Environment of Toolangi – Pre and Post Settlement
by Steve Meacher
The Toolangi-Castella area prior to European settlement
Prior to the incursion of Europeans, the mountains of the Great Dividing Range surrounding Toolangi and Castella were dominated by spectacular, old growth forests (200-450 years of age). Severe wildfires occurred infrequently, generally in late summer. More than 90 per cent of the landscape was open eucalypt forest, characterised by species such as Messmate Stringybark and Mountain Grey Gum, with Mountain Ash in the wetter areas at higher elevation. Closed forests that have persisted since the age of the dinosaurs occupied cool damp gullies and shaded slopes in around 7 per cent of the area. In the Central Highlands, including the forests around Toolangi, these cool temperate rainforests are characterised by Myrtle Beech and Sassafras trees with Soft Treeferns and a ground cover of ferns and mosses.
In such forests a wide variety of understory and ground cover plants thrived, providing food and habitat for a range of animals. Old trees accumulated hollows through damage and decay and these provided denning and nesting opportunities for many species of wildlife, including possums, cockatoos and owls.
Clans of the Kulin Nation occupied the land either side of the mountain range, which provided a natural but open boundary. The Daung Wurrung (Taungurung) lived to the north and the Woi Wurrung (Wurundjeri) to the south for many thousands of years and made use of the abundance of seasonally available plants and animals, carrying out important cultural duties. The name ‘Toolangi’ is a Taungurung word meaning stringybark forest[i], presumably relating to the tall messmate stringybarks (Eucalyptus obliqua) in the area. Movement within traditional land was determined by weather and availability of food[ii]. Both groups used the montane forests regularly for hunting and collection of bush foods and medicines. Austral Mulberry stems grow very straight and make good fire sticks and even spear shafts; Djingram or Southern Sassafras leaves make a soothing tea; Mountain Pepper leaves and berries are a spicy flavouring, and wallabies and possums provided meat and skins. Many other necessary resources could be collected from such rich and complex forests.
The ground surface in eucalypt forests is largely organic, made up of fallen leaves, bark, branches and twigs from the canopy. Evidence of occupation is rapidly concealed beneath this layer. Occasionally, when fires have passed through an area, hidden occupation sites are revealed. Examples include those in the Kinglake National Park, west of Toolangi, where many Indigenous sites were uncovered by the catastrophic fires in 2009, including scatterings of fragments from stone tool manufacture[iii]. These sites are currently being surveyed and recorded to protect their integrity. Present day Wurundjeri and Taungurung communities retain a very strong connection with this area. The Taungurung Recognition and Settlement Agreement (RSA) commenced on 11 August 2020[iv].
The first Europeans, 1890-1939
The man who has not seen Toolangi Forest is not qualified to talk about the Australian bush. And the man who has seen it may travel all the states of the Commonwealth afterwards and add nothing new or additional to what there is to be seen at Toolangi[v].
The first Europeans to visit Toolangi were the timber-splitters, followed soon after by millers who established mills and tramlines across the area. It did not take long for the importance of conservation to be noted. It was reported in The Argus in 1890, ‘It is perhaps fortunate for the country that Mr A. E. Walkeden has a grievance against the Lands Department, for the discussion of his case yesterday drew attention to the subject of the conservation of the magnificent forests of the Black Spur reservation’[vi]. The same article concludes:
It must be, as Mr Munro says, that the mountain eucalypt, when in full vigour, resists the bush fire. It has no boughs within 200 feet of the surface to catch the blaze, and its hard, uncracked, and almost polished stem is not injured by the flame. The young tree suffers, and a crack in the bark is fatal to the old tree, but the growing giant escapes scatheless. Those we have are not likely to be replaced either in one generation or two. They should be preserved in common with the whole district. That district with its glens, its waterfalls, its fairy fern growth, and its noble timber, is our wonderland – a spot to be held semi-sacred, inasmuch as it is nature’s temple. The splitter is not to be considered, nor yet the syndicates, for in this case we cannot serve nature and mammon[vii].
Mr Best, the Minister of Lands, visited Toolangi in 1898 and found, ‘one of the best forests in the colony, with mountain ash, blue gum, and a little blackwood, beech and myrtle’. He also found out how wasteful the splitters were, ‘for every tree split up they fell six or seven others which, when cut down, prove unsuitable’. He was therefore reported to be ‘seriously considering the prohibition of splitting within the area of 4 or 5 miles from Toolangi House’. He remained supportive of the ‘establishment of sawmills in the district to use up the waste from the splitters, and the many magnificent trees already cut down and not split or used at all’[viii].
In spite of the splitting and logging in the 1890s, the natural beauty of the area was soon recognised and reported on, as in this 1893 newspaper article:
Mr Lindt has discovered a region of remarkable beauty, in the neighbourhood of a place bearing the native name of Toolangi. It is a heavily-timbered district, and mountainous withal, watered by the Sylvia Creek, which is one of the affluents of the River Yea. This perennial stream in the course of its descent forms a succession of cataracts foaming from ledge to ledge … while in other places it seems to linger leisurely in cool dark pools canopied by the fronds of the fern trees which fringe its banks. In certain spots these reach an altitude of between twenty and thirty feet. The forest is rendered accessible by a bush track, which … winds in and out between the lofty and pillar-like boles of trees, the summits of which rise to an immense height, while the undergrowth is one rich tangle of shrubs and ferns[ix].
Early tourism and appreciation of the montane forest
A hotel and several guesthouses were established in Toolangi and became popular resorts for residents of Melbourne. The fresh air and cooler conditions due to altitude were especially popular with those who wished to escape the heat of the city in summer. ‘As a health resort it cannot be beaten, for I have never known a really hot night there’[x].
In the early days, access to Toolangi was difficult as there were no formed roads and the tracks were rough, muddy and frequently damaged by the heavily-laden bullock-drawn timber wagons. Visitors were encouraged to take the ‘midday train from Prince’s bridge to Yarra Glen’ where the ‘Proprietors’ coach’ met the train each day. The coach drive of 12 miles was described as ‘unique for beauty of scenery’[xi]. By this route, Toolangi, ‘on the crest of the divide’ could be reached within ‘two hours’ journey of Melbourne by rail and wagonette’[xii]. Hardier visitors might walk from the railway at Yarra Glen or Healesville and a popular trek was to arrive via one, walk up the hill, spend the night in Toolangi and then walk back down to the other station. Such activities were often conducted by groups such as the Melbourne Amateur Touring and Walking Club, the Carlton Harriers and even the 1st Lilydale and 1st Elsternwick Scout Troops[xiii].
Once arrived in Toolangi there were many beauty spots to visit including ‘the famous Myrtle Gully, Sylvia Falls and Gully, with its wonderful variety of scenery, Smedley’s Falls, Badham’s Falls, The Canoe is a pretty spot five minutes from the house’[xiv]. The Canoe was a ‘monster tree butt, hollowed out like a canoe’ that had fallen to span the Yea River, forming a natural bridge[xv].
‘The guest desiring a still higher and rarer atmosphere [could] gird himself for an ascent of Mount St. Leonard, 1500 ft. above the residence, and only three and a-half miles to the top – an exhilarating two hours’ tramp through a region of magnificent mountain ash and other giant timber’[xvi]. ‘Standing on its summit you can see Westernport, Hobson’s Bay, and Mt. Macedon, The Goulburn Valley, and a grand system of ranges to the east and north’[xvii].
Other activities promoted included fishing and shooting.
Toolangi will give a sportsman some first-class days. The country is hilly and scrubby, which greatly adds to a true sportsman’s taste. Wallaby and wombat are there in hundreds. Kangaroo are also fairly numerous. On my last trip I saw and heard a great many foxes. As for fishing, the Muddy Mountain creeks are full of blackfish. Downstream, and towards Glenburn, the best of trout fishing can be had, and some of the finest fern gullies and falls are to be seen round Toolangi[xviii].
Introduced rabbits had already become a major problem. A. P. Smedley, Secretary of the Toolangi Progress Association reported that, ‘nothing can be grown without wire netting the fences’. He also welcomed steps taken by the Council to destroy wombats, which often destroyed the fences by forcing their way through. ‘A bonus of 2s 6d per head would assist in getting the pest wiped out altogether in a short time, as wombats had but one young each in 12 months’[xix]. Fortunately, the bonus was unsuccessful and in 1934 a proposal to pay 5/- a scalp to attack the ‘Wombat Menace’ was described as ‘quite unworkable’. ‘In places like Toolangi and other mountainous country there were thousands’[xx].
As better roads were developed, Toolangi became a popular destination for motorists.
The road is now bordered on both sides by thick clumps of bracken … while a little further back giant tree ferns grow in profusion among the tall trees. [Toolangi] is among the foothills of Mount St. Leonard, and in this locality pretty creek scenery abounds, and some of the finest myrtle and fern gullies in Victoria are seen[xxi].
Walking also remained popular and the opening of the Chum Creek track opened new possibilities.
A pedestrian with a Saturday afternoon and Sunday at his disposal … may find real enjoyment in the walk to Toolangi, and back again. He can be in Healesville by three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon … if he shares the common prejudice against coming back the way he went, the traveller may take the Chum track going and the Meyer as he returns’[xxii].
This was the route taken by twelve members of the ‘newly-formed Women’s Walking Club’ in 1922[xxiii].
One of the most poetic descriptions of the forest in these years is provided in 1926 by a Fireguard, who patrolled on horse-back:
In the mountains beyond Toolangi and St Leonards is some of the finest mountain country in Victoria. There are virgin forests of giant mountain ash, still untouched by the axe, out of reach of the mills; miles of little creeks, winding in and out through the hills, bordered by huge blackwoods and sassafras. And the valleys are a veritable fairyland. Little waterfalls, deep clear pools full of little blackfish, shaded by rare ferns. Tall tree ferns along the creeks, and most wonderful of all, acres of great green myrtle-beech trees, towering above the gullies, lichen-covered and festooned with damp moss[xxiv].
The author goes on to list wildlife he saw on patrol, naming black-tailed wallabies, fallow deer, lyre birds, foxes and black cockatoos. ‘Scrub’, understorey species, that had to be cleared from the tracks included dogwood, hazel, Christmas bush and mountain hickory. All these are species that are to be seen today, almost 100 years later!
Tram tracks built to connect timber mills to the railways gave visitors access to ‘splendid virgin forest’[xxv]. To support visitation, it was suggested an area should be reserved and protected.
If it is decided to develop Toolangi as a tourist resort, there is urgent need for the reservation of a portion as a National Park, for which it is particularly well suited – a National Park on the top of the Divide, 42 miles from Melbourne, with virgin forest, full of bird life of every kind, mountain, river, hills and gullies, with every kind of fern[xxvi].
The ferns of Toolangi became a target for visitors and action had to be taken. ‘The president drew attention to the fact that ferns were being removed from the new road to Toolangi. He moved that the Forests Commission, Country Roads Board and Shire Council be requested to take the necessary action to protect fern life on this road’[xxvii]. In 1928 a Healesville boarding house keeper was successfully prosecuted and fined £5 with costs for collecting 69 small ferns, 10 tree ferns and one staghorn fern to ‘add beauty to [her] place and make it more attractive’[xxviii]. Another case nine years later involved a Box Hill florist caught with 20 ferns ‘illegally removed’ in his car. He admitted ‘the episode’ and was fined £5 with £1/5/- costs and 10/- compensation[xxix].
A few months later, two cases were heard in Healesville Court relating to unauthorised ‘possuming’[xxx]. In one case, two defendants were fined £9 each for possession of six opossum skins in a hut in Toolangi forest. In the second case, one of the same defendants admitted to possession of 42 mountain opossum skins. His lawyer sought leniency, ‘as defendant was a hard-working man’. The magistrate was unimpressed, ‘Too hard working on opossum skins’. Inspector Houlihan stated, ‘The object of the prosecution was to put down the killing of opossums’, and the defendant was fined £5 and £1 per skin for 42 skins, with costs.
The need for Forest Reserves was raised again in 1934, in a letter from Lindsay Gillam to The Argus:
For many years forest-lovers have advocated more and larger national parks … The Mount Monda timber country has recently excited such interest in Healesville that representations have been made to have one great tree flourishing there permanently reserved for the people. Why not the entire forest? Within a short distance of Melbourne it is probably the last centuries old forest left standing in Australia[xxxi].
No action was taken to create a National Park in Toolangi up to the Second World War, but the township remained a popular summer resort for ‘Tourists who are attracted by woodland scenery’.[xxxii] Visitors were named in the society columns of the newspapers and included Mr Justice Dixon.[xxxiii]
[ii] Parks Victoria, Kinglake NationalPark, Visitor Guide, June 2018
[v] The Advocate, 18 May 1906. Newspaper references in this article are searchable on Trove: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper
[vi] The Argus, 17 October 1890. A. E. Walkeden was seeking a concession to cut and remove 20,000 acres of timber. Unsuccessful as a sawmiller, he was declared insolvent and later became the proprietor of the Queen’s Head Inne in Toolangi.
[vii] The Argus, 17 October 1890
[viii] The Age, 8 March 1898
[ix] The Argus, 17 April 1893
[x] The Argus, 19 July 1910
[xi] The Argus, 27 December 1893
[xii] The Australasian, 30 November 1895
[xiii] Leader, 8 April 1905; Sporting Judge, 11 December 1915; Times, 17 April 1915
[xiv] Punch, 13 January 1910
[xv] Table Talk, 30 March 1922
[xvi] Table Talk, 13 January 1910
[xvii] The Australasian, 30 November 1895
[xviii] The Argus, 19 July 1910
[xix] Guardian, 14 August 1915
[xx] Standard, 29 June 1934
[xxi] Herald, 19 January 1920
[xxii] Herald, 17 May 1919
[xxiii] Times, 25 November 1922
[xxiv] Herald, 21 September 1926
[xxv] The Age, 2 December 1926
[xxvi] Herald, 7 March 1925
[xxvii] Guardian, 28 November 1925
[xxviii] Guardian, 27 October 1928
[xxix] Guardian, 22 January 1938
[xxx] Guardian, 1 December 1928
[xxxi] The Argus, 7 August 1934
[xxxii] The Argus, 2 January 1937
[xxxiii] The Argus, 17 January 1936 and 29 January 1938