To 1787 driver, and step on it!

I’ve never actually pursued it formally, but I’ve got a serious penchant for historical ecology. It’s because I’m a bit of a bleeding heart I suppose, but I long for the environment of the past. In fact, if the Devil presented himself to me tomorrow, carrying a time machine that could whip me off to Murray River circa 1787, I would think very seriously about offering my soul in return. To walk through a Redgum Forest that hasn’t been tainted by a single chainsaw cut; to look into the clear waters of the Murray and know that not one exotic fish swims in her currents; to listen to the cacophony of frogs in a billabong that has never been parched by river regulation; to hear the midnight cry of a Curlew that has no fox to fear…. I could continue like this for pages.

Of course it will never be, unless some miracle of physics takes place in the next 50 years. But last night I found the next best thing, and this post is intended to share that discovery. Folks, let me introduce you to Will Trueman. In this series of YouTube videos, Will explains the origins and outcomes of a research project that has culminated in the most incredible historical account of the native fish fauna of the Murray Darling Basin. Motivated partly by the memory of fishing trips with his old Dad, Will has meticulously pieced together a picture of the native fish community of the southern Murray-Darling prior to its collapse. And what a picture he paints. Let me give you an example.

A little while back, I moved to the town of Kyneton, around 80 km north-west of Melbourne. Kyneton is just on the other side of the Great Dividing Range, and lies in the catchment of the Murray-Darling Basin. Being a keen fisherman, I’ve been exploring the local creeks and rivers chasing some action. One of these ramblings let me to the Campaspe River at Redesdale, just above Lake Eppalock. My first visit in autumn last year revealed a river of great beauty – here the Campaspe runs through a deep basalt gorge, and tumbles over a mix of basalt boulders and mudstone reefs. Add to this crystal clear water and towering Redgums, and I thought I’d found my own fishing utopia. But the fishing itself has been woeful – I’m yet to catch a single native fish here, despite multiple trips and varying techniques. Enter Will Trueman. Through his book, I now know that this section of the Campaspe was once the fishing paradise I thought it should be. Historical accounts suggest this section of the Campaspe was home to Murray Cod, Trout Cod, Macquarie Perch, Silver Perch and Catfish, and that they were there in profusion. What’s more, he provides some proof from the very spot I’ve been fishing. Here it is:

A thumping Macquarie Perch from the Campaspe at Redesdale, circa 1920

A thumping Macquarie Perch from the Campaspe at Redesdale, circa 1920

A cracking Murray Cod from the Campaspe at Redesdale, 1947

A cracking Murray Cod from the Campaspe at Redesdale, 1947

I can’t wait to scour Will’s book over the next few weeks – I’m sure to find many more such historical gems. Who knows, it might just give me the kick I’ve needed to turn whistful dreaming about what was once was, into an active role in ecosystem restoration….

Disappearing into the Murray-Sunset

Last week I managed to sneak off on a week’s leave with an old friend, venturing deep into the Murray-Sunset National Park. Now I’m not going to tell you exactly where we went – one has to keep some secrets. But it is suffice to say that we camped amongst the Red Gum and Black Box next to the mighty Murray herself.

 We’ve been to this part of the world annually for the last five years, after being given a tempter of its splendour during some volunteer work in 2003. And when I say splendour, I mean splendour. If you have spent some time in the Murray forests, you’ll know that most have seen better days. River regulation, forestry, grazing and firewood collection are the main culprits, but some recreational uses of the river also play their part (think of a speed boat screaming past you with subwoofers blasting and you’ll get my drift….). But the Murray-Sunset is different. It is home to the most remote Red Gum and Black Box communities in the state. Stepping into the Murray-Sunset is like stepping back in time. Old growth Red Gum and Black Box abounds, and the understorey is magnificent – dense Lignum (Muehlenbeckia) and Goosefoot (Chenopodium) growing over a tangle of fallen timber, with thickets of Melaleuca, Acacia and Exocarpus filling in the gaps. And not a cowpat to be seen!

What’s more, the aquatic environs are just as much of a throw-back, a point bought home to us in a discussion we had on this trip with a long time resident of the Murray. Ken told us of his childhood days spent on the river and its anabranches around Cohuna before European Carp (Cyprinus carpio) invaded the system. Ken related clear water, with dense stands of submerged and floating aquatic vegetation such as Pondweeds (Potamogeton), Water Ribbons (Triglochin) and Eelgrass (Vallisneria). Until I visited the Murray-Sunset, I thought these  vegetation communities were all but gone from the Murray-Darling, given uprooting by Carp (indeed, Ken related watching his beloved beds of Eelgrass literally float away when Carp first arrived). On our first trip to the Murray-Sunset, we were gob-smacked to see huge stands of Eelgrass and Pondweed wafting in the currents. While these plants are currently in low abundance given recent floods and a concomitant spike in Carp abundance, I’m sure they will return once things settle.

Of course, a big drawcard for me is the herpetological diversity of the Murray-Sunset. The park sits in a biogeographic melting pot from a herpetological perspective, displaying fauna characteristic of semi-arid areas further north and temperate locations further south, plus fauna that enters the region via the network of rivers and associated flood plains. The wide diversity of environs that the park conserves is also an important determinant of its herpetological diversity. Think Mallee communities on sandy dunes, Buloke (Allocasuarina) and Pine (Callitris) woodlands, Acacia and chenopod shrublands, and of course the Red Gum and Black Box woodlands. I’ll leave you with a few images of some of the herpefauna we’ve spotted in the Murray-Sunset over recent years. It’s just a taster, both for you and for me.

Inland Carpet Python, Morelia spilota metcalfei

Inland Carpet Python, Morelia spilota metcalfei

De Vis’ Banded Snake, Denisonia devisi

Tree Dtella, Gehyra variegata

Peron’s Tree Frog, Litoria peronii