This story, written by Norma Aplin, is called World Fare, and was published in the Australian Country Style magazine.
Australian Country Style
By Norma Aplin
When Alan and Suzi Carle bought 12 hectares of former farming land in the Whyanbeel Valley in far north Queensland there was not one tree left on the property. Their dream was to transform the barren landscape into a productive farm. “It sounded simple,” says Suzi. “We would just plant trees.” Over the next 16 years their garden of tropical plants evolved into the unconventional farm the Carles call The Botanical Ark.
“We didn’t’ really realise the challenge we were about to take on when we first bought our land,” says Suzi. To create a sustainable tropical farm Suzi and Alan needed useful and edible plants which had never been grown in Australia before, but how would they obtain them? Importing specimens by post proved frustrating, so Alan decided the best way was to go and get them.
Since 1978 Alan, sometimes accompanied by Suzi, has made more than 40 overseas field collection trips, visiting some of the most remote regions of the tropical world, from the Amazon to Central Africa, Papua New Guinea and the jungles of South East Asia. The plants are monitored for six months before planting at a quarantine station on their property.
Alan and Suzi have now planted more than 2,000 species of tropical plants. These include more than 300 different types of tropical fruits and nuts and hundreds of rare or threatened species of flowers and plants that furnish botanical medicines, fibres, dyes, oils and cosmetics. As a foundation member of the Rare Fruit Council of Australia, Alan helped to introduce Australians to such tropical fruits as the rambutan, durian, star fruit, mangasteen and ice-cream bean. Later the Carles developed a special interest in growing and marketing cut flowers, in particular heliconias, and Alan is president of the international heliconia society.
Wherever he goes Alan endeavours to learn the ethnobotany of the endangered plants, that is, how they are used by the indigenous population. “One of the tragedies of losing tropical plants,” says Alan “is that human knowledge of these plants is lost also. Whole human cultures are disappearing as forests are cleared. With these cultures goes the knowledge that they have accumulated over centuries of sustainable living.”
Alan says each trip, typically made to an area where the forest is in danger of destruction, is a discovery. “Whilst we try to bring back seeds or plants, we are most interested in learning about how the local people in a particular area live in harmony with their rainforests.”
His trips highlight the rapid rate of forest destruction. “My first visit to the Amazon involved a long journey on different of transportation ending by boat. When I later returned to the same region I made the whole trip by road through cleared forests.”
Suzi has experienced her fair share of dramas while Alan has been away, leaving her with their two daughters, Heather and Cali, now 19 and 16 years. “Fortunately I have good neighbours and friends who have helped from time to time,” she says. Suzi will be pleased when the property is fully fenced to keep out the wild pigs that live in the adjoining wilderness park. “They love bananas and the rhizomes of certain varieties of heliconias. They come in some nights and have big parties in our garden.”
Suzi and Alan spent many years searching for their ideal location, which they found about 30 minutes from Port Douglas. They chose the picturesque setting between the Daintree Wilderness and the coast adjacent to the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef because the region provides the optimal ratio of warmth to wetness for growing tropical plants. The annual rainfall is 3,500 millimetres.
They designed and built their home themselves with expert help. It is raised up and open plan in the Queensland way, to catch the breezes. Meals are taken on the wide, covered verandah with its refreshing outlook to a small lake surrounded by stunning heliconias and other tropical flowers. “A lot of thought went into making the house comfortable in the tropical heat,” Alan says.
Suzi says her American-born husband grew up in the wrong place. “Other kids want to be a doctor or an airline pilot, Alan wanted to be an Australian.” Alan says it was a matter of following his heart and his heart, he says, is most definitely in north Queensland. When he migrated to Queensland 27 years ago he envisaged himself living in an underwater house on the Great Barrier Reef. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a cane basket on his arm and a machete in his back pocket, he looks a part of this tropical surroundings.
The Carles have raided their two daughters to be self-reliant and environmentally responsible and they want to ensure The Botanical Ark has a future for ongoing generations. They also want to show others the work they are doing and increase interest in the commercial potential of tropical plants for medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, cosmetics and other industries. They are now welcoming small groups of visitors to their property and while Alan gives a specialised tour of the plantation Suzi prepares a tropical meal.
On a tour of the farm Alan shows a selection of fascinating, useful and edible plants. There is the diesel palm tree that actually produces diesel; the Kepel apple whose fruit makes you smell like lavender and the miracle fruit, whose small red berries are a natural sweetener. Close to the house is a large and shady breadfruit tree that provides the Carle family with their carbohydrate requirements for an entire year. When the fruit is green, it can be used as a potato substitute. When it is fully ripe Suzi uses it in desserts and cakes.
Prior to a tour, Alan collects food which Suzi uses in the meal. She hasn’t been able to find very much literature on the use of tropical or exotic fruits, so she experiments using traditional recipes. “I often substitute vegetable or fruits – say potato or pumpkin – with a similar textured tropical fruit like green breadfruit or mamey sapote. A lot of tropical fruits can be used green as a vegetable as well as ripe when sweet as a dessert. And the entire family seems to enjoy being my guinea pigs, too.”
Lunch for guests typically commences with samplings of exotic tropcial fruits followed by a dip made of tender stalks of cabbage palm. Next, hot breadfruit chips made by parboiling them, drying, and lightly frying slices of green breadfruit. The flavour is somewhere between a potato chip and a pancake. The main course might be chicken curry, delicately flavoured with freshly gathered spices, and accompanied by salads and breadfruit bread. Among Suzi’s unusual salad ingredients are edible costus flowers. Dessert could be cheesecake made with the aromatic soursop fruit. Soursop has an unattractive thorny skin, but inside it is succulent and very sweet.
Suzi says that the heat dictates a policy of keeping food simple. “We eat lots of fresh fruits and salads. I find it frustrating that food doesn’t keep for long here. Everything rots or goes mouldy. I even have to keep flour and spices in the fridge. We also have to contend with bat droppings and huge spiders that build these incredibly beautiful webs. Whey they are in the wrong places we just get a broom and move them.”
Alan and Suzi are cheerful and optimistic, though not complacent, about the future. They have made many sacrifices to fund their collecting trips and to finance what they call “our experiment” in self-sufficient tropical farming. “We haven’t had annual holidays since we started,” says Alan, “we don’t really go out to restaurants often, our cars aren’t the most comfortable, nor our clothes the newest fashion – but we have so much.”
He sums up his vision for The Botanical Ark by saying that he hopes it will “become a small example of what this planet has to offer humans and demonstrate that people can live in harmony with their environment. That we can hand our little piece of paradise to the next generation in better condition than we received it. And it will help people decide the planet is worth saving.”
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