The Penance Grove area of Monga National Park resembles the ancient Gondwanan landscape, and it is like travelling back in time when you are there. Here, you will experience an ancient forest with the many tree ferns and other simple flora which needs moisture and shade to survive e.g. mosses and lichens.
What is Gondwana? Well, Gondwana is the name given to a supercontinent which occurred about 500 million years ago. It included most of the landmasses in today's southern hemisphere, including Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia-New Guinea, and New Zealand, as well as Arabia and the Indian subcontinent.
One of the features of Monga National Park are the tree ferns at the Penance Grove boardwalk area. This is a small valley in the forest, where the temperature is cooler and with more moisture and shade, which can support the growth of these ancient and beautiful tree ferns (see photos here and travelogue section of this VT page).
Tree ferns only grow in the Penance Grove in Monga National Park, and nowhere else in this national park and surrounding areas. As such, this is a must see if you happen to be around this area along the King's Highway from Braidwood to Batemans Bay.
The Dasyurus Picnic Area near the banks of the Mongarlowe River is also the trail head for the Corn Trail.
The Corn Trail (16km) is a historic trail, which was the first trade route between the Buckenbowra Valley farmlands near the coast and the early European settlements on the tablelands near Braidwood. This trail crosses high mountain ridges and deep rainforest valleys. The Corn Trail can also be used by horse riders. The Corn Trail is a difficult trail to walk and takes about at least 6 hours, so be prepared to rough it out.
The Mongarlowe River Picnic Area is the start of 2 easy walks of the Monga National Park.
The first is the Waratah Walk, which is a loop walk along the banks of the Mongarlowe River. The walk to Penance Grove is a short 10 minute stroll, a walk under the beautiful canopy of this lush, cool climate rainforest followed by the Penance Grove boardwalk.
It’s an easy walk of just a hundred or so metres from the picnic area to the banks of the Mongarlowe River. It’s a pleasant and unspoiled little stream and I reckon it’s almost certainly home to the platypus, those curious duck-billed egg-laying mammals that so confounded the early naturalists who were convinced they had to be fakes. If you wish to see any, you would need to be here at dusk and be very still and quiet – if you do, keep an eye out on that long still pool.
To be honest, when we took another of the walks in the National Park, the experience was pretty much “another walk in the Australian bush”. This walk followed what had formerly been a logging trail. It was pleasant, there were plenty of gum trees (eucalypts), even plenty of ferns of various kinds including tree ferns. But, having said that, I did not identify anything to make the experience or the place seem unique.
What we did find was the stump of this large tree (second photo) which had been logged at some time, well before the area became National Park. I stood in front of the remains of the forest giant to allow some perspective of the size. You might care to notice the slots cut into it. These were made by the loggers, who would have inserted planks in the holes on which to climb to a higher level and to stand upon while they cut the tree down: the old style forestry required fitness and agility! It also left most of the forest undamaged as trees were removed selectively. The new approach is to remove everything in a process called “clear felling’, then to replace the forest with a planted forestry monoculture. Ain’t progress wonderful?
I’ve said that this place is strange. Now, what would you make of these “miniature pine tree’ plants on the forest floor? Yes, they’re another relic of Gondwana.
Believe it or not, these little plants are mosses! They have no common name, but their botanical name is Dawsonia Superba and they can grow to a height of 500mm, which makes them the tallest of the mosses. Now, what is the distinguishing feature of mosses? Well, after some research I can tell you that they are from a botanical group called Bryophytes, which means they have no vascular system (ie, sap circulation) – instead, they rely on moisture being circulated by capillary action between stacks of cells: something like a wick.
Back to the Gondwana theme, Dawsonia Superba also are found in New Guinea and in New Zealand.
… because many of their umbrella tops are at about eye level. These are Soft Tree Ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica). They are to be found in moister areas throughout the ranges of south-eastern Australia, usually in temperate rain forest. Continuing on the Gondwana theme, tree ferns are widely distributed and may also be found on Lord Howe Island and in New Zealand (and quite a few other places).
Although they can grow to 15 metres and even look a little like palms, these plants are indeed true ferns. Propagation is by spores, as with all ferns, and the ‘trunk’ is a just solid mass of essentially dead matter with the roots passing through! Strange things, aren’t they!
The larger trees, forming the forest canopy, are plumwoods (Eucryphia Moorei), one of the few members of a quite ancient tree genus once widespread in Gondwana and now found only in a few localised wetter parts of the forests of south-eastern Australia – and in Chile, South America. Within Australia, probably the best known species of Eucryphia are the Tasmanian leatherwoods, noted for a particularly flavoursome honey.
Apparently plumwoods can live for up to 5,000 years, but although they produce viable seeds few survive – because they are appealing food for small ground-dwelling animals such as wallabies. As a consequence, it seems most plumwoods grow from seeds which settle on elevated surfaces such as treeferns, then the seedling extends roots to the ground and in due course takes over the original host. The early stages of this can be seen in the fourth photo, with the tree fern on the left.
The Penance Grove Walk, 800 metres from the picnic area, takes you through a wholly remarkable place. This landscape is unlike any other I have experienced. There are none of Australia’s usual gum trees (eucalypts): those are “modern” forms of shrubbery which have evolved to take advantage of Australia’s drying climate. Instead, here are ancient species of trees and treeferns, with a dense layer of leaf litter on the ground and some areas of a strange little ground cover – let’s head along the elevated boardwalk and find out more.
You are surrounded by a cool temperate rainforest which probably would have been typical of Gondwana, the former southern super continent around Antarctica, from which Africa, South America, India and Australia separated to go their own ways. It is somewhat weird to think that the species of vegetation you see here are entirely representative of what was in Gondwana some 80 to 100 million years ago, when Australia and New Zealand were joined to South America by Antarctica!
Stop. Turn off your MP3 player! This forest is not just tranquil, it is silent. Few people visit, few know it is here. Take a few moments to absorb your surroundings. Dim light filters through the tree canopy, the ambiance is incredible – and yes, seeing a little south polar dinosaur run past almost seems credible!