Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
~ Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney
We can be mesmerised by the Sistine Chapel, feel at peace walking through the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen or breathe in the history through the streets of St. Petersburg. All within twenty four hours, and I mean twenty four hours from Australia. The world has become the one mega-city with many quarters. Each quarter has its own land mark of our civilization: history, architecture, art and culinary delights.
I’d like to take you to a small place called RJ Hamer Arboretum, in the suburb of Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges approximately fifty kilometres from Melbourne CBD. This place has no monuments or historical buildings, its troubled history started 130 years ago, but it has become imbedded into the hills’ fabric and spirit.
The RJ Hamer Arboretum has an address, definite boundaries, and a permanent population of wallabies, wombats, foxes, echidnas, rabbits, snakes and numerous birds including the Lyre bird, feral cats, locals and wandering tourists. The administration is represented by a single ranger, the architecture by retro Red Dog Hut; the scenery by exotic and native trees.
The RJ Hamer Arboretum was named after Sir Rupert Hamer, who was the Premier of Victoria between 1972 and 1981.The site is a 123 hectare area of the Dandenong and Woori Yallock State Forest. The area originally carried mountain eucalypts with ferns along the gullies and creeks. A succession of fires finally destroyed the original trees, leaving the area covered by scrub and bracken.
After World War II softwoods were planted on the area to improve timber supplies in Victoria. Ornamental deciduous trees and conifers were included in the plantings to provide scenic variety, especially along roadsides.
The disastrous fires in January 1962 destroyed everything. The proposal to establish a Forest arboretum received government approval in 1970. The area was cleared of scrub. The major plantings were completed by 1978. Nearly 200 different species have been planted within the Arboretum including a wide range of deciduous trees.
Fire protection has been a core consideration of the design including the location: on the upper north facing slopes of the main east west ridge, the pattern of roads and tracks, planting of tree species with reduced flammability. Exotic tree species are considered less flammable than our native trees.
In Latin Arboretum means “place for trees”, but it has become a place for people and dogs on the leash, well most of the time anyway.
I’ll take you on a walk through the Arboretum the walk I have done for over twelve years, in the heat or rain, with my two Japanese dogs Yuko and Toshi, who are sadly not with us anymore.
My favourite route starts by driving down Woolrich Rd in Olinda. The road is a narrow single lane and you have to watch for oncoming cars. At the top right corner you pass Cloudehill Gardens, a stunning five acre garden that was established over 100 years ago and originally owned by the Woolrich family. Over the past quarter of a century Cloudehill Gardens have been restructured to its glory by Jeremy Francis and his team of local gardeners. In summer you can enjoy music concerts on the lawn with a glass of red wine. There is a nursery, a shop and Seasons – one of the best restaurants in the hills with its sensational hazelnut and coffee cream roulade.
While driving slowly (the roads are not sealed and you don’t want to raise dust) you will see Woolrich B&B. I remember how in a few months a rundown hut was transformed into a gorgeous old charm accommodation with landscaped grounds. They have a secret gate to sneak inside the Cloudehill gardens.
In 200 meters you have to give way on your left to oncoming traffic from Chalet Rd. A few meters further down and you will gasp at a stunning panoramic view stretching out over the Yarra Valley to the Great Dividing Range, 3,500 km long, the third longest land-based range in the world. If you are a tourist you will park your car here, in the main car park. You can enjoy a picnic or barbeque, walk along the many tracks and trails that wind their ways through the trees. Stop and marvel at the colourful scenic view from the lookout rotunda or contemplate stretching out in the grass meadow.
But if you’re a local you would drive a little further along Chalet Road, turn right into Silvan Rd and in about 500m you will see a gate on your left closing any car access to Mathias Rd. That’s where locals go.
It seems that not much has changed since I last walked here four years ago. Still the same signs: Dogs on leash, Poison baits (to destroy foxes).
This sign is quite clear, but many dog walkers don’t obey the rules. I’m a guilty one too. All this creates tension. Those who obey the rules tell you off, those who don’t, get caught up in dog fights, rows and disputes with the ranger. Then there are those who do not own a dog, disapproving of dogs in the forest all together. But somehow we all share and enjoy the Arboretum.
Many times while walking through the Arboretum I’ve caught a glimpse of a fox. I know they create problems for the native life but I can’t help feeling sorry for them. They are very small animals compared to European species hiding and watching walkers from behind the trees. Foxes have to fight to survive, poisoned by rangers and shot by farmers. I lost my chooks to foxes a few times before I gave up on enjoying my own fresh eggs. Yet they are very intelligent animals with piercing black eyes just like dogs.
It is the end of May, the rain has just stopped but the heavy dark clouds are still hanging very low, another burst of rain is an imminent. There is only one car parked at the gates. I used to know by the parked cars which dogs were being walked, but this car was unfamiliar.
Mathias Rd is fairly wide and takes you through the Arboretum with smaller tracks running right and left. On my left is a big grove of Common Birch trees. In April to mid-May you can pick mushrooms that only grow underneath them- Birch Bolete. Please, resist touching the shiny bright red with the white polka dots- Fly Agaric Amanita mushrooms: they are extremely poisonous.
Since WWII a large community of Europeans settled in the Dandenong’s. We all compete for wild mushrooms and have our secret places. If you haven’t grown up picking wild mushrooms as a child with your grandparents or your parents don’t touch them. Instead of a homey dinner with stewed mushrooms, potatoes and sour cream, you could end up in a hospital having your stomach pumped or possibly much worse.
Opposite the birch grove runs a long stretch of Claret Ash. Most of the leaves have fallen by now, yet you can see a yellow carpet of maple leaves deeper in the forest. I remember one spring morning walking with my dogs when suddenly I heard a strange sound around the corner of the track. The sound was muffled and irregular like someone was beating a rug with a stick to dust it. As I cautiously stepped around the corner of the track I saw at least twenty rabbits sitting in a semi-circle watching two large rabbits fighting. They were jumping high in the air, colliding into each other and landing back down to the ground. Even my dogs froze in astonishment.
Let’s continue on Mathias Rd through more groves of Common Limes, Manna Ash, Canoe Birch, and Monarch Birch, all planted in the seventies. And then we arrive at the only man- built monument in the Arboretum- the Red Dog Hut. How disappointing: it has been nearly destroyed by a fallen Wattle. Wattles are a big problem in the Arboretum. They grow tall and leggy screening the beautiful views of the mountains and valleys, bringing darkness into the forest. Falling unexpectedly they pull other trees with them on the way down. But then in spring they are first to flower with so many clusters of tiny fluffy balls, they look like a golden haze.
The Red Dog Hut has lost its sign, the iron roof is squashed, and the top of the old stone fireplace has been broken off. The fallen Wattle has been pushed away and now blocks the access to the Lyre Bird creek. We used to see tiny yabbies on the bank of the creek. My Akita Yuko would drop on the shallow muddy bottom on a hot summer day to cool down, but it’s all buried now.
Let’s continue. A few meters up the road fern trees and wet grasses create a rainforest feeling before the Sequoia Track on my left. I’ve heard Lyre birds here many times on my walks in winter. They are master mimics from copying kookaburras to car alarms and even chainsaws. You don’t see them often. But one winter day a Lyre bird stepped on the road in front of us and then flashed and shook flat forward its magnificent tail. It was too busy with the courtship display to be afraid of the danger of dogs and feral cats on the track. I had to shush it away.
I know, you won’t believe me, but I have just spotted a Lyre bird. You have to be very lucky to see one, especially in the afternoon. It is busy raking damp rainforest floor with its flexible long claws looking for insects, snails or earthworms. It let me to walk pasted quite close. I took a few shots on my phone. Fortunately they are not endangered.
From here Mathius Rd starts to get much steeper, its surface changing to slippery red clay. I have to catch my breath while passing by bare deciduous trees mixed with Golden False Cypress, magnificent gums and conifers, running tracks and endless vistas.
The dark clouds cleared unexpectedly revealing a blue and pink tipped sky, a typical colour palate in the Hills in late afternoon. Bare branches make intricate patterns contrasting against the sky, sprinkled with rain drops like shining rain stones. I love bare branches: they are the end and the beginning, the past and the future, the simplicity and the expectation. The smell of the gums, damp earth and decaying leaves is a health cocktail.
Now we have reached the side of the Olinda Golf Course. This is the end of the Arboretum. We are now in the National Park. There are many warning signs: no horse riding, no bikes, no bicycles, and a peculiar one: no dogs or cats. I once saw an elderly lady walking a donkey in a Shetland red coat, but I’ve never seen anyone walking a cat. If it’s the sign for feral cats, I’m sure they can’t read.
From here you can turn back on to Mathius Rd which takes you to your parked car. If you choose to continue on further in about fifteen minutes you’ll find yourself near the Rhododendron Garden. You may decide to go down a track called Black Hole. It forks at the bottom of the steep path and can lead you to your car through the lower part of the Arboretum or to the second barbeque area. There is nothing spooky on this track.
I pick my usual way passed the “ Snakes in Area “danger sign and start to climb up the Rock Track which will return me to the carpark. From there you’ll see the Reservoir, pass another birch grove, ornamental willows, liquid ambers, maples, old hawthorns with their clustered red berries, a meadow, and descend sharply to the Mathias Rd near The Dog Hut.
There are snakes in the Arboretum. I’m shocked when I see visitors walking in sandals or slip shoes or high heels. I had an experience with a black snake crossing Mathias Rd just 30 centimetres behind my feet. I stood still unable to breathe. It seemed an eternity. It stopped and raised its head and then slowly slithered to the edge of the road into the grass and then coiled up. On several occasions I have been warned by distressed walkers encountering copper, black or tiger snakes.
We are back at my car now. It was different today. Everything has changed.
I haven’t got my dogs anymore.
I didn’t run into Linda, a beautiful young woman with a broken heart who lived in a shack. Out of the blue she met a charming man, a dance teacher, and her life changed instantly, she managed to move on and left the Hills.
I haven’t seen Barbara and Pete with their Staffordshire Henry. Barbara spoke in a posh Queen’s English and was the only woman I knew who walked through the forest immaculately dressed with full make up. When I was overseas and my dog walker let me down, they both stepped in and walked my dogs every second day until I came back. Sadly, Barbara passed away a couple years ago.
Where are John and Robbin, who screamed at me for letting my dog off the leash, later I learnt that they gave their Prince Charles spaniel a free run. John lost his job and with two young kids they couldn’t pay for expensive medication their dog needed when it developed a heart condition.
I recall a day when an ex helicopter pilot tried to hold his tears telling me about his dog being run over by car the previous night.
I can’t remember the name of the mysterious elderly lady who claimed to be a clairvoyant. Summer or winter she walked at least three hours in the Arboretum with two ski polls. She had stunning long hair which was pinned up, the body of a teenager, always sun tanned, she was afraid of dogs. She would stop and talk to me from a distance. One day her house burnt down. She had a long dispute with her insurance company, got gravely ill then left for the UK and never came back.
I have always feared what may have happened to the woman carrying a full basket of poisonous mushrooms. She snapped at me when I warned her.
I haven’t met many of my fellow walkers from the past today, but I remember all of you. It was you who made this place special. The Arboretum keeps the memories of all our encounters with all living things.