On the Victorian coast, about half an hour from Apollo Bay, there's a strand of Californian Redwoods that will probably become the tallest trees in the world. Although they're nowhere near their native California now it seems they grow faster here – around 53.6 percent faster, according to numbers from the only book on the subject, The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges.
They were planted here as an experiment, along with a few other softwoods in 1936 – even though the sign says 1938. And while the other plantations burned, died, or were harvested, this little patch of 220 trees has survived by virtue of being largely forgotten.
This is Anthony. He's an arborist, meaning he spends his week climbing and chainsawing trees around Melbourne. It also means he's got a bunch of climbing gear and the sort of attitude that makes things like this possible. When he suggested climbing some Redwoods, I said yes.
For a certain type of person, Redwoods are really exciting. They're monstrous, primeval conifers of the genus Sequoia, which first appeared during the Jurassic Period, 180 million years ago. They grow densely together and block out the light, creating a weirdly empty forest floor that looks like something out of a movie. Actually, all the Ewok scenes from Return of the Jedi were shot in Redwood forests, as were scenes from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There's just something about a Redwood forest that looks like magic.
Redwood forests dominated landscapes 180 million years ago – across Eurasia, Greenland, and North America. Then, as the eons ticked over and climates changed, these forests shrunk to a little strip of coastal North America where they remained as a sort of time capsule.
Europeans first discovered them in the 1800s and were blown away. A guy named Augustus Truman Dowd stumbled upon a strand while hunting bears in 1852 and headed back to tell the camp. As Redwoods can reach heights of over 300 feet and diameters of more than 98 feet, finding a forest of them for the first time must have been a bit like stumbling upon a fortress of sleeping giants. The story goes no one believed Augustus until they saw the trees themselves, and when they did they celebrated by chopping them down for the next 50 years.
Australia was also into tree-chopping. Our Redwoods grow in the Great Otway National Park, which at the time of settlement contained around 350,000 hectares of native forest. Today less than half of that remains.
As pioneers arrived they tried to turn the Otways into farmland. In a story repeated all over the country, Europeans found Australian summers unbearably hot, rainless, and punctuated with fires, while blackberries and rabbits infested their crops. After slashing and burning their way through over half of the ancient forests, many left, leaving the Otways in ruin.
By the 1920s the Victorian Government was looking for ways to repair the abandoned farmland. Imported trees such as the Douglas Fir were established as harvestable plantations, including the first Redwoods in 1929. Another three plantations were established through the 1930s, counting the strand we were in.
Anthony got into the tree with a rope and a series of pulley things. We put a lot of faith in the rope and climbed straight up, using the pulley. I like climbing but I find it hard to trust climbing equipment, much in the same way I find it hard to trust airplanes.
The most intense part was the first 100 feet. There were only a few slimy, downwards-facing branches that I'd sit on and try to follow Anthony's instructions on using the carabiner thingys to do... something. Getting confused at altitude was a bit shitty, but the view at the top was great. We bobbed out into the sunlight and ate Savoys—which are back—and Anthony took a phone call, which was weird. We'd climbed one of the tallest trees around and the tops of the others looked like Christmas.
The Redwoods in the Otways are currently 80 years old. The oldest one in the US is around 1,800 years. I'm not sure the Australian ones will survive that long, but they're predicted to eclipse the current 115.7 meter record within the next 15-20 years. It's just a matter of surviving bushfires and logging, which still bizarrely continue through the national park.
I said there's something about these monsters that makes me think of magic, but that's no match for human stupidity.
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