Back to Kroombit Tops : 1997

I wrote this story way back in 1997. It’s a summary of a trip we made to Kroombit way back then. It represents a typical sort of an escapade.

By 2013 I had been to The Tops on 13 trips. The pics are scanned from old slides. A bit scrappy I guess.

My wife refuses to move up to Kroombit and live there full time.

I sure will miss her . . .

Some things, once they get into your soul, are near impossible to ignore. In my case, things that fall into this category include oysters, shady creeks and seaside holidays. Walter Matthau, Gene Hackman and John Wayne movies are hard to shake too. Same goes for National Geographic magazine, archaeology and fine timber.

And then there’s Kroombit Tops . . . that isolated orchid Eldorado about 3 hours drive south-west of Rockhampton. I first journeyed up that way in 1992. Denis Johnson came along for a ride and the thrill of it. We were impressed! So back we raced for a second investigation in 1993. We were again impressed let me tell you.

You need at least eight days for a Kroombit trip. Now comes 1994. After promising my wife that I wouldn’t abandon her for a third consecutive year, we nonetheless started forth again, this time with Mike Harrison in tow. Our respective women folk would just have to live with it. What’s a measly eight days anyway? Another good trip was had by all.

To avoid a diplomatic catastrophe in the Walsh household, I decided to succumb to the not-too-subtle suggestions that a fourth consecutive visit to Kroombit in ’95 would be, at best, an ungood idea. So I promised not to go to Kroombit that year. (We went to Carnarvon Gorge and Blackdown Tableland instead . . . pretty clever, hey?)

In ’96 diplomacy was indeed the best way to go. We went nowhere that year. By 1997 the call of the wild was ricocheting madly – irresistibly – through the lumps of grey matter. We both told our wives a whole heap of absolute crap and misleading info; actually, just downright lies. Got the picture?

So off we went. This time we went up through Tamworth, to Manila and on to Warialda. Neither of us had been through that way before and it broke the monotony of two days driving. We crossed the border into Texas and spent the night in Dalby. We reached the foothills of Kroombit around 2pm the next day. We were startled at just how dry the countryside looked about the Gladstone area. We stopped for ice and bread in a small shop on the Bruce highway and the proprietor told us that they hadn’t seen more than a few spots of rain for some six months.

This news left us a little despondent. On our previous 1994 visit the country was very dry even then. This was partly the reason why we had not been back for three years. We reckoned the country would take that long to green up again. But whatever the conditions awaiting us up on the Tops, we couldn’t change them, so up we headed.

Some things had changed dramatically since ’94. For starters, there was a whole bunch of official signage advising that there would be no access without permits, big fines pending etc. Quite frankly, Dennis and Gerry were starting to feel downright unwelcome. I don’t know what the reason was for all this sabre-rattling but we had come 1800 kms and we were not about to turn around and go home. So upward we continued driving.

Right on the top we noticed that there were now gates and chains on every little side track where we had previously sojourned without fuss. If it hadn’t been for our now extensive local knowledge of Kroombit we may have given in and retreated. In the past we had always had permits.

This time we hadn’t bothered because we had never been refused permission or even questioned as to why we wanted to visit there. If a ranger or whatever did stop us we would simply attend to all these details face to face. We were not trying to trespass. But all the signs and gates had made us a bit jittery so we decided to set up camp in a fairly remote part.

Weinthalii Nugentii

Our Camp Site in 1997

The first morning we set off to see if the Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflorum was flowering in 1997 or not. Over the years we had noticed that the flowering season of D. speciosum up here was fickle indeed. 1992 was a huge flowering year. In 1993 we only seen about a dozen racemes amongst thousands of clumps over many kilometres. 1994 was mediocre but rewarding enough.

It didn’t take more than a half hour stroll down a known speciosum hot-spot to get the answer. It was a sickening scenario. The drought had not abated in the past three years. There were so many huge clumps that were just stone dead on the boulders and small cliffs. Was I going mad or did I really have all the photos from ’92 that proved a lush and vibrant orchid community really did inhabit this now desolate gully?

Clumps that a man could not lift off the ground could now be tossed about with a single hand. Those remaining green plants were collapsing and every new growth had shrivelled before maturing. The occasional struggling raceme striving to carry on life was stunted and hanging limply. Soft, half-open flowers were turning brown before achieving their purpose.

But what had inflicted much more damage than the drought was the vast bush fire that had burnt to death hundreds and hundreds of clumps of speciosum. There was no chance of most of them recovering at all. But some that had the protection of cervices around their roots boasted eyes that would regenerate if rain ever came again. But in the main, we were able to walk to the base of many a rock face and kick bone dry, feather-light skeletal clumps high into the air.

Weinthalii Nugentii

The extreme bush fire damage of 1997

I, like most readers, have seen the results of fire on D. speciosum colonies down here in the more gentle climates of NSW. They mostly recover in two or three years. And there always seems to be enough showers and storms to maintain some hope for a rebirth. But here at Kroombit the scene was much more devastating than anything Denis or I had witnessed down south. Without the follow up rain the clumps had mostly lost their grip and fallen to waste.

speciosumwas the most obvious victim of the conditions. But where we had previously observed many thousands of clumps ofSarcochilus ceciliae we were now searching like crazy to see a plant at all. Without any exaggeration, I can say that 95% of this species was gone.

Yet as we searched long we recognised that one of the truly remarkable wonders of the orchid world was at work on the rock before us. Hundreds and hundreds of speciosum seedlings were still sitting there undamaged in small cracks and dry moss beds.

We discussed this anomaly and concluded that the fire would catch quickly to the dry debris that gathers on the adult clumps and at the base of boulders and low cliffs. The short but intense heat no doubt destroys the projecting orchid bulbs instantly. But any seedlings small enough to be tucked safely in a stone crevice could often remain unaffected even though the great heat blasts past them only a few inches away. In these seedlings is the foundation for the future of the species on Kroombit.

We were a very sombre twosome as we trudged back to camp that night, let me tell you. This was going to be a wasted trip. After cooking a feed on the fire and consoling ourselves with a can or two of soft drink, we were forced to abandon everything and hit the sack early when quite a nasty rain squall hit us without warning. It never fails to get us . . . even in the middle of a bloody drought.

The next day was blue and beautiful and we headed to our most familiar gully. This was several kms from camp. The scene was identical. We visited the site where two or three of our very finest clones were collected on past trips. And except for one, all were totally dead. Such clones as ‘Camp Creek’, ‘Creek Aureum’ and ‘Oh Sugar!’ which had become winners in Sydney, were now only memories on Kroombit.

The third day we decided to do something completely different. We realised the pursuit of superior clones of D.speciosum was now a pointless exercise. We had had some success extending the range of several species in our early Kroombit visits; namely Bulbophyllum weinthalii, B. globuliforme, S. dilatatus and D. linguiforme var nugentii. It seemed a good idea to explore for something else that might be ‘new’ to Kroombit.

We chose a valley that dropped away from our camp and in which we could see fingers of hoop pines pointing up to us from perhaps 350 metres of altitude below. One of the annoying things about discussing things in terms of altitude is that 350 metres straight up and down does not relate honestly to reality. That 350 metres became three or four kms and seven hours of gut-wrenching physical slog through vine-choked jungle and dangerously slippery rocks. What a way to have fun.

Now, the problem with Denis became obvious to me after only a few hours of this foolishness. He simply was not fit. There was no way he could carry me back to the Esky at the camp. His physical condition was appalling! And there was not a drop of water to be had on the whole stinking mountain. We each had a bottle of water of course but that had to be rationed carefully. There was none available for splashing over our heads.

We always run into friends up at Kroombit

Hoop pines elsewhere on Kroombit had always proved very productive sources for nearly every epiphytic species known to occur there – as well as the four ‘new’ species. Yet this forest of hoops, despite their gigantic size and copious coatings of moss and climbing ferns, was nearly devoid of orchids.

We really expected to find a lot of B. weinthalii, based on past experience. But at the end of the day we had about a half a cup full each, all rescued from fallen limbs. That’s the only way you can find it. We saw only token quantities of all the other common species to be seen on Kroombit. But some degree of luck did come our way, eventually.

At one point a large land slip had destroyed about five acres of a particularly steep section of mountainside. One huge buttressed tree, which looked like Tulip Oak to me, was hanging nearly upside down on the newly exposed vertical bed rock (this would now become a waterfall during the wet). It was a scary looking posse I’ll tell you. But on the trunk and limbs of that tree were orchids and ferns and stags. So we decided we’d better investigate.

The site where we found Oberonia complanata

We were very surprised to find two clumps of Oberonia complanata, both in good condition. We searched with binoculars all the nearby specimens of this tree species but could not locate another clump of Oberonia. So we considered ourselves lucky indeed to have happened upon another new species for Kroombit, even if it wasn’t an extension of range for it. We headed back to camp in oppressive humidity and perspiration. Nothing could make me go down in to that wretched valley again.

The last day we went back to the site of our original collection of B. weinthalii and B. globuliforme under a forest of huge hoops. We found a fair bit of each but the drought was relentless and the big plump bulbs of 1992/93 were now replaced by wrinkled remnants that would take a while to coax life back into. The fire had burned right into the heart of this gully and destroyed immature coups of hoop pines where we had observed S. dilatatus, S. hillii, and Rhinerrhiza divitiflora. We could locate not a single plant this time.

We took off down this gully and turned right into the main valley. We travelled with only a light pack each to do some exploratory work about five kms down valley. The banks of the dry creek opened into small flats where mobs of wild horses eked out a living from the over grazed grass and the odd pool of putrid water and urine. One mob had around a dozen in it and the leader, which I assume was a stallion, was not happy to see us. We were very careful about straying too far from the safety of trees.

Brumbies at Kroombit Tops

One of the mobs of wild horses that kept us on our toes

We found the same scene as everywhere else. Everything was burnt and dead or dry. This valley eventually became too wide and dry to support orchids of any kind with the exception of scarce plants of D. linguiforme var. nugentii on the limbs of the River Oaks. So we started back for camp and a long night’s rest. Tomorrow we would head for home.

I don’t know if the rains have come to Kroombit Tops since our visit. It’s been a hot summer so I doubt there would have been much respite. And even if it rained buckets for two or three years, it would take longer for the orchid seedlings to grow into adults. It would take longer than that to restore the glory that Kroombit was on that first 1992 visit. I couldn’t imagine myself going back to Kroombit for at least ten years . . . til the seedlings all reach flowering size. And until the S. ceciliae replenishes itself – that would have to take at least eight years. That’s why I won’t go back for at least five or six years.

As you know, some things, once they get into your heart and soul, are impossible to shake off. Kroombit Tops is just such a place.