One of the distinctive features of the landscape in the Kimberley region (in the far north of Western Australia) is the boab tree. Its scientific name, Adansonia gregorii, honours the Australian explorer Augustus Gregory.
Younger boabs are often referred to as bottle trees, due to their thick trunks. The picture shows boabs used as street trees in the Kimberley town of Derby. As they get older, boabs get even thicker round the middle. (Where else have I heard of that problem?)
This single boab tree is five metres wide at the base, and some of these older trees are thought to be at least 1500 years old!
Boabs store large amounts of water in cavities in their trunks, and there are instances where an opening into the central cavity has allowed the tree to be used as a temporary prison – or even as a bar!
Aboriginal people have found many uses for the boab. Sometimes, thousands of litres of water can be extracted by tapping into the trunk. The leaves and the fruit are edible, and the seeds are very rich in vitamin C. The roots can be used to make a red dye. The seed pods can be used as bowls, boat balers, etc. The wood, which is soft and fibrous, can be used for making twine and cloth, and even rope (with a strength comparable to nylon).
Now for the mysterious part. While there is only this one species of boab in Australia, there are several in Africa, including Madagascar. One theory is that seed pods could have floated across the Indian Ocean many thousands of years ago. Another theory involves the so-called “Bradshaw” rock paintings found in the same area – the Kimberley – as the boabs.
Bradshaw was not the artist, but a white pastoralist who first brought these paintings to the attention of the non-indigenous public in 1891. (A more politically correct name for these remarkable art works is the aboriginal name “Gwion Gwion”.) I’ll be writing more about these paintings in a later post. Suffice it to say at this stage that the theory is that a group of people from Africa or some other place to the north of Australia came to the Kimberley area a very long time ago, either by boat or via the Gondwana “land bridge”, and brought with them a bunch of boab seeds, some of which took root in the Kimberley. They painted their very distinctive and non-Aboriginal paintings in the area, but then subsequently left or died out. (There’s scope here for all sorts of weak jokes about boat people, etc, but I will resist the temptation.)