Hidden among the back lanes between Lismore and the coast is Booyong. Once a thriving village, over the decades it has gone very quiet. In addition to being a former railway stop between Lismore and Byron Bay, it also marked the start of a now-forgotten branch line running through the countryside to Ballina. Opening in 1930, this line never overcame economic difficulties, and shut a few years later, in 1948.
Booyong is interesting in part because there are multiple ways to get there from Lismore, via Clunes, Eltham, or McLeans Ridges. When you arrive, there is only one thing to check out, which is the reserve. Part rainforest, part recreation reserve, it is an appealing backwater where nothing much appears to have changed since the 1950s.
The way in which you first experience a place tends to colour it. Many years ago, I found myself discovering it anew with some friends, on the way back from Byron Bay. A dark storm cloud was moving some distance to the south, thunder rumbled, and when following the forest walks the light was dim and ominous, but interesting in an edgy sort of way.
Another weird experience associated with the reserve took place a few years ago, when I was in the recreation reserve with a friend, and dusk was coming on. An odd wailing ‘woooo’ sound started, originating from a direction that was obscured by trees, but sounding fairly close. It rose in pitch, and then fell again, ending after a few seconds. Very much like a human voice, it may have originated from a native animal or bird.
Aesthetically, the best route is to follow Booyong Road from the centre of Clunes, and to go straight on for six kilometres without turning. Light from the trees dapples the road. Single-lane in places, winding, and lined by verdant green grass from the rain, you could half expect to see Postman Pat’s van coming around the bend in the opposite direction. It even has a short stretch of stone wall.
Alternatively, the McLeans Ridges road takes you past the hall and a 1890 brick school building. At the junction of Houghlahans Creek Road and Pearce Road is some more of the stone walling that is encountered so rarely around the region, where wire fences dominate.
It is a cloudy day, with intermittent light showers, and cool for the time of year. The energy of the day is deliberately slow. I’m rebelling against the dictates of time and scheduling. It’s about getting into the zone, and embracing the process rather than the outcome.
We start with the wooden bridge over the Wilsons River, and check out the water flow while cars periodically clunk their way past. The level is high, and there are rapids. On the hillside beyond is an old abandoned house with a rust-coloured roof.
Two of Booyong’s claims to fame are that it is home to what are considered to be Australia’s tallest examples of two tree species, a Lolly Bush and a Giant Water Gum. The gum is a little way down from the bridge, and is signposted, only a few metres down a short track through the forest. A nearby sign indicates that it is a Francis’ Water Gum (Syzygium Francisi.) It is an impressive tree with buttressed roots that extend well over head height.
Close to the main entrance to the forest is a plaque explaining the reserve’s history. Dating back to the 1920s, it has a total size of twenty hectares, of which fourteen is alluvial rainforest. This is a surviving remnant of the Big Scrub, less than one per cent of which remains. In 1987, two fairly short loop walks were constructed.
The reserve has about ninety species of trees, and eight rare, vulnerable or endangered plant species. It is sometimes home to a colony of flying foxes that are not living there at present. Recently, it made the news after local photographer Steve Axford spent time in the forest taking photos and time-lapse images of luminous fungi that were shown on David Attenborough’s documentary Planet Earth 2.
On the way in, a visitors’ book is protected from the weather by a small metal cabinet. Flooding earlier this year covered most of the reserve, and the 31st March flood height marker is at a point two thirds of the way up the pole. The forest is happy to soak up floodwater, but one issue is the invasive weeds that are brought in with it, and which later have to be controlled.
We head down the path, temporarily ignoring opportunities to turn off and explore the walks, and make our way to a wooden seat overlooking a right-angle bend in the river. It’s a quiet and meditative spot, where there’s a fair chance of being undisturbed. Viewed through a light screen of vegetation, the Wilsons River is the light brown colour of excessively milky tea. Compared to further downstream at the bridge, the water has a lazy, slow flow.
Retracing our steps, starting with the west loop, we follow the forest paths. While standing on a hilltop and looking into the distance could be a metaphor for obtaining a wider perspective or psychologically preparing for travel, the close and intimate perspectives of rainforests are a more inward-looking trip. Once I had a need for a lot of this introspection, but now I can take it or leave it. The paths have many bends, which conveys an impression of greater distance. Fallen trees are left to eventually rot, sometimes causing circular diversions that turn into permanent paths. Instead of remaining static, the route is slowly metamorphosing over time.
Birds seen or heard are the Golden Whistler, Rufous Fantail, Brown Gerygone, Brown Cuckoo-dove, Lewin’s Honeyeater, kookaburra, magpie, whipbird, and catbird. Added to this is a generalised twittering from high in the trees, coming from small birds obscured by foliage. Surprisingly, Rufous Fantails are the most common of all, with several encountered on the paths. The ‘whip’ of the male whipbirds is sometimes answered by the ‘choo-choo’ of the females, and at other times the male callers seems to be alone. The catbirds sound closest to crying babies. At one time, in this same reserve, I heard a catbird make curious ‘tsing’ calls that are not referred to in the bird identification guides.
On the way out, a khaki woven hat has been left on a prominent vertical branch for the owner to pick up if they pass this way again.
The recreation reserve opposite is characterised by a number of mature camphor laurels, including one that shades a picnic table, and another that has been left to its own devices, creating a small grove. The cricket pitch is still used for matches, features its own modest spectator stand, and now has a low fence around the perimeter. At the far end, in the distance, are a couple of tennis courts and a clubhouse. Close by is the former station access, with the old platform is still easily accessible a few metres further on.
The weather turns sunny, with some light cumulus in the sky. We decide to approach this part of the reserve in a novel way, by following a perimeter circuit marked by the top of the steep bank down to Pearces Creek as it winds its way along before entering the Wilsons River. Under a tree, a crate of empty bottles has been left, as if we had stumbled upon some secret and abandoned recycling depot.