionally low genetic variability and yet survive for millions of years? Is the pine the result of inbreeding of a very small population – clones of just a few individuals? Research has already revealed that it contains the anti-cancer chemical taxol and only time will tell what other secrets this prehistoric plant holds.

Only 38 trees in two small groves (a second grove was found within two kilometres of the first) are known to exist on the planet and extreme measures are necessary to protect them. A fungus from a human hand could wipe out the lot. Compacting of the ground around the roots by intrusive boots could kill it. When Noble has returned to the site with specialists and the media to re-enact its discovery the media have been blindfolded to protect its location, and the soles of everyone’s shoes sterilised. Rumours abound about foreign groups tramping through the canyons to collect seeds and hefty fines have been imposed on anyone found interfering with the site. Hill says collectors would pay hundreds of dollars for such a rare seed, but with so few trees in existence only the barest minimum of seeds and material for propagation can be taken. The pine is bisexual with both female and male reproductive cones at the very tips of individual branches on the same tree. The male cones are below the female cones and are winged so they can drift up on the wind. Collecting them is hazardous and scientists who have been dangled from a rope below a helicopter are not keen to repeat the experience.

The solution is to produce so many plants that collectors will lose interest in the trees in the wild. Seedlings are being propagated for distribution to botanic gardens around the world and when the laboratory-grown trees produce seeds they will be sold commercially. Cloning and vegetative propagation are also being investigated and Hill says the results are promising. “It seems to be easy to grow and plants should be for sale by 2004.”

When I ask Noble if having a plant named after him (Wollemia nobilis) had changed his life he gives a boyish grin and says “not really. It’s a great honour and I do more interviews and talking to people, but basically I still go canyoning and work for the National Park.” However the discovery has added a new dimension to the mountains sprawled like castle walls west of Sydney, and the locals say it’s surprising how many people arrive wanting to see it. They cannot see trees in the wild in the Wollemi National Park because of the secrecy of the site. But even if they could, half of the park’s 500,000 hectares is pure wilderness. Rugged, crisscrossed with canyons and gorges, many only a few metres wide and hundreds of metres deep, it is only suitable for those experienced in canyoning and bushwalking.

The best place to see the pine is at the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, the 200 hectare, cool-climate garden of the RBGS. Located in the Blue Mountains, a scenic one hour drive from Sydney, the Garden has 12 pines growing in its rainforest section and one in the information centre. When Ecotourism Manger Rusty Worsman shows me the plants he speaks with the controlled excitement of a child revealing a secret. “We don’t know what the root system is like because we can’t dig it up,” he says as we peer through the wire fence at young plants that look like Christmas trees. “There’s such a lot we don’t know. Will it fruit? Why are there no adolescents in the wild?” Later he lets me touch Wally, a five-year old that he takes on educational tours. I wipe my fingers fearful of the fungi they may contain. It feels soft like a fern.

The Blue Mountains National Park adjoins the Wollemi National Park and has a greater variety of walking trails including one for wheelchairs. Noble recommends the Grand Canyon Walk at Blackheath. “It takes about three hours and drops down through heath land and rainforest similar to where I found the pine. It’s the best way to experience the mountains and anyone can do it,” he says. The park’s many trails slip around cliffs and down to canyon floors like a fine spider’s web. Some are steep, like the Giant Stairway with 900 roughly hewn steps. Others are more gradual and have lookouts over vast, heart-lurching precipices and canyons lined with headland after headland of golden sandstone.

For a deeper understanding before you walk out into this dramatic landscape you should see The Edge showing on giant screen at the Maxvision Cinema in Katoomba. It clarifies why people like Noble shimmy down ridiculously slim ropes into its darkest recesses. It is beautifully filmed and is guaranteed to curl your toenails.

The villages that have grown up around former wayside inns and railway stations are also worth a visit. Main streets skidding down hillsides are lined with art galleries, antique shops, boutiques and cafes selling home made produce. For train buffs there is the historic Zig Zag steam railway. For excitement, an old coal railway at Katoomba plunges down the steepest incline railway in the world and a gondola glides across a yawning canyon. Accommodation is plentiful in B&Bs, cottages, eco-lodges and restored country mansions like Lilianfels built in the late 1880s by the then NSW Chief Justice, Sir Frederick Darley.

Maybe the easiest way to penetrate these wilds is to join Ted Taylor of Cox’s River Escapes on one of his 4WD tours. A big comfortable man he grew up in the mountains, knows them like the back of his hand and loves them with a passion. As we drive out of town he is rattling off the history of the places we pass and pointing out peaks and plants of interest. Soon we have left civilisation behind and are bouncing along a fire trail through the dusty green foliage of the Australian bush. The freshness of eucalyptus is in the air and an occasional rain shower floats down like soft threads. Banksia heads glow like lamps in the bright wintry light and the yellows and whites of wattle and rice flowers splash colour through the ferny undergrowth. King parrots and rosellas flash colour as they glide from view and cockatoos screech their annoyance at our intrusion. By midday we are on the valley floor where the Cox’s River winds snakelike over pale pink rocks and a long suspension bridge links the banks. “They built that for the Six Foot Track,” he says referring to the popular 3-day walk from Katoomba to the Jenolan Caves.

“We plan to retire here one day,” he says as he shoos ‘Sweetie’, a huntsman spider the size of a saucer out of the old caravan he has parked on his own piece of heaven. As we munch on salmon rolls and cake his wife baked this morning, kangaroos and wallaroos rise and stare, unsure whether to flee. “Foreign visitors who have travelled all over Australia sit here with me, listening to the silence, and say ‘this is what I expected Australia to look like’.”