We’ve arrived in the Kimberley, a land ancient and austere, located in the far north-west of Australia. As this rugged place is blessed with abundant mineral resources all the rocks, soil and escarpments display high intensity hues from deep orange to reddish brown. Sculpted sandstone cliffs form wild shapes against a bright blue sky. These stunning colours are offset by the turquoise waters of Roebuck Bay and further out, by the ultramarine rise and fall of the Indian Ocean.
Not only does the scenery entice us, but we’ve also come to capture the boabs that grow here. Excitedly we load and pack our equipment―cameras, notebook and pen―to shoot the most unusual trees seen on this continent. These icons of the Kimberley are only found here―and they grow everywhere.
The Australian boab (Adansonia gregorii) is a distant relative of the Madagascan and African baobab. These large deciduous trees occur on stony ridges, sandy plains, and in creek beds. Boabs can be found in the most unusual places; they are a protected species so highly valued that public roads have even been diverted around them.
Every boab tree is unique with its own character and personality. Some have reached 1500 years of age, with a height of 25 metres and a girth of 20 metres. Their distinctly bulbous trunks resemble a wine bottle thus leading to their nickname―the bottle tree. The swollen trunks store water for use in the dry times. As boab trees age many assume unusual and even grotesque shapes, sometimes growing several stems.
During the dry season the boab sheds its leaves revealing a characteristic bare-branched skeleton; no doubt enhancing the tree’s drought tolerance. The boab’s strange form is heightened by the contrast between a thick trunk and its naked, stumpy branches. While taking my first photos a smiling woman approached me.
“Don’t you just love them?” she called out. “To us, boabs are the trees that grow upside-down.” I had to admit it looked as though the entire tree had been pulled directly out of the ground and had been replanted with its root system pointing to the sky.
Boab trees flower and fruit in the wet season. They begin to blossom in October displaying gorgeous white blooms, tinged with brown―intricate and fragrant. The nuts begin to develop in January.
Boab nuts are woody capsules of variant shapes: oval, round and squat, or long and pointed.
Each nut is covered in fine hair. Aboriginal artists collect these nuts, scrape off the hair to reveal a dark brown outer coating, and then carve intricate designs into their surfaces. As a carved nut is intimately connected to the region where both the tree and the artist lived, what better souvenir could you take home with you from the Kimberley?
These trees have also been used as a food source by the indigenous populations. When the nuts are broken open several kidney-shaped seeds, rich in Vitamin C, rest inside. The seed pulp, with its high protein value, contains tartaric and ascorbic acids. This was eaten dry or mixed with water as a beverage. Even the boab tree roots are delicious to eat, after they have been washed and dried―so I’ve been told.
The bark layer of a boab, 50–100 mm thick, covers the trunk. Usually smooth and greyish- brown, it can become darkened, lumpy and gnarled from years of growth. Moisture is extracted by chewing the stem and strands of the younger bark are rolled to form twine.
Special trees also create tourist landmarks, and below is Derby’s famous, ‘Prison Boab.’
Look closely to observe its massive hollow trunk with an opening or ‘door’ one metre wide. This tree was used in the 1890s as a prison cell by local police, to secure groups of aboriginal prisoners overnight, on their way to Derby for sentencing. As I approached the tree to look inside, a council worker standing nearby cautioned me.
“Excuse me, but I wouldn’t step inside wearing only those sneakers. I’d never go there even in my steel-capped work boots.”
“Thanks for the warning, but what’s inside that tree?” I replied.
“At the bottom are thousands of tiny worms. If they get into your shoes or socks they’ll eat through them right into your body. Try as you might you’ll never get rid of them.” Grateful for his advice I stepped well back for my photos.
It’s possible that boab trees have survived from the time when Africa and Australia were joined together in Gondwanaland, 65 million years ago. I’ve grown to admire these quirky, bizarre trees. Now that they are commercially available in the Kimberley one day we may be fortunate enough to plant and enjoy our own boab at home.
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