“I remember the day Mum put the bunya pine down her bra,” says my brother Rick. He and my other brother Mike and I are in the Bunyas Mountains together, on a nostalgic visit, sitting on the verandah of a small but comfortable cottage and reminiscing. King parrots and crimson rosellas cluster round us, pecking at bird seed.
I can’t imagine putting anything as prickly as a bunya pine down my bra.
We’re discussing a trip to the Bunyas we went on years ago, camping with our parents. Dad had pitched the old canvas tent on what was then known as the Lucerne Patch, a camping field running down to the edge of the rainforest. That evening there was a sudden storm, with heavy rain threatening to swamp the tent. Mum and we three kids held on to the tent poles while Dad frantically dug a trench along the uphill side to divert the flood.
Dad’s trench saved us from a night spent in wet bedding, and next day the sun was out. We walked along the forest tracks, under majestic pines and enormous fig trees laden with ferns and orchids.
Along the way, our mother spotted a baby bunya pine. The ground was soft after the rainstorm, and so in spite of signs that said not to interfere with vegetation or wildlife in a National Park she carefully dug it out. Because she didn’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing, so the family story goes, she hid it in her bra.
The iconic bunya pines, Araucaria bidwilli, endemic to the Blackall Range and Bunya Mountains National Park, command respect. Straight and rough-barked, bunya pines can grow close to fifty metres tall and a metre in diameter.
For thousands of years, great bunya festivals were held here. This was a meeting place for local Aboriginal groups and those from further away, travelling here every three years for ritual and ceremony, resolving of disputes, feasting, dance, song, trading, socialising and above all harvesting the bunya nuts.
Development of surrounding lands by white farmers, and the relocation of Indigenous people to reserves, tragically put a stop to the bunya festivals by 1902.
According to Tom Petrie, his father Andrew Petrie “discovered” the bunya pine and “gave some specimens to a Mr. Bidwill, who forwarded them to the old country, and hence the tree was named after him, not after the true discoverer.”
These trees had been known and celebrated in this place for centuries before the Petries came along.
In the mid-1800s, Tom Petrie himself as a boy was the first free (i.e. not an escaped convict) white person to attend a bunya festival. As an old man, he described it in detail to his daughter, who wrote out his memoirs. Many of the bunya pines have what seem to be notches in them and some believe that they were cut to help the young men who, with the aid of a loop of strong vine around the tree, would climb up to get the big cones that hold the nuts; but according to Tom Petrie they would never cut a bunya because it would hurt the tree. They would climb using just the vine, aided by the roughness of the bark. It would take great skill and courage to climb so high that way.
By the 1850s, an avenue of bunya pines had been planted in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, where they’re still standing today, along the path above the river.
My brothers and I have been walking those same soft forest tracks again today, and we worked out which leaves belong to the bunya pines, and which to the equally mighty hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, that grow here too. They were first collected by Alan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, in the 1820s.
It’s easy to tell the trees apart, if you crane your neck upwards. The mature bunyas have a dome-shaped top, while the hoops have a pointed top. The leaves are different too. Hoop pine leaves are smooth and closely woven, and bunya leaves are twisted and prickly. Maybe Mum wrapped that little bunya tree in a hanky.
“She put the tree in a pot, and it grew,” says Rick. “For years we used it as a Christmas tree.”
“That’s right – I’d forgotten the Christmas tree! Didn’t she eventually plant it behind the house at Ashgrove, down by the creek?”
“Yes, she did. I wonder if it’s still there.”
This year, the forest is in drought, like most of Queensland. Dry leaves are lying thick on the ground. Many trees are suffering, and some of the tracks are closed. As we sit on the cottage verandah that evening, we hear a menacing cracking sound in the distance, then a deep, booming thump. The sound of a forest giant falling.
“When we get back to Brisbane, let’s go and look for Mum’s bunya pine,” said Mike.
That’s what we do. We drive out to the old house in Joffre Street, Ashgrove, and there it is, towering over the houses, down near the creek.
Only it doesn’t have a dome shape. It has a point. After all these years of family legend, is it actually a bunya pine at all? It’s not a full-grown tree yet – too young to have a dome, perhaps.
Maybe it’s a hoop pine. Much less prickly to put in a bra. We knock on the door to ask if we can go out in the back yard and check the leaves, but there’s no one home.
Hoop pines are beautiful too, with their rough bark and hoop-like stripes. They’re everywhere in Brisbane, standing like sentinels on hilltops, in parks and suburban gardens and motorway plantings.
The bunya pine, though, is the iconic one; and its home forest, now suffering from drought, is an ancient and spiritual place. This year, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the world mourned. The Cathedral will be rebuilt – just as it was. It won’t be so easy to rebuild the old, old forests of the Bunya Mountains.
 “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9