In the mouth of a volcano
December 20, 2011
Paul Kelly is a descendant of the Worn Gundidj, Aborigines who lived in the shadow of Tower Hill when it erupted 30,000 years ago. Paul describes the overwhelming sense of wonder visitors feel when crossing the park threshold for their first glimpse of the crater revealed below. The entire place is invisible from the main road and if you didn't know it was there, you'd drive straight past.
Thanks to the Worn Gundidj Aboriginal Cooperative and the protection of Tower Hill as Victoria's first National Park in 1892, the history of this remarkable place lives on. Wildlife and cultural guides like Paul and John Sutherland are on hand to show you around.
John has a particular fondness for snakes and took us around the Lava Tongue Boardwalk. Tourists walk past failing to notice them basking in the sunlight just a a metre from the track. A Dutch couple seem slightly concerned: "Are they venomous?", they ask. "Yes, John replies, "This Copperhead is the twelfth most dangerous snake in the world. They are everywhere, you'll have walked past plenty". They carried on ahead of us, looking a little nervous but within minutes were back. Now they'd learnt where to look and that the snakes are timid and indifferent to human presence, they'd found another one and brought us a photo to show.
John finds it particularly rewarding when people realise they don't have to be afraid. The snakes are more interested in warming up and hunting the frogs living in the wetland. John shows us a Striped Marsh Frog he finds hiding under a log.
As for the tourists, they're fascinated by snakes. For many visitors to Australia, being in the presence of one of our most deadly animals is a highlight of the trip - it certainly makes for a good story to tell their families back home.
We'd stop to photograph and film one of the local Copperheads sunbathing near the start of the boardwalk. It didn't take long before a few families gathered around. We handed binoculars to the kids so everyone got great views.
Back at the picnic area and the resident Emus were up to their usual tricks. Paul Kelly describes how they are harmless but clever. Because they appear quite intimidating, they use this to their advantage. One of them will distract you, while the other steps in to nick a sandwich or a sausage off the barbecue. Koalas are also quite common here. The easiest way to find them is to spot other tourists looking up or to listen for their distinct chainsaw-revving calls.
As the sun begins to drop, Eastern Grey Kangaroos appear and thousands of wetland birds are busy foraging on the sun-tinted lakes. Recent rainfall has filled the crater for the first time in ten years. The volcanic ash walls hide any sign of civilisation except for the large radio tower and you wonder how the first settlers could have deigned to farm such a paradise, though I guess times were harsh. By the mid-1800s, there were no trees left and even animals like Sugar Glider were made extinct (they have been reintroduced in recent years).
It wasn't until 1950 that revegetation works began with the planting of 300,000 trees. The blueprint for the plans still exists today, in the form of a painting from 1855 by Von Guerrard.
So before you leave, head out of the park, turn left and you can visit the very place where Von Guerrard painted this masterpiece. In the corner of the painting, as Paul Kelly points out, you can see some of his ancestors making a living as they had done for thousands of years.
We spent a few hours at Tower Hill with the guides and wildlife. A particular highlight was seeing the snakes around the Lava Tongue Boardwalk.