The Lost Boys - Palm Travels in North Queensland

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The Lost Boys - Part 1

by Daryl O'Connor (reprint of 2001 article 'The Lost Boys')

Recently I had the chance to do some serious palm hunting in the north of our state. Having grown palms for around 20 years and lived in a variety of locations from Darwin down to Sydney, I had never managed to actually visit the most palm rich area of the country – Far North Queensland. When the International Palm Society selected FNQ as their post-biennial destination I decided to attend, for several reasons. The first was that it was an ideal opportunity to meet many of the international members and make new friends. Second, it was a great way of seeing all of the best private palm gardens in the area and third, I could catch up with long time email friends Mike Dahme from Florida, Dave Hopkins from Cairns and Mark Wuschke from Melbourne. Our intention was to do the official tour, and then continue on north, spending the next week and a half finding as many palms in habitat as we could.

Prior to attending we all received the news that there was going to be a $1000 dollar fee to sit on the bus and participate, even for local members. As this was more than any of us could afford, we thought the trip was over before it started. Luckily, Dave spoke to the event’s organisers, including Bill Beattie and the committee of FNQPACA, who agreed to let us tag along behind the bus, especially seeing as we were all local members!

With this sorted out, we arranged accommodation with Dave and his wife Jo at their Bed and Breakfast near Holloways Beach north of Cairns, hired a Landcruiser and stocked up with lunch provisions and a large Esky. Our intention was to simply shadow the main group and eat our own food, without getting in the way of the paying tourists! However, things aren’t always that simple…

Armed with a printed itinerary, we fronted at Flecker Gardens first thing on Monday morning. The local FNQPACA guides introduced themselves and then split the group up, before leading us around the gardens for an hour and a half. Certainly this was the first time many of the international visitors had seen many of the species growing in Flecker, and there were many 'oohs' and 'aahs' along with the odd twisted neck or two! After walking around on a sultry, humid Cairns morning, many were glad to hop back on their buses and cool off in the air-conditioning. With the buses honking their horns, we climbed up into our Landcruiser and prepared to follow them to the next stop – Rosebud Farm. Hang on…how do we get there? Follow the buses of course! None of us had any idea on how to get to Rosebud, apart from heading in the general direction of Kuranda.

How many red lights are there between Flecker and Kuranda? Too many…and we caught all of them, whilst the buses sped off into the distance. There was a general state of panic inside the car! I’m amazed at how much ground we lost whilst sitting at the lights. “Luckily there are big hills between here and Kuranda” I thought. We drove up to Kuranda, up all of the hills and still no buses. Surely we would have caught them by now? By sheer stroke of luck we caught them just at the Kuranda traffic lights, and then followed them into Rosebud Farm.

We were all greeted by Rich Trapnell who provided us an overview of the nursery operation, along with a description of his local climate and conditions. The group then made themselves comfortable in a grove of Wodyetia and settled down to a picnic lunch. We did likewise, washing down lunch with a few icy cold beers. All of a sudden there was a mad rush and people from all over were asking us if we had any ‘spares’. Well, that was the start of something, and if we’d been sharp enough to figure out the group’s needs, we’d have bought a few dozen and sold them to the hordes of thirsty palm people!

We then spent an hour walking around and looking at the palms growing in the shade-houses, as well as those planted out in the grounds. A massive Corypha utan was very impressive, along with many other mature palms. Rich gave us the lowdown on the Veitchia Foxtail hybrids and the Foxtail Veitchia hybrids, showing off examples of both, along with a variegated specimen.

Just before we left, Rich performed a ceremonial planting to commemorate the visit. A young Veillonia alba was the lucky plant, and everybody pitched in, offering suggestions on the best way to plant it. In the end, it was decided to ‘just dig a hole and drop it in’. A few of the visitors helped out with IPS president Phil Bergman doing duty, assisted by members of Association Chambeyronia who added the New Caledonian touch.

The main group then headed back to their hotel for the evening, but we had more ground to cover as it was still daylight, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to find one of the more recently described Archontophoenix – A.myolensis. With a few directions from the local palm people, we made our way to Myola, an exhausting 5 minute drive from Kuranda. The palms were growing on the banks of a creek, in full view from the road. About the easiest palm to find in it’s natural habitat. From their general appearance, they certainly do look like a cross between an Alexandra and a Bangalow.

On Tuesday morning, we overslept, and arrived at the hotel to find the group had already left. Where to now? Head south and look out for a couple of buses near Mission Beach – surely if we look for palms we’ll find the buses. We guessed right, and found the group at the Tam O’Shanter reserve. You can’t miss 80 American accents echoing through a Licuala forest! The reserve was a truly impressive sight, and we wandered down the walking tracks for an hour or so before sitting down to another lunch out of the Esky, along with a few more beers. Again, we had to bat off several people, this time offering to buy our stock! The many specimens of Calamus moti, Calamus australis, Hydriastele wendlandiana and Licuala ramsayii were very impressive. The Licuala totally dominated the forest. About this time, Florida member Faith Bishock wandered over and jokingly referred to us as ‘The Lost Boys’ because we always seemed to be playing catch-up to the group. The name stuck, and by the end of the day, several members of the main group were waving out of the bus windows and jokingly asking if we were lost!

After lunch, the group headed to the nearby town of El Arish, and to Terry Mead’s ‘El Arish Botanical Gardens’. Terry has a magnificent garden with several acres that have been landscaped with exotic species. Outstanding were tall Pigafetta filaris, Clinostigma samoense, Licualas, Calyptrocalyx and many other interesting species including a Dypsis decaryi x leptocheilos with branched trunks.

Wednesday was a special day, a whole day devoted to Mt Lewis. The main group had been cut down to 27 people, due to restrictions on the number of buses allowed per day…. luckily we had our own permit. We drove north from Cairns for two hours, stopping half way up the Mt Lewis access road to wait for the bus. No worries, we knew where we were going! (There’s only one road to the top and it’s a dead-end!) After waiting for half an hour we did start to worry, thinking we had missed the bus yet again. However a few minutes later, the FNQPACA boys turned up in their Suzuki 4WD. Rob Northey explained that the group had been ‘Irvined’. As it turned out, Tony Irvine had indeed stopped the bus to show them some of the flora at the bottom of the mountain. For those of you who haven’t met Tony, he is a wealth of knowledge, and could tell you the specific name of every plant growing in the area, along with a full description of its uses and peculiarities. If given free reign, he could have kept the group entertained for days.

The bus eventually came up the mountain, and we continued along the road, passing many stands of Linospadix apetiolata, along with Calamus moti and Laccospadix australasica. Eventually we came to Oraniopsis territory. These were very attractive palms, and far more numerous than I had imagined. We stopped a couple of times to listen to Tony, before we reached the end of the road for a lunch break. Again, out came the Esky and again, were the requests! The weather was noticeably cool on the mountain, the midday temperature cooler than a mid winter’s day in s/e Queensland. I can understand why it is so hard to grow Oraniopsis, you have to provide constant moisture and no heat. We finished lunch then walked over to a stand of very tall Archontophoenix purpurea, growing to perfection in the shelter of the forest. The group then departed, for the two hour drive back to Cairns. We took the opportunity to visit a local palm nursery at Julatten, at the base of Mt Lewis – TNQ palms. Although only a few kilometres from the mountain, as the crow flies, the climate is warm enough to grow Cyrtostachys renda and many other very tropical species. We were greeted by Jan Smith and given a tour through her shadehouses and display garden.

On Thursday we made sure we didn’t lose the tour buses, arriving at the hotel with time to spare. When they pulled out of the hotel, we maneuvered the ‘cruiser in between them, figuring if we lost the first bus, we still had another one behind us. The Landcruiser sandwich traveled south for one hour from Cairns to Babinda, the attraction being three of the nicest private gardens in the Cairns area. The first was Kurt and Marie Roth’s garden, followed by John and Chris Farrington’s then Mark Daish’s. The Babinda area has a higher annual rainfall than Cairns, lying at the foot of Mt Bellender Ker and Mt Bartle Frere, and this was apparent with the natural stands of thick rainforest growing right into their gardens. These gardens were a real treat, and contained many beautiful palms. All I can say is if you are ever in the area, try to arrange a visit with them. Mark operates a nursery from home, so is open to the public most of the time. We saw so many huge palms, it was mind blowing. Huge Attalea, Mauritia, Corypha, along with a Lemurophoenix halleuxii with 5 metre long leaves. These gardens left many people either speechless or demoralised!

On Friday the main group had some major problems with transportation to Mossman Gorge, missing their seafaring catamaran. We had opted to drive north and meet them at the entrance to the gorge, waiting for the group to arrive. An hour of waiting and we were wondering if we’d read the day’s itinerary correctly! No sign of any buses, then Bill Beattie arrived in his van and explained what had happened. By this stage we were getting restless, so when the main group arrived, we took to the walking tracks and enjoyed the rainforest for an hour or two. Then back to the Landcruiser to have our lunch and sell a few cold drinks to the other tourists.

After lunch, the group headed to Arden Dearden’s property, north of Mossman. Again we followed the buses, not wanting to end up in the middle of nowhere. A few detours later, the buses finally reached the property, having become lost on one of the back roads! Arden’s property covers approximately 10 hectares, and the group wandered around for over two hours in the heat and humidity. There were many nice palms growing in the grounds, including a good assortment of Dypsis and other Madagascan species. A near perfect climate for growing palms, with Licuala ramsayii growing along the creek which ran through the centre of the property. After the tour, a few of the IPS group stopped for their customary ‘drinks break’ enjoying themselves before being hustled back on to the buses and transported back to Port Douglas for the night.

We had decided to spend the night in more ‘luxuriant’ surrounds, and headed north, crossing the Daintree river then driving to Cape Tribulation. We stayed in a modern backpackers resort, set amongst the Rainforest and only 20 metres from the beach. Due to our late arrival it was dark, and under the rainforest canopy it was hard to see the vegetation. We walked down the main track to the dining area, had some dinner and then realised that the entire canopy was full of Normanbya, Licuala and Hydriastele! Next morning we were stunned by the beauty of this forest. All of the Normanbya were fruiting and the ground was covered in bright red fruit. An absolutely amazing sight! We then had a quick breakfast and made our way south to meet the group on the main highway, not sure how to find Geoff Fowler’s place. Well, we almost blew it! The group had transferred to minibuses and were running ahead of schedule. We had just crossed to the south bank of the river again, when we realised that they were now on the ferry! Of course there was no room left for any more cars, so we had to wait until it crossed the river and then returned again. After waiting an agonising 20 minutes, we were finally headed north again, trying to catch the group before they took a side road and lost us.

An hour later, we arrived at Geoff Fowler’s residence, a magnificent house set amongst the rainforest near Cape Tribulation. We should have stayed put in the morning as it was only 5 minutes drive from our accommodation! Instead, we did it the hard way, two hours driving and a ferry ticket to boot! Geoff’s garden was stunning, as only it could be, in an area blessed with such a climate. Just way too many nice palms to comprehend. Many of the international visitors were just flabbergasted. Very few had seen Pelagodoxa henryana growing through the decking, with fruit at waist height! All of the tropical palm treasures were there, blending into the surrounding rainforest. The surrounding hills were covered in emergent Normanbya, the red bunches of fruit very noticable in the lush green of the rainforest.

By the time we left, everybody was simply overwhelmed at the beauty of the area and of Geoff’s garden. Later, we headed down to the beach and walked around the boardwalk, set amongst the Normanbya forest. The group had a hamburger lunch, and we bid them farewell, as we were now headed north to Cape York. We welcomed aboard the fourth ‘lost boy’, Bruce Barry from California. Now it was time to really get lost…