Majestic trees

The enormous Ghost Gum near Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges, NTAsk someone to name an Australian tree, and most people will say “the Gum Tree”  and maybe the Wattle.  But there is enormous variety within Australia’s native trees, and Australia is home to some of the tallest trees in the world.  Only the Giant Redwoods of North America are taller than our Mountain Ash and Karri trees.

We have been fortunate to visit some majestic old trees during our travels, and would like  to share some of their stories with you.  We have added photos as well, but there is no way to do such trees justice with photography; the only way to truly appreciate them is to stand in awe at their base and look up towards the heavens.  In most cases it is not even possible to capture the whole tree in a single photograph.


The River Red Gum is possibly the quintessential Australian tree.  How many paintings show the RIver Red Gum beside the Murray or Darling Rivers?  Our first glimpse of the true giants of this type was at Pooncarie on the Darling River, once a thriving port but now a mere whisper of its former glory.  At the time, the Darling River was struggling to flow and was recovering from blue-green algal blooms, and the River Red Gums themselves looked unwell; ragged, with dying limbs and sparsely folliaged.  Yet they still had a hint of grandeur about them.  We camped near a large specimen on our first night beside the Darling.  We didn’t camp directly beneath the tree, tempting though that was, for they have a reputation for dropping their enormous limbs without warning.  Some call them ‘widow-makers’.  We would love to return to the Darling River when it is flowing in a healthier way, to see these trees return to their true splendour.


The enormous Bunya Pine once covered large areas of south-eastern Queensland.  After many years of logging around a century ago, the trees are now limited to the Bunya Mountains National Park, near Kingaroy.

We were intrigued by the region’s history.  The Bunya trees produce huge seed cones (weighing up to 10 kilos) and the harvest peaks every third year.  Before the extensive logging in the region, the local Aboriginal people would invite tribes from many hundreds of kilometres around to this tri-annual harvest, and a feast would ensue.  Some of the older trees show evidence of scarring where footholds were cut allowing the owner of a particular tree to climb and harvest the seeds.  This practice ceased nearly a century ago as the traditional owners were driven away by logging.

 Despite the obvious damage done by logging, both to the traditional culture of the region and the forests themselves, we had to admire the energy and tenacity of these early white settlers.  The mountains are steep and rugged, and the bush thick, and bullocks were unable to haul logs down many of the hills.  The loggers countered by building ‘shutes’ – furrows from the hilltops etched into the steep slopes – down which the logs were slid to the bullock teams waiting below.  The scars of some of these shutes, from the 1800s, are still evident.


Similar to the River Red Gum, we encountered several of these magnificent trees in South Australia.  One tree, near the small town of Orroroo, in estimated to be over 500 years old.  It has a straight, wide trunk and appears solid enough to last another 500 years.

Another lovely specimen is to be found north of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges.  This giant red gum was made famous by the Harold Cazneaux (grandfather of Dick Smith) with his 1937 photograph entitled “The Spirit of Endurance”.  In 1941 he wrote: “This giant gum tree stands in solitary grandeur on a lonely plateau in the arid Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where it has grown up from a sapling through the years, and long before the shade from its giant limbs ever gave shelter from heat to white man. The passing of the years has left it scarred and marked by the elements – storm, fire, water – unconquered, it speaks to us of a Spirit of Endurance. Although aged, its widespread limbs speak of vitality that will carry on for many more years. One day, when the sun shone hot and strong, I stood before this giant in silent wonder and admiration. The hot wind stirred its leafy boughs and some of the living element of this tree in understanding and friendliness expressing The Spirit of Australia.”

Some seventy years after Cazneaux’s photograph was taken, the tree may have lost some length in its limbs, but we are pleased to report that it retains its essential character.


We travelled to the Walpole region in Western Australia’s south west and were awed by the giant Tingle Trees on the beautiful tree top walk in the Valley of the Giants.  Here we wandered among the canopy some 40 metres above the ground.  Light rain was falling but that seemed somehow appropriate, bringing out the rich scents of the forest. You couldn’t help but feel alive, taking deep breaths of the oxygen enriched air.  Walking among trees up to 400 years old and up to 60 metres tall filled one with a sense of reverence.  Another ground-level walk took you to, and through, the base of the Red Tingle Trees, which can measure up to 16 metres around. The shallow rooted Red Tingle, which only grows in the Walpole region, develops a hollow base at it ages.  Red Winged Fairy Wrens flitting through the undergrowth completed the experience.


From the Walpole region and its Tingle Trees, we travelled west, passing through Shannon National Park, and Northcliffe, to the Warren National Park in the Pemberton region.  Warren National Park contains unlogged, old growth Karri, Marri and Jarrah trees, some soaring to more than 70 metres in height.  The roads pass through breathtaking scenery, making it a challenge for the driver to keep their eyes on the road.  The forests are home to abundant birdlife, but the trees are so tall the parrots and lorakeets in the upper canopy are virtually invisible from the ground. 

In the days before satellite and radar monitoring of bushfires, local foresters monitored fire conditions from watch towers erected in the highest trees.  Around 15 of these towers are still used, and three are open to the public.  To be honest, we are astounded, though pleasantly surprised, that they are still open in our time of public liability insurance and litigation.  The tallest tower, known as the Bicentennial Tree, in the Warren National Park, reaches 75 metres above the ground.  You ascend to the tower up a series of metal spikes driven into the tree trunk to form a spiral staircase of sorts.  They certainly test your fear of heights, when you realize that there is daylight between each spike and the ground far below.  Peter has what he calls a healthy aversion to falling from great heights, and climbed up about 3 metres before stating that there was no way he could go further, and climbed down.  Nirbeeja, however, with the prospect of seeing parrots in the upper canopy, shot up the spiral “stairs” like a goanna up a tree, to the 25 metre rest station.  Peter, psyched himself up, then climbed up to the same point, where he trembled like a leaf, before descending to the safety of the ground. Nirbeeja then bravely climbed up to the top of the 75 metre tower, no mean feat.  Many people simply stand at the bottom of the tree and refuse to even begin the climb.  And finally, in an effort to confront his fears head on, Peter also climbed to the top of the tree.  At the top, we were rewarded with views into the far distance, and loved watching parrots feeding so far above the ground. 

The climb is strenuous, as Nirbeeja discovered towards the end of her descent when her thigh muscles turned to jelly.  She safely reached the ground, but spent the next couple of days hobbling around as payment for her adventure.  Peter showed just how much he had conquered his fears by climbing the Gloucester Tree the following day, and the Diamond Tree the day after that, both at around 60 metres, completing the ‘set’ of tree tower climbs.

We spent a number of days in the gorgeous Pemberton region, camping firstly at the Big Brook arboretum, then in Warren National Park; both magnificent campsites nestled amongst giant Karri trees. We must stress that we were careful not to camp directly under the trees, because they are in the habit of dropping huge limbs in the still of hot summer days.  The sound of enormous explosions echoing through the valley as branches came down vindicated our decision to adopt this safety first camping approach.  Both camps feature abundant wildlife, Big Brook proving a haven for White Tailed Black Cockatoos and Kookaburras (an introduced species in WA) and lots of wrens, and Warren National Park also allowing us to meet its brush tailed and ring tailed possums, frogs, bats and even an owlet nightjar.  Oh, and it had the largest and most voracious march flies we have met on our travels.


To be honest, we had never heard of Tuart Trees before our travels in WA.  Just north of Busselton is the Tuart National Park, which contains the largest remaining stand of these trees.   Like most of the trees in the region, they were enormous.


There is nothing quite like the Boab.  Grotesque, other worldly, creepy, sinister, powerful, awesome, ancient – these are all words that come to mind when standing before a Boab.

The Aboriginals say that the Boab was once a beautiful tree, but it grew arrogant about its beauty and ridiculed the lesser trees of the forest.  So God punished the Boab by uprooting it and turning it upside down.    It certainly does appear that way, with its branches resembling tree roots.

The Boab only grows in the north west of Australia, mainly in the Kimberley region, with its habitat stretching across into the NT.  Some Boabs are ancient, though it is difficult to measure their age because their trunk eventually becomes hollow.  To the Aboriginals, the Boab was sacred, and some were considered very powerful.

Derby, a coastal town in the Kimberley, is home to many Boabs.  It is infamous for its Prison Boab Tree, where Aboriginal prisoners were once held overnight, chained both inside and outside of the tree, before they were transported the following morning to Derby gaol.  Often these ‘prisoners’ had done little more than kill cattle for food on land that had belonged to their people for thousands of years, but from which they were now being dispossessed.  Others were hardly prisoners at all, but were rounded up as slaves to work on stations and settlements further south.  Their white gaolers/slavers were known at the time as ‘blackbirders’. 

We learnt that this beautiful tree, estimated to be over 1500 years old, is regarded by Aboriginals as one of several Boabs (or larrkardiy) in the Derby region to be imbued with special mystical forces.  The Aboriginals call these special trees malaji, and according to Ngarrangkani or Traditional Law, people who injure a malaji, or intrude upon one without authority, expose themselves to the prospect of retribution by these forces. Dispersed throughout the Kimberley are other larrkardiy that are believed to harbour extremely severe and potent powers.  These powers may be invoked by senior ritualists to punish people who violate traditional law.

We can only hope that the white men who chose to desecrate this particular Boab by using it as a prison tree were unaware of its special spiritual significance to the Aboriginals, though given the horrendous treatment of Aboriginals by early white settlers in the region, we would hardly be surprised.  But the tree still stands, old and beautiful, in leaf and flower on the day of our visit, no doubt the wiser and more powerful for having borne witness to that dark period in our history.

 Beyond the far end of the Gibb River Road, we were to visit another Prison Boab Tree, near Wyndham.


Central Australia is famous for its Ghost Gums.  It is, after all, the tree that was featured so prominently in the works of the famous Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira.  The Ghost Gum is synonymous with the region.

In the East MacDonnell Ranges, near the beautiful Trephina Gorge, stands a magnificent Ghost Gum, regarded as the largest in the range.  At first glimpse, as you walk from your car, it seems nothing special.  That is simply because it is a perfectly shaped and proportioned tree.  As you draw nearer to it you become aware of its size and presence.  It really is something to behold; it is a tree to turn everyone into a tree-hugger.


The Mallee, in the eucalypt family grows in semi-desert country, often is quite sandy soils.  Mallee-stands feature thickets of narrow trunks, unlike other eucalypts with one prominent trunk.  In the Red Banks Reserve in South Australia lives a stand of Mallee estimated to be over 300 years old.  The trees in this stand are small compared with many eucalypts, but they hold a special appeal for us because they have stood, largely untouched, since well before white man brought his changes to the land.


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