Serpentine National Park
Serpentine National Park, best known for the waterfall that cascades over a sheer granite face, abounds with the scenic beauty of ancient landforms and verdant forest. These features, together with its close proximity to Perth, have attracted visitors for almost 100 years. It is also a sanctuary for an array of plants and animals.
Serpentine National Park is sitting pretty on the Darling Scarp, about 50 kilometres south-east of Perth. The scarp is at the western edge of a huge ancient plateau that is the foundation of much of the south-western part of Australia. It is composed mainly of granite, with some dolerite, gneisses and quartzites up to 2500 million years old. An overlying capping of laterite rock formed about 10 million years ago, when wetter and more humid conditions leached minerals from the soil to form a hard, insoluble crust.
Set in a naturally beautiful cleft at the foot of the scarp, the park stretches up the steep slopes of the Serpentine River valley, past a sheer face of granite polished smooth by the rushing waters. Here, in winter, the white waters of the Serpentine River cascade into a swirling, rock-rimmed pool below. Serpentine Falls has been one of the focal points of the area since the early European settlers came in droves to swim, picnic and enjoy a day out in the bush.
The best time to see the wildflowers is from July to November. The finest displays are in September, when the hillsides and wooded areas become a blaze of colour.
Jarrah, marri and wandoo are the most common trees in the park. But the park is also important for two geographically restricted species. The Darling Range ghost gum (Eucalyptus laeliae) is restricted to an area between Darlington and Harvey, and can be seen in the north of the park. This tree, with its pure white bark, was named after Laelia, one of the vestal virgins.
It is generally associated with drainage lines near granite outcrops. The salmon white gum (Eucalyptus lane-poolei) is found at the foot of the scarp. This small tree has smooth bark that is usually white to pale pink, but becomes pinkish-orange in autumn when the old bark is shed. Wilson's grevillea (Grevillea wilsonii), a small shrub with brilliant red flowers, thrives here in the jarrah forest, particularly after fire. Tucked away in various gullies along the hillside, from which streams feed into one of several dams in the Darling Range, are tall tree ferns. These introduced plants give a rainforest feel to the sometimes deep and mysterious gullies.
The slopes above the falls are covered in spindly grevillea (Grevillea endlicheriana), which is restricted to the scarp between Bindoon and Serpentine. From July to November, it holds white flowers suspended about a metre above the main plant, on almost leafless stems. Coral vine (Kennedia coccinea), with its brilliant reddish-orange flowers, rambles over other plants of the jarrah forest.
Granite outcrops support diverse and often unique plant communities. They act as water catchments for fire-sensitive "resurrection" plants, such as pincushions (Borya spp.). These clumpy perennial herbs are prickly and produce white flowers between August and October. As moisture is depleted, the plants appear to die, become brittle and turn bright orange. After the first rains, they resurrect themselves and flower again. Donkey orchids (Diuris spp.) are often found around the granite outcrops, and spider orchids (Caladenia spp.) and greenhoods (Pterostylis spp.) are abundant in other areas. Triggerplants (Stylidium spp.) form pink carpets in spring.
Sundews are common in the park, and include the giant sundew (Drosera gigantea), which grows in the southern part of the park. The yellow flowers of cut-leaf dryandra (Dryandra praemorsa) are a common sight on the rim north of the falls. Other dryandras include pingle (D. carduacea), a large shrub that resembles parrotbush (D. sessilis), and couch honeypot (D. nivea), a small plant with fern-like leaves and large orange flowers.
The park abounds with bird life such as red-capped parrots, western rosellas, red-tailed and white-tailed black-cockatoos, and yellow robins. Red-eared firetails are sometimes seen below the falls. In all, some 70 of the 100 bird species known to live on the Darling Scarp have been recorded in the park. Parrots, owls and tree martins require hollow trees for nesting. Smaller bush birds, such as fairy-wrens and robins, thrive in dense thickets of hakea and grevillea, which grow around the granite outcrops.
Vegetation along creeks and streams provides additional habitat for the wrens and robins, and is important for the grey shrike-thrush and red-eared firetail, which feeds on sedges and introduced grasses (Paspalum spp.). In summer, little eagles and wedge-tailed eagles will often soar on thermal updrafts high above the scarp. Owlet nightjars can be seen near the Gooralong camping area. These little birds have big eyes and even bigger mouths. They will sit motionless on paths and tracks at night, allowing you to approach quite closely.
Yellow robins, white-breasted robins, scarlet robins and splendid fairy-wrens will pick at food scraps around the main picnic area near the falls. While picnicking here, it is quite common to be joined by western grey kangaroos. The echidna, mardo, quenda, brushtail possum, western brush-wallaby and possibly the quokka are more secretive and less visible. Chuditch, brush-tailed phascogales, fat-tailed dunnarts, honey possums and water-rats may also live in the park, together with several species of bat. Gould's wattled bats are often seen swooping for insects attracted to the light near the park gate.
Lizards, including the variegated gecko (Gehyra variegata), reside in areas near granite outcrops. Death-adders inhabit the jarrah country, but tend to move only at night and lie in wait for their prey under leaf litter. Dugites prefer to curl up in cool places during summer. Carpet pythons are less common, but have been found near the park entrance on Falls Road. The wetter parts of the park are home to several reptile species, with tiger snakes found along the river and streams, and long-necked tortoises below the falls.
USE BY PEOPLE:
Long before European settlement, Nyoongar Aborigines of the Whadjuk and, probably, Bindjareb tribes hunted and camped in the woodlands between modern-day Perth and Pinjarra. Like most Nyoongars of the south-west, they used fire sticks to burn parts of the forest and, over thousands of years, the scrub fires created some areas of open forest and patches of grassland.
The Serpentine River, the surrounding hills and the wetlands of the coastal plain provided the Nyoongars with fresh water, fish and other food resources such as tortoises, lizards and birds. Fish traps were constructed on the river, downstream from the falls, and where it flows through a chain of small lakes on its journey to the Peel Inlet. Each year, at the start of the winter rains, tribal groups from the north, east and south would gather near Barragup to catch the fish that were driven downstream by the fast flowing waters.
Many of the streams flowing off the scarp supported family groups during different seasons of the year. The two streams that flow into the Serpentine above the falls were named Carralong and Gooralong, and an area between them, later known as Spencer's Flats, was reputed to have been used for corroborees. A nearby landholder remembered, as a child, seeing Nyoongars clambering among the rocks on the scarp, digging out the fleshy tubers of warrine (Dioscorea hastifolia).
First discovered by Europeans two months after the Swan River Settlement was established in July 1829, the Serpentine River and its surroundings attracted people seeking land, timber and precious metals such as gold and silver (there is doubt about whether the reported gold strike was genuine, but the remains of several mine shafts can still be seen in the park) for many decades.
By the 1890s, so much land had been cleared for farming, cut for timber or mined, that people began to realise that the native plants and animals were disappearing. As a result, in 1894, the State's first reserve for fauna and flora - 160,000 hectares between Pinjarra, North Dandalup and Bannister - was proclaimed. But it didn't take long before there were demands to reduce this area to provide more timber. The reserve was subsequently cancelled in 1911. It was noted, however, that the falls, which were placed in a reserve for public recreation, were visited by "trainloads of excursionists ... every flower season" and needed some management presence to protect them from overuse. Over the years, various blocks of land were reserved and in 1957 they were all vested together and renamed Serpentine National Park. It is not known who named the Serpentine River, which was first recorded by Captain Mark Currie in 1892, but the name first appeared on a map published by the Royal Geographic al Society in 1832. The park is named after the river.
Today, the Serpentine National Park protects more than 4,300 hectares and it continues to offer many of the features that attracted our ancestors.