We begin our journey at the top of the Hunter River catchment at Hunter Springs, which are located on the edge of the World Heritage Barrington Tops National Park, part of the Mount Royal Range on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range.
The environment here is one of dramatic contrasts, with subtropical rainforests in the lower valleys and subalpine woodland on the upland plateau. The plateau was originally formed by the eruption of an ancient volcano some 45 million years ago, which spilt basalt flows over the area and resulted in the steep, rugged ranges that fall away from the plateau. (DECC, 2008)
The Barrington and Gloucester Tops form a plateau that peaks at 1586 m between the Hunter River and the Manning River catchments, making it the second highest tableland in Australia, after the Australian Alps. (DECC, 2008)
The Barrington Tops interrupt the flow of the moist air streams that travel inland from the coast, which generates good rainfall and occasional winter snow for the area surrounding the Tops, allows the majestic forests and swamps to thrive. (Gloucester Shire Council, 2008)
The Hunter Springs, together with the rainfall and melting snow that run off the plateau, form the source of the Hunter River. One of the springs is located within the Barrington Tops National Park while the other two are located on private property. Water that collects from rainfall seeps into the ground and it is expressed through the springs.
Polblue Swamp is one of the largest of the Sphagnum Bogs on the Tops. These swamps are created by the growth of a species of moss called Sphagnum, which has the ability to hold many times its own weight of water. As a result, these swamps act as a huge sponge which soak up water during wet times and slowly release it, thus creating a constant flow of water in the mountain rivers. (Gloucester Shire Council, 2008)
Barrington Tops National Park and State Conservation Area overlie the territories of several Aboriginal groups: the eastern side of the Barrington Tops is the traditional country of the Worimi and Biripi people, the southern valleys were occupied by the Gringai clan of the Worimi people, and the western side is Wonnarua country. (NPWS, 2001)
The Aboriginal occupation of Barrington Tops is recorded in oral history, and in the presence of Aboriginal sites in the park including open campsites with stone artefacts, scarred trees, ceremonial places, and mythological sites recorded in dreaming stories. The area is important to today's Worimi, Biripi and Wonnarua communities, as an intact part of Aboriginal country. (NPWS, 2001)
Aboriginal people occupied the valleys year round, visiting the plateaus in spring and summer to gather food. The coastal clans would move to the tops during winter to hunt kangaroos, possums and wombats. Moving around to take advantage of the seasonal availability of food meant that the land's resources were naturally replenished. (NPWS, 2001)
A wide range of plant foods were also abundant in the Barrington Tops area including orange thorn, giant stinging tree, figs, native cherry, geebung, native raspberry, and lillypilly. Sadly, oral history tells us that by 1840 these natural food supplies were almost exhausted, due to logging, clearing and farming of livestock. (NPWS, 2001)
John Heath spoke to ABC reporter Murdo MacLeod as part of the ABC River Stories program about the various Aboriginal nations who once occupied the country in this area and the spiritual connection they have with the river and the natural resources of the area (interview).
The Hunter Valley was one of the first areas in Australia to be colonised and developed following European settlement due to the availability of coal, cedar and rich alluvial land on the river flats and floodplains along the Hunter River deemed to be suitable for agriculture.
Vegetation in the upper part of the Hunter catchment was affected far less by European settlement than was the case on the valley floor, due mostly to the inaccessibility of these landscapes. Growing awareness of the ecological value of remnant native vegetation has seen around 430 000 ha or 20% of the entire Hunter catchment formally protected for conservation. There are 29 nature reserves and national parks within the Hunter catchment, with the World Heritage Area of the Barrington Tops one of the largest. In contrast to the highlands around the catchment margin, only 0.7% (6200 ha) of the valley lowlands and valley floor has been formally protected (Peake, 2003 in Spencer et al, 2004).
In 1969 Barrington Tops National Park was created from around 14,000 hectares of Crown land. From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was intense community debate as to whether the remaining native forests of NSW should be used for timber production or protected for conservation. Forest areas were progressively withdrawn from logging and added to the national park system. In 1986 the area was listed as a World Heritage site. (NPWS, 2001)
Barrington Tops is home to more than 50 rare or threatened plants and animals. Some of the more unusual animals include: