‘Going back in time’: Trekking Nightcap with descendants of Gondwana
Photography and words by Charles Hunter
I am in the ancient Big Scrub rainforest of Nightcap National Park near Nimbin in the Byron Bay Hinterland, north-eastern NSW. It’s 5.00am and I’ve just crossed shallow Rocky Creek. I start walking up Gibbergunyah Range Road. The air becomes thick with moisture and the temperature drops. It’s still dark but the rainforest is already awake and its sounds are simply mesmerising. It’s very noisy. A red-legged pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica) jumps across my path and startles me. My heart starts racing and I pause for a moment and take a deep breath. The sounds are coming from every direction.
Microbats whiz past above my head, not long now until they sleep. A family of the endemic Australian logrunners (Orthonyx temminckii) appear to scream at me for disturbing them as they forage on the forest floor, madly sweeping and scratching with their feet. Dawn light starts to appear and I can see a motionless carpet python (Morelia spilota mcdowelli). It’s curled up with its eyes closed, not interested in me, just waiting for a patch of sun to appear and warm its cold blood.
As daylight breaks, I’m sure that I’ve gone back in time. I am surrounded by giant trees towering above me. I take a quick drink from a crystal clear creek and listen to a group of wompoo fruit-doves (Ptilinopus magnificus) calling above me. In the distance, I hear the rasping call of the paradise riflebird (Ptiloris paradiseus), one of Australia’s four species of bird-of-paradise. I see a green catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris). He’s calling like a crying child, staking his territory and warning other birds they could be his breakfast.
All about Nightcap National Park
Nightcap is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia and also contains part of the remaining Big Scrub, which was the largest tract of lowland sub-tropical rainforest in the southern hemisphere. European settlers began clearing the forest in the 1880s and (sadly) by 1900 less than 1% of the Big Scrub remained. Now, scattered pockets are all that exist of this glorious forest that once stretched from Byron Bay to Lismore.
Bird watching is a much loved hobby of mine and, in pursuit of it, I’ve spent much time in rainforests all over the World including Columbia, Myanmar, Sulawesi, Vietnam and Malaysia and also in Australia from the monsoon forests in the Northern Territory to the lowland tropical rainforests of Cape York. The sub-tropical “Big Scrub” in Nightcap National Park however is definitely one of my favourites.
When Australia split off from the supercontinent Gondwana over 40 million years ago, it was covered in rainforest. To help prove this fact, in 2002 tree kangaroo remains were discovered in caves in the Nullarbor Plain which is now mostly desert. As the Australian continent drifted north, the climate became dryer and only pockets of rainforest remained.
It has taken Europeans just 200 years to clear three-quarters of the remaining Australian rainforests. At Nightcap National Park as late as August 1979 the government wanted to continue extensive logging at Terania Creek. Thankfully a group of 300 protesters created a blockade and the nearby Protestors Falls is so-named after them. The protest was Australia’s first environmental blockade and succeeded in saving 81 square kilometres of pristine natural forest from destruction.
Nightcap National Park is an ancient, magical place. A place of peace and serenity.