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Boab - adventures with the Gouty-trunk Tree

The cover of my favourite book about boab trees

I will never forget my first visit to the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

It was in 1985. I was already twenty-five years into my career as a forester, and had explored forests and woodlands all over Australia and in many overseas countries. But for the bulk of those years, I had worked and lived in the south-west, a different world from that of “the Kimberlies” (as they are popularly known), several thousand km away in the State’s north. The Top End of my own State was a foreign country to me.

Eventually, the wheel of life revolved and I found myself involved with forests, parks and wildlife for the whole of Western Australia, including the monsoonal, tropical north, and the famed Kimberley region. I had heard many stories of this wondrous place, and wasted no time in arranging my first voyage of exploration.

Map of Western Australia, showing the regions. The blue at the top is the Kimberley Region, the green in the bottom left-hand corner is the South-west, where I spent most of my early career as a forester.

Arriving at Kununurra airport on that first adventure, I was met by my colleague and long-time mate Chris Done. We were soon away on a week-long safari inspecting the region's national parks, meeting wildlife officers, foresters and ranger staff, visiting remote Aboriginal communities and discussing tricky issues like bushfire management and endangered species. Chris had been a forester at Nannup in the south-west before his appointment as the department’s Regional Manager for the Kimberley, but the move had been a duck-to-water experience. He was now widely regarded as an expert on the region's history, botany, wildlife, land management, and even rock-art. He was also an accomplished bushman, and could always find an idyllic spot for our nightly camp. This was usually by a billabong shaded by pandanus palms, or beside a sparkling waterfall and a sandstone breakaway. I was lucky to have him as my guide.

However, the first few hours of this first trip were disconcerting. I could not recognise or name a single tree of the dozens of different species growing in the savannah bushland through which we were driving. I liked to think I knew about trees, and normally I could put a name to any I came across, or get close to naming them. But all of a sudden, I was among strangers.

There was one exception. Although it was the first time I had seen them growing in the wild I instantly recognised the incredible boab trees. It was the dry season, and they were leafless, but there they were, with their gouty, elephantine grey boles, swollen limbs and tracery of branchlets .... and an air of permanence, as if they had always been there. With the rocky ranges beyond, it was an image so dramatic and beautiful, I could not take my eyes off them.

Boab near Kununurra, leafless in the dry season (photo by Malcom Baker)

The boab is confined to north-western Australia, found only in the Kimberley and adjacent parts of the Northern Territory. Its nearest relatives are thousands of kilometres away across the Indian Ocean in Madagascar (and nearby Africa), where it is known as Baobab. Nobody knows how our boab found its way to Australia; there are several theories, all disputed. But it did, and it has been growing here happily, unfazed by bushfires, floods, cyclones, man or beast for thousands, perhaps millions of years.

The botanical name of the boab (Adansonia gregorii) was conferred by the great pioneering botanist Ferdinand Mueller in honour of Augustus Gregory, whom Mueller accompanied on the first explorations by Europeans of the north-west in 1856. The artist on this expedition was Thomas Baines, and one of his sketches is reproduced in their botanical history book Plants and Man in Australia by J and S Carr:

Although it is curious that some of the trees in this sketch are in leaf and others are not, I like the way Baines has captured the many and various shapes and sizes of this wonderful tree.

On the subject of names, Chris Done reminded me:

Aboriginal people from different groups have different names for the tree. The Bardi people of the Dampier Peninsula know it as Larrgid whereas the Miriwong people of the east Kimberley call it Gerdewoon. The boabs were a valuable resource. They provided food from the fruit which is rich in protein and vitamins, edible young tap roots and gum. Drinking water would be obtained from crevices and hollows and by chewing the wood of stems and roots. Strong twine was made from the fibrous bark of the roots and there are several instances of aboriginal art being carved into the bark leaving a long-lasting impression. Intricate carvings were also be made on the large, woody nuts.

Boabs were known to early bushmen as "the Gouty-trunk Tree" and they are sometimes still referred to as the "Bottle Tree", although the real Bottle Tree of Australia (Brachichiton ruprestris) is a different thing altogether, growing naturally in Queensland and NSW. Still, applying the name ‘Bottle Tree’ to the boab is understandable; Mary Durack (writing in 1984 in a beautiful book called A land before time) noted: “They range from elegantly tapering wine bottles to squat demijohns”. Both bottle-types can be seen in the Baines sketch.

One of the fascinating things I noticed about boabs on that first visit was how adaptable they are to different sites. I saw them clinging, high up, to the face of steep rocky cliffs; they grew happily on the sandy banks of creeks, and they were dotted all over the grassy plains with stiff, clay soils, often subjected to flooding, and nearly every year to bushfires. This was another part of the revelation on that first expedition: elsewhere in Australia I had been used to trees that were very particular about where they grew, so much so that if you spotted a particular tree species in the distance, you knew instantly the sort of soil and topographical position in which it would be growing. The boabs, on the other hand, seemed just happy to be living in the Kimberley, no matter where (and who could blame them?)

The more boabs I saw, the more I loved them - an affection that has lasted over the years and many visits to boab country. The variety is astonishing. This was nicely put by Jocelyn Burt in her 1989 book (The Kimberley. Australia's unique north-west) :

No two [boab] trees are the same: each has its own individual character. They come in many intriguing shapes, some bordering on elegance, others resembling warty old goblins, grotesque yet full of charm; some are jaunty, while others look distinctly arthritic and rather grumpy. There are the lovers that endearingly entwine their limbs around each other, and the mothers, whose plump maternal boles are surrounded by clusters of slim young ones. There are the 'double bungers' and the 'triple bungers' - trees with split trunks that have continued to grow separately into curious shapes - and grandfather-boabs that have retained single trunks .... and squat on the plains like obese characters from tales of fantasy.

A boab family, mother and children: sketch by Hugh Crompton, reproduced from Pat Lowe’s book on boabs

Another feature of the boab is that it is deciduous. This is unusual for Australian native trees, although (as I later discovered) not in the tropics where many broadleaved trees, for example the Brachychitons, are deciduous, and even some eucalypts are semi-deciduous. The boab’s leafless phase occurs during the dry season, approximately April to November, which is a kind of summer in the north. When the wet season sets in, around Christmas every year, the boabs come to life, firstly with an abundance of fragrant blossom, and then with the sprouting of the fresh green foliage.

The blossom is particularly beautiful, with a sweet aroma and unexpected delicacy:

Boab blossom. Photo by Chris Done

Boabs flower at night, a process lovingly described by Pat Lowe:

The hour of opening [of the flowers] seems to vary somewhat from place to place and from tree to tree, as does the speed at which the petals unfold. It may be that the timing is influenced by the phase of the moon. Sometime between about seven and nine o'clock at night, the process begins ... the five fused sepals, their sharp points already pointing backwards, split further down their length and the tumescent wad of petals continues to thrust forth, and thickens. As the tube opens and they are released from restraint, the petals slowly unfold.

The flowers last only that one night, wilting at sunrise, but not before they have been pollinated, probably by bats. They then mature into a globular woody fruit about the size of a navel orange. This contains a pulpy pith which is very high in Vitamin C, much loved by Aboriginal people, and used by the early bushmen as a cure for scurvy. If allowed to dry out, the seeds are retained inside the nut, and when shaken they make a pleasing rattle; the dry fruit were in fact used as rattles to accompany dreamtime songs and stories.

A boab tree perched on a rocky ledge. Photo by Gill Burt, from Pat Howe’s book The Boab Tree

Rock wallabies are also known to gnaw open the fruit, eat the pith and ingest the seeds, which later are excreted. This would explain how boabs are often seen growing on ledges, high up on steep rocky cliffs. Chris Done explained how he came to this conclusion:

In 1987 some colleagues and I were preparing a management plan for the Mirima National Park. Way out in the park's backblocks we stopped to eat our cribs and, as one does, I picked up and examined a few Rock Wallaby scats. Each one contained a whole boab seed which later I was able to germinate, showing that they were viable.

Thus, is scientific progress made!

How old are those massive old boabs? The question has never really been answered. The trees cannot be reliably "aged" by counting growth rings, as is possible with trees from temperate regions, but estimates can be made by measuring tree size and applying known growth rates. These suggest that the big old trees of the Kimberley, with a girth of 10 metres or more, are probably upwards of 1000 years old.

The dendrologist Colin Tudge (writing in his 2005 book The Secret Life of Trees) has some interesting things to say on this. Writing about African baobabs rather than our boabs, his words nevertheless are relevant:

Their appearance is extraordinary. They are not, on the whole, outstandingly tall (up to about twenty metres or so), but the trunk is swollen with water like an over-stuffed sausage, and can be huge: up to ten metres in diameter ... the mop of twisted (but often vast) branches at the top look more like roots. Thus has arisen various myths ... one has it that the first ever baobab was extremely beautiful - and far too proud of its beauty. So, the Gods, to punish its conceit, stuck it back in the ground the wrong way up ....

The author with a “wrong way up” tree – a boab in the Kimberley in the midst of the dry season

I have also heard that boabs are sometimes called "Upside Down Trees", but have not been able to track down the source. Pat Lowe, however, has this advice, based on her profound knowledge of Kimberly Aboriginal legends:

Boab trees [are said to] embody dangerous powers. Someone intending to harm another person used to draw an effigy of his victim in the bark of a boab trunk, name the victim and then sing a malevolent song. As a result of this bad magic the victim, usually a person who had broken a taboo, would "blow up like a balloon" - or like a boab tree.

Aboriginal people often used the trunk of a boab as an artistic canvas, the early European explorers and pastoralists describing the beautiful carvings they observed, usually depicting various animals, perhaps an emu or a snake. How different this is to the disfiguring of lovely boab trees with graffiti scratched or carved into the boles by modern-day thoughtless humans. Indeed, it is hard to find a boab anywhere within 50 metres of a road that does not contain a set of initials, usually crudely inserted. If the scratching is shallow, it is soon grown over and disappears, but a deeply incised carving might last for decades, even centuries. I will never forget driving into the Mirima National Park on the outskirts of Kununurra with Chris Done one day, to find a superb boab right at the park entrance vandalised with a huge set of initials, very untidily but deeply cut. Chris was incensed and immediately returned to town where he picked up a packet of Spakfiller (a quick-setting paste, very tough and durable, usually used for filling holes in masonry). Having mixed a stiff brew, of just the right colour, he carefully filled the carving and smoothed it off - and the wound became almost invisible. I have checked this tree many times over the years, and Chris' handiwork has stood the test of time.

There is one piece of graffiti I do not complain about. This is the carving of the famous Mermaid Tree at Careening Bay on the west Kimberley coast. The tree is named after His Majesty's Cutter Mermaid, under the control of the explorer Captain Phillip Parker King who, in 1820 pulled his vessel out onto the beach there to make essential repairs. During the time spent at the spot, King directed his carpenter to carve the name of his vessel and the date into the tree .... and both tree and carvings can still be seen today, 200 years later.

The Mermaid Tree (photo by Chris Done)

The boab is a tree of many surprises. Only recently I read that seedling boabs are now being cultivated, the roots harvested and then sold as a health food "bush tucker" in gourmet markets in the cities down south. I understand the tubers have a consistency a bit like carrot, but I haven't tried them yet, and probably will not, as I never visit gourmet markets. Nor have I tried the beer distilled from boab roots, but I will the moment I can get my hands on some. It will be good if these ventures succeed. In my experience, the more commercially valuable a tree becomes (encouraging its cultivation in plantations), the more likely it will be conserved in the wild.

Memories of boabs and forays into the bush in the Kimberley bring back to mind one other glorious experience. I was driving one day through the Carr Boyd ranges near Lake Argyle with my wife Ellen and son Tim, when I stopped to explore a narrow gorge opening up into the range. After about three hundred metres the gorge expanded into a grassy meadow of about a hectare in size. There were no boabs present, but standing in the meadow was a grove of graceful Woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) trees, one of the finest gums of the region. I knew the Woolybutt and had long admired the contrasting beauty of the black stringy bark stocking and smooth white limbs ... but this was the first time I had seen them in flower. Every tree was absolutely loaded with vivid orange blossom. And crowded into every tree, squabbling, chortling and cackling as they gorged on the flowers, was an enormous flock of white cockatoos, numbering perhaps several hundred. It was a veritable Roman orgy, a bacchanalian scene never to be forgotten.

The grove of Woolybutts in a sunlit meadow in the Carr Boyd ranges

But it is the boab that remains most indelibly in my mind's eye from my Kimberley days. Luckily, I no longer need to travel thousands of kilometres to see one. A mature boab has been transplanted into Kings Park in Perth, and despite the depredations of vandals, is doing well. This a tribute both to the adaptability of the species and its toughness. As for the vandalism, I have passed advice on the Chris Done spakfilling technique to the park horticulturalists, and this should ensure the tree retains its beauty in the future, and its value as a fascinating attraction to thousands of park visitors.

I pay homage to it two or three times a year.

The Kings Park boab, photographed in 2020

Postscript: I dedicate this story to the memory of the late Chris Done, forester, naturalist, scientist, artist, bushman … and the nicest bloke you would ever meet.

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