DONNELLY’S WEIR – MT ST. LEONARD – CONDONS TRACK RETURN
A misty mountain hike
It was a crisp autumn morning. There was a bite to the air on our skin as the overnight temperatures had reached single digits, a first blush mist lingered. Three friends met in the carpark of Donelly’s weir, rejoicing in each other’s company and the promise of an exciting day ahead. A 28k adventure began. Slowly meandering through Toolangi forest, with nothing but time and laughter, wet mountain ash bark stood starkly, like ribbons of colours, gentle jades, browns, slivered silvers, oranges and tans against the bright greens of the fern gullies and mosses creeping across fallen trees, entangled in an understorey alive with fungi and content rainforest critters.
It was a slow ascent to Mt. St Leonards. Not just because the at times rocky incline walk was difficult on the glutes, but for the attention capturing mushrooms exploding out of the ground. Turkey tail lining ground logs, Chanterelles bursting amongst splashes of purple waxcaps and the ever present, bright red capped “fairy mushrooms”; Amanitas. Vividly coloured fruiting bodies of the vastly hidden mycelium web, predominating the tall forests from the earthen soil. This day quickly revealed itself as a perfect showcasing of this sublime wet ash forest diversity of fungi, present in abundance for us lucky souls to bathe in its splendour. The fresh mountain air filled our lungs, the beauty of nature surrounded us, permeating our senses and filling us with peace and nurturement.
Earth Star Mushroom – Geastrum triplex
From the top of Mt. St Leonard, the typically scenic lookout to the varying ranges, Dandenongs and across the Yarra Valley, was obscured by a blanket of fog. A chilly ‘on the ground’ lunch was shared, fitting considering our close encounters with the ground storey life leading up to our stop along the way.
Once our treats were shared, (surprisingly delicious yet strange edible weed salads, home baked goods and the classic hikers hummus dip), onwards we went. Down the slippery hill past more vibrant fern gullies towards the car park, encountering the ancient protected Mountain Ash giants. We stood in awe of their sheer size, climbing inside of basal hollows, imagining a home inside an ancient tree. Taking in their magnificence, appreciating the centuries they had stood in that very same spot, a time before white Australia existed, when the forests surrounding were not carved up in “State forest” and “National Park” areas. When the forest was ruled solely by fierce owls, arboreal mammals, stunning birds and creatures of reverence at the micro level, all living as one, harmoniously, in this complex forest ecosystem.
There is something about a wet forest after a big rainfall. It is so….alive. It is absolutely teeming with life, spirited with deep colours revealed by the moisture. The ferns truly pop. Witnessing the forest in this state felt like a true blessing, an encapsulation of the delicacy of this fragile ecosystem under threat from a multitude of human driven activities, primarily logging and of course, climate change. Walking this long loop felt like a pilgrimage through the forest, an honouring of its natural state, bearing witness to the true functioning of a multi-tiered, multi-faceted, truly wet ash forest.
Venturing onwards, striding contentally down the gravel road, we diverted from our path into an old fire bunker. Inside was wall to wall concrete with a reverberance like no other. The soft sound of rain falling outside added to the eeriness of this space. It was cold, dark and void of any sign of life, unlike the place which existed outside. Imaginings surfaced in the mind, of taking shelter in this place during a bushfire…the sound of exploding eucalyptus and roaring flames. It was hard to believe you could survive down there, physically and mentally. We left the darkened cathedral, approbation lingering for those who created such a space to take refuge within. We headed in the direction of Condon’s track, the last downhill trek of our journey, fossicked walking sticks twirling in our fingertips as we found the sign pointing us in the right direction. The road transformed quickly, we could no longer walk side by side. It was no longer wide and well cleared, it was dense, with scents of scrubby ground storey plants, tea trees and prickly moses, ferns and lichen, and again, a stunning array of fungi.
We precariously made our way down the steep Mt. Monda bush track, slipping and sliding a little along the way. Many beautiful things caught our eyes, but one thing remained in my mind long after this hike. The gorgeous alien-like earth stars, a puffball fungi which we gently poked, releasing spores in soft clouds of black. Their strange little shapes looked like wax implants, not something nature had created. Once again I was reminded that the earth is the greatest artist, the perfect designer; bizarre and wonderful all the same.
The track opened up at the bottom, on the other side of the mountain, and we continued on back towards our starting point. Almost 9 hours later, our legs had fatigued yet we trekked on happily and playfully, taking in any little offering of nature’s mesmerisation. The final part of our journey found us walking alongside a Melbourne Water channel, reminding us of the significant ecosystem services this forest provides to a city roughly 85 minutes away…..evening was upon us, and silhouetted trees were casting shadows across the water’s surface.
We returned to where we started, elated and feeling a sense of achievement for how far we had journeyed that day together, recapping on all the wonderful things we had encountered along the way. It was a candidly magical walk, filled with mother nature’s flair. Toolangi (tall trees in Taungurung language), is an incredibly special part of forest within the Central Highlands, a truly important area of our catchment. What remains of it is spectacular and should be preserved, for culture, spirit, biodiversity, water and carbon sequestration. Anyone who experiences this hike will understand and feel that magic.
I acknowledge this hike took place on the sacred lands of the Taungurung people. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and I stand in solidarity with those fighting to protect their country from the exploitation of corporate greed, to preserve their culture and history, and continue honouring the land as thousands of generations did so before them.
Story and photos by Alana Mountain