Bananas, Ballina, Beach, Bangalow and The Big Scrub

Labour Day Weekend, and the chance to get away and celebrate another year on this earth. I don’t really want to celebrate but any excuse for a short break away from home, and I will take it.

highway Australia

Away we go down the M1 highway, and where once upon a time it was three hours from Brisbane ( Brisvegas ) to Byron bay, it now only takes half that time. Three to four lanes of breakneck (breakspine head and all other parts of your body)speed for almost all the way, and the New South wales government will continue it on to Grafton, in coming months!


A brief stop in Bangalow, a heritage village, peppered with upmarket gift and antique shops. Interesting display in the historic museum.

Ballina, Beach, Bangalow

Interesting display of timber getters, bullocky teams and dairy vans in the Big Scrub’s early days of selection and clearning.

This area is traditionally a sugar cane and Banana growing area… now I think it grows macadamias, fruits and weed!!!

My great grandfather was a pioneer in the region of the Big Scrub, a name given to a huge stretch of wet subtropical rainforest stretching across a large part of North eastern New South Wales.

Remnants of this scrub remain in Whian Whian forest, and the areas now preserved in National park and State Conservation areas, but most of it was burned because the flora was “just scrub”. Men were first attracted to this area for the prize of Cedar, a beautiful soft timber that was used for furniture and sadly, flooring, in the nineteenth century, then later the area was opened up for agriculture. My great grandfather, Samuel Russell was one of the original Pioneering families of the Eureka, Coopers Creek area.

Bangalow museum

Pretty hard to find the farm now, but the area is still agricultural. And a wonderful place for a day trip from Lismore or further north.

But our destination was Ballina. And the beach. The waters here are
pristine and reminiscent of pre boom Gold and Sunshine coast. Clear blue turquoise waters translucent waves, and clean white sandy beaches. The fish were biting.

Rocks to climb, interesting shells and pebbles to collect, fabulous views and sunset and a bonfire on the beach. NO wonder a couple were getting married there.

Beach Wedding

We even saw sea anemones, sea urchins and crabs scurrying and sunbaking on the rocks.

This area was almost completely free of pollution yet home to a city of 40,000 people.
Unlike the beaches 45 minutes drive to the North, which tourists often prefer.

Many do not realize how polluted the beaches of the Gold Coast have become. The pressure of tourists and large scale development means the environment is the first to suffer. Yet development can co-exist with commercial enterprises. More people are recognising htis as evidenced by environmental education campaign banners along the streets in Ballina. This is something for the busier beach townships to ponder about…

beach storm

The Big Scrub, once Australia’s largest area of tall subtropical rainforest, originally covered approximately 75,000 hectares extending from Lismore east to the edge of the coastal plain inland from Ballina, and from Meerschaum Vale in the south to Nightcap, Goonengerry and Byron Bay in the north, including the villages of Alstonville, Clunes and Bangalow.

Now only small scattered remnants of rainforest remain, many of them less than five hectares in area and covering less than 700 hectares in total – less than 1 per cent of the original area.

The Big Scrub was cleared by European settlers from the 1840s. The area was cleared for its valuable cabinet timber species, in particular red cedar, and ultimately to open up the land for agriculture, particularly dairying.

The remnant forest stretches across the Alstonville-Dunoon plateau and provides important stepping stones for birds and bats which seasonally migrate between the forests of the coast to the south and the Nightcap and Border Ranges. As the birds and bats are the major vehicle for dispersing seeds far and wide, the remnants are important genetic pools for seed diversity in north-eastern New South Wales.

When the original cedar cutters arrived in 1842, they were spellbound by the trees that stood dense and tall on the river banks. The abundance of the ‘red gold’ was greater than anyone had experienced before and the quality of the timber was exceptional. More cedar cutters from the coast flocked to the district.

As the trees became scarcer in easy country, the cutters moved into more remote and virtually inaccessible country and continued their harvest. Apart from cedar, the cutters also sought valuable rainforest timber species such as rosewood and “bog onion” or “onion cedar” and, later, hoop pine, which are now scarce and limited in range.

Although the Richmond River area around Casino had been opened up by 1840 and settlements were already established along the rivers, the Big Scrub remained, for the most part, uninhabited prior to 1861.

It was not until 1865, when the Freeborn brothers selected land at what is now Alstonville, under the Conditional Purchase provisions of the Robertson Land Act of 1862, that settlement of the Big Scrub commenced in earnest. The demand for good grazing land fed a steady flow of settlers into the region as land was progressively made available for purchase.

Inroads into the wildlife were heavy but in the long term may have had less drastic permanent effects on animal populations, had suitable reserves been created and maintained. But as axes rang through the forest, trees crashed and the smoke drifted through the canopy, wildlife had no hope; its habitat was almost totally erased.

One man and his brother were able to shoot 102 wompoo pigeons from one white cedar in one morning and, on another day, filled two chaff bags with topknot pigeons and four brush turkeys; brown pigeons were too small to waste the powder on but, on the way home, one casually thrown stick killed six of them. These birds were destined for salting down as the family’s food.

At the same time, previously uncommon cockatoos, parrots and lorikeets descended on the pioneer settlers’ crops “in clouds”. Pademelons also proliferated and became a scourge to crops and pastures; bandicoots were more numerous than ever before and the brush possum appeared in numbers.

The settlers explained this passing abundance of some animals as crowding due to the reduction of available habitat. This may be partly true, but a more likely explanation is that the plant communities at that stage of the clearing provided better habitat for some animals than had the unbroken rainforest.

The abundance was short lived and soon the main elements of the rainforest fauna were gone. The Big Scrub was inhabited by dairy cows and open-country avifauna. There were few remaining native mammals. That situation remains today, although dairy farms have largely been replaced by macadamia nut and tropical fruit plantations.

It is hard to be critical of early cedar cutters and settlers who contributed to this destruction; the evidence of their hardiness and enterprise, their spirit and their willingness to endure harsh conditions and to pull together is too great not to feel some admiration, notwithstanding various incidents of cruelty and worse towards the Bundjalung and other Aboriginal peoples of the region.

It is worth remembering that red cedar was the first export product of the convict colony of NSW and, for a good part of the 19th century, it was the third most important economic produce of NSW after wheat and wool. As for settlers, the “conditional purchase” provisions of the 1862 Robertson Land Act meant that the selector, including my Great Grandfather had to clear several acres of land each year; otherwise the land could have been forfeited. In addition, the selector had to build a house and make other “improvements” to maintain his title.

In the midst of the destruction, some land-clearing practices that were consciously adopted had the effect of preserving patches of The Big Scrub for posterity. Some property owners preserved small parcels of their upper country out of respect for and appreciation of the forest’s natural values. Other patches were deliberately retained as firebreaks (although rainforest is susceptible to fire and does not regrow from it as does eucalypt forest).

The Big Scrub was the largest and probably the richest in New South Wales but there were other “scrubs”. They were distributed, patchily, from the Illawarra district to Cape York but most have a similar history of destruction.

The main Big Scrub remnants today include Uralba Nature Reserve, Booyong Recreation Reserve, Andrew Johnston Big Scrub, Victoria Park, Davis Scrub, Hayters Hill, Boatharbour, Minyon Falls Nature Reserve, Big Scrub Flora Reserve and Wilson Nature Reserve.

In New South Wales virtually all have gone and rainforest now remains as isolated pockets in the ranges or on mountainsides, much of them preserved in national parks with significant areas also in Forests NSW properties. The only sizeable areas left are in the north east of the state, in the Border Ranges.