One of the Gondwanaland species that still survives in the moist, loamy gullies of the Otways is the myrtle beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii). It predates the more fire-resistant eucalypts, banksias and acacias, and unlike them, it has never adapted to bush fires that kill both the plants and their seeds. These slow growing, magnificent trees with clouds of tiny, glossy leaves can live up to 300 years, sometimes reaching the staggering height of 110 feet.
Given the high rainfall in the Otways, many creeks ripple through the gullies, sometimes carving their way through the porous sandstone, forming dramatic waterfalls that fill the air with their soft moist. Numerous small mosses and ferns cling to the dank stonewalls, providing excellent hiding places for tiny tree frogs and other amphibians and insects. Despite their tiny size, the frogs call out to their mates with an amazing volume, sometimes even managing to drown the sound of the waterfalls.
The cinnamon-brown, wiry pelt of the soft tree fern provides a perfect home for another, tiny fern species.
Another prehistoric plant in the Otways is the tree fern, of which two species, the soft tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica), and the rough tree fern (Cyanthea australis) are the two most common. Once food of the dinosaurs, this beautiful, almost regal plant became highest horticultural fashion during the Victorian fern craze, from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, and has been newly popular since the 1990s. The two species can easily be recognized by their trunks; the soft tree ferns is like wiry pelt of a mammoth, whereas the rough tree ferns is more like a scaly reptile. Tree ferns are quite hardy, up to -10 degrees C/ 10 degrees F. They grow slowly, about 30cm/ 1 feet every ten years, so large specimens are expensive to buy, but at the same time, they make an architectural statement even in the smallest of gardens with their gracefully arching, lush green fronds.
A huge, old eucalypt covered in kangaroo ferns, Microsorum pustulatum.*
As I tampled on the muddy paths covered with eucalypt bark and listening to the tree frogs and kookaburras, it was hard to imagine that the area had just emerged from a decade-long drought. Navigating back to the starting point through the dense understory of tree ferns, I could only hope that the Otways will survive even the next huge challenge of the impending climate change.