Hiking With Ben

Tales from the Wilderness

The Shadow of the Forest

Walked October 2023, Posted Sunday 17th March 2024

Contents

It was fifteen years ago that I first stumbled across this walk, but it wasn’t until recently that I tried walking it. Those years have seen the rainforest slowly reclaim the track. While parts are still fairly clear, other parts are extremely hard to follow, just a route rather than a track, requiring careful navigation. The reward is a magical forest of stunning beauty, a world of greens and darkness, of mosses and ferns, beech and mountain ash.

Beginnings

While riding along the valley, all that could be seen of the mountains was their forest-covered lower slopes. The summits a thousand metres above were lost in the low cloud. The sunshine that had begun the day had gradually faded, leaving me under a roof of solid drizzly grey.

With the weather seeming to be turning, I wondered whether I should abort my planned walk. Then in the gloom above I saw a hint of blue, and I was engulfed in a blaze of sunshine. The road became a river of light with the sun reflecting off its wet surface. For a moment the world seemed brighter and hopeful. Then I was back into the gloom, but I rode on.


The start of the walk was hidden in a tangle of blackberries and weeds beside a road. I found my usual entry point a little to the side where the blackberries subsided. Grass tendrils metres-long clung to me as I pushed through, resisting my entry into the forest. However these invasive plants tapered off quickly, replaced by ferns and treeferns, beech and wattle, while a few towering mountain ash rose out of sight into the sky.

The track began as a vague line through the ferns. This early section had a few trees down, which not only required scrambling through the broken branches, but also made it hard to keep to the line of the track. Trying to imagine how the route would have fitted to the terrain often helped to pick it up again.

A patch of thicker fern under a roof of treefern fronds likewise required some intuition to stick to the true route. Occasionally I spotted some faded flagging tape tied around a branch or treefern, which was a welcome signal that I’d stayed on the right course. I repaid my gratitude to those who’d left it by renewing the tape, doing my part to keep the walk alive.

Flowing down the hillside from the left was a small tributary stream. Further up the hill it runs in multiple tiny threads before joining together. Down where I was the stream passed through a small culvert under the track, but even without that convenience it was narrow enough to step across.

I soon reached an old aqueduct 1 and followed the earthen bank. The channel it contained was dry, choked with vegetation and leaf litter. The bank had ferns growing on it and a few fallen trees across, but otherwise provided pleasant walking and easy navigation. The aqueduct seemed to fit the landscape, having been taken back by the forest, but it was a reminder that there was history in here, and it wasn’t the untouched wilderness it first seemed.

The start of the section along the disused aqueduct.

More mountain ash grew along here. They’d been shedding their bark in ribbons tens of feet long, which festooned the surrounding trees, and piled up on the ground at their bases.

Off to the right the valley dipped steeply down to where the creek splashed noisily in its bed. The forest was more open and brighter down there, the home of huge beech trees. The understory of treeferns obscured any sight of the water. The remainder of the morning fog had taken refuge in the valley, softening the view with its haze.

The creek valley below the aqueduct.

The sound of the water increased as I walked along, but the creek itself remained stubbornly hidden in the undergrowth. Then suddenly a tiny bridge appeared in front of me, just two logs fastened together with crosspieces, and I’d arrived at the creek.

The swift-flowing creek was shin-deep and a couple of metres wide. It was half-choked with fallen timber, all moss-covered. Ferns, grasses, and bushes grew right up to the edge of the banks, hemming in the water. Treefern fronds and tree branches reached across overhead. Fat vines hung down from so far above that they seemed to drop from the sky.

The bridge looked old — they certainly aren’t built this way anymore — but it appeared to be in good condition despite the many long years of neglect. Cautiously I stepped on to it. The wet logs weren’t too slippery, but the crosspieces were as slick as ice.

The open creek valley provided the first substantial views.

Mid-stream I stopped to admire the scene down the creek valley. In front of me was a cascade of treefern fronds. Behind them rose some huge old beech trees, and behind them mountain ash. The view was softened by the fog rising from the wet rainforest. Beams of golden light shot through the haze, but the overwhelming impression was that of green: dark green and light, smooth textures and rough, and everything gleaming with a sheen of water.

What lay beyond the far end of the bridge was concealed by a wall of glossy dark green leaves. When I stepped off the bridge and through the foliage I entered a world of darkness and muddy dampness. Just past the bridge was a minor branch of the creek running across the forest floor, well above the level of the main creek. It wasn’t deep, but I was glad of my boots and gaiters.

The forest next to the creek consisted mostly of treeferns. Their fronds were so dense that it was as dark as night beneath them, making it hard to see where I was stepping. I kept fairly close to the creek where it was a bit brighter. The wet ground gave off a rich earthy smell. To my right a bank rose up steeply, a few metres high. I scrambled up to find an open shelf cut into the hillside, the remains of an old timber tramway formation 2.

Heading up the side of the valley towards the old tramway formation.

This was one of the areas where navigation can be difficult. The route I take along the creek makes it fairly easy to stay on course. But it seems that the course of the original track, now marked with a few tapes, headed straight uphill away from the creek, climbing through the forest to reach the old tramway further back. The first time I came here I followed the tapes and got temporarily lost by continuing too far uphill. But I wasn’t the first to do so: I discovered a machete next to a log in a small clearing.

I walked along the tramway and soon reached a wider flat space cut out of the hillside 3, just above the creek. At the far end a massive mountain ash had long ago fallen across the track, leaving only a small gap underneath. Nailed to its trunk and pointing downwards was a red arrow.

Timber and Trees

The gap below the log was just big enough to crawl through. The underside of the log was slimy. The ground underneath it was muddy, as always, and on the far side it was running with water. It was a messy operation squeezing underneath, with both me and my pack getting smeared with mud. I must have been quite a sight when I rode home later.

The creek valley now came into its own. There was no track, and no need for one. Close by on the left was the creek in its stony bed. On the right the forest swept up the steep side of the valley. In between was enough space for enjoyable walking, and without a path I was free to wander wherever I wanted.

The valley felt enclosed, and not just by the hillsides, but also by the roof-like canopy far above, supported by tree trunk pillars. Within this living hall there was a whole forest of smaller trees and ferns. The sense of being inside something was heightened where the brightness of the outside world broke through the foliage, accentuating the darkness within.

Everywhere and everything was green: the treetops that hid the sky, the hillsides, the treeferns that filled the valley, the moss-covered stones and logs on the ground. Mosses grew on everything: some were like little spikes, some like fans, some shaggy, and others like miniature ferns. From the branches hung long beards of moss that waved in the breeze.

In the valley everything is green: the ferns, mosses, and trees.

The hillside rose steeply away from the creek, smothered by vegetation. Treeferns predominated down low. Above them were the beech, the bigger ones with misshapen trunks, and colonized by epiphytic ferns. Above all were the mountain ash. Where the ridgeline was visible it was fringed with the silhouettes of the big trees.

But the valley belonged to the creek. The sound of water was ever-present, with the creek tumbling over a series of little cascades. The water was very clear, tinted golden-brown by tannin, and it flowed over a bed of pale gravel and dark stones. Where the stones stood proud of the water they too were covered with moss, like all else here. The margins of the creek were guarded by soft mud, ready to swallow a misplaced foot.

Some things are missing here though. Animal life is scarce, with only occasional groups of robins chittering through the low foliage. Lyrebirds are uncommon here, though I’ve seen plenty both lower down and higher up. And flowers are rarely found: it’s a green world where leaves prevail, ranging from tiny beech leaves up to gigantic treefern fronds metres long.

The big old beeches had a lot of character.

It feels like an untouched wilderness here, but that’s very much not the case. A century ago this was the site of industry. The first clues were the earlier aqueduct, and the small cuttings and embankments of the tramway formation. There are other clues here in the valley too: one beech tree has grown around an old steel rail 4 so that it now pierces the middle of the trunk. Further along there’s another rail on the ground looking just like a moss-covered tree root. Further up the mountain there are a couple more relics waiting to be found.

The tramway was used to plunder the mountain ash from the forest, stripping it bare, so only a few of the truly huge trees are left. Others have grown since, but they need much more time to achieve their full size. For all that though, it is remarkable how well the forest has recovered.

As I walked along beside the creek I reached the wreckage of a few trees that had fallen together in a bunch over the winter. I scrambled through the mess of slippery trunks and branches, which slid and broke under my weight.

Spaced out along the valley were a few more mountain ash logs that had long since come down across the track. But unlike the first one, these I could walk under. It was just as well, since these logs were so big — easily two metres thick — that climbing over them would be impractical, and so long that going around them would be very difficult. These trees look big when upright, but when lying on the ground their true size is astounding.

The valley began climbing gently. I reached a side gully where a small tributary stream ran down from my right. There was an enormous beech tree here, its gnarled and misshapen trunk almost black in the semi-darkness of the forest. High above its branches were in stark silhouette, the highest leaves glowing where they reached the light.

This beech is a landmark for me, as it’s where my first walk in this forest ended. That day I’d only been scouting and was running out of time, so decided to make this tree my turn-around point. But before heading back I’d sat in the peaceful shadows beneath the tree to soak in the beauty of the scenery while I ate my lunch.

My landmark beech.

The gully just beyond the beech was choked with fallen timber. Uphill it looked to be impenetrable. Downhill towards the creek looked easier, and I worked my way into the muddy bottom of the gully. I found a small stream trickling down towards the main creek. The whole gully was wet and dark, as though it was channeling not just water but the darkness too.

Emerging on the other side I could see no clear route, but straight uphill looked most promising. It was a steep scramble and it wasn’t long before I found myself on a more defined path, once again following the old tramway. This was the start of the incline 5.

On this section of the old tramway, wagons loaded with timber had been lowered down by cable. This necessitated a straight and evenly graded alignment to prevent the cable from snagging. The gradient did feel even (and steep), but it didn’t feel as straight as it actually was, disguised by a century of regrowth and erosion.

The forest brightened once the incline was reached.

The incline was mostly easy to follow, but even so, in many places it would be hard to recognize it as a track if you weren’t already on it. It was disguised by a deep cover of leaves, bark and sticks, which crunched under my boots as I climbed. In places the track had been taken over by treeferns, their huge fronds obscuring the path. Fallen trees added to the obstacles, though none were hard to get past.

The rapid climb provided views over the creek valley to my left. Behind me I could see the treetops of the heavy forest near the creek, including my beech. As I gained altitude and headed away from the creek, the forest opened up, feeling airy and less confining than it had before. The sound of the creek gradually faded until I could hear it no longer.

Taking a break on the climb up the lower incline.

After a long climb I reached an elongated flat space carved out of the steep mountainside. It was clear of trees, but still covered by the solid canopy above. This flat was about halfway up the climb, so it made a good place to rest after so much exertion. Now that I’d stopped walking the silence was perfect.

This area was also part of the timber tramway and, being at the top of the lower incline, seems to have been a place where wagons were prepared for the descent. Some exploration here revealed more relics from the industrial past, with several sections of steel cable 6 snaking incongruously through the undergrowth.

The relatively wide area doesn’t converge to any obvious exit point, so finding the continuation of the track can be unexpectedly hard. The first time I was up here I spent ten minutes poking around before I found it. It’s not hard when you know, but all the same I’ve added flagging tape to make it easier for myself and anyone else passing through.

The track stayed fairly flat for a while which made a welcome change, though I knew it wouldn’t last. A rivulet was running down the side of the track. The sound of rushing water increased, and after about a hundred metres I arrived at its source: a small creek running down a gully in the steep hillside on my right, and disappearing into the valley on my left.

The small side creek was so choked with fallen timber that the creek itself was all but hidden.

The gully was thick with vegetation. The creek itself was hidden under a jumble of fallen timber, all covered in bright green moss. Whether these logs were the remains of a bridge, or whether some calamity knocked down a bunch of trees together, I couldn’t tell. The chaos made it difficult to see where the track continued past the creek. Previously I’ve walked up the creek itself a short way, then crashed through the bushes. Today I tried a short, steep scramble directly across the creek, and that soon had me back on the track.

A minute or so along the overgrown track I found some derelict machinery off to the side, easily missed as it was partially concealed by ferns and fallen trees. This was the lowering gear, which had been used to control wagons on the incline. It was dominated by two big steel spools used for the cables, along the remains of some of the controls 7. The spools in particular looked surprisingly solid given they’d been sitting unused in the forest for a hundred years.

The two linked spools of the lowering gear. There’s a brake lever on each side: the left one has fallen to the ground, while the right one is still upright.

Bald Mountain

Leaving the lowering gear behind, I came to a more open stretch in the lush forest which was clearly a favourite with the lyrebirds. Directly one after another there were three lyrebird mounds 8 on the track itself, which I imagine provided a conveniently flat and open space for them. A little further on I spotted an implausible-looking lump flying through the trees, which was the first time I’ve seen a lyrebird in flight (I wasn’t even sure they could fly).

Another tiny creek crossed the track a little way on from the lowering gear.

The brief respite from climbing came to an end, and the track resumed its relentless gradient as I started on the upper incline. I crunched my way up the seemingly endless uphill on the leaves and sticks covering the track. The forest gradually dried out as I gained elevation. The treeferns in particular became less common, which in turn opened up the views through the forest.

I started spotting some boulders dotted amongst the trees up above the track. Occasionally I saw huge old tree stumps left by the loggers. These still bore the slots the axemen cut into them for the boards they stood on when they felled them.

The forest ended abruptly at a glade that opened up on the steep hillside — free of trees, but filled with ferns. It was a good place for another quick rest. For the first time I had clear views of the surrounding ridges, which gave me a real feeling of making headway. I’d climbed about 500 metres (it felt like more), with only another 100 metres or so remaining.

Breaking out of the forest to the first of the glades.

Progress up the mountain was hampered by the ferns hiding the rocky ground. Being out in the open, away from the confines of the old tramway formation, meant there was no clear guide as to where the track went. I was much more reliant on locating flagging tape in the trees, and I refreshed it and added to it as I went. It’s a very satisfying feeling coming back for a walk where I’ve taped before, and following a trail I’ve marked myself.

The foot pad passed through a belt of beech and woollybutt forest, then it was back into the open glades. The horizon was now clear in front of me, a hopeful sign that the bulk of the climb would soon be over. But first two large trees had fallen together — one had taken out the other — and were still lying one on top of the other. Scrambling over the trees was a bit awkward given their size, but with that obstacle out of the way, it wasn’t far to the ridgetop.

Belts of forest separated the glades.

The vegetation changed as soon as I reached the ridge, the ferny glades replaced by thick, low scrub. It was bright and sunny up here without so much tree cover. The woollybutts were still plentiful, though the beech became rare. After walking along the gentle ridge for a while I could see a small plateau ahead through the trees.

One last sharp climb got me to the top of the plateau. I strolled along a track bordered by short trees that were so thickly covered with dark green leaves that they looked like a hedge. A gap appeared and led into an open circle ringed by the dark trees. I’d reached the summit. A few moss-covered rock slabs helped to keep the scrub at bay. The trees formed a solid screen so there were no views to be had, but in compensation this unusual summit gained a feeling of serenity and isolation. This peak isn’t a popular one anymore — maybe its charms are too modest — but it appealed to me.

Following the border of dark trees on the approach to the summit.

The hardest walking for the day was done, and it was time for lunch. The sheltered summit was quite warm in the sun, with the trees blocking the breeze. I sought out some shade in the margins of the hedge while I ate my pie and bananas.

It was so quiet that it felt like the forest was holding its breath. Only the flies buzzing around lazily in the warmth broke the silence. When my lunch was finished I strolled around the summit area. I heard a quiet rustling, and saw the tail of a tiger snake sliding into the scrub. I suddenly felt very glad of my gaiters: this morning they were useful for the water and mud, but up here where much of the ground is obscured by vegetation, they’re my defence against unseen snakes.

There was still a long afternoon of walking ahead of me, so I didn’t linger. The walk up to the summit had taken a long time due to the combination of the steep climb, difficult terrain, and tricky navigation. Although the return downhill would be faster, it would also present its own unique challenges.

The walk back along the ridge was easy, and I made my best speed of the day. However, I slowed considerably as soon as I dropped off the side to begin the main descent. Following the route took some care even with tape in the trees, but it was the rocky ground concealed beneath the ferns that enforced a slow pace. The payoff was the improved scenery: fern-filled glades instead of scrub.

Heading downhill through a sea of ferns.

Off to my right I could hear the beautifully musical singing of a lyrebird. It alternated between its own song and mimicking various other birds: rosellas, black cockatoos, and kookaburras. It’s always a giveaway when the sounds of so many different birds are all emanating from the same place.

While I was picking my way through the ferns, close by I heard the rustling of a snake heading away from me, concealed by the vegetation. Once again, I felt glad of my gaiters: the snakes I can’t see bother me more than those I can.

At the last big glade before the forest I stopped for a moment before plunging back in. My legs were still getting used to the switch from climbing to descending and could use the break. I heard a cheeping, and spotted a pink robin zipping around looking for insects. He showed no fear of me at all, coming quite close. He sat still long enough for me to be able to admire his beautiful colouring before he flew off again.

Back in the forest, leaving the glades behind.

I re-entered the forest and began the long, steep descent down the incline. The walking downhill was naturally much easier than my earlier climb, though care was needed to avoid slipping on the leaf litter and rocks that covered the path. The track seemed completely different now I was facing downhill. The view ahead was all treetops, emphasizing just how steep it was. I hadn’t realized earlier, but while walking uphill the view had been dominated by the path itself.

A fallen tree propped up over the track on the steep descent.

While walking the track downhill was physically easier than going uphill, it came at the price of more difficult navigation. At times it felt like a very different walk. A few places that had posed no problem this morning now proved surprisingly tricky, and that wasn’t necessarily apparent until already off course.

After passing the lowering gear an obvious way continued ahead, contouring across the mountainside. However, this wasn’t the track, but actually an old grade line 9. Back when this area was logged the tramway had a junction here, with the left fork being the grade line, and the right (now somewhat concealed by vegetation) continuing the descent.

I continued downhill after adding another piece of flagging tape, since this junction had given me pause, and not for the first time.

I soon reached the side creek choked with fallen timber, and scrambled down to ford it. I continued along as far as the halfway flat, where I took a short break to give my legs a rest from the descent. I found some large fungi shaped like scallop shells growing on a dead branch. But spring wasn’t really the season for fungi, and I hadn’t seen much besides bracket fungi. In autumn there’s much more to see including my favourite, the beautiful blue-cyan caps of pixie’s parasol (Mycena interrupta).

Fungi growing at the halfway flat.

The spectacular Mycena interrupta can be found in autumn. I spotted these ones down in the creek valley on an earlier walk.

The incline started again, and once more I was struck by how the view ahead emphasized the steepness of the descent. The forest increased in lushness as I dropped lower into the valley, and I could hear the creek again. The descent ended at the small side stream in its dark gully. As before, I found a way through the fallen trees and mud to rejoin the creek valley proper.

The day had become sunny, and the bright sun lit up the leaves of the trees far above, so the canopy glowed green. I walked along beside the creek surrounded by moss and ferns. I was glad to be back in my green world, but that was tempered by the knowledge that the walk was drawing to an end. I headed over to the creek in a few of the more scenic places to prolong the moment.

I reached the last, low log across the track, and made the muddy crawl underneath. This part of the track was also a grade line and, like the earlier one, presented navigational issues when descending. To reach the bridge I needed to reverse the morning’s walk by dropping off the side and heading down to the bridge. I’ve got better at picking the spot, and made it to the bridge without too much trouble. I’ve been less fortunate other times, resulting in crashing around in a damp, dark maze of treeferns and fallen timber.

At the bridge I broke out from the darkness of the rainforest into the bright, open creek valley. I crossed the creek and continued along the old aqueduct. The walking was easy and pleasant, with views over the valley.

Treeferns bursting with new fronds at the bridge crossing.

When I stopped for a moment, a high-pitched and mellifluous “whiss whiss whiss” rang out, the alarm call of a lyrebird. A few metres below me in the valley I saw a lyrebird running full-tilt through the undergrowth. It had been disturbed by my presence, but if it hadn’t called or moved I’d never have seen it.

The navigational problems started again when the track left the aqueduct. It’s a cruel trick that there’s another difficult section right when you’re expecting the walk to come to an end. Heading the other way this morning wasn’t too hard, with a foot pad or some tape always to be found. But there’s something about the return direction that makes it much harder (something I’ll need to remedy with more tape next time). I constantly felt drawn to the right to maintain my height on the hillside, but previous painful experience has taught me the proper route is actually to the left and downhill.

The tricky section wasn’t too long, and when I reached an old sign there was a straight line out to the road. The long grass returned as I neared the road, and at the boundary the tangled blackberry canes were waiting for me. Standing there on the grassy roadside the forest looked very ordinary. All the beauty and wonder I’d found within was well concealed.

A collection of highlights from walks I made here between September and December 2023.

Homecoming

I’ve done this walk — or parts of it — half a dozen times now, and I’m yet to meet anyone else out there. The nearest I’ve come is finding the markers left by previous adventurers, but even they’re old excluding the fresh flagging tape that I’ve added. It really is amazing to have such a beautiful place all to myself.

In the heart of the rainforest I find a sense of peace and solitude. There’s nothing to break the spell: no sign of the outside world intrudes, no road or building. No sounds besides wind, water, and birdsong. No crowds of people. Even the track is barely to be seen. It’s not a lonely place, just a haven of calm and quiet.

The price for this solitude is self-reliance. Care is required when the navigation becomes difficult, and it can do so very quickly. You need to be able to find yourself again if you get lost: there’s no one else to turn to. Maps are of limited use where the heavy forest restricts your view, and GPS struggles with the deep valley and dense foliage. It’s better to watch the shape of the land, to look for landmarks, and use all your senses.

This walk keeps drawing me back. I enjoy getting to really know the place: recognizing special trees and locations along the way, and discovering more about the landscape and its history. Since my first visit I’ve felt at home here, and that feeling grows stronger each time I return.

The wild forest also invites exploration. Not having a track breaks down the barrier to wandering off where your interest takes you. Every step can be a fresh step into the unknown, every view a new view, with always another surprise to uncover.

The first time I made it into the creek valley I was enthralled by the scenery surrounding me: the sweep of treeferns up the hillside, the mossy old beech trees, the creek babbling in its stony bed. But as I walked along, an eerie, unsettling cry filled the forest.

Further ahead a fallen mountain ash spanned the track. I became aware of a small dark shadow on top of the mossy log. I stood silently, watching: the cry I’d heard was coming from the shadow. The creature turned to face me and I could see that it was a small, stocky, black cat: the long-forgotten offspring of abandoned parents.

We eyed each other for a slow minute, motionless. The cat was wary but unafraid. Her eyes were locked calmly on mine, her gaze disconcertingly intense. Eventually she scurried furtively down the log and disappeared into the forest across the creek.

And so I continued on, passing under the log, and into the gloom under the trees. When I was out of sight the cat returned to her haunt, and again sent her lonely, plaintive cry out into the shadows.

References

  1. I’ve been unable to discover what the aqueduct was used for, but since water was needed to run the steam-powered sawmills and winches back in the logging days, my guess is that it was used to supply a mill.
  2. A tramway (or railway) formation is where the ground has been prepared for track to be laid. This includes excavating cuttings and building up embankments.
  3. The area was wide enough for more than one tramway track, so this may have been the site of a siding. It’s not far below where there was a junction in the tramway, and higher up there is a similar arrangement of a large open area below a junction.
  4. When the tramway closed most of the rails were removed, with only a few damaged ones left behind.
  5. An incline is a tramway characterized by being very steep and straight. Wagons were lowered down the slope by cables controlled from the top of the incline.
  6. Timber tramways often sourced old cable from Melbourne’s cable tram system. The cable was cheap, but already worn out. This meant there was an increased chance of breakage, with the associated risk to the people and infrastructure below.
  7. The arrangement of the spools on a common shaft suggests that this worked as a funicular. That is, when loaded wagons were lowered down the incline they pulled cable from one spool, which simultaneously wound cable on to the other one, pulling the empty wagons uphill.
  8. Male lyrebirds clear a mound of bare earth in the forest on which they perform their songs and display their plumage to attract a female.
  9. Unlike an incline, a grade line is a tramway that is relatively flat and follows the contours of the terrain. Horses or small locomotives were used to haul wagons on a grade line.