Boranup: a forest in profile

Boranup is a small outreach of Karri forest in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. In Wardandi Noongar, the name means “place of the male dingo.” The dingos are long gone, but the Karri trees delight thousands of tourists a year. They stop on the roadside to snap images of nature, unaware that the forest clothes a cultural landscape shaped by people for millennia.

During the last Ice Age, Boranup nestled behind the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge, overlooking a sandplain which stretched 40km out to the edge of the continental shelf. The first Australians, who walked into country over 50 000 years ago, found an open woodland scantily clad with jarrah, banksia and tuart. People lived on the rich resources of the sandplain, moving back from the coast in winter and sheltering in the caves that pepper the limestone ridge.

Thousands of generations lived in the woodlands. They left bone needles, crystal axes, beads, stone flakes and teeth to be preserved in the sandy floor of Devil’s Lair, Witchcliffe Rockshelter and Tunnel Cave. Even hearths and charcoal have an epic story to tell. Archaeologists Joe and Charlie Dortch have spent two generations excavating the human trace of Boranup, piecing together a lifestyle that spanned thousands of years.

They lived through continuous climate change. 10 000 years ago, the Nyitting, or “great cold” of Wardandi legend, gave way to the warm, wet interglacial. The sea rose to swallow the sandplain and gnaw at the edge of the limestone ridge, bringing a warm and maritime climate. The rainfall increased, and the open woodland was invaded by giants from the south coast.

Pioneer Karris seeded themselves along the creeklines, shading out the smaller woodland trees and forming a thick, barely penetrable forest. They shed limbs and leaves and strips of bark, a deep mass of woody debris which rots down into rich orange soil. A soil so free draining that the streams flow underground, feeding the growth of giants. People moved out and left the forest caves to the spirits of the ancestors.

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Then came new invaders. Europeans, hunting for fortunes. They shoved aside the first people and claimed the forest as their own. Alfred and Ellen Bussell built two farms to the north of Boranup, stocking it with cattle and re-naming it “Karri Chase.” They fired the forest, just as the Wardandi had done before them, to generate fresh new growth and clean up country. Short on sons, it was the Bussell girls that roamed the forest on horseback, rounding up the semi-wild cattle and camping under the trees. They stumbled across caves, haunted by the spirits of the old people. The mystery of the forest impressed itself upon them. In the 1870’s, 16 year old Fanny wrote in her diary; “It is a beautiful station and strange. We killed a wild bull and had such a pleasant gipsy gathering in the evening. The great tall trees, the little mite of a hut, the glimmering campfires reflected from white stems.”

Visitors marvelled at the massive size of the Karri, and lusted after the 100 foot long logs. “Karri Chase” was sold to timber merchant M. C. Davies, who built a harbour at Hamelin Bay, three mills, and a grand house on the proceeds of the forest. Valleys were clearfelled, roads made, horses and oxen strained to haul the gargantuan timbers. Villages were raised. Newspapers of the time are filled with notices of parties, races, cricket matches, and picnics. All the usual flurry of colonial expansionist economies. But the market was soon flooded with Karri from further south. The mills closed. Trees began to swell and reclaim the space.

In fear of forest fires, the State Government forced farmers to stop burning off. Poles were cut and regrowth thinned. But the trees kept growing, the Karri litter thicker and higher without regular, light cleansing by fire. Until in 1961 it caught alight, and destroyed the milling town of Karridale.

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But the trees returned. Taller and stronger, so ‘beautiful and strange.’  Managers realized the forests value as a natural asset, and in 1993 Boranup was added to the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. Now, we marvel at the trees, we revel in the rustling of birds, bats, bugs, snakes, and the restful presence of lichen, fungi, moss and moulds. We bathe in the rich, moist forest air and feast on the colours. Chocolate, cream, charcoal, cinnamon, and ochre; the orange of the soil and the subdued green of diverse leaves.

Love it while it lasts.

For the climate, stable for 10 000 years, is changing again. Rainfall is diminishing, streams are shrinking, and temperatures rising. How long will the Karris continue to flourish? Perhaps they will drift away into the Dreaming, like the giant mega-marsupials whose bones lie deep in the caves beneath the trees. Leaving only tall white ghosts, keeping company with the spirits of the old people.


Jinni Wilson BSc (hons) Anthropology. University of Western Australia.