Wollemi National Park

The Wollemi Pine has survived for 200 million years -but just barely. Only  23 trees still exist in the wild. To help ensure their preservation, private companies are now allowed  to  grow  seedlings  and  sell  them  to  gardeners  and  horticulturists  all  over  the world. But the location of the wild trees is kept secret for their own protection.

Colored  a  hazy  blue  by  sunlight  glancing off of evaporating droplets of oil from the ever-present  eucalyptus  trees,  the  Blue Mountains  are  weird  enough.  But  in  the middle  of  it  all  is  the  ultimate  weirdness: the world’s rarest tree, a throwback to the Jurassic Age that exists only in one remote gorge in this rambling mountain park.

The  Wollemi  pine  has  been  extinct  for 30 million years—at least, that’s what scientists  thought  until  1994,  when  three small stands were discovered in a hidden pocket of coachwood-sassafras rainforest. Soaring  35m  (115  ft.)  high,  they  have waxy  leaves  of  a  exotic  lime-green  color and  pebbly  cocoa-brown  bark.  Promptly nicknamed  the  “dinosaur  tree,”  this  species  seems  identical  to  trees  recorded  in Jurassic  age  fossils,  but  not  in  any  later fossils.  As  a  casual  visitor  you  won’t  be able  to  see  the  Wollemi  pines—access  is strictly controlled, and the location of the canyon  is  kept  secret  by  park  management.  Disappointing  as  this  may  be  for tourists,  it’s  all  for  the  good  of  the  trees. Botanists  who  are  granted  access  for research purposes may one day be able to propagate new Wollemi pines for the rest of the world to enjoy.

Besides, a park that has Wollemi pines is  bound  to  have  other  unusual  and  rare things  to  see.  There’s  the  banksias  conferta  subsp.  penicillata,  a  rare  endemic mountain  shrub  with  a  brushy  cylindrical yellow  flower.  Along  with  koalas,  wombats,  and  platypus,  unusual-even-for-Australia    species    frolic    about    like    the brush-tailed  rock  wallaby  and  the  glossy black cockatoo. Near the old oil shale mine at Wolgan (the park contains a handful of such  industrial  ghost  towns),  an  abandoned  railway  tunnel  is  eerily  illuminated even  in  daytime  by  a  population  of  glowworms.  Impressive  geological  formations like  gorges,  cliffs,  caves,  and  steep  sand- stone  escarpments  make  this  one  of  the most  rugged  parks  you’ll  ever  see,  with three  rivers—the  Wolgan,  the  Colo,  the Capertee—carving   through   the   wilderness. (Only the Colo is navigable by canoe or  kayak,  and  then  only  in  high  water; canoeists  can,  however,  paddle  around atmospheric Dunns Swamp.) Most visitors venture  only  a  short  way  into  this  huge park,  but  longdistance  hikers  and  rock- climbers  can  really  get  into  untrammeled wilderness.

Perhaps  the  most  impressive  experi- ence of all is tramping through an unbroken   stretch   of   forest   dominated   by eucalyptus trees, constituting almost 90% of the park. (No wonder koalas like to hang out  here.)  It’s  anything  but  monotonous, with 70 different eucalyptus species represented. Take time to note the differences in  their  barks  and  evergreen  leaves  and flowers as you walk around, and to inhale deeply their distinctive fragrance. No wonder the Blue Mountains look so blue!