Somewhere along the Victoria Highway, somewhere past the border of Western Australia, you can see the first of the many baobab trees popping up among the army of twisted and fire blackened eucalyptus trees. They are unusual trees, and at the time I was there, they were not in leaf, and all I could see of them was their squat grey trunks and their thin branches stretching into the sky. Later I got my first good look at a baobab, and I marveled at its rotundity. I had always thought that the boabs (as the Aussies call them) were native to Africa, but it turns out that the only other places on earth where you can see them in the wild are Madagascar and Northwestern Australia. But I don’t want to talk abut boabs in general, I want to tell you about two individual boabs.
The Victoria Highway takes you along the Gregory National Park, and in the tedium of long distance driving, you notice that there are several things in this area that are prefixed with Gregory. The ‘Gregory’ in question was Augustus Gregory, one of the pioneers of early exploration in Australia. Like many of his peers (Lachlan Macquarie springs to mind), he littered his name along the countryside, from Gregory’s Remarkable Pillar, for what I imagine to be a pillar like rock formation, to even a Gregory tree. One of the people who was making this trip with me was indeed called Gregory, and hence a visit to the Gregory Tree was inescapable. We turned off the highway onto a dusty road that took us along to the specially marked area with the Gregory Tree. We didn’t expect much, after all after you’ve seen one massive boab, only a hard core boab enthusiast would be thrilled by more of the same. But it was an impressive tree, ringed by protective fences and overlooking a small river. The tree leaned at a small angle and its trunk was adorned with giant hewn letters – the date July 2nd 1856 stood out. This was the date that Augustus Gregory had camped here on his way to the west coast. A moment in time, carved on a tree. We cheerfully forgave his graffiti, noted the irony of various signs prohibiting us from doing the same, not that we wanted to.
The boabs are so full of water that you could scratch them with a fingernail, and moisture seeps out. I had no idea, however, that they were hollow, till we encountered the Prison Tree. The very concept of a tree being a prison was straight out of the surrealist’s guidebook, and despite the inconvenience of its location, we travelled the 22 km off the road along a small stream and on a smaller road, till with an unheralded and abrupt turnoff, we were at the Prison Tree. That was the sole signage: Prison Tree. Lots of mysteries. Who used it as a prison, who was kept there, and why was it used as a prison. But what was apparent was that there was a small ‘window’ cut into the trunk, and we could clamber inside. The walls inside were covered with cobwebs, and small chinks let in light from the top, and it was surprisingly cool and inviting to stay there, shaded from the relentless sun by the insides of a tree. Later I found out that boabs were once used as impromptu prisons by policemen transporting prisoners to the nearest ‘real’ jail, but it still struck me as a grotesque idea. The tree itself was another massive boab, and it was covered with etched graffiti from all later day visitors. I blame Gregory for this one; he started the whole graffiti-on-boabs trend.
Back in Queensland, the vegetation is much more lush and green, and especially in the tablelands near Atherton, it is not uncommon to see enormous Araucaria pines lining farmlands. It’s a hilly terrain, with patches of rainforests nestled amidst cow filled meadows. Large trees are quite common, but the Lake Barrine area is especially good for trees. The lake itself is a crater lake – it’s satisfyingly circular – and if you walk on the path that surrounds the lake, you’ll soon come across the Kauri Twins. Well, I call them twins only because they are two massive Kauri trees that leap into the sky in unison. These trees are more common in New Zealand, and their rarity here combined with their girth makes them special. They branch out only at the canopy, and if you look up, their heights does make you dizzy. The orange-brown bark peels off in stubs like scales, and suggest to you that this is not merely a tree, but some sort of super-organism, mocking you for your short stature.
It’s hard to think of a tree that could top the above, but Queensland had more surprises. One of my favourite trees is the strangler fig. I’ve encountered stranger figs before in India, and their endearing ways of wrapping themselves around any host tree or even stone structures and growing till the tree emerges out of the most incongruous places (Angkor Wat is therefore a dream destination for me). But it’s more common for these figs to take over a host tree, and ‘strangle’ it till the host tree is a mere tree shaped hollow. I saw such a tree in Lamington National Park last year, and though I’ve seen quite a few of these figs, nothing prepared me for the Cathedral Fig. We walked up to it, and before I was ready, I saw it. The tree leaps upon your eye and refuses to let go. It had its own mini canopy, with small tree-sized branches leaping out from the top. It was like seeing a tall pillar made of writhing roots topped by a veritable crown of branches. I marveled at it from a distance and finally I started walking around it on the small boardwalk, unable to keep my eyes off the roots that had fused to each other in their eagerness to reach the earth.
The Curtain Tree fig, by contrast, was not as impressive for its size, but rather for its structure. This fig had settled on a host tree that was leaning at an angle (or had forced the host tree into a gentle incline) and the fig’s roots were draped around the trunk on their way to the ground. In effect, the roots made a sort of curtain that obscured the main shape of the tree. It was like covering a tree with a tarpaulin of roots, such that it looked nothing like a tree is supposed to. We circled the tree slowly and it was a bit eerie to see the tree change shape from each viewing angle. After a few futile attempts to get a representative photograph of the tree, we headed out.
There used to be a Red Cedar tree standing firm in the forests of Queensland, stretching its trunk above the canopy. Even today, a year after Hurricane Larry brought the mighty giant down, the tree’s corpse still rests majestically, clearing a pathway into the forest. Its immense buttress roots still stand a few meters off the ground, and merely seeing the base of the tree makes you realize how big this tree really was. You can see the twisted broken trunk and imagine the day when the winds proved to be too tough for this old battler, and it is with a sense of deep regret that you walk away, knowing that the days when giant trees dotted these forests are fading away into legend. One by one.