An ode to Mt Kaputar National Park: A little piece of New Zealand in a wide, brown land

Tim Curran is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Pest-management and Conservation at Lincoln University. Here he shares his passion for a little bit of New Zealand in Australia.

Mt Kaputar National Park, in northern New South Wales, is my favourite national park, for several reasons.

Tim rocking the red shorts on a family bushwalk at Kaputar in the 1980s. Photo: Sandra Curran

First, there is family history: my great, great grandfather and great grandmother and then two great uncles farmed land in the foothills (Great Uncle Jim even regularly painted the mountains in his landscapes). We also used to go on family picnics and bushwalks there. Furthermore, the Nandewar Ranges, on which the park is situated, frames the northern horizon from my home town of Gunnedah, so Mt Kaputar was never far from my sight, or thoughts, growing up.

Second, I have spent a lot of time there professionally. This included: two weeks volunteering with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service on a survey of brush-tailed rock wallabies as a young undergrad; an amazing week as a Discovery Ranger for NPWS, leading guided bushwalks and spotlighting tours for the general public, while discovering just how much I loved teaching about nature and ecology; and many weeks in the nearby foothills and wider landscape as a PhD student examining the ecology of dry rainforest. 

 Finally, Mt Kaputar is incredibly diverse, in landscapes, plants and animals. It was formed 17-21 million years ago by several large volcanoes, and those remnants still dominate the area. The park ranges from 300 m altitude in the foothills to 1510 m on Mt Kaputar, causing a stark temperature gradient which is a blessed relief when the surrounding plains are baking in 40°C heat! These diverse habitats support many wonderful plants, animals and ecosystems, including dry rainforests (of three different types!) and bright pink slugs that can reach 20 cm in length.

Perusing sub-alpine vegetation with the kids at Dawsons Spring, Mt Kaputar NP. The green shrub is Coprosma hirtella and the tree is snow gum Eucalyptus pauciflora. Photo: Sandra Curran

During a recent trip to Mt Kaputar to show it to my wife and kids for the first time, I found another reason to love this park. There are plants and animals that represent a little piece of my adopted homeland of New Zealand. These native Australian species with NZ affinities were mostly found on the high-altitude Kaputar plateau, which has a much cooler and wetter climate than the surrounding plains. Certainly, the pleasant 23°C at the summit when we visited in Dec 2017 was more akin to summers in Canterbury than New South Wales!

So which plants and animals with NZ links did we see?

First, we saw some of the real icons of the NZ flora. Not only was there Coprosma (C. hirtella), but a divaricate species occurs there too (C. quadrifida). Divarication is a growth form which is disproportionately common in NZ, and attributed to adaptation to climatic extremes and/or defence against moa browsing. While one divaricate species found in Australia does not provide for robust debunking of any evolutionary hypothesis, it does add an interesting fact.

There was also Solanum aviculare (poroporo in NZ), growing profusely following a recent bushfire, just as it has been doing on the Port Hills of Christchurch. Dodonaea viscosa (our akeake, sticky hopbush across the ditch) is very common throughout the park (and elsewhere in Australia for that matter), but unlike NZ, where it grows to 12 m as a small tree, there it is usually only a shrub (albeit very dense to bash through following recent disturbance).

A quick search of the Atlas of Living Australia records for the park reveals many other names familiar in NZ, most found on the cool, wet Kaputar plateau: Leptospermum, Kunzea, Poa, Discaria, Leucopogon, Olearia, and Helichrysum. In my beloved dry rainforests there are Alectryon, Pittosporum and Blechnum. Mt Kaputar has tree ferns (Cyathea and Dicksonia) too, mainly on the wetter eastern slopes.

Mt Yulludunidah rises out of the lowlands in Mt Kaputar NP. Photo: Tim Curran

There are also fauna with NZ affinities. Besides the ubiquitous brush-tailed possum, another native Australian found in Mt Kaputar that now roams parts of NZ is the swamp wallaby. Finally, those fascinating bright pink slugs have links to Aotearoa, being close relatives of NZ   leaf-veined slugs.

All these Trans-Tasman links have made me think of Mt Kaputar with even greater fondness, and I can’t wait to get back there!

 

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