The secret life of trees

When visitors arrive on Norfolk Island they’re picked up by a tour bus and taken for a half-day orientation tour, with the guide pointing out the main attractions. After a quick trip through the main township at Burnt Pine, featuring one roundabout and absolutely no traffic lights, we stop briefly at the lookout above Kingston, where the guide points out the wonderful Georgian buildings of Government House and Quality Row (that’s the name of the street). Over there across the golf course is Emily Bay, down there is the cemetery, that’s the old gaol and associated buildings. He drives around the foreshore from the pier, past the old gaol and out to the point where the lone pine stands sentinel. It’s an old tree. It appeared in drawings made for Captain Cook when he ‘discovered’ the island in 1774. We’re taken for a brief look into St Barnabas’s Chapel, the only remaining building from the Melanesian Mission. We admire the 360° view from Mt Pitt and we’re taken to “Orn Da Cliff” where Pine Tree tours holds its weekly island fish-fry with associated sunset scenes. We make a brief stop at Cascade Bay, where the old whaling station used to be. And all the time we’re seeing the beautiful green hills and valleys of Norfolk, where cows amble across the road or lie on the banks chewing their cud as the bus trundles by. For a quick overview of Norfolk, I’d recommend this account. It’s very well written with nice pictures :).

We took the tour. It’s always interesting to listen to different guides. This one wasn’t a local. He’d lived on Norfolk for forty years or so, but he was a Sydney boy who married a lady from the island. He knew his stuff, but on our previous visit we’d been driven around by guys born and bred here, proud sixth or seventh generation descendants of the Pitcairn mutineers with names like Christian or Quintal or Buffet, or the descendants of convicts. Those guys told us stories of growing up here. One told us as a teenager he climbed the kentia palm trees to pick nuts. On one such occasion the young fellow reached the top of the tree and came face to face with a rat, which also wanted kentia nuts. Well, when you’re up there in the canopy of a palm tree down is the only way to go. And that’s what the rat did – scrambling over the human on the way. Not long after that they put guards around the tree trunks to stop the rats from going up.

Any eggs from these ladies are definitely free range

Our Sydney tour guide had a different view of the feral chooks (domestic chickens), too. Like the cattle, chooks are everywhere on Norfolk – and they can fly. They’re being culled and he said we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The eggs were stale and the chooks inedible and the cull was absolutely necessary. Hmmm. Last year we were told the cull was happening without consulting the locals. Our driver, who was not impressed, pointed out the chooks ate insects and did no harm, and when we visited locals in the progressive dinner, we saw feral chooks in people’s yards, and yes, the people collected the eggs. I’ll bet we ate a few, too. Chicken is a major item on Norfolk menus. The other thing the chooks do is scratch through the cow droppings looking for tasty treats, all the while spreading all that lovely goodness so the grass can use it.

All the mammals on Norfolk are feral, by the way. Including the people. The more polite expression is ‘introduced’. Like New Zealand, Norfolk’s natives are birds and plants. Sugar cane, bananas, arrowroot, kumara, stone fruit, corn, tomatoes – all are introduced. So was the Moreton Bay fig tree.

During the orientation tour the bus is driven down New Farm Road between the one hundred acre reserve and a magnificent row of Moreton Bay figs. The buses don’t stop there so it was our first ‘go to’ attraction when we ventured forth on our own.

There’s something a little bit spooky as you head up the road under the trees. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s old forest, where Pippin and Merry are swallowed up by Old Man Willow, or the ents in Fangorn. I know this won’t mean much to you unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard like me. But old and spooky are easy enough to understand. These trees are two hundred or more years old, probably planted by the first white settlers on the island some time between 1788 and 1815.

Pete’s head is just visible behind the root. He’s standing

And they look it. The roots writhe across the ground. Human fences are no obstacle. Buttress roots supporting the trunks tower up to over a tall man’s head. They’re studded with algae and ferns hide in corners. It’s easy to imagine these grand old gentlefolk talking to each other in the slow speech of trees. To them animal life must be a blur of movement. Or maybe not. Perhaps they’re well aware of us.

The fence has not impeded the tree in the least

Certainly they’re not ‘nice’.

They tolerate no competition. Look closely and you’ll find trees surrounded by roots. A brave Norfolk Island pine that took root next to the figs is slowly being strangled, joining others which have already met that fate.

This is one of the creepiest sights you’ll see here. The great tree has reached out to take a grip on an intruder. It doesn’t stand a chance.

From under the trees you catch glimpses of the sun-drenched cultivated valley. It’s a whole different world out there. I wondered why the trees had been planted. They’re not much good for timber and you can’t eat the fruit. That’s a question to which I expect I’ll never get an answer.

Follow the twisting road down toward the coast and you’ll cross the Bloody Bridge. It’s another place where the tours don’t stop – at least not for long enough to get off the bus for pictures. Our current guide did tell us an abbreviated version of the story of the name. It seems the convicts working on the building didn’t like their overseer at all, so they killed him. The more interesting version is that to hide evidence of the deed, the men popped the body into the bridge and kept working. The overseer had disappeared and they didn’t know what happened. The next day the replacement overseer noticed bloody weeping from the mortar between the stones.

The bloody bridge

There’s plenty of room to hide a body. Maybe one of those dark patches is blood???

 

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