This story about Alan and Susan Carle, written by Greg McLean, was published in Country Style magazine.
Alan and Susan Carle, Whyanbeel Valley, Queensland
By Greg McLean
To the bewilderment of many, American-born Alan Carle knew early on that he ‘belonged’ in Australia and purchased his oneway ticket out of upstate New York as a teenager with a dream to build an underwater house on the Great Barrier Reef.
But when the Queensland Government of the 1970s wanted to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef and was considering an application to woodchip the rainforests, this avid environmentalist threw himself into the task of trying to help save some of the world’s most pristine ecosystems.
By the time his childhood friend Susan joined him five years later, Alan’s commitment had firmed. Susan shared his concern for the plight of the rainforests. They lived in a dwelling on a previously logged property in the Kuranda area which they built with hessian, cement
and scrap from the local sawmill.
The underwater house never did eventuate, but fortunately the Queensland Government bowed to public pressure and decided not to drill for oil in the Barrier Reef. It also backed away from its support for woodchipping the rainforests.
Alan and Susan then set about finding their own patch of paradise in the balmy tropics where they could nurture land that had been razed by sugar crops and cattle grazing and replant it with a less destructive and more permanent farming system.
After settling on a piece of barren land in the luscious Whyanbeel Valley north of Port Douglas, they feverishly began implementing soil erosion control measures and planting tropical fruit and nut crops to revive the landscape.
They also wanted to set an example that would show other landholders that environmental sustainability does not equate to financial ruin. As well as growing tree crops, Alan and Susan became Australia’s first large-scale suppliers of exotic flowers that Alan collected on his dozens of excursions into the depths of the world’s most remote rainforests.
Their dismay at the dramatic loss of tropical plant species due to human interference led them to create the Botanical Ark, which is dedicated to locating rare and endangered tropical plants from around the world to propagate under strict quarantine restrictions in Australia so that future generations can enjoy not just their beauty but their nourishing and medicinal qualities.
I grew up in the Catskill mountains of upstate New York and enjoyed wandering the forests behind our house, but from a very young age I felt like I belonged in Australia. I was so fascinated by the Great Barrier Reef I decided that as soon as I was old enough I’d
move to North Queensland and study marine biology.So I bought my one-way ticket in 1970 to begin my studies and stepped off the plane with 80 cents in my pocket.
In the early ’70s, the then Queensland Premier Sir Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] planned to drill for oil in the Great Barrier Reef and supported an application to chop down the rainforest for woodchips.
I joined the Cape York Conservation Council which fought a very long and public campaign to save the reef and the rainforest. In the end they decided against drilling for oil because of the public outrage and backed away from approving the destruction of the rainforest.
After that, Susan and I went looking for a neglected piece of land that we could live off and hand over to the next generation in better condition than when we started.We settled on an abandoned cattle farm that had an old cane barracks on it that we could live in. It had no plumbing and you could see the stars through the roof.
I’d already made several trips overseas to study endangered rainforests and Susan came up with the idea of collecting exotic flowers in my travels and growing them on the property. It took a while to catch on, but soon we were flying shipments all over Australia and had a roaring business for quite a while.Then the pilot strike hit in the late ’80s and we couldn’t get the flowers to market.
Because of our extensive plant collections,we were encouraged to establish a private botanical garden to teach people how important rainforests are.We needed to demonstrate the economic value these plants hold, whether for their nutritional qualities, medicinal purposes,or for fibres and dyes.This was the start of the Botanical Ark.
We now have 3,000 species of exotic plants and 400 varieties of tropical fruits and nuts and we host tours to educate people about their commercial potential.People can make a difference if they’re prepared to put in the hard work.We’re usually at it by 6am and don’t finish much before 9pm seven days a week for not much pay, but it’s very rewarding and we sleep well at night.
I understand that a lot of people have more immediate concerns,such as putting food on the table,but issues such as the destruction of rainforests need to remain at the forefront of people’s minds or it will have repercussions for everyone.
I met Alan when I was about 10 and even then he knew he would spend his life in Australia.We became good friends and before he left he said,“One day you’ll come and visit me.”
In 1975 I came for a six-month visit and never went back. As well as fighting for the environment in the early days,we lived the example. Our home was a hut in the rainforest outside Kuranda that cost $80 to build,which was quite a contrast to my upbringing
in New York city. It was quite primitive but very rewarding.
In 1978 when I was pregnant with our first child Heather,we went to collect plants from the rainforests of South and Central America.The original plan was that Heather would be born in the jungle but reality came into it and I had her in Central America.We came home from that trip with 80 new species of fruits and our new baby.
Because of the kids, I stayed at home for most of Alan’s trips overseas and concentrated on experimenting in the kitchen with the exotic fruits he came back with.Not all of them worked, but by trial and error we proved there were exotic tropical fruits that could
be grown in Australia such as pitaya cactus and black sapote that were commercially viable because of their unique flavours.
A major problem these days is finding time, as managing the garden has become all-consuming. Our satisfaction comes from trying to give a helping hand to our planet.We don’t grow commercial quantities of many of the fruits and plants we discover; our role now is to show people just what types of valuable plants actually come from the disappearing rainforests. Now the kids have all grown up and moved out of home, I’m looking forward to joining Alan on his excursions overseas again.
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