Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge

A Canadian poet came to Brisbane for a poetry festival. She wanted to know what sounds are unique to this place. I began to think about the familiar, iconic sounds of Brisbane.

Many are bird calls.

There is the familiar “whoop, whoop, whoop” of a pheasant coucal calling from a gully; the sound of the common koel, the “storm bird” that visits South East Queensland every summer and calls endlessly for a mate – “ko-el, ko-el, ko-el…”; the musical tweets and burbles of the red-eyed figbird.

Green figbird en.wikipedia.org

This is a city of creeks and parks, bushland, and many varieties of fig trees, both native and exotic; and wherever there are fig trees, there are figbirds, noisily getting on with their lives.

There is another Brisbane sound familiar to many of us: the distinctive “c’thunk, c’thunk, c’thunk” of cars crossing the expansion joints of the Story Bridge. According to writer Simon Cleary in his 2008 novel “The Comfort of Figs”, it’s more of a “thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump” sound. Due to resurfacing in the last few years the sound has changed; but anyone who has spent time on or under the iconic bridge will remember it.

I know the sound well, because I’ve climbed the Story Bridge.

A student at the time, I was in a bushwalking club, and although it was illegal, climbing the bridge was an annual club tradition.

We went up at night, inside the steep, angled box girders leading to the northern shoulder of the bridge. It was quite easy and safe, funnelling up inside the steel girder and round the elbow. The scary part was climbing out of the girder and crawling, in the dark, up a narrow, unprotected, two-metre-long ladder over the void. The ladder leads to a trapdoor on to the walkway that runs along the top of the bridge superstructure.

That little ladder , high on the bridge

Once we were on the walkway, all we needed was a head for heights.

We went from one tower of the bridge to the other, upstream and downstream sides, high above the traffic and the city lights. It was exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the trapdoor and the narrow ladder back down into the girders, my legs were rubbery, and the ladder was even more frightening.

A couple of weeks later, some of us did it again, just for the heck of it.

Last week I walked across the bridge with Con. He (having heard about it many times) asked me where we went up, and I showed him, and pointed out the tiny ladder high above.

The lower ends of those girders, where they meet the bridge deck, are enclosed with steel mesh now. If I climbed the bridge again, and I’d like to, I’d pay for the safe, supervised and tethered experience, entering by an enclosed stairway where the southern slope meets the decking.

Staircases on the southern slope

In “The Comfort of Figs”, Cleary describes, vividly and in detail, the construction of the Story Bridge; and the book, of course, is also about fig trees.

Many of the sprawling, shady fig trees so plentiful in Brisbane’s parks are weeping figs, an Asian variety. There are fewer of the enormous, iconic Moreton Bay figs, tall and wide with great buttress roots reaching out around them. Ironically, considering the name, they are more popular in the parks of the southern states. I’ve seen them in Warrnambool and even in Adelaide.

Next to a motel at Swan Hill in north-west Victoria, there’s a Moreton Bay fig tree claimed to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and known as the Burke and Wills tree. It was planted in 1860, when Burke and Wills camped nearby on their hopeless expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Stressed by drought, it has been heavily pruned to help it survive. I think it would be happier growing back here where it belongs.

Swan Hill’s Burke and Wills Moreton Bay fig, before pruning tripadvisor.com.au

Brisbane’s McCaskie Park, in Blamey Street, Kelvin Grove, is a fig tree arboretum, I’ve discovered. Many are weeping figs, exotic trees from Asia, matching the row of magnificent specimens along Kelvin Grove Road.

Weeping fig trees on Kelvin Grove Road, Brisbane

There is also an old Moreton Bay fig, with typical huge buttress roots and thick, sprawling branches, some of which have been lopped. In 1996, this tree was under threat of destruction because of planned road works nearby. In spite of its size, and because of lobbying by the local community, it was transplanted to its present spot. 

Moreton Bay fig tree in McCaskie Park, Kelvin Grove

Moreton Bay fig trees can be identified by their leaves – larger than other fig leaves, green on top and brown underneath. A fine example grows in a place of honour in the City Botanic Gardens, facing Old Government House. Planted in the 1800s, it is listed by the National Trust for its beauty and its historical significance.

Robbie, the young man whose search for his father’s story forms the heart of “The Comfort of Figs”, loves Moreton Bay fig trees. Propagating them under his house, he takes a kind of comfort in using them subversively. Robbie works for Parks and Gardens, but also has a mission of his own: to plant Moreton Bay figs in camphor laurel trees.

My grandparents once lived on Laurel Avenue, Chelmer – a street famous for its fine old camphor laurels.

Laurel Avenue, Chelmer, with camphor laurels in fresh, spring foliage homehound.com.au

They are majestic trees, but invasive. Listed among the top ten weed species of South East Queensland, these exotics aggressively populate bushland areas and gardens, replacing blue gums and other koala food trees, and their seeds are toxic to birds.

Camphor laurels grow all along Brisbane’s Bulimba Creek, and while they are attractive trees and create lovely shady spots along the creek, only a few paper barks and gum trees manage to survive amongst them.

Sprawling camphor laurels dominate Bulimba Creek

There are also camphor laurels all over the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

“My grandfather planted most of them,” says Con, with a touch of pride, plus a large slice of exaggeration. His grandfather owned a dairy farm outside Mullumbimby, and planted the camphor laurels for shade and for their timber. They thrived like cane toads. There are so many now that removal would be impossible, and would leave the countryside bare.

Early every morning, before starting work, Robbie drives to Laurel Avenue, Chelmer. He chooses a camphor laurel and parks under it, climbs on top of his car and plants a little Moreton Bay fig tree in a fork of the tree, hoping it will grow and send its roots down to the ground below.

These are strangler figs that can engulf whole trees and anything else that stands in their path, then grow into mighty trees themselves. Who knows? This might be a way to solve the camphor laurel problem.

I could have told the visiting poet of many iconic Brisbane sounds. Fruit bats squalling in a mango tree. City Cats growling up the river. Hail stones on an iron roof. The chattering of rainbow lorikeets settling down for the night in a eucalyptus tree.

She may have been confused, though, if I’d mentioned the Story Bridge. We know it was named after J.D. Story, a prominent Queensland public servant, and think nothing of it, but to a stranger it must seem odd.

Story Bridge? These people must really enjoy a quality narrative…”

Not every place in the world can grow a Moreton Bay fig tree.

And Brisbane is the only city with an enormous bridge honouring our love of a good yarn.

Bridge climbers these days kangaroopoint.com.au

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.

bunya 4 daleys fruitAraucaria-bidwilli-Bunya-Nut-146
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.

bunya bris bot g
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.

bunya hoop Araucaria-cunninghamii-MF-13333-large
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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