This story, called Gorge of the Jungle, by Robin Powell, was published in Sunday Life Magazine. Enjoy!
Gorge of the Jungle
Sunday Life Magazine
By Robin Powell
Here’s a revelation – breadfruit chips are tastier than potato chips. Eat them once and you’ll wish your local takeaway served fish and breadfruit, pre-prepared and ready to bake, and that breadfruit wedges were a restaurant option so kids would eat something other than fries.
I ate my first more-ish chip, made from an obscure Tahitian plant, by a palm- and ginger-edged pool in an amazing garden in tropical north Queensland. This 12-hectare paradise, known as Botanical Ark, is the project of Alan and Susan Carle, and their mild ambition is to save the world’s rainforests.
While most of us salve our environmental conscience by recycling the rubbish and sending a cheque to Greenpeace every now and then, the Carles attack the problem with inspiring practicality.
“We’re losing rainforests at a rate of an acre a second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Alan, 52, whose passion for conservation is a force of nature unto itself. His plan to stop the chop is to demonstrate the economic worth of the forest as living forest. Harvested for all its spectacular uses – culinary, medicinal and technological – it’s worth much more than forest reduced to woodchip or for growing hamburger, he points out. Even more critically, what else in in there? Imagine, he says, what life would be like now if the forest had been chopped down before we discovered rubber of cocoa. Even in 2002, only some five percent of what lives in a rainforest has been studied.
One of the Carle strategies is to use our love of food and passion for new flavours to lure us into saving the rainforest by eating it. Hence the breadfruit chips, cassava rosti and jacknut pate served up as a pre-lunch snack at Botanical Ark.
It didn’t start like this. In the beginning Alan and Susan were just looking for the perfect place to raise a family. Alan was born in the mountains of New York state but grew up dreaming of Australia, and Susan grew up listening to Alan talk about Australia. “Susan was only nine or 10 when I first met her,” says Alan. “She came every year [from Brooklyn] to a summer camp in the Catskills, where I lived. When I was 19, I bought a one-way ticket to Australia. Suzi was only 14, but even then I knew she was pretty special and I made her promise she’d come and visit me later.”
Alan had finished a degree in marine biology and become a politicised greenie by the time Susan, who’d qualified as a primary school teacher, eventually joined him in Australia. Alan had fought the road into the Daintree and battled the Bjelke-Petersen government’s plans to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef and he wanted to stay in north Queensland. Susan decided to stay with him and they started hunting for a home. “We were looking for clean air, clean water and a place to grow our own food, so that narrowed it down to somewhere in the tropics,” says Alan.
The land around Mossman, inland from Port Douglas, is the warmest and wettest part of the continent. “That’s what you need to grow tropical fruit,” say Alan, who eventually settled on an abandoned cattle property. “Every tree had been burnt off, there was no road in, we had to wade up the creek, no electricity, no hot water – but it was perfect.”
Having found the land, they needed to find the food but the local nurseries tried to sell them apples and peaches and other cool-climate fruits. Instead, the intrepid pair went plant hunting through the Pacific and into Central America. Susan was six months pregnant when they left and they were hardly lying around hotel pools. “We were young and adventurous,” Alan says, “and we’re still adventurous,” But as the arrival of the baby came closer, they left Central America and travelled north to Florida, where Heather was born.
The new family returned to the Whyanbeel Valley in 1978 with 80 species of fruits and juts, most of which were new to Australia. Since then, Alan and Susan have made another 50 trips to rainforests around the world, so that Botanical Ark is now home to more than 3,000 species of plant, more than 400 of which are edible. It is, says Alan, probably the world’s largest plant sanctuary. (The Carles say that with the federal government they have developed very stringent plant quarantine conditions.)
At the height of the season in February and March, Alan and Susan pick 100 different fruits a week. The garden supplies them with 80 percent of their food. And the breadfruit is a major supplier. It’s a handsome tree, tall, straight, with big, glossy, dark green leaves shaped like overgrown feathers. The branches sweep the ground and the effect is majestic. So is the harvest. Each fruit is about the size of a football and weighs around 2kg.
Sadly, breadfruit is not a plant that southerners can grow, as it needs really hot weather. We’ll have to rely on someone going commercial with the breadfruit chips to get our supplies and secure the tree’s future.
Some trees grown by the Carles have already been saved by commerce. The annatto, for instance, native to the forest of the Amazon, produces a bright orange, not-toxic dye that is used to colour more than 500 products, including butter and margarine. Some chook farmers even feed it to their chickens to make yolks more golden.
Every plant in the huge garden has a story to tell, and they’re not all about food The flowers are spectacular. Tropical flowers tend to be big, showy and brightly coloured. There are lobster claws and parrot beaks and one species of heliconia is huge, furry and remarkably like an orangutan. In the 1980s, Susan found a market in Sydney and Melbourne for these flowers and so the Carles made a living while they waited for the fruit trees to mature. But the pilots’ strike in 1990 killed of the flower business, although not the flowers, and the garden still blooms with their unusually beautiful shapes.
Heather, now 24, and her younger sister, Cali, 22, have grown up in the paradisiacal garden, but their parents’ passion has taken its toll. “When they were younger, they resented it in a way,” Alan says of his daughters, who both live nearby (Heather works in tourism in Port Douglas and Cali lives in Mossman and helps her parents run the ark). “Not just the work, but that we lived in the middle of nowhere. At the same time, they did get to experience things other children wouldn’t have – the new fruits on the table every week, and the flowers. The longer they spend away form it, the more they appreciate. And they’re certainly proud of us, but we’ve worked too hard and they don’t show any interest at all in taking that over.”
Alan and Susan still do all the work themselves – the gardening, quarantine, research and risk-taking. Alan has been on the wrong end of a couple of gastronomical experiences in his quest to explore all possible uses of the trees. Susan has had to rush him to hospital with rashes, nausea, blurred vision and other signs of poisoning. He remembers in particular a cautionary experience in New Guinea. “There were these really interesting fruits, relatde to cahews,” he says. “I knew that cashews are poisonous – not the nut itself, but the sap in the shell that surrounds the nut is very toxic. You see in Mozambique and southern India people who’ve been shelling cashews and they almost look like lepers from the burns of the sap. So, I took as many precaution as I naively thought I could and got poisoned. I was on a flight from New Guinea to Thailand and they had to stretcher me off the plane in Bangkok.”
He stuck it lucky, though, when he ate a costus, the beautiful tropical flower that looks a bit like those of ginger and are grown by every gardener north of Brisbane. “I just happened to try one, one day,” he shrugs. There was no shortness of breath or vision disturbance, not even a rash. Curious, Alan followed up with a literature search but found no information about the edibility of costus. Finally, he conducted the research himself, published a paper and now sees costus in the salads of classy tropical restaurants.
It’s not the sweet strawberry tang of the red costus, though, that is the final flavour of my visit to Botanical Ark. Alan has a better trick up his sleeve. It’s called the magic fruit, a nut-sized, oval-shaped red ball native to Nigeria. Before we try it, Alan convinces us to lick a face-wrinkingly sour slice of lemon. Then we suck all the flesh off the seed of the fruit and try the lemon again. Suddenly it tastes like lemonade, tangy but deliciously sweet.
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