The First Jacaranda

At the bottom of George Street, Brisbane, in the curve of the river, there was a convict farm growing maize and vegetables. In time, the New Farm was established as well, and later the Eagle Farm.

In 1855, after the convict era ended, the New South Wales Government established Botanic Gardens on the George Street land, and appointed Walter Hill, trained in London’s Kew Gardens, as Superintendent. In 1859 he was appointed government botanist. For twenty-six years, until he retired and afterwards, Walter Hill worked at introducing, propagating and sharing plants species across Queensland, Australia and the world. He propagated the first macadamia tree in cultivation, which is still standing today in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens and still producing nuts.

He also experimented with varieties of sugar cane, and helped refine it – the first sugar to be produced in Queensland.

He collected native plants, and especially loved bunya and hoop pines, planting hundreds of them, along with fig trees. His avenue of bunya pines still dominates the riverside walk in the Gardens.

It was Walter Hill who successfully grew, in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, what is said to be the first jacaranda tree in Australia – later the subject of Queensland Art Gallery’s most loved painting. He sent seeds from this tree, a native plant of Brazil, far and wide and transformed the parks, gardens, and street plantings of Queensland. The tree blew down in a storm in 1980.

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“Under the Jacaranda”, Godfrey Rivers, 1903 Queensland Art Gallery collection

 Walter Hill travelled Queensland, collecting native plant species and setting aside land in Toowoomba, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Cardwell, Cairns and other regional towns for agricultural study and botanical gardens. Some of them were never developed, but the ones in Rockhampton, Cairns and Toowoomba have become magnificent, much-loved and much-visited places, popular sites for weddings and functions, and home to fine plant and sculpture collections.

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Main building at Mackay Botanic Garden mackayregionalbotanicgardens.com.au

There’s some wonderful art in botanic gardens. It isn’t always widely known, and it often comes as a surprise.

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Sandstone rose sculpture, Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens, Brisbane

On a visit to Kew Gardens, which could be considered the oldest and greatest of botanic gardens, I was astonished by the colourful paintings of the nineteenth century English botanical artist Marianne North – 833 paintings, the product of thirteen years of world travels and literally covering the walls of a charming, specially designed 1880s building.

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Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens hotenough.com

One large group of paintings depicts the plants and forests of tropical Queensland.

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Marianne North’s Australian and Queensland paintings (obscured by reflections)

The nineteenth century was a time of scientific fascination with plants and animals. From the 1850s onwards, botanists, naturalists and “Acclimatisation Societies” in Australia, New Zealand, and across the British Empire sent huge numbers of plants and animals all over the world to see how they would thrive in different conditions.

Echidnas to London, wombats to Paris; possums to New Zealand.

In New Zealand, when some of the introduced species got out of hand, stoats, ferrets and weasels were introduced to control them.

The delicate balance of nature would never be the same again.

 One of the earliest botanic gardens in Queensland was in Cooktown. It was established in 1878 and revitalised in the late twentieth century, as tourism grew. Now, heritage listed and with interesting plant collections, it holds in its art gallery a collection of Vera Scarth-Johnson’s botanical paintings. I bought a print of the Cooktown orchid, Queensland’s floral emblem.

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Print of Cooktown Orchid by Vera Scarth-Johnson, from the Cooktown Botanic Gardens Gallery

In many parts of Queensland there are now botanic gardens established by local councils, such as those in the Gold Coast and Hervey Bay; all of them supported by groups of keen volunteers.

Others are privately owned and run, such as the Maleny Botanic Gardens. My favourite of these is the Myall Park Botanic Garden, outside Glenmorgan, 380 kilometres west of Brisbane. This garden has been devoted to the collection, propagation and study of plants that thrive in arid and semi-arid conditions – especially the grevillea.

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Tank stand sculpture, Myall Park Botanic Garden

We found this treasure by accident, when travelling to Roma via Tara and Meandarra to Surat and the Carnarvon Highway. It was begun in the 1940s, on a sheep station owned by the Gordon family, and spreads over a large area, with paths and information boards, a gallery and interesting shop, and accommodation.

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Decorative pavers leading to a bird hide, Myall Park

Different sections are devoted to different species, there is a bird hide, there are sculptures and artwork across the park, and the gallery features the botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon.

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Botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon

This garden is where the well-known and hardy red-flowering Robyn Gordon grevillea cultivar emerged by chance in the 1960s and was widely planted across Australia and beyond. Touchingly, it is named in memory of one of the Gordon family daughters, who died tragically young.

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A “Robyn Gordon” grevillea flowering in a park beside a busy Brisbane road

Walter and Jane Hill also had a daughter, Ann, who died young, in 1871. She was their only child; and there is a plant associated with her death, too. Ann was buried in Toowong Cemetery, only the second person to be buried there; and near her grave, to shade it, Walter planted a hoop pine. Today it is enormous.

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Hoop pine and grave of Ann Hill and her parents, Toowong Cemetery

The plant collections of Queensland’s botanic gardens are developed on scientific principles, these days with an emphasis on native species. The plants are interesting, but I love the gardens most for their beauty, and their history.

The art to be found there is a bonus.

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Grevillea plate from Myall Park Botanic Garden Gift-shop

Cooktown, 250 Years after Cook

Cooktown is a small town a long way from anywhere: 328 kilometres north of Cairns, at the end of the bitumen. When we visited it hadn’t occurred to me that it has a Botanic Gardens; but does, and it’s a beauty. Old, too. Planting first began there in 1868, and it was made official in 1878.

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Cooktown Botanic gardens and Gallery queensland.com

The Cooktown Botanic Gardens has an art gallery, café and information centre, and as always for a Botanic Gardens, its plantings are based on scientific, cultural and historical principles. It includes local species used throughout the centuries by the local Indigenous people, as well as threatened species.

It also includes examples of the plants collected in 1770 by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain James Cook’s visit on HMB Endeavour, and drawn by botanist and natural history artist Sydney Parkinson. Some of these specimens, pressed, are in the collection of the Queensland Herbarium, at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane.

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“Specimen collected by Banks and Solander from the Endeavour River, Queensland, Cook’s Voyage 1770” Qld Herbarium http://www.qld.gov.au

We visited Cooktown in mid-November, in the build-up to the wet season. Not surprisingly, it was hot in the Gardens.

Our motel overlooked the Endeavour River, named by Captain Cook, and I couldn’t help thinking about the history of this place that we’ve heard about all our lives. The Endeavour was beached for repairs just below us, and behind us was the granite hill that Cook and his companions climbed to look out over the sea and its treacherous reefs their wounded ship had picked its way through to reach this small harbour and would have to thread through again on its way out.

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View from Grassy Hill, Cooktown

Captain Cook’s expedition (we call him Captain because he was captain of the Endeavour, but his naval rank was Lieutenant) arrived in mid-June and stayed throughout July, when the weather in the tropics is perfect. They spent nearly seven weeks here, on Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific, 250 years ago this month. When I read these sections of Cook’s journal, I realised for the first time just what an extraordinary episode this was, an encounter between two cultures entirely unknown to each other. The party of eighty-seven Europeans – explorers, astronomers, botanists, officers and crew – knew nothing of the Indigenous culture or language, and the local Guugu Yimithirr of the area had no idea what these strange intruders were doing here.

Cook was an extraordinary seaman, navigator and cartographer. His orders from the British government for this three-year voyage of discovery were both scientific and strategic: to carry out astronomical observations, and to investigate and take possession of the rumoured Great Southern Lands for Britain.

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“A plan of the entrance of the Endeavour River, New South Wales, 1770” Cook’s Charts, National Library of Australia collection

All the way up the east coast of Australia, Banks and Solander had been desperate to do some serious study of the wealth of plants and animals that Europeans had never seen before. In what is now Cooktown they finally got their chance, although they and everyone else on Endeavour nearly died getting there.

According to the captain’s journal it was a clear, moonlight night when on 10 June 1770, the Endeavour, surrounded by coral reefs, struck a reef and stuck fast. Cook’s journal entry for 11 June, written in the utmost haste, shows how desperate the situation was.

The crew threw overboard the ship’s cannons, ballast, and anything else that could be spared to reduce weight, and manned the pumps desperately for twenty-four hours before the ship could be floated and dragged off the reef. A fothering sail was prepared, packed with wool and oakum, and dragged under the hull to be lashed over the hole.[1]

Too far from shore to swim, on a small ship alone in unknown waters and utterly beyond help, it was equivalent to a dangerous situation on a space craft.

The ship picked its way through further reefs, taking water all the time, until they found the mouth of what Cook named the Endeavour River, and moored the ship alongside a steep beach on the southern side of the river.

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“A view of Endeavour River” collections.rmg.co.uk/collections

When they looked at the damage to the hull it was discovered that a piece of coral had broken off and blocked the hole, probably saving them.

The Endeavour and its company stayed at the Endeavour River until repairs were completed. Banks and Solander collected plant specimens; and the Europeans saw their first kangaroo.

The local Guugu Yimithirr people did not make them welcome. It’s a perilous business, going uninvited into a foreign land and helping yourself to whatever you need. Eight years later, in Hawaii, it was probably taking advantage of local hospitality without any awareness of local customs and sensitivities that led to Cook’s death. There were misunderstandings and clashes on the Endeavour River, too.

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“Kangourou – seen Endeavour River” Sydney Parkinson. Engraving by William Byrne en.wikipedia.org

The locals especially resented Cook’s party catching and eating turtles, which were of course a traditional local food with rituals around their capture, preparation and sharing. They probably thought of it as stealing. They showed their displeasure, and Cook’s party retaliated.

19 July: …those that came on board were very desirous of having some of our turtle and took the liberty to haul two to the gang way to put over the side… being disappointed in this they grew a little troublesome, and were for throwing everything overboard they could lay their hands upon; I offer’d them some bread to eat, which they rejected with scorn as I believe they would have done anything else excepting turtle – soon after this they all went ashore. Mr Banks, myself and five or six more of our people being ashore at the same time, immediately upon their landing one of them took a handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a large circuit round about us and set fire to the grass, and in an Instant the whole place was in flames… they went to a place… where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry, here they again set fire to the grass… I was obliged to fire a musquet loaded with small shott at one of the ring leaders which sent them off. Notwithstanding my firing in which one must have been a little hurt because we saw some a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over, they did not go far for we soon after heard their voices in the woods…[2]

On 22 August 1770, on a small island he named Possession Island at the tip of Cape York, Captain Cook took possession of the whole eastern coast of what is now Australia on behalf of the British Government. Cook noted in his journal:

 … I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were answerd by the like number from the Ship.[3]

 After Cook’s return to England the British government decided that this land belonged to no one – terra nullius – and therefore was free for them to use without treaty or reparation. It’s suggested that it was Banks, by all accounts both arrogant and influential, who gave them that impression.[4]

We visited the James Cook Museum, occupying a spectacular old nineteenth century Sisters of Mercy Convent building, and looked at the displays telling the stories of this place where such an extraordinary clash of cultures occurred two hundred and fifty years ago. We visited Finch Bay, with its granite boulders like whales and a backpacker standing naked in the creek, braving the crocodiles as she washed her clothes; we watched another sunset over the Endeavour River, and next morning drove away back to Cairns.

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Granite boulder, Finch Bay

The English knew what it was to have foreigners arrive in ships. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans: they were all invaders who took land and goods, killed any who opposed them, and disrupted local culture, language and spirituality. Britain did the same to Ireland; and the Guugu Yimithirr people were to be left in peace for only a few more generations before the same disaster happened to them.

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Cooktown sunset

[1] http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700611.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 11 June 1770.

[2] http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700611.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 19 July 1770.

[3] http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700822.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 22 August 1770

[4] https://theconversation.com/henry-reynolds-australia-was-founded-on-a-hypocrisy-that-haunts-us-to-this-day-101679

Cairns

I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.

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Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”

I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”

“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”

Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.

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The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.

The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.

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Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.

I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.

While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.

For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.

Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.

“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.

“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”

“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”

“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”

Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.

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Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections

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Johnathan Thurston, North Queensland Cowboys

Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”

We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the north-western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.

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Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.

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Rusty’s Bazaar

More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.

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Tanks Arts Centre

Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.

In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.

It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.

I can recommend the hospital, too.

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Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Romancing the Bunya

A king parrot is standing on my battered old Simpson and Day bird book. Not on the parrot page, either. He looks as if he’s researching the rufous fantails we’ve been watching in the forest.

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King parrot

“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.

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Bunya pines

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.

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Bunya leaves, cones and fruit

 

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.”[1]

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.

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Avenue of bunya pines in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens  Image: Monuments Australia

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.

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Hoop pine

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.

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Bunya leaves

“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.

[1] “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9

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