Blue bay, white sand and a historic jetty

Hamelin Bay: King Karri and the Tempest

In the far south-west of Australia lies the tranquil looking waters of Hamelin Bay. For most of the year, its shores are sheltered from the swell by limestone reefs. Stingrays sweep the shallows feeding on scraps, people line-fish from the beach, and small children play in the wavelets.

But the bay has a dramatic history. For a few short decades Hamelin was the harbour for the timber industry based at Karridale and Boranup. Many ships lie wrecked in the bay. The safety of the anchorage was deceptive, for the south-west coast lies in the path of the low pressure systems generated in the southern oceans: fierce storms that circle the globe unchecked. Wildest of all was the tempest of 1900 that wrecked 3 ships in the harbour, and felled the largest tree ever recorded in Western Australia.

The wet maritime climate of the far south west fostered growth of the giant karri trees cloaking the southern part of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge. They can reach up to 80 metres high within a hundred years. Karris love the sea: they grow only in a small range along the south coast and depend on the high rainfall delivered by the cold fronts.

Karri canopy

To the timber hungry Europeans of the 19th century, the karri trees seemed truly awesome. Not only is the karri one of the tallest tree species in the world, it can grow over 40 metres high without a branch, and a single tree can produce an unbelievable quantity of timber.

Colonists were overwhelmed by the size and majesty of the trees. Many took hard lessons trying to clear them from farmland. Some waxed poetic; others measured and calculated the amount of timber that might be harvested. Despite all the love and awe, economics dominated over romanticism and nature. The vast size of the trees seemed to equate with power gained by chopping them down. There was a flurry in the forests as timber hopefuls measured the largest and boasted about it. Western Australia was a small colony struggling to prove its merits, and timber was it’s most astonishing resource.

Without infrastructure, exporting the timber was impossible. But it wasn’t long before Maurice Davies came along: a bridge and railway engineer with an eye for a forest fortune. During the 1880s he put in a harbour at Hamelin Bay, built railways to snake through the forest, and imported engines from the UK to drive them. Communities sprung up around Davies’ sawmills at Kudardup, Karridale, Jarrahdene, and Boranup. A vast quantity of timber was exported to Europe and South Africa.

Old Kate, the last surviving railway engine. Now in a children’s playground in Margaret River

While the trees were falling, visitors came to marvel at them. Some were on route from Europe to the Eastern States, stopping to take an excursion to the famed forests of the south. Many came from the goldfields, 1000 km away on the margins of the desert. Few had ever seen trees of such gargantuan proportions.

“King Karri” was the most awesome tree of all. Growing somewhere along the rail-line near Karridale, it was the ‘show and tell’ attraction of the 19th century. There were a few trees carrying this title dotted around the south-west, but the Karridale king was hailed as the largest. With a girth of 34 feet (10m) a few feet above the ground, the trunk rose 44 metres before branching. Although taller trees were recorded at Pemberton, the Karridale tree held by far the most wood due to its girth.

People calculated the amount of timber it would produce: one author in 1899 claimed there would be enough to lay one and a half miles of railway, another that if milled and shipped, it would fill a quarter of the average cargo hold. But Davies forbade King Karri to be felled. It was showered with awe and respect; shown to visiting politicians and celebrities, and described as our ‘pet forest giant.’ Then came the storm.

King Karri, photographed around 1900. State Library of WA

Hamelin Bay was chosen as a harbour for its sheltered location, but Europeans had only arrived 50 years before and hadn’t yet experienced the worst of a southern ocean tempest. On a day in July 1900, the wind howled up from the north west, shifted to the south west by evening and built rapidly to gale force. The keeper at Leeuwin lighthouse estimated the wind reached 85 miles (136 Km) at 9pm. Residents at Hamelin Bay reported sheets of sea water blown inland by the gale, filling the lake and all the watertanks with salt. Those sheltering inland were terrified by the screaming wind ripping through the trees:

‘… the most peculiar feature of the storm was the twisting action of the wind, which at short intervals would come whistling along through a narrow belt of forest, snapping off the tops of trees that were in its track like matchwood …’

Morning light revealed disaster. All three ships moored in the bay were wrecked. Two had men clinging to the rigging: the German ship Katinka had been ripped in two and lost 7 men to the waves. The train line from Jarrahdene to Karridale was blocked with debris: 350 trees lay across a few miles of track. King Karri was plucked out and tossed to the ground. Perhaps clearing such a quantity of trees left the canopy more open to the fingers of the wind, and a tree that had stood for centuries was left vulnerable.

Davies carried right on with business: funerals were held, telegraph lines repaired, debris cleared from the tracks, and within a week logging was back in action. King Karri was milled, and newspapers boasted about the amount of timber it had produced.

But it was only a few more years before all of the large timber had been felled, and the export of trees from Karridale ceased. Very little evidence of Davies timber empire remains. The jetty at Hamelin was gutted by a careless campfire in the 1920s, leaving only a few pylons jutting from the sea, like skeletal fingers pointing out ghosts of the sailors that drowned in the bay. The railway lines were dismantled and grew over. In 1961 a bushfire tore through the thick regrowth forest and incinerated the ruined saw mills, along with the village of Old Karridale. All that stands now is a brick mill chimney, old and lonesome in a thicket of trees.

The Karri once again rule in Karridale. Uncut for decades, they have reached for the sky. The older regrowth have gained their full height and are starting to fatten, but straight trees with a girth of even 4 metres are few and far between. Left in peace, some of them may grow into the King Karri of the future.