The Manscape: A Boy’s Own Adventure

Sometimes it’s as much about the journey as the destination. Last Wednesday night around 8:30pm my phone rang. On the other end was my brother Olly from Tasmania. He was calling to make good on a pact we had made a few months earlier.

The basic premise of the pact was this: To go walking in nature more often together. All the pact required was the extension of an invitation if one of us was planning a trip they thought the other might enjoy. There was no obligation; we figured this would increase the likelihood of trekking together.

The trip Olly proposed was one I’d been keen to do for a while. The mission was to travel to Tasmania’s central plateau and see the Nothofagus gunnii in their full Autumn colours.

Nothofagus gunnii or fagus as it’s more commonly known is a deciduous beech tree endemic to the highlands of central Tasmania. Olly had been tipped off from a fellow walker that the leaves of the fagus had started to turn and that the following few weeks would provide a beautiful show – with the leaves turning from green into vibrant yellow, orange and red.

Fagus are a small tree, only growing up to about two metres tall. They’re generally only found in alpine areas above 1,000m and like many of Tasmania’s unique plants species, are endemic to the island, with ancient origins dating back 60 – 100 million years ago when Tasmania formed part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Interestingly, as Gondwana began to split, the Nothofagus species remained common across much of the southern hemisphere including South America, New Zealand, and Australia. Scientists believe the present distribution of Nothofagus is a good indicator that these landmasses might once have been joined.

Pandani in the Pine Valley rainforest. Image by Olly Lawler
The Lawler family hiking club! Image by Olly Lawler

So, just two days after getting the call, Wona and I found ourselves at Olly and Sophia’s house in Hobart, Tasmania. We caught the last plane out of Melbourne and after a quick planning session, managed to squeeze in 3.5 hours sleep before jumping in the car and driving west – deep into Tasmania’s central wilderness. As we started to load the car a surprise guest arrived. My dad!

Dad appeared in the morning darkness dressed from head to toe in his hiking kit with full pack on his back. The pact was working!

In under 60 hours we’d somehow managed to pull together a family expedition to witness the unique autumnal change of the Tasmanian fagus tree.

We packed the car and got ready to roll! The trip required a decent drive west (aprox. 2.5 hours) into the Tasmanian wilderness, plus a short 14km ferry ride to the northern edge of Lake St. Clair. From there, it was a few hours trek into the base camp at Pine Valley. In the morning we planned to wake early and scramble up to the labyrinth and into the alpine area about 600m above.

The journey took us through several distinct ecosystems filled with amazing plant life. From cool temperate rainforests to alpine and sub-alpine scrub – Tasmania’s vegetation is unique. Due to it’s climate and relative isolation, the island has a high proportion of endemic, and ancient, plant species.

Nothofagus gunii at the Labyrinth. Image by Olly Lawler
Central Plateau mountain horizon. Image by Olly Lawler

We set off from the car and after walking for a couple of hours we began to enter Pine Valley – a cool temperate rainforest filled with a magnificent array of plants. It was almost impossible to walk a step without marvelling at something. Every tree was covered in a thick fur of moss and lichen, and there was a seemingly endless array of brightly coloured fungi popping up. We cut a slow pace through the forest, stopping every few meters to ogle at something new.

Needless to say, a section of the walk that should have taken us 30 minutes took us triple that!

Our final destination for the day was the Pine Valley campsite and hut. It lay at the base of the Labyrinth and Acropolis peaks and was one of the more spectacular camps site I’ve ever visited. Nestled amongst the Myrtle-beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) and Pandani (Richea pandanifolia), it resembled a fictional magical forest, rather than an actual place – in part because of the thick carpet of moss and fungi surrounding the site.

But also, what made it extra special were the pandani plants littering the forest. Pandani can grow up to 12m tall and are found in Tasmania’s rainforests and sub-alpine areas. They have long, sharp-edged leaves that are retained on the trunk to provide insulation in the cold. The pandani holds a special place in my (and I suspect many Tasmanians) heart.

As an expat living on the mainland it’s the one plant that when sighted in nature reminds me that I’m truly home.

The next morning we woke early, before sunrise, and started to climb the final stretch to the summit. It was more of a scramble than a walk, and after about one and a half hours we reached the alpine plateau.

It was breathtaking, in part due to the epic scramble up, but more so because of the views. On a clear day you can see for miles, mountain range after range. The landscape was completely different to the one we were in a short while ago. The plant life is distinctly different, with dense rainforest giving way to a windswept alpine ridge. It was filled with amazing alpine species like pepper berry (Tasmannia lanceolata) and spectacular native pencil pine (Athrotaxis cupressoides). But, of course, we were there to see the fagus. Thankfully, after all that effort, they didn’t disappoint. The colours were spectacular!

I can honestly say I’ve never been happier to see a plant.

Olly managed to snap some great shots to share, and with that we declared our mission complete!

Charlie Lawler is the owner of Loose Leaf – a botanical design studio and plant shop in Collingwood, Melbourne.

All images by Olly Lawler. Check out his instagram feed here.

Nothofagus gunnii foliage. Image by Olly Lawler