A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) about the importance of protecting the Kimberley coast’s historic Mermaid Boab Tree in Careening Bay.
Over recent years, cracks have started to form in the trunk, leading to fears that the tree itself could split in two and ultimately collapse. Of course, there has been some great work done by park rangers and government to put measures in place to protect the tree for future generations to enjoy, and I thought I would use this week’s blog to fill you in on those efforts.
Firstly though, let’s take a step back and look at the history of the Mermaid Boab Tree.
Phillip Parker King’s Surveys Of The Kimberley Coast
Phillip Parker King is a name you hear often when cruising the Kimberley Coast. Although Matthew Flinders had years earlier circumnavigated Australia, and French explorer Baudin had undertaken a rudimentary survey in 1801, it was Phillip Parker King who can lay claim to first mapping the coastline with any degree of accuracy during the early 1800s.
Between 1818 and 1820, Parker King led three expeditions to the Kimberley coast aboard his 76 tonne cutter HMS Mermaid. The admiralty had tasked Parker King with discovering whether there was any river 'likely to lead to an interior navigation into this great continent'. He had also been instructed to collect information about topography, fauna, timber, minerals, climate, and the natives and the prospects of developing trade with them.
It was during the third expedition, in 1820, that Parker King’s trusty little ship Mermaid began taking on water after she ran aground off the Queensland coast near Bowen. By the time the expedition had reached the waters of the Kimberley coast, it was evident to Parker King that the voyage would have to be abandoned unless the necessary repairs could be completed.
So, on high tide, Parker King gave the order to careen the Mermaid on a sandy beach in the area that is now known as Careening Bay. Parker King and his crew took ten days to repair Mermaid’s damaged hull, using metal salvaged from a nearby shipwreck. It was during this ten days at camp on the beach that Parker King’s crew left behind a record of their visit, that has today become one of the Kimberley’s most recognised landmarks. Mermaid’s carpenter came across a boab tree, set just back off the beach, and famously carved the words ‘HMC Mermaid 1820’ into the trunk.
Once Mermaid’s repairs were satisfactorily completed, she was refloated and once again set off on her expedition to chart the Kimberley coast, the inscription in the boab tree all but forgotten for over a century.
The Mermaid Boab Tree Today
Today, almost 200 years since Parker King’s carpenter carved his inscription, the tree has grown to over twelve metres in circumference and is an iconic stop for most expedition ships introducing travellers to the beauty of Australia’s north west coast.
For adventurers interested in the history of the very first voyages along the coast, there isn’t much in the way of monuments, or remnants to those early expeditions, and certainly nothing that rivals the story of the Mermaid tree.
But now, the age of the tree (estimated by some at 600 years) and ever increasing visitor numbers has started to put pressure on the tree’s survival.
Chris Done, a well known Kimberley conservationist and former regional manager at the Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management, is worried about the twin-trunked tree slowly cracking into two.
He described the damage as follows in a recent interview with the ABC:
"I've got concerns about its longevity as between the two main stems there's a crack developing."
It wasn't there many years ago when I first started visiting.
I'm concerned the tree could collapse or lose one of those major stems.
There's a lot of weight on both sides."
Protecting the Mermaid Boab Tree
Everyone in the Kimberley recognises the importance of protecting such an important piece of the region’s history. A couple of years ago now a metal boardwalk was constructed at the site to protect the tree’s root system, which had been trampled on as visitor numbers skyrocketed with the ever-increasing popularity of Kimberley cruise adventures.
Recently, an arborist assessed the trunk and confirmed it was free of internal rot, but even with this clean bill of health the cracks have continued to grow.
The next step is a planned pruning of the tree, which will take some of the weight out of the branches, relieving pressure on the main trunk. It is hoped that this pruning will prolong the tree’s life for future generations to enjoy.
Whilst there’s no doubt the tree will eventually collapse (after all, nothing lives forever), cuttings from the tree have been taken, and grafted on to boab root stocks. These ‘genetically identical' trees (sans the inscription of course!) are being planted in several locations throughout the Kimberley.
See the Mermaid Tree for yourself on a Kimberley Cruise
Careening Bay is located on the central Kimberley coast, just west of the Mitchell Plateau. Most expedition itineraries feature a visit to Careening Bay, with time allocated to head ashore with experts guides to see and learn about Parker King’s visits to the region and the legend of Careening Bay's Mermaid Boab Tree.
To plan your next adventure on a Kimberley cruise, or find out more information about visiting Careening Bay’s Mermaid Boab Tree contact the expert team at Kimberley Cruise Specialists on 1800 90 20 80.
See the full ABC article about the future of the tree here
Images used in this article courtesy of Coral Expeditions, True North Adventure Cruises and The Great Escape Charter Company