It’s as old as the dinosaurs, grows in a top-secret location and – until the early ’90s – was only known through 150 million year old remains. This is the story of the Wollemi Pine.
Published in Smith Journal, Volume 6
ON a cool, clear day, in early spring 1994, David Noble rested for lunch deep in a canyon in Wollemi National Park, 130 kilometres north-west of Sydney. The meal was nothing special; he’d brought standard bushwalking fare – sandwiches, muesli bars, nuts and sultanas. But the location was extraordinary. One-in-150 million, or thereabouts. He just didn’t know that yet.
Noble was 29, fit and wiry, and renowned among local bushwalkers and canyoners for exploring uncharted, inaccessible territory.
Earlier that morning, high above the gorge, he’d slung his rope around a thin sapling that clung to the rock face, tested his weight against it, then whizzed over the ledge. It was just another weekend adventure, together with his regular exploring buddies Tony Zimmerman and Michael Casteleyn.
The three men travelled light: they wore footy shorts and t-shirts and carried no camping gear, just their ropes and harnesses. They’d scrambled down the cliff, pushed their way through bushes and ferns along a rocky creek, and abseiled again, trying to stay out of the icy water.
They stopped at the end of the canyon, and while they ate, Noble looked around. It was a dark, narrow rainforest, moist from the water dripping down the cliff walls and flowing in the nearby creek. There was no direct sunlight; even the air seemed tinged with green.
Noble peered at the trees above him, but didn’t recognise the species. He’d taken botany courses in his environmental science degree, so he knew a thing or two about plants. They were conifers, shaped like a storybook Christmas tree, but the mature trunks had a strange, bubbly bark, which looked like Coco Pops. The tallest among them stood nearly 40 metres. Noble snapped off a small branch, put it in his backpack, and promptly forgot about it.
Within months, the trio’s lunch-spot hit newspapers all over the world. It became the most sought-after and jealously guarded view in the whole country. Nearly two decades later, its location remains secret. Only dozens of people have ever been there. If all goes according to plan, few more ever will.
It’s a misty, prehistoric kind of morning, early in summer, and Noble is picking his way along the neatly manicured paths of the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens. He’s leading me towards a single Wollemi Pine – Wollemia nobilis – planted on a grassy hill.
The species is named for him, and for the national park in which he found it. Nearby, inside the information centre, there’s a large display about the tree, including a 150-million-year-old fossil that matches the pattern of its needles.
The Wollemi Pines are living fossils. Noble’s discovery was like a twitcher spotting a pterodactyl.
He strides ahead, arms and pack straps swinging in time with his springy, splayfooted gait. But just as I’m admiring his nimbleness, he stops abruptly. He’d gotten us lost, momentarily. “I’ll bring the map next time,” he says, with a wry smile.
Truth is, he’s much happier without paths at all. And certainly without journalists and photographers hanging around. In front of the camera, those free-swinging hands lose their rhythm and clasp one another awkwardly in front of his waist instead.
Noble is now 47, and a long-time park ranger. He’s a walker, not a talker. And nobody understands this landscape like he does. In the late 1970s at Katoomba High School in the Blue Mountains, while other kids were playing school cricket, he chose bushwalking. As the years went by, he kept exploring new corners of bushland in anyway he could: caving, canyoning, kayaking and hiking.
By the early ’90s he was working with National Parks, building walking tracks near Blackheath, the town where he grew up. On weekends he ventured into the Wollemi wilderness. A huge expanse of bush, the park traverses some of the most rugged terrain in New South Wales. No one knows for sure, but the best estimate is that there are about 500 canyons within its boundaries.
On expeditions with his friends Noble has named over 200 places previously unnamed and unexplored.
“I like to go somewhere and get to know it well,” he explains. “Most people travel the highways, but when you go off the track and have to use maps, compasses and a GPS, it’s a little bit harder. You need technical equipment to do it, so you get to go places even the Aboriginal people wouldn’t have seen.”
It wasn’t unusual for Noble to take a cutting of a plant he didn’t recognise. His father was a keen amateur botanist, and the two would often nut out the identification together.
If they couldn’t figure it out, he showed the plant to his friend Wyn Jones, senior naturalist with National Parks. “Usually he rattles them off pretty quick,” Noble recalls. “This time he said, ‘Leave it with me’. I thought there was something suspicious about that. And away we went: the longer it took them to identify it, the more likely it was something different.”
Jones, together with botanist Jan Allen, set about listing the characteristics of the tree. They cross-checked their findings with other species in the Araucariaceae family, including Kauri pines from New Zealand and Monkey Puzzle trees from Chile. They didn’t match. It was something new.
And something very old. The first conifers evolved more than 300 million years ago, a time when Australia was part of the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, along with Africa, South America, Antarctica and India.
The Wollemi is thought to date from between 90 and 200 million years ago, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The pine, and its close ancestors, once blanketed the landscapes of the southern hemisphere, while the Earth was hotter, wetter and steamier.
As the climate grew cooler and drier, those great conifer forests fell back, bested by flowering plants – the newer, more versatile kids on the botanical block. Epochs passed, day-by-day, and the Wollemi retreated to its one hidden crevasse.
Noble wasn’t privy to all the probing over the plant’s classification. But as snippets of the findings reached his ears, his excitement grew and grew. The buzz reached a peak with the public launch of the tree in Sydney. He was interviewed by every television station, including an “horrific” live-cross for Channel Ten news.
When the story of the tree’s existence was announced, enthusiasts around the world clamoured to know where it grew. But the authorities held fast – they would only reveal the location to scientists on genuine research projects. Even Noble hasn’t been back since 1995.
The mystery makes for an enthralling anomaly. In the era of Google maps, smart phones and satellite tracking, its location remains an otherworldly secret.
Why go to so much trouble? Is the tree really anything more than a curiosity?
It’s unlikely that many other critters still rely on the pines for their survival, because there have been so few of them for so long. But Noble says it’s too soon to tell. “There’s much more study to be done; these things can take years to figure out. Whether it’s a cure for cancer or a different sort of fungi that lives on the tree, we just don’t know yet.”
The extinction of an individual species has been likened to removing a rivet on an aeroplane. This one or the next might not matter, but one day, when too many have gone, the whole thing will come crashing down.
But when it comes to threatened species, there’s something beyond pragmatism at play. Scientist and author Tim Flannery argues that extinctions are a matter of morality. And, unfortunately, we feel it most keenly when the creature is cute and fluffy, or in the case of the Wollemi, towering and majestic. Other species aren’t so fortunate.
“The demise of a bat may not weight greatly in the balance of human wellbeing, but it speaks volumes about the human soul,” he wrote, in a recent Quarterly Essay. “Do we wish to be despoilers and executioners of the natural world? Or do we want our children to have the opportunity to enjoy a world as bountiful and diverse as the one our parents bequeathed to us?”
The Wollemi is listed as “critically endangered”: the second-last breath before extinction. A single bushfire could turn them to ash – but in their private rainforest, at the bottom of a wet canyon, they’ve protected themselves well.
As with so many other threatened species, the biggest threat is humanity. We’re living in the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans have come to dramatically influence the Earth’s systems. By our hands, biodiversity is vanishing and the climate is transforming.
The Wollemi pines are particularly at risk, because they’re identical. One of the researchers’ most curious findings so far is that each one has the same DNA as the next. So the main reason the gorge remains secret is to protect them from us, or most likely, from our boots. The invasive plant pathogen Phytophthera, which hitchhikes on the soles of our shoes, could wipe out the lot in no time at all.
“It’s not Jurassic Park where you can get the genes from a mosquito, and bring them back,” Noble says. “Once they’re lost, they’re lost forever.”
But he isn’t so worried about the tree’s survival. After all, it has proven astonishingly resilient; it was here before us, and there’s a good chance it’ll be here after we’re gone. It waited patiently in its canyon, and now, it has taken advantage of an unusual opportunity to spread again. There are official Wollemi Pine distributors in 16 different countries. In Australia, a seedling will set you back $50.
At his place, on 100 acres of bush in the Blue Mountains, Noble is growing three – one in a pot, for a Christmas tree, and two in the ground. He was given them when the pines were first released for sale: his own trees bearing his own name.
It’s one of the few things in his life that have changed since his “lucky discovery” – that and the occasional interviews with the press. With or without it, he’d be a park ranger. And with or without it, he’d still be exploring new canyons. In 2005, he was named the Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
He swears he’s slowed down in recent years, since having a family – his two daughters, and the orchard and vegie patch having moved up the order of priorities – but the supporting evidence is scant. He still goes canyoning with his old explorers, Zimmerman and Casteleyn, though not so often. Now his regular partner is his wife, Jules. He estimates they’ve explored more than 300 canyons together.
“I didn’t make a million dollars, so maybe I went wrong somehow,” he laughs. “But it has allowed me to be an advocate for the pine, and for threatened species as well. And for adventure: for showing people that things can still be discovered.”
The word “Wollemi” derives from a word in the Darkinjung language, which means “stop and look around”.
“It’s a appropriate, because that’s what I did: stop and notice what was near me, rather than just barging on through.”