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This story, A Tropical Treasure Chest, written by Rachel Lebihan, was published in The Australian Financial Review.

A Tropical Treasure Chest

The Australian Financial Review

By Rachel Lebihan

As our dusty car edged along the dirt track that led to Botanical Ark, a private garden an hour’s drive north of Cairns, we were greeted by Gaia – a boisterous, two-year-old golden retriever/maremma cross named after Mother Earth.

The inspiration for the dog’s name was clear when we walked up a slight incline beside a rustic wooden bungalow that is Alan and Susan Carle’s home.

2 Bot Ark Retreat media (7 of 15)Ahead was a small, tranquil lake surrounded by verdant foliage as far as the eye could see. Bright flowers dotted the landscape, dragonflies skimmed the water and an occasional bird sang. Splashes from Gaia as she dived and swam enthusiastically in pursuit of a thrown stick were virtually the only other sounds.

The Carles are creators and caretakers of this Eden, an eight-hectare property hidden on the outskirts of Mossman.

Twenty-eight years ago, when they purchased the land, it was a tree-less cattle farm. Today it’s a paradisiacal haven for 3000 species of tropical plants, many of them endangered, from rainforests around the world.

The tropical stash includes 500 species of fruit and nuts, many of which the Carles introduced to Australia. The couple tirelessly scour rainforests to collect specimens and abide by quarantine regulations to import and cultivate them back home.

They’ve foraged the jungles of South and Central America, the West Indies, South-East Asia, Papua New Guinea, southern India, West and Central Africa and Madagascar.

“If there is a treasure chest of life on Earth, it’s certainly the rainforest,” Alan Carle says. “An acre of rainforest disappears every second somewhere around the world. We realised we were losing a very valuable resource.”

Carle was born in New York’s Catskill Mountains. But he was destined to live in Australia. When asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would innocently reply: “Australian.”

“I blame National Geographic for that,” he laughs. “My father had every National Geographic from when they came out.”

He migrated to Australia 36 years ago, aged 19. With 80¢ in his pocket (he had more money saved but couldn’t access it immediately) he headed straight for Northern Queensland, lured there by the Great Barrier Reef.

He studied marine biology at James Cook University and was living primitively “in a hut plagued by scorpions” when Susan, a childhood friend, visited a few years later.

The friendship blossomed, they married, and they now have two children who have grown and flown their tropical nest.

The Carles’ patch of paradise, which backs onto the Daintree National Park, grew from the desire to create a subsistence farm. A suitable plot had to have a supply of fresh water and be adjacent to a national park. It also needed to be clear land.

“We didn’t want to chop trees down to grow other trees,” Carle says.

The Carles imported 25 new species of fruit from South-East Asia in the first two years.

An 11-month trip that took them to the Amazon followed. The couple returned with 80 new species of fruit and nuts. Many of the varieties they introduced from those early importations are now grown commercially in Australia.

The Carles are credited with introducing soursop, guanabana, pulusan (a relative of the lychee), some species of durian and rambutans, chocolate pudding fruit, canistel and star apples to Australia.

Over the years, their focus has shifted to ethnobotanical plants, which are those used in everyday items such as dyes, oils and medicines.

The Carles earned the International Award for Biodiversity in food by the Italian Slow Food group in 2000. Botanical Ark won Australia’s Best Backyard in 2007.

They do it all on the smell of an oily rag. They don’t receive government funding for their work. A small income, from supplying plants to commercial growers and botanical gardens overseas, is usually just enough to finance their next tropical treasure hunt.

Carle derives some income from consulting. Last year he designed a ginger garden for the Singapore’s botanical garden.

Botanical Ark is not open to the general public but pre-arranged special interest groups can organise a private tour.

Holidaymakers can sample this tropical paradise by hiring the private Tranquilla villa in the grounds, which was voted one of the top 10 holiday choices in Australian House and Garden Magazine in 2008.

The property was the Carles’ original four-bedroom, hand-built home. It features timber furniture, wide verandahs and a private, freshwater swimming hole. In-house catering, spa treatments, yoga, meditation and babysitting are available on request. 

Carle describes Botanical Ark as “a vital link in the food chain”.

“Food security is a huge issue around the world,” he says. “Rainforest occupies 5 per cent of land but supplies 60 per cent of all plants … Maybe we can help save some rainforest for the food value that comes from it.”

Susan served us home-baked canistel biscuits with ginger, guanabana cheesecake, breadfruit and chocolate squares, and a chocolate pudding fruit cake.

Breadfruit chips tasted similar to potato wedges but were sweeter and fluffier inside.

“One [breadfruit] tree can feed a family for the whole year,” Carle says. “It’s a perfect crop for sustainable agriculture.”

The Carles are involved in several sustainable food projects, including one working with pigmies who live in Gabon in the Congo. Their traditional way of life is being changed by mining and logging.

“They’ve never grown a plant in their lives,” Carle says. “They chop down a tree to get the honey out of it: we’re working with organisations to try to teach them how to live sustainably.”

 “Education is really a key part of trying to make things better in the world.”

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