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Queensland’s New Age Noah

Asia-Pacific Tropical Homes

By Sonja Anderson

Back in 1982, when saving rainforest was high on the global agenda, Alan and Suzi Carle bought a block of land in Queensland’s Whyanbeel Valley. The 120-hectare tract was originally covered in dense forest, but had been clear-felled for sugar cane production and later used as cattle pasture. At the time of purchase, the land was devoid of forest, with denuded creek banks and rampant soil erosion Perversely, it was perfectly suited to their dream. They wanted cleared land.

2 Bot Ark Retreat media (6 of 15)“Every piece of land we found prior to buying this one had native forest on it,” Alan says. “The world needed more trees, and it would have been stupid to buy a block covered in forest only to knock it down to grow exotic species.”

Alan has an abiding love of nature, one instilled by a childhood spent amid the forest and lakes of the Catskill Mountains of upper-state New York. Later, through university studies in marine biology, he developed a scientific understanding of the natural world. At just 20 years of age, he made a pilgrimage to see the oceans and forests of Australia. He stayed. Suzi, also for New York State, followed five years later.

Alan and Suzi have long been enchanted by rainforest. During the 1970s and ‘80s, the fight to save the forest of North Queensland was a microcosm of the global situation. Rainforest was disappearing as fast as human hearts beat: and, as an altruistic young couple, they decided to visit other tropical forests in peril, collecting plants that could help them establish a rainforest garden sanctuary. The idea of becoming the guardian of a gene pool of plants from vanishing forest appealed to them, and has become their life’s work.

After the couple had made three or four forays into the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia and Central and South America to collect plants, they had hundreds of trees standing in black plastic pots, waiting to be planted in the garden of their new home. “You can create your own Garden of Eden if you want to, Alan says. “That was the first stage of our dream.”

They set to work on their degraded land, reforesting creek banks and shaping land for drainage as the first steps. Two decades later, they’re surrounded by a paradisiacal garden. The valley has just the right mix of environmental factors to raise tropical plants: water, consistently high rainfall all year, little change in temperature, protection from prevailing wind, and deep volcanic soils. The steep mountain ridges that form the valley shorten daylight hours, but the Carles are willing to sacrifice a slight lack of sunlight for the near perfection of other factors. Despite North Queensland’s monsoonal climate, the characteristics of the Whyanbeel Valley provide a micro-climate akin to the equatorial zones of the world, ideal for all rainforest species.

Every year Alan and Suzi travel to endangered rainforests around the world, returning with fruits, nuts, flowers and fibre plants to add to their Australian garden. As the planet’s rain forests continue to disappear at an astonishing pace, collecting trips have increased to three or four annually. For many of the plants in the collection, it’s a race against extinction.

“We have a collection here of thousand of species of ethno-botanical significance,” Alan says. “Our plants are those that may not catch the eye of other collectors, for some have no great beauty or proven economic significance. We chose our collections for the importance to the culture and the people of the regions we visited.” South and Central America have provided many fruit and beverage plants, including cacao (Throboma cacao), the seeds of which provide chocolate. The sapote (Mammea americana) hails from the luxuriant forest of the Amazon. This grapefruit-size fruit has a flavour akin to apricot jam. Southeast Asian forests have provided duku (Lonsium domesticum), a tan orb with translucent sweet flesh, and the exotic mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana). Africa has contributed ngutukpana (Salacia sp.), a fire-coloured fruit of incredible sweetness. From the South Pacific Islands come breadfruit (Atocarpus altilis), a rotund, bright green fruit that’s starchy and versatile, famous for the fruit that gave cause to Captain Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty.

In the early stages, Alan and Suzi realized that most of the tree species they brought back for the establishment of orchards, and for the ongoing propagation of seed, took many years to bear fruit. Selling nursery-size plants to others would never produce the income they needed to continue expanding their collection. It soon became clear they would have to find another way to earn a living.

While collecting, they had discovered the charismatic beauty of the heliconia family, the weird, colourful flowers indigenous to Central and South American rainforests. Where they travelled, they avidly collected the seeds and plant material of these beautiful blooms. When their preliminary research project, where local florists and tourist organisations were supplied heliconias for display, won positive feedback, Suzi and Alan began to cultivate heliconias for profit.

Whyanbeel Valley presents a close parallel of the native heliconia environment, and the intrepid Carles expanded operations onto a parcel of land right next door to the Botanical Ark, establishing Heliconia Farms of Australia (HFA). By 1985, HFA was the largest producer of cut flowers in Northern Australia. Gingers, cordylines, heliconias and costus flowers, with their waxy brilliant oranges, reds, yellows and vibrant pinks were at first cultivated between rows of fruit trees. Waking at 2am to cut flowers for packing and delivering to the Cairns airport was a daily discipline – blooms require cutting while flush with the moisture of the dark hours (as soon as sunlight hit the blooms, they lose moisture). Until 1989, the HFA flower trade was a national and international success. Blooms were air-delivered in a constant stream to Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Then the union of Australian Airline pilots went on strike in 1989, crippling air service throughout the nation just long enough to cause chaos and an unprecedented spate of bankruptcies. After six months’ lack of regular flights, HFA was suffering, and Alan and Suzi knew the time had come to change direction. They felt the altruism fundamental to their living ark had been shelved while they pursued the cut flower trade.

Fellow collectors, friends and scientists encouraged them to open the Botanical Ark to visitors. Together with the privilege of custodianship of their magnificent garden, it was clear, there came the responsibility for sharing it. Rainforest was under increasing pressures, and the message of its perilous state had to be delivered. Opening their garden to the interested pubic was a proactive approach on behalf of tropical forest everywhere. But could it provide the income they needed to continue their work?

“Rainforest currently inhabits only around six percent of earth’s biomass,” Alan says, “yet it contains about 60 percent of all land-based plant and animal species on the planet. The value of rainforest becomes evident as we display to visitors plants that are responsible for the world supply of timber, medicines, dyes, fibres, oils and resins. The visual experience here is so strong that education isn’t difficult.”

The Botanical Ark garden tour is designed to cater to groups with focused interests. Alan and Suzi have booking agents in Port Douglas, a small tourist town on the nearby coast. Potential visitor groups are invited to outline their particular interest when they book the tour. Visitors arrive by bus and, while they’re being briefed and organized for their tour, they enjoy an Ark speciality – soursop fruit juice. A walk through the garden with Alan highlighting plants and facts of special interest is followed by a sunset meal. The dinner menu depends entirely on what trees are bearing fruit.

During the years it took to establish the Ark, Alan and Suzi built their family home in tandem with the growing garden. Heather and Cali, the Carle’s two daughters, were reason enough to install electricity and plumbing. The house has a very open plan with a huge overhanging roof, and catches early morning and late afternoon breezes. Meals are served on the verandah, breakfast in the sun, lunch in the shade and dinner with candle glow reflected from the surface of a small lake in front of the house.

Visitors enjoy the tropical repast on the verandah, an integral part of the tour. A long dining table can seat more than 30 guests. Decorated with flowers from the garden and lit by candelabra, dinner is served with the background music of the rainforest garden at night. Suzi and her staff prepare the three-course meal, sometimes day before.

Referring to herself as an innovative cook rather than a chef, Suzi prepares food for the dinners in a huge stainless steel kitchen that the local Council insisted they build once tours groups began to visit the Ark. “Over the years I’ve developed a repertoire of recipes adapted to tropical ingredients,” Suzi says. “We serve a meal that’s made up of whatever’s in the garden and what’s locally fresh at the time.”

This evening’s guests enjoy fresh heart of palm, sweet potato and breadfruit chips followed by local barramundi served with Asian spices. The salad consists of green papaya, and dessert is passionfruit cheesecake. In their recently published book, Suzi has included a chapter on her recipes: pumpkin curry, cassava rosti, pomelo salad and gnocchi made from breadfruit.

Their original family home now serves as guest accommodation. The large living areas in open plan, rustic furniture and mosquito nets, coupled with a modern kitchen and luxurious bathrooms, are available for rent on a weekly basis. Alan, Suzi and Cali have moved into an as-yet unfinished home beside a second dam in a newly developing part of the property, leaving guests to the privacy of the main garden. “We don’t do tours while we have guests staying unless they ask to be part of a group,” Suzi says with a laugh. “We like to provide the antithesis of most resorts here. There’s no television, crowds or anything to buy.”

Meanwhile, the collecting continues. All fruit seeds and plant material brought to the Botanical Ark must pass strict Australian quarantine measures. According Alan, no one will care for his beloved imports better than he does, so 20 years ago he established a private quarantine station on the property. He works closely with the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) to ensure that introduced plants are free of disease before planting them among his collection. Every year new species are pioneered amid the existing garden plants.

Establishing a quarantine station on his property two decades ago required meeting stringent regulations. Today’s standard, however, are even more exacting. The Carles provide AQIS with a list of plants they intend to collect while travelling. If they spot something that isn’t listed while overseas, they make a note of its morphology and genealogy and accept that they may have to make a return visit to collect it. Currently, they’re updating the Ark’s facilities by constructing a building that provides sterile condition for new plants, including an entrance foot bath and hygienic clothing.

Alan Carle in in demand world-wide as a tropical plant expert. He has delivered papers on the significance of tropical species to the global scientific community in the United States, Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. In 1994, he was elected to the presidency of the Heliconia Society International and, in 1998, the director for the Singapore Botanical Gardens invited him to establish a new collection for the city’s internationally famous garden. The new Ginger Garden will consist of 400 species that are rare and endangered or have great horticultural and ethno-botanical significance. He collected the plant material personally, and knows the position of each in the master plan of the new garden.

The Botanical Ark is more than a home; it’s a philosophy, according to Alan and Suzi. In todays’ world, only a very few plants of agricultural importance enjoy real protection in legislation. The rest of the plant world remains unprotected, they say, and up for grabs. When asked if he sees himself and Suzi as leaders or as extraordinary people, Alan studies his hand for a moment, shakes his head, and smiles. “No, we’re very ordinary people contributing in a way we know best,” he says. “We see the work of saving rainforest plants has to be done, and we love to do it.”

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