“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues…” The Lorax was too late to save the truffula trees in Dr Seuss's famous story (well, except for - spoiler alert! - that one lonely seed the Onceler gives the boy at the end, with the words, "Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.")
|Beautiful, aren't they?
The river red gum forests of southern NSW looked like going the same way, having been logged since the 1820s - until July 2010, when the state government protected them in a 107,000-hectare swathe of national parks, nature reserves and regional parks. It was a good month for trees.
It was like going back to a freer, simpler time. My friends and I had to get a mud-map from the local tourist office to find our bush campsite, at the end of a muddy maze of dirt roads and on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. There was no park entry fee, no camping fee. And when we got there, there was no one but us.
|Kayak on the Murrumbidgee
We spent two whole days in, on and next to the river, and always surrounded by red gums. On Saturday we kayaked for half a day, with a new tour operator called Riverina Experience, past fallen trees, high eroded banks and tangles of exposed roots, evidence of the floods a couple of weeks ago when two metres of rain fell in one drenching, 24-hour period.
|My, what big claws you have
From our kayaks, we saw FIVE koalas, in the high branches of the river red gums overhead. It's only the third time in my entire life (so far) I've seen koalas in the wild. Some of them were even active, climbing branches, looking down on us, listening to us with their teddy-like ears (does that count as anthropomorphising?).
|Bikes in the bush
On Sunday we rode mountain bikes, also with Riverina Experience, along the river and through Narrandera Common (officially called Narrandera Flora and Fauna Reserve), through open woodland.
As our guide Ian Hardie explained, this is what the original, pre-logged red gum forests looked like: big, gnarled trees with spreading branches and lots of open space between them. (Our campsite, by contrast, had lots of skinny red gums close together, due to decades of management by forestry).
|Our river red gum campsite
We swam in the river. We camped by the river, listening to its gentle gurgle as we fell asleep in our tents (spacious Lansan Plus tents with massive vestibules, kindly supplied by – sponsor alert! – Kathmandu). We even met a Wiradjuri man, Michael Lyons, who showed us how he makes didgeridoos and boomerangs from local woods, offered us witchety grubs and took us to see an "Aboriginal hotel" - a hollowed-out red gum big enough for a family to sleep in.
One of the most back-in-time aspects of the trip was our campfire. It was a real fire, made from gathered logs and sticks (not pre-chopped wood). Which (naturally) made me look into the environmental impacts of campfires. On the minus side: there's all that carbon dioxide going into the air, and faster than if the dead trees were left to decompose.
On the plus side: it was one campfire used for three days, by seven people, for cooking, warmth and light (the days being cooler and shorter now) and we didn't have to throw away any butane canisters (from a fuel stove) after the trip.
Wood is also more renewable than gas. Trees can be replanted; once gas (or any fossil fuel) is out of the ground, there's no giving the carbon back. Also, apparently fires that burn with intense heat and minimal smoke aren't so bad. I wouldn't want to have a campfire every night, but there was something wholesome about having one for this trip. (Read more about the environmental effects of burning wood here.)
Want to see river red gums? You can drive to Narrandera in under five hours from Sydney or Melbourne. Fly with Rex and you'll be there in an hour (we did the latter, and I offset my flights with Climate Friendly, as always).