Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Biggest Estate on Earth - the evidence - written

Colonists and visitors saw grass where there are now trees, and forests were open with no undergrowth where there is dense scrub at the present in all parts of Australia. Abel Tasman saw land to the south of Hobart that was 'pretty generally covered with trees, standing so far apart that they allow a passage everywhere ... unhindered by dense shrubbery or underwood'. This area is now dense forest, and the author1 asks why it wasn't then. The areas that were not grass in 1788 were often 'thick scrubs, impenetrable eucalypts and rainforest walls', as the author1 describes them.  A puzzle to the Europeans was the abrupt border from scrub to grass, it simply didn't look natural. There was no trace of the 2 vegetation types merging, just a sharp demarcation where one finished and the other began, just as often occurs on farms. William Hovell reported in 1824 moving suddenly from grass to tangled undergrowth and fallen timber that had been piled higher the the horses, that was almost impossible to walk through and even harder to ride through.

In Tasmania there were areas of Tasmanian Buttongrass in places where there should have been rainforest. The puzzle was how it got there, as there were no characteristics of the area that had changed such as soil, aspect or elevation from adjacent areas of rainforest. Another puzzle was that White Grass is normally found in open country, the settlers found it growing under trees, the author suggesting trees were growing on land that had previously been grass covered. The Europeans of the colony couldn't make sense of Australia having more grass and more open forest and less rainforest. They thought it a strange country.

A puzzling situation for Europeans was that it appears to have been typical in Australia for grass to grow on good soil and trees on poor, often rocky soil. Describing the country behind Port Stephens, New South Wales, in 1826 Robert Dawson wrote:

In general heavily timbered and, as usual, without underwood. After crossing a deep, and in some places a dry channel, which in rainy seasons would be called a river, the soil began to improve. The country gradually became less wooded and the views more extensive. This is in accordance with what I had been previously led to expect, and fully confirmed by my former observations, that the poorest soil contained more than treble the number of trees that are found in the best soil, being also much longer and taller. This, like most other things in this strange country, is, I believe, nearly the reverse of what we find in England.

Edward John Eyre, considered to be 'a most competent observer' writing about South Australia:

'For the most part we passed through green valleys with rich soil and luxuriant pasturage. The hills adjoining the valley were grassy, and lightly wooded on the hills facing the valley; towards the summits they became scrubby, and beyond, the scrub almost invariably made its appearance'.

Charles Sturt wrote:

As regards the general appearance of the wooded portion of this province, I would remark, that excepting on the tops of the ranges where the stringy-bark grows; in the pine forests, and where there are belts of scrub on barren or sandy ground, its character is that of open forest without the slightest undergrowth save grass ... In many places the trees are so sparingly, and I had almost said judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman's residence in England.'

Two tourists wrote of Gundagai in 1824:

'Beautiful meadowland bounded by sloping ranges of hills covered with grass, and thinly timbered. Generally speaking, all fertile lands in Australia appear to be characterised  by these features.'

According to the author1 that was in general so in the 1840s, but no longer, why did the fewest trees grow on the most fertile land?

Some wondered about this feature of the Australian landscape, such as William Govett, writing about the summits behind Sydney, that he described as:

'Clothed with grass, which circumstance, considering the bareness and excessive sterility which pervades all the connecting ridges, and that region of the mountains, is certainly very extraordinary ... In general ... the ranges are covered with short timber and scrub.'

R.J. Scholl, writing of the country northeast of Broome, Western Australia:

'The great peculiarity here, as well as well as the land to the north of Glenelg, is the total absence of undergrowth bushes; between the widely separated short trees there is nothing but grass.'

Henry Haygarth was dismayed when describing what he saw at Omeo, Victoria, in about 1843, writing:

'The gloomy forest had opened, and about 2 miles before, or rather beneath us-for the ground thinly dotted with trees, sloped gently downwards-lay a plain about 7 miles in breadth. Its centre was occupied by a lagoon ... On either side of this plain, for some distance, was as level as a bowling green, until it was met by the forest, which shelved picturesquely down towards it, gradually decreasing its vast masses until they ended in a single tree. In the vicinity of the forest the ground was varied by gentle undulations, which, as they intersected each other, formed innumerable grassy creeks and flats, occasionally adorned with native honeysuckles and acacias ... Two remarkable conical hills, perfectly free from timber, rose in the middle of the largest plain ... The whole, as far as the eye could reach, was clothed with a thick coat of grass, rich and luxuriant, as if the drought, so destructive elsewhere, had never reached this favoured spot.

It was Omio [sic] Plain. By what accident, or rather by what freak of nature, came it here? A mighty belt of forest, for the most part destitute of verdure, and forming as uninviting a region as could well be found, closed in on every side for fifty miles; but there is isolated in the midst of a wilderness of desolation, lay this beautiful place, so fair, so smiling.'

Omeo's historian wrote:

When the first white men came to the Omeo Plains all the best country was treeless. On the lower foothills which bordered the plains, there were large gum trees, standing singly, and odd clumps of sally wood ... northward and almost to the tablelands, about 6 miles away, the gum timber was dense, and known as The Forest.'

Thomas Walker wrote of the valley:

'the prettiest piece of country I have seen since leaving the Murrimbidgee [sic], very thinly timbered, indeed in many places clear, with interspersed here and there a few trees or a clump or a belt, the soil sound and good ... the sward close ... the whole being intersected by lagoons: it was quite like a gentleman's park in England.'

Other travellers in Gippsland, such as John Lhotsky wrote in 1824 of similar plains between Gundaroo and Michelago, New South Wales.

There were many other descriptions of landscapes from various parts of the continent that described what was apparently the same or similar scenery, all with the lack of undergrowth and areas covered with grass where trees would normally be expected. Among these were:

Charles von Hugel, a botanist - the Goulburn Plain

Govett, 1832, - the Goulburn Plain.

Joseph Maiden, 1894 - Dorrigo, New South Wales.

G. Marks, 1911- Dorrigo.

Leichardt - Calvert's Plains, on the Dawson, Queensland.

Eyre, 1839 - South Australian mallee.

Modern researchers have found soil boundaries, cracking clay, rain shadows, nutrient supply and aspect , but the author1 suggests all these factors apply somewhere but none of these conditions apply to places where there are trees now but not in 1788. Other suggestions to explain the lack of trees where they now grow are bushfires, salination and overgrazing, that the author1 suggests would rarely apply in the early days of colonisation, though it is possible they may sometimes be cogent. He also points out that the early settlers crossed rivers and creeks on 'fallen' trees surprisingly often. He scoured the records of the various colonies and found at least 12 such incidents in Tasmania, 7 in Western Australia, 4 in Victoria, 3 in New South Wales and 1 in Queensland. Rivers where these crossings are known to have been made are Murray, Lachlan, Goulburn, Gordon, and in Tasmania the Emu River, 'the widest and deepest we had seen since leaving Circular Head'.

J.C. Bussell is said to have crossed several such 'fallen' trees in a journey in southwest Australia, though at present the author1 says it is hard to imagine seeing a tree that spanned any of those rivers, or even a 'decent creek'. Aboriginal People were said by Mary Gilmour to drop trees intentionally by undermining their roots. She witnessed such an incident in which a tree was felled to cross Wollundry Lagoon, Wagga, New South Wales.

It has also been suggested that straight tree lanes were made by humans, some of which led to initiation grounds. A straight line of at least 8 gums, that had been marked, led to an initiation ground near Mildura, Victoria. A 'long straight avenue of trees, extended for about a mile, and these were carved on each side, with various devices', on the Macquarie. In 1844, on the Murray, a 'natural avenue of gum-trees extends ... two rows of noble trees growing at almost equal distances, the open grassy spaces between each row being at least 100 feet in width: so regular are the intervals between them, that it is almost difficult, at first sight, to persuade one's self that they were not planted by the hand of man'.

Henry Hellyer in Tasmania 'ascended the most magnificent grass hill I have seen in this country, consisting of several level terraces, as if laid out by art, and crowned with a straight row of peppermint trees, beyond which there was not a tree for four miles along the grassy hills'.

Another curious phenomenon from the early days of colonisation involves such unusual situations as fire tolerant plants being found side by side with fire sensitive plants, the 2 plant types needing different fire regimes. Early in colonisation it was possible to drive a carriage through such country, or paint a view through it, is no longer possible. The author1 suggests that clear of settlement there could be more trees at the present than in 1788.

It has been calculated (Bill Jackson) that 47 % of Tasmania should have been covered by rainforest in 1788, but the actual area of rainforest for pre-contact times was much lower. Most of the area that should have been covered by rainforest was eucalypt forest, scrub, heath or grass, and sometimes such vegetation types were found with the logs of rainforest species beneath the trees. There were places where Jackson found rainforest that had been replaced by other vegetation types thousands of years in the past, and had not reverted to rainforest since that  remote time. It has been pointed out (Bill Jackson) that the south island of New Zealand had much more rainforest than Tasmania, though they had comparable climates. His conclusion was that the best explanation for the difference was burning in Tasmania. It has been agreed by Rhys Jones that 'The present distribution of floristic units in western Tasmania can be explained only in terms of both a high fire regime over a long period of time during the past, and the lifting of that pressure over the past hundred and fifty years.'

The aspect that Bill Jackson found puzzling was that the present boundaries between vegetation types appear  remarkably stable. He found it difficult to understand how such extensive areas of vegetation, that was unnatural (disclimax), could arise even [34,000 years, estimated in 1999 to be the length of time the Aboriginal People had been in Tasmania]. He wondered that as other plant communities had moved so little over the period since they displaced rainforest, how could so much be displaced in this period of time? His confusion resulted from his considering random fire. If the Aboriginal People of Tasmania did actually burn randomly the boundaries would be unstable, but they weren't burnt randomly. The stableness of the boundaries indicate that they were burnt intentionally.

R.C. Ellis found that in northern Tasmania the boundaries between eucalypt forest, grassland and rainforest were sharp and relatively stable. The author1 suggests the Tasmanian Aboriginal People burnt back rainforest selectively then patrolled the edges. He also suggests some boundaries were moved, pointing out a curious feature of much of the rainforest in Tasmania - it was overtopped by giant eucalypts.

Hellyer described such a forest to the south of Emu Bay:

'This is a horrid place [to] be in, neither Sun nor Moon to be seen, being completely darkened by dripping evergreens consisting of Myrtle, Sassafras, Ferntrees, immensely tall White Gum and Stringy Bark trees from two hundred to 300 feet high and heaps of those which have fallen lying rotting one over the other from ten to twenty feet high'. 

Hellyer's description was echoed by Edward Curr, the father of Edward Curr of Victoria: :

'... enormous Stringy-bark trees many of them three hundred feet high and thirty feet in circumference near the roots exclude the rays of the Sun and in the gloom which their shade creates those trees flourish which affect darkness and humidity ... sassafras, dogwood, pepper trees, musk trees ... in some situations blackwood of the best quality ... fungi, mosses, lichens, ferns.'

This feature was noted by others and can still be seen - pictures 46-481. In the Mount Field National Park, on land that was said to have never been logged, was opened in 1916. There are giant Swamp Gums on the lower slopes and in gullies, many of which have been scarred by fire. Rainforest species growing beneath them include Sassafras, Myrtle and Tree Fern, but no eucalypts in this rainforest understorey.  In Tasmania the same condition occurs elsewhere, such as the Styx, the Tarkine and the Blue Tier. Along the east coast, at places such as the Bunya Mountains of Queensland (picture 40)1 and the McPherson Range, Queensland/New South Wales. Also in Queensland, Christie Palmerston saw many examples. In the upper Daintree he:

' cut through one patch of jungle ... which has splendid green grass all along the top, but the sides are covered with dense jungle. Kept to this spur to the eastward for about four miles, and cut my road through four patches of dense jungle ... The timber on the open ridges was principally gum, oak, bloodwood and honeysuckle, and there was soil on all the mountains.'

This is all climax (natural) rainforest country, and as such vegetation types have closed canopies insufficient light penetrates to the ground for eucalypt seedlings to grow, as they can grow only in sunlight. The author1 asks the question, how did eucalypts come be be present in rainforest? The obvious answer is that the rainforest was not growing there when the eucalypts that are now big trees sprouted. As the rainforest has since returned it seems obvious that the area could only have been kept clear of rainforest by repeated fires. The author1 suggests random occasional burning could not have kept rainforest from the area, it required persistent burning under the right conditions, and such conditions occur rarely in rainforest. Where eucalypts top rainforest it indicates that people spent a lot of time and effort to keep the rainforest from invading the cleared area.

In dense dry scrub ancient eucalypts can be found, but no seedlings, again because there too little light reaching the ground. Unnatural fires histories can be associated with these places.

Kurrajong is another indicator tree type that survives fire because of deep tap root that re-sprouts from the base buds after if the above-ground parts are killed by fire. At the present where it occurs in reserves other species of fire regenerators, such as  wattle and Casuarina, are choking the ancient stands of Kurrajong, no Kurrajong seedlings surviving beneath them.

Hopbush is another plant that has become a major problem in semi-arid pastures since the pre-contact burning regime of 2 fires every 5 years was stopped.

The dry Buttongrass plains of Tasmania were made by fire, though they are adjacent to fire-sensitive pines, some of which are 2000 years old.

In Arnhem Land mild fires are needed every 2 - 5 years by Blue  Cypress, as the stands are killed or damaged by fires that are more frequent or intense. If fires are less frequent than 2 years the stands are choked by the growth of saplings. According to the author1 casual burning or lightning could not start or continue such as fire regime. There were vast tracts of Blue Cypress prior to first contact, but there was a widespread crash following the stopping of the pre-contact fire regime.

When Kangaroo Island, South Australia,  was first visited by whites from the early colonies it was covered with dense forest, but there were no people living there. On the adjacent mainland the vegetation was of an open woodland type.

Tuart Forest develops a very dense undergrowth when there are no fires, but in the early colonial days it was reported to have 'plenty of grass'.

Near Bateman's Bay, New South Wales, Spotted Gums of the present appear to be pristine, but scattered among them are the trunks of gums that have more than twice the diameter of the them. It was open forest in 1788, it was dairy country 100 years ago, but it would be rainforest without fire.

In North Queensland there were dairy farms 40 years ago that in 2011 have the appearance of primal rainforest.

In other eucalypt forests there are a few scattered giants among younger generations of even age, demonstrating the thickening of forests that were once open, or in some cases completely lack old trees or stumps, an indication that they were formerly grassland.

According to the author1 when forests are compared in 1788, 1900 and 2000 it would show a tree kaleidoscope that are never the same.

It is only rarely that bushfire clears eucalypts as they regenerate from lignotubers (beards), with branches sprouting from beneath the bark,  epicormic buds, in stressful conditions such as drought, fire, poisoning or cutting. They are only cleared by repeated fires that are cool and frequent in dry country, and hot and less frequently in wet conditions. Eucalypt country was converted to grassland by allowing fuel to accumulate enough for fires to run, though if it was burnt often enough it would kill seedlings. This needed to be maintained over many generations until the old trees died. If fires were maintained at 2-4 year intervals forests of most could be turned to grasslands. If burning was carried a bit less frequently some saplings would survive and it would result in open woodland.

At the time of first contact both grasslands and open woodlands were common. Some of these areas had been kept clear of forest for so long that the seed stock in the soil had been exhausted, regrowth being possible only by invasion at the edges though in some areas where seed stock had not been exhausted the country has been returned to trees and bushes that often grow thickly since the cessation of firing.

Robert Dawson wrote of the country inland of Port Stephens:

'truly beautiful, it was thinly studded with single trees, as if planted for ornament ... it is impossible therefore to pass through a country  ... without being perpetually reminded of a gentleman's park and grounds. Almost every variety of scenery presented itself. The banks of the river on the left of us alternated between steep rocky sides and low meadows: sometimes the river was fringed with patches of underwood (or brush, as it is called) ... in Australia, the traveller's road generally lies through woods, which presents a distant view of the country before him ... The first idea is that of an inhabited and improved country, combined with the pleasurable associations of civilised society.'

South of Parramatta in New South Wales, in April 1790, John Hunter:

'walked through a very pleasant tract of country, which, from the distance the trees grew from each other, and the gentle hills and dales, and rising slopes covered with grass, appeared like a vast park'.

Lachlan Macquarie named Throsby Park at Bong Bong for its: 'very park-like appearance'.

John Oxley remarked on the lower Talbragar: 'Many hills and elevated flats were entirely clear of timber, and the whole had a very picturesque and park-like appearance'.

South of Walcha he found 'the finest open park, or rather country, imaginable: the  general quality of the soil excellent'.

H.T. Ebsworth wrote: 'Brushwood is seldom to be seen where the soil is good, the land is lightly timbered, resembling a gentleman's park occasionally, but the traveller is soon obliged to lose this idea by finding no Mansion at the end of the scene: He journeys on, as it were, from park to Park all day'.

He wrote concerning the area near port Stephens 'The hills are everywhere clothed with wood, with constant verdure beneath it: unaccompanied by any Brush or Underwood, so that one is often forcibly reminded of Gentlemen's pleasure grounds.'

Many others are mentioned in the book who wrote of similar scenery around the country.

  1. S.A. Perry wrote of land along the Hastings.

  2. J.B. Wilson wrote in1829 of so much being written about the scenery in New South Wales being similar to estates of the English nobility.

  3. George Haydon wrote of southwestern Victoria, near Mt Alexander.

  4. John Hudspeth wrote of the Jericho Valley in Tasmania.

  5. George Frankland wrote of the Hampshire Hills, Tasmania.

  6. Thomas Mitchell, near St George, Queensland.

  7. J.E. Dalrymple, Valley of lagoons.

  8. J.F. Bennett, Mt Barker district, South Australia.

  9. John Morphett, from Cape Jervis upwards.

  10. W.H. Leigh, also from Cape Jervis upwards.

  11. Alexander Buchanan, the overlander, the west side of the Murray below the Big Bend.

  12. George Moore, the country east of Perth.

  13. William Shaw wrote of the same place.

  14. John Barrow, wroth of the country near Bunbury.

  15. Ludwig Leichardt wrote of Arnhem land.

  16. Daniel Brock wrote of the land west of the Darling River, Lake Victoria.

  17. Charles Sturt wrote of the same place.

  18. Eyre wrote of the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.

  19. Edgerton Warburton wrote of the country north of Glen Helen.

  20. Ernest Giles wrote of the west Petermann Mountains.

  21. J.W. Lewis wrote of the country north of Lake Eyre.

  22. Charles Von Hugel, 1834, wrote of the country west of Sydney.

  23. Captain James Cook, 19 July 1770.

  24. Edward Lord, 1812, wrote of the country between Hobart Town to Launceston.

  25. James Backhouse, wrote of grassy Adelaide plains.

  26. Dirk Hahn, described the Onkaparinga.

  27. Charles Sturt wrote of Onkaparinga hills as 'grassy and clear of trees.'

  28. Charles Sturt also of the land between Mt Lofty and Encounter Bay.

  29. Jane Franklin wrote of the land between Mt Lofty and Encounter Bay.

  30. Robert Hoddle wrote of the ranges west of the Murrumbidgee from Mt Tennant north

  31. John Oxley, 15 August 1817, wrote of the country near Peak Hill on the Bogan River, New South Wales.

  32. Robert Hoddle described Melbourne.

  33. William Gosse, country near Ayers Rock.



Evidence in Pictures

The author1 mentions a number of paintings, drawings and photos of the landscape early in the colonisation of Australia that show the park-like nature of many places in Australia before they were changed by the colonists.    

  1. Joseph Lycett's painting entitled Lake George, picture 51.

  2. Eugen Von Guerard, View of Moroit or Tower Hill, Victoria.

  3. Eugen Von Guerard, 1866-8, North-east view from the top of Mount Kosciusko.

  4. Augustus Earle, about 1825, of forest near Cluny Tasmania.

  5. Allan Cunningham, a botanist, picture 36.

  6. Robert Hoddle, a surveyor, picture 19-20.

  7. Edward Bedwell, a surveyor, picture 58.

  8. John Glover, about 1832-4, Mills' Plains, Ben Lomond, Ben Loder and Ben Nevis in the distance, Tasmania.

  9. John Glover, 1831, The River Derwent and Hobart Town.

  10. John Glover, 1835, My Harvest Home.

  11. John Glover, 1835, Batman's Lookout, Benn Lomond*.

  12. Fred McGubbin, 1895, Down on his Luck.

  13. Arthur Streeton, 1890, Near Heidelberg.

  14. Arthur Streeton, 1889, Golden Summer, Eaglemont.

  15. Tom Roberts, 1891, A break away!

  16. Sydney Parkinson, A View of Endeavour River, Queensland, July 1770.

  17. John William Lewin, 1809, The second Cataract on the North Esk near Launceston.

  18. John Michael Skipper, 1838, Onkaparinga, South Australia.

  19. John Michael Skipper, 1838, Mount Lofty, Adelaide.

  20. William Light, 1836, View at Yankalillah.

  21. George Angas, 1850, Entrance to the gorge of Yankalillah.

  22. Martha Berkeley, about 1840, Mt Lofty from The Terrace, Adelaide.

  23. J. A. Thomas, 1837?, View on the Glenelg plains, near the hills.

  24. Robert Hoddle, about 1832, Ginninginderry Plains.

  25. Robert Hoddle, 1847?, View from Melbourne.

  26. Robert Hoddle, 1840, View from Batman's Hill Melbourne Port Phillip.

  27. Eugen Von Guerard, 1858, The View from the Bald Hills between Ballarat and Creswick Creek.

  28. Eugen Von Guerard, 1858, Crater at Mt Eccles.

  29. Eugen Von Guerard, 1858, The Sources of the River Wannon, Victoria.

  30. Eugen Von Guerard, 1864, A view of the Snowy Bluff, on the Wonnonangatta River, Gippsland Alps, Victoria.

  31. Eugen Von Guerard, 1866, Spring in the Valley of the Mitta Mitta.

  32. Baldwin Spencer, June 1894, Ayers Rock northwest aspect.

  33. Baldwin Spencer, June 1894, Ayers Rock.

  34. Joseph Lycett, about 1821, View from near the Top of Constitution Hill, Van Diemen's Land.

  35. Joseph Lycett, about 1821, View on the Wingeecarrabee River, New South Wales.

  36. Anon., March 1827, Captain Stirling's exploring party 50 miles up the Swan River, WA.

  37. John Abbott, 1829?, Mount Lindesay, from a sketch taken by A. Cunningham, Esqr, Qld.

  38. James Scott, 1853, Plan of Branxholm, Tasmania.

  39. James Cobon, 24 January 1891, Cape York Surveys Plan.



*   The author1 says he named this spot Batman's Lookout because according to Glover 'on account of Mr Batman frequenting this spot to entrap the Natives'. He depicted Tasmanian Aboriginal People in his 1835 painting instead of the white stockmen that were actually there with their cattle though the Natives had been rounded up or shot by bounty hunters, Including John Batman, between 1828-1830.


How Aboriginal Australians Made Australia



Author:Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 27/02/2012
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