Into the mountains again : July 1987

The following is an extract from an article I wrote 25 years ago. It was in the ANOS Sydney Group Bulletin, The Orchidophile. It demonstrates well the way I was hooked on the Australian bush and the world of native orchids. Not many people make trips like this any more and it is a shame. I am one of a few that are left from the Dinosaur period, or the orchid equivalent to Jurassic Park. With modern technology it is now possible to use some of the pics we took on this trip back in 1987, and a picture tells a thousands words I reckon. Who said that anyway? Have not got a clue but I hope you enjoy it.

© Gerry Walsh

It seems that nearly every time I pick up a pen to bash out a few lines for these parched pages of the Orchidophile I end up giving north coast weather reports. Long-term readers of our illustrious journal will recall this well. This little effort will be no different.
Last week it rained nearly every day up around Kyogle and the border country. Sometimes it was heavy; always it was foggy and misty. And I was silly enough to be right there in the middle of it, with my mate Denis standing at my side, wet but cherry. For four nights and days it rained hard.

On the first day we checked out all the fallen trees of this vast region to see what species inhabited the local forests. The more unusual species we seen were Den. falcorostrum, D. schneiderae and D. mortii. The last mentioned species can be incredibly abundant in the McPherson Ranges. Over much of its range it is comparatively uncommon and not a lot of people have seen this one in the wild.

We also had a peek at the famous Blue Knob, a towering bunch of rocky battlements on the north end of the Nightcap Range. This is the home of the famous Blue Knob form of Sarcochilus hartmannii. It would be a formidable sight on a bright sunny day. On this day of heavy rain we made excuses for not attempting the ascent. In other words, we chickened out.

On day two, a couple of rocky cliffs were investigated and a few small plants of S. ceciliae were seen but it was not common. We walked hard and in much discomfort but it was nice to see this species; it always is. On a big fallen tree nearby there were several large clumps of what appeared to be Bulbophyllum schillerianum or very robust examples of B. shepherdii.

(2012 Note. This article was the first time that I mentioned this strange Bulbophyllum in print, which was later determined to be an undescribed species. Four years later I described it in the Orchadian as Bulbophyllum caldericola sp. nova (new species) G.F. Walsh. The manuscript was scrutinised by a well-respected botanist as protocol demanded. The aim being to see that scientific criteria had been met. He missed a very small error, which was corrected in the next Orchadian. It meant that B. caldericola was later renamed as B. lamingtonense by another author. So I lost my new species. Que sera sera, as they say.)

We checked out every Hoop Pine we came across hoping to find the very rare B. globuliforme but we were totally unsuccessful in this venture. We did find one plant of the very uncommon B. weinthalii and numerous plants of D. teretifolium var. aureum (Dockrillia dolicophylla as it is now known).

Later in the day we were very lucky to locate three plants of S. hartmannii. Two of these were quite small. The other had around a dozen leads, a very nice clump indeed. And in case you may be wondering . . . yes, it is still sitting there in the wild. With the wealth of superior nursery raised seedlings and man made divisions around today, it would be quite stupid to think that a wild collected piece could compete these days. However, there is a certain romance to finding S. hartmannii in the wild, especially if it is your first sighting.

As an unfortunate sideline to all this orchid talk, I must report the following incident. There we were bouncing down the track, surrounded by towering rainforest. The rain was falling steadily and the fog swirled silently. In a flash the ambience of the scene was shattered by a suicidal Brush Turkey, which charged the old Holden Wagon front on.

Too late for evasive action: General Motors won the clash by a knock out. We stared at each other. Neither of us was sure on how the deceased birds eulogy ought to be delivered. But we both felt that a fling by the foot over the embankment would not befit the grievousness of the tragedy laid bare before us.

It took only a shamefully short few seconds to decide that this Requiem To A Brush Turkey would be played out that night in a frying pan over the campfire. Waste not want not I always say! I had the poor fowl half plucked when a vehicle was heard approaching from the mists ahead.

Holy hell! It was a white 4-wheel-drive with a big lyrebird painted on the door. Three National Park rangers were seated inside. And of course the mongrels (term of endearment) had to stop and see if we were OK. They were amazed that anyone was even up in the high country in such terrible weather.

Let me unequivocally state, here and now, that there can be very few experiences as intensely isolating and lonely, as standing in the rain, being interrogated by three national park rangers, and not really knowing with certainty, how many turkey feathers there are stuck to your wet clothes and legs. I stood so close to their bloody vehicle I nearly had to put on a seat belt.

After a couple of the longest minutes of our lives they drove off, probably certain that we were a couple of loonies from Sydney. Although we were innocent of murder, it was definitely self-defence; we would certainly go down for disposing of a body. Or perhaps interfering with a corpse, but that night it was cold in July, windy as hell and so so wet. And the Turkey was a great source of distraction from the weather.

By the way . . . Brush Turkeys have plenty of meat on their bones, taste similar to chicken but are a helluva lot tougher. Native orchid enthusiasts, on the other hand, have bones in their heads, are chicken in the presence of rangers and at times act like complete turkeys.

The third day dawned and out hopes rose quickly. It had stopped raining. So off we set for a bit of a hill on the NSW-Qld border known as Mt Lindesay. It was over an hour away and by the time we got there the rain and the fog had swamped us again. We decided that we would not be beaten so with wet weather gear and high expectations we set out along the border fence.

Mt Lindesay towers over everything for miles around and rises abruptly to 1174 metres. We were at around 450m at our starting point so we had a near vertical climb of 800m to get to the top, which was somewhere up there in the fog. This mountain is rather similar in shape to the better-known Mt Warning. Both are extinct volcanic plugs and roughly the same height. Unfortunately Mt Lindesay has no walking track to the top like Mt Warning does. It is bush-bashing all the way upward.

We started up completely oblivious to where our chosen track would take us. We would know we had reached the top once we bumped our noses on the sheer cliff that rings the very summit. Mt Lindesay looks for all the world like a womans breast, with the nipple sitting atop it and virtually you cannot go up that last 50m unless you have ropes and spikes. It was so steep and wet we could not have done it in the wet without holding on to the vines and small trees that clothed the slopes in every direction.

We got to the top after nearly two hours of torture. The wind up there was blowing at 30 knots according to fisherman Denis. The rain stung our faces and visibility was around 20m at best. The temperature was considerably lower at this altitude as well.

D. kingianum draped the rock wall along with miles of Liparis reflexa. The stunted trees supported curtains of long moss along with D. mortii, D. pugioniforme and D. teretifolium. Amongst the hangers were big clumps of D. gracilicaule, D. speciosum, D. schoeninum and small plants of Sarc. falcatus. There was also D. mortii growing on the rocks as well, which I had never seen. One was even in flower in July, 3 months early. We had not seen a single specimen of the famous Mt Lindesay form of S. hartmannii . . . the main reason for us being stupid enough to attempt this trip on this day.

We had used up all our precious time and with two hours of light left we stepped over the edge and started back to the car in very low spirits. We each had a camera but not one photo did we take, simply too wet to get them out. Going down the slope was nearly as bad as coming up. We spent a good deal of time on our rumps sliding on slippery dips of mud.

After taking my umpteenth fall I sat in the mud in frustration for a few seconds. When I sneered back behind to see where I had slipped, my eyes fixed on a tiny green plant growing on a bucket-sized rock. I went back up to have a closer look. It was a seedling plant of S. hartmannii. We both danced around like lunatics in the stinging rain. Our dance was maybe a rain dance, and highly successful we were!

We spread out to the larger boulders on either side of our so-called track and found perhaps 15 specimens of S. hartmannii. The largest had leaves around 32 cms long. Some showed off emerging spikes, very advanced for July we thought.

Never could I have imagined that S. hartmannii could grow in such dark and damp conditions, and at such a low altitude. One old raceme sported a fat seedpod and was just splitting open and about to spread it brown gold over all. What a feeling of elation, even though we were soaked to the skin. We had spent another 15 minutes of valuable time in this quest and we would have to go at break neck speed to get out by nightfall. We made it.

Mt Lindesay is no place for the unfit or the feint-hearted. You should not try this walk on a wet day and more particularly not in July. There just are not enough hours in the day to do the climb properly. We agreed; this was probably the most fearful place we had ever tramped over. Even so, we were planning our return when surely the weather gods would be much happier.

On the fourth and final day we attempted to enter the Richmond Ranges using an entry road that a local citizen had assured us was all weather and of excellent standard. But we got bogged many miles into the scrub. We were more beaten by a slippery road in a deep gully then bogged. We could not go forward nor back and there was no room to turn around.

We cut a lot of scrub up in order to fill in some severe wheel ruts. Finally we got the car turned around and just wanted out. All up, this event cost us three hours. We admitted defeat and headed for home, still two days drive away.

As we slipped our way back to the asphalt, a fleeting break in the fog and clouds revealed the dizzy heights of Mt Lindesay many miles to the west. It was the only time in four days that we glimpsed the actual pinnacle of her summit. We clicked off a few pics before the skies closed over again. It was as if Old Lady Lindesay knew she dad humbled us and was farewelling us with a last gesture of defiance.

It rained all the way back to Sydney. We camped along the Oxley Highway that night, halfway home, at a roadside picnic shelter and spent the night drying something to wear. During that last night the heavens really opened up but at least we were dry and warm. The next time I head north I just know it will be nothing but blue skies everywhere I journey. I could never be that unlucky again, could I, do you think?