As the nights lengthen and temperatures drop, it's good to be reminded that our loss is someone else's gain - things are hotting up in the Southern Hemisphere. With that fierce antipodean sun beating down, where better to seek shade than beneath a gum tree. If only life were that simple.
One and a half hours drive up the bumpy Bonang Highway gave us a real taste of the scale of Australia. "Highway" suggested to us a dual carriage way or at least a tarmac surface. Here, surrounded by the vast forests of East Gippsland, it meant road, the only one going anywhere.
As we crammed ourselves into her "ute" (pickup truck) and meandered through the forest, Jill Redwood, forest campaigner and backwoods woman, helped alleviate the motion sickness I had begun to feel by pointing out the many different species of tree growing by the roadside. There are over 300 species of eucalypt alone in Australia. We also saw signs of clear felling - huge coupes or cuts where all the trees had been cleared and any unwanted timber burnt. An occasional lorry passed us carrying one or two gigantic eucalyptus trees. We were in timber country up beyond the self-styled "timber town" of Orbost on the south east coast of Victoria. Jill's farm "Witchwood" is as at Goongerah, deep in the heart of forests. She has 25 acres of river flats which are home to her goats, horses, geese and chickens. Saddened and angered by the destruction of the old growth forests all around her, Jill has spoken out against the logging industry and its wanton disregard of environmental concerns. This has won her few friends locally. A courageous and forthright individual, Jill has received death threats, had her horse shot and has been harassed by local "rednecks". Her mail one morning consisted of two severed goats heads, courtesy of a passing trucker.
During our stay we helped out on the farm and did a variety of tasks including gardening, pressing apples for juice, collecting firewood, maintaining fences and scaring cockatoos off the walnut tree. Jill is a particularly resourceful individual, adept at a wide range of rural skills such as basketry, cheese making, working with draught horses and house building. These hard won skills have enabled her to build her own house using horse extracted timber as well as a spacious bark hut, an Australian pioneer speciality built of large sections of thick eucalyptus bark attached to a wooden frame.
Jill sometimes runs rural skills courses at her farm and takes wwoofers, but now devotes most of her energy towards the preservation of the forests. This keeps her busy at her desk editing the "Potoroo Review", campaigning and running the local anti-logging group CROEG (Concerned Residents of East Gippsland). Her efforts have not gone unrecognised - in 1995 she won the Australian Conservation Foundation's award for "environment campaigner of the year".
If the forest appeared endless to our European eyes, Jill quickly put us straight. The depressing reality is that in a little over two hundred years, white settlers have cleared over half of Australia's forests and that destruction is accelerating The most tragic thing, she told us, is that these huge old growth trees, currently cleared at the rate of 17 football fields a day in East Gippsland, mostly end up as wood chips in Japanese paper mills.
The forests of East Gippsland are particularly diverse, reflecting the varied topography of the region, ranging from coastal dunes to rainforest and stunted alpine woodlands. Eucalyptus forests predominate, but also found in the region are callitris pine woodlands and podocarp rainforests. As a whole, these support over 300 endangered species, such as the Tiger Quoll (the largest predatory mammal in mainland Australia), the powerful owl, the long footed potoroo (a diminutive relative of the kangaroo) as well as plants and invertebrates. Many of these animals require tree hollows for shelter or to nest in, or they feed on others that do. Eucalyptus trees do not produce usable hollows until they are 100 years old or more - commercial logging runs on 60 to 80 year harvesting cycles, effectively preventing recolonisation from adjacent old growth areas. Other animals need sediment free water or moist mossy undergrowth; clear felling removes all these. The result is a devastated ecosystem, with a radically disrupted species composition allowing introduced foxes and cats to consume or out compete the native animals. From an aesthetic point of view clear felling is also repellent - the sight of huge tree ferns lying smouldering in the ashes of the once majestic forest is heart-rending. To learn from Jill that the majority of trees end up as wood chips was particularly upsetting. It is very clear that the Australian government is more interested in selling off its unique natural heritage than in preserving the forests of East Gippsland, which have been described as "the most diverse temperate forest ecosystem on earth".