The Big Scrub Pioneers, New South Wales

‘The Big Scrub’, Northern New South Wales, Australia

The Big Scrub is located in Northern New South Wales, Australia. This vast area of subtropical rainforest was cleared by European settlers from the 1840s, firstly for its valuable cabinet timber species, in particular red cedar, and later for agricultural selection, primarily dairying and agriculture.

This region is of special significance to me, as my Great-grandparents were some of the first pioneers to select and clear this land along the Coopers Creek, a perennial stream of the Richmond River Big Scrub, later to be called the township of Eureka.

Early Exploration of The Big Scrub and ‘Red Gold’

In 1842, the original cedar cutters were attracted to the area by the the enormous stands of ‘Red Gold,’ or Red Cedar trees that stood dense and tall on the river banks.

Cedar cutters

Red cedar was one of the first export products for the fledgling settlements of convict NSW. Cedar exports continued to rise, coming third in significance to wheat and wool, during the 19th Century. Being a slow-growing tree, the Red Cedar produces beautiful soft timber that was used for furniture and, (wastefully), flooring, in Australian housing. The abundance was greater than anyone had experienced before and the quality of the timber was exceptional so more and more settlers and cedar cutters flocked to the district. Before long, all the cedar had been logged out.

Selection of the Big Scrub and Land Clearing

As a condition of receiving land grants, the selectors had to clear all the vegetation. Not the 15 per cent along the streams or anything like that, “clear it all,” they were told.

Settlement of the Big Scrub had commenced in the areas around Alstonville, by 1865 under the Conditional Purchase provisions of the Robertson Land Act of 1862. The Act meant clearing was compulsory in order to maintain your ownership of the land.

1890 Slab Hut of Timber Workers

Great Grandfather, Samuel Russell, would have had to clear-fell several acres of land each year or forfeit his claim to the land. In addition, each selector had to build a house and make other “improvements” to maintain his title. This was how the Government would encourage settlement of particular areas, and by so doing, displace Aboriginal people and many animal and plant species.

The demand for good grazing land fed a steady flow of settlers into the region. Even as late as 1908 at Jiggi Creek, just north of Lismore, clearing a site for a hut was still a major undertaking; clearing an entire selection would involve months of back-breaking effort for the settler and any of his children able to help.

The Forest Disappears

This Government clearing and settlement initiative was responsible for 99 per cent of the Big Scrub being cleared. 99 % of the original forest has gone. Remnants of, ‘The Big Scrub,’ remain in National park and State Conservation areas, but most of it was burnt by early pioneers as they considered it useless to farming. The botanical diversity was not seen as valuable as it was, “just scrub”.

Bangalow museum

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.

Environmental Significance of the Big Scrub


Now only small scattered remnants of the original 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.

One man and his brother were able to shoot 102 wompoo pigeons now extremely rare and potentially extinct, 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, [a type of small kangaroo], proliferated and became a scourge to crops and pastures; bandicoots were more numerous than ever before and the brush possum appeared in numbers, driven out from the cleared forest areas. The abundance was short-lived and the forest habitat was replaced by dairy cows. Today, there are few remaining native mammals and dairy farms have largely been replaced by macadamia nut and tropical fruit plantations.

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.
Waterfall in the rainforest

Despite the loss of such rich sub-tropical rainforest, the remnant areas remain important for migratory birds and bats, who disperse seeds of a number of species on their movement northwards. The remnant forest provides important stepping stones for birds and bats which seasonally migrate between the forests of the coast to the south. 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.

Some early property owners preserved small parcels of their less accessible ‘upper country,’ out of 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 main remnants of the Big Scrub 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. The only sizeable areas left are in the northeast of the state, in the Border Ranges.

Pioneer Families in the Richmond River District

plaque listing pioneer families NSW
Great-Grandmother Sarah

Great grandfather, Samuel Russell and his wife, Sarah, were Pioneers selectors of the Eureka and Coopers Creek area, a tributary of the Richmond River. My Grandfather was born at the family farm along with about nine other sisters and brothers.

Samuel Russell, my Great Grandfather, died prematurely, of heart disease, and one could imagine the physical toll of heavy work such as clearing the thick rainforest may have contributed to his early demise. Sarah remarried and left the district. The children were spread out amongst older family members. My Grandfather moving to Wondai, to live with his sister, Annie Sheather.

It is difficult to locate the original Russell selection now, as boundaries and access roads have altered over time, but the area remains primarily agricultural grazing land.

It makes for a wonderful place for a day trip from Lismore or further north and makes one ponder about what it was like in the early days.



Sunday Sayings -Nature

Inspired by Marie’s post about the restorative effect of nature, and Peggy’s post referring to an article, in the Guardian, about nature being loved to death in some National Park areas of the world, I found these wise words:

Bearded Dragon at Coolangatta Beach, Australia

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature,

he finds it attached to the rest of the world “

– John Muir

Planet earth is large, yet the systems we depend on, and everything within, is connected in some way – through the water we drink, the air we breathe, or the soil in which we grow our food.


“The proper use of science is not to conquer nature, but to live in it”

– Barry Commoner

Damage to one area can have an unanticipated implication for another system. That might be beneficial, or it might be detrimental. It might help in the short term, but be harmful to diversity long term. The ecosystems are complex, mostly resilient, but also sometimes very fragile.

Weekly Proverb

“When someone points at the moon, don’t look at the finger.”

– Ancient Buddhist proverb

Worth remembering is the sageful advice of the Ancient Buddhist proverb, written at a time when the environmental concerns we face today, could never have been contemplated. Yet the words seem just as applicable today.

Sunday Sayings

I find there to be profound wisdom in proverbs, sayings and quotes and I marvel at the way they are so succinct in communicating messages to the reader.

Mostly anonymous, they come to us from past generations and from across cultures. They speak of the experiences of lives lived and lessons learned.

Normally I would invite your comment and discussion on the various interpretations and intentions, of the weekly sayings and proverbs.

This week, I am inspired by Manja, and appreciate any comments or opinions you feel moved to offer, of your own volition.

As always, everyone’s opinion is important and should be respected.

Australia, Community, Environment, Gardening

World Heritage Springbrook National Park – reminders of Tambourine Mountain

I found Kristin’s fabulous travel blog, A Pair of Boots and a Backpack. and her entry High Above Tamborine Mountain on the Skywalk | A Pair of Boots and a Backpack which reminded me of a short break I took,  in UNESCO world heritage listed Springbrook national park. Memories of  the waterfalls, the soft spray that caresses your face, the cool refreshing humidity, the awesome views – that is Springbrook National Park.

Cool rainforest glades and rock pools

Springbrook  is an easy 1- 2 hour drive from Brisbane, Australia, and whilst a small township, with several cafes, basic amenities, and art/ craft gallery, its forte is nature- based walking tracks and trails. In short, it is national park full of private retreats, awe-inspiring lookouts, picnic areas, walking tracks and spectacular nature. Aiming for a relaxing holiday, we found ouselves walking up to 9 kilometres, through open and closed Eucalypt and rainforest, Palm and Picabeen groves, and splashing in rock pools, fringed with waterfalls, each and every day.


As long as you have an adequate water bottle and  snack, the shaded, mostly- level walk makes the 6 or 9 km circuit pleasant for anyone with moderate fitness, (Miss 9 certainly managed the 9k with only a few grumbles).  At times, it was all very ‘Lord of the Rings’, as the path criss-crossed gorges and behind waterfalls, under overhanging rocks and between rock crevices. I did not have a good quality camera at the time, but nevertheless some of the pics turned out:

Walking behind a waterfall
The walking path leads behind the waterfall itself

Purlingbrook Circuit
Purlingbrook Circuit Walk

View from Springbrook out to the Gold Coast
View from Springbrook out to the Gold Coast

We stayed at Springbrook Mountain chalets, a private self contained stand alone group of houses, separated from each other with lush rainforest and tall trees. If you want to get the sense of living in the forest, with all the comfort of home, plus a few more, like a 6 person spa, this is the place. On the upstairs rear balcony of the house, you are level with the low tree tops, as the valley falls away sharply beside the house. The bush is literally all around you, and the birds are almost constantly active, save for their midday siesta ( the hottest part of the day).  It can get cold and rainy up here, even in summer, so bring a cardi!! If desperate, there is always the log fire.

Springbrook Mountain Chalet
Springbrook Mountain Chalet

sbrook3family 20093???????????????????????????????

 Another walk on the southern side of the township is only 500 metres in length and takes you to a lookout in the clouds. Being so cool and moist on this side of the plateau, 600 to 1000 m above sea level, you are standing, literally, in the clouds, even on a relatively clear day. If you are patient, the breeze will part the clouds revealing views to  the coast beyond.



Along the way, take a moment to admire the ancient trees, “Nothofagus”, I believe, which make me feel like LOTR was filmed here and not in New Zealand. My Botany lessons all those years back in Uni, taught me that trees, such as these, were part of the remnant flora that was called the ‘Antarctic element’. Millions of year ago, prior to commencing its continental drift southward, the Australian continent was part of a huge super-continent called Gondwana. Gondwanaland consists of  modern day Australasia and Antarctica, and as the landscape was not as dry as today, Nothofagus trees, (found in wet sclerophyll rainforest), such as these examples, thrived. As such, they deserve our respect and protection.  These could possibly be several hundreds of years old.

Springbrook National Park
Where’s Frodo?  – Nothofagus trees a remnant example of the flora from Gondwanaland

How long have these trees been standing here like Three kings? Something I pondered about when visiting Springbrook. I hope you find your visit as energising and invigorating as I did.

Jan 2014 update: Recent storm damage has closed parts of the Purlingbrook circuit due to landslips, but it is still possible to see the falls, as long as you return up the same path. Updates can be found here.