THERE is a little signpost on Rhyll Road, not far from Cowes, that for many years has attracted my eye every time I drive by. The sign says ‘Walking Tracks’ but from local knowledge I know it points to Oswin Roberts Reserve. I've been promising myself to stop one day and explore the world that’s hidden there beyond the little blue sign.
A wide, gravel path flanked by velvet, green grass welcomes us. Sunlight streams through the foliage casting dappled shadows on the ground. Birds twitter and flit through the shrubbery.
The air is fragrant with the smell of eucalypt woodland in flower. Swamp paperbarks are sprinkled with sweetly-perfumed, little cream pom-poms. Black wattles are beginning to show their pale, yellow blooms. Large, cream bells with burgundy throats cascade from glossy-leafed wonga vine. In the clearings are spreads of goodenia with their showy, bright-yellow displays.
All is calm within the greenery. Every detail is apparent. We are wandering along enjoying the walk when we are stopped in our tracks by a copperhead snake basking in a pool of sunshine. He is over a metre and half long but his dark, curving shape stands out starkly against the light-coloured path. We stop and watch as he slithers slowly into the grass.
The walking track meanders through the woodland, a remnant of the bush that once covered the central and northern slopes of Phillip Island. The dominant species is manna gum, and swamp gums grow in the moist zones. The Boonwurrung may have managed the island’s open woodlands (as they did on the mainland) by “firestick farming” to maintain access through the country and encourage fresh, new, growth for browsing marsupials.
From 1842, when the McHaffie brothers leased the whole of Phillip Island as a pastoral run, repeated fires were used to clear the land for crops and grazing. A century later, government incentives and mechanised equipment ensured most of the bush was gone.
For about half an hour we stroll along until the path ends at an information board and parking area on Harbison Road. I now realise this is the main entrance to the reserve. Through the trees I can see a chicory kiln, a steep-roofed, two-storey, brick structure where chicory was once dried for transport to Melbourne. It was an alternative drink to tea before the days of instant coffee. Chicory is a root crop, similar in shape to a parsnip, and was farmed on the island from 1870 to 1987. It took three tons of wood to yield one ton of dried chicory, a practice that consumed great swathes of the island’s bush.
The information board shows how the path loops around and back to Rhyll Road. As we return via the western side of the loop the land rises gently; the soil appears drier and the vegetation changes. Tall, straight blue gums surround us. The soft, lushness of the eastern section has been replaced by dry, sclerophyll open-forest with bracken understorey, reminiscent of the bush on the mainland. As we approach the north of the reserve, a gap between the trees reveals open farmland, a more familiar scene on the island.
The path curves back down and we pass a rambling gum tree whose rough-barked base stretches out into multiple, smooth, white limbs. Further on, an old survivor has a metre-wide girth, a grandparent of this woodland.
The afternoon sun is softening and lowering in the sky. A heavy thump sounds on the ground nearby. A swamp wallaby is venturing out for a browse on the abundant, green feed. It stops, turns around and moves its ears, checking for danger. We stand quiet and still but he spots us and disappears into the bush. Wallabies have always lived on Phillip Island. Their bones have been found in Aboriginal middens, one of which dates back two thousand years. Once rarely seen on the island, their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.
I have heard there are koalas and echidnas here but none have shown themselves today. Koalas were introduced to Phillip Island in the 1870s and were common among the manna gums until the pressures of habitat loss, traffic, dogs, cats and disease caused them to decline. Florence Oswin Roberts was dedicated to their preservation and personally cared for many injured koalas throughout her life. She understood the importance of protecting their habitat so gave this piece of bushland to the people of Victoria as a place for them to be safe.
On the final leg of our walk, the path winds down beside a reed marsh surrounded by black wattles and filled with a bed of handsome rushes that look to me like cumbungi, also known as bulrushes.
Further on is a low-lying, watery area of paperbark swamp, an outlier of Rhyll Swamp the important waterbird feeding, roosting and breeding site beside this reserve. It is hard to believe these tall, slender, papery trunks with their mops of green on top are the same species as the Melaleuca scrub that lines many of the roads of Phillip Island and Bass Coast. The height of these trees suggests they are very old indeed.
On my way home, I think of the subtleties and complexities of the original bush. The big, old trees on the roadside look magnificent, more significant than this morning. As much as I love the rolling pastures and sea views of Phillip Island, I am forever grateful to Florence Oswin Roberts for saving some bush for the koalas that all of us can enjoy.