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A tour round Townsville

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Photos and Story by Braydon Moloney 

Townsville common

Townsville is situated in the coastal dry tropics of northern Queensland. It is a popular tourist stop-off, with most visitors using it as a base for exploring Magnetic Island, the Great Barrier Reef or the historic inland area around Charters Towers. It is also a popular place for holidaying birdwatchers - there are a plethora of RAMSAR listed wetlands around the city, which attract migrant waterbirds from both the north and south, and its proximity to the Wet Tropics sees the occasional appearance of exotic rainforest vagrants as they hop between patches of monsoon vine thickets. But if you look past the colourful birds and begin to examine what they're sitting on, what they're eating, and what they're 'depositing', a new story beings to unfold. Welcome to the coastal dry tropics and its incredible diversity of bush food.

Just a few kilometres north of the city is a large area of wetlands, saltmarshes and savanna woodland, set aside from development in the Townsville Town Common Conservation Park. 

View of mud flats and Magnetic Island


The Town Common was one used to spell horses and graze cattle, but despite this its floral diversity has remained relatively intact. Today it is a popular spot for birdwatchers, hikers and naturalists. On the northern end of the common, in an east-west alignment sandwiched between the sea to the north and the wetlands to the south, are the Many Peaks Ranges. An 8km walking track runs the length of these hills, and this is where we will begin our tour. 

The Many Peaks Range walking trail can be accessed from the Cape Pallarenda picnic ground, and weaves its way up the range through dry eucalpyt woodland and thickets of monsoon rainforest.

At the top of the initial set of steps, keep your eyes open for the White Currant Bush (Flueggia virosa). This is a small shrub that fruits in the mid to late Wet season (around February), producing fleshy white berries. A common groundcover vine beside the path is the Dodder Laurel (Cassytha pubescens), which produces succulent pearly fruits year-round. A word of caution though - the fruits do contain toxic compounds, and should not be made a welter of. Native Gardenias (Kailarsenia ochreata) are also abundant in the Many Peaks, and when they all flower at once (Oct-Nov) the perfume can be almost overwhelming. Dogs Balls (Grewia retusifolia) and Native Currant (Antidesma parvifolium) are also common along the path, the latter fruiting in Feb-March. Keep an eye out for the bright purple fruits of the Boobialla (Myoporum acuminatum), usually around August-October.

The flavour isn't particularly great, but they're always worth a browse when in season.

Sandpaper figs (Ficus opposite) fruit all year round, though the synconia are rather insipid in flavour.

Also found in the Many Peaks are Kurrajongs (Brachychiton australis), whose seeds and tubers can be roasted, and the mustard-flavoured Wild Orange (Capparis canescens), which grow in areas sheltered by rocks. Kapok trees (Cocholspermum gillivraei) turn the hills yellow in the mid Dry season, when they burst into flower. The flowers are edible, with a pleasant nutty flavour. At the same time as the kapoks are flowering, the Burdekin Plums (Pleiogynium timorense) are laden with fruit. The rich purple drupes are generally not edible directly off the tree, as they are simply too hard and too sour.  Placing them in a paper bag or burying them in dry sand for a few days helps to alleviate this. Once 'matured', they develop a sharp, plum-like flavour. Leave them too long and they begin to ferment, tasting like a drunken prune. All things considered, this event is not necessarily a bad one!

The presence of Burdekin plums generally marks the passing from savanna woodland into the monsoon rainforest thickets. These are patches of closed-canopy, vine-riddled forest that grow in rocky gullies where fire is excluded and groundwater is concentrated. The species found within the monsoon thickets are all of rainforest origin: as the Gondwanan rainforests dried up following Australia's split from Antarctica 45 million years ago, these groups of plants hung in and rolled with the punches, evolving into the hardy, drought-tolerant 'rainforest' we see today. Within this dry and gnarled rainforest, one can find Beach Cherry (Eugenia reinwardtiana) with its sweet red fruits, Cluster Fig (Ficus racemosa)  possessing large fleshy fruits growing directly out of the trunk, and Wild Grape (Cayratia carnosa).

Scrambling vines are common, particularly the passionfruits. Passiflora aurantia is native, and produces showy red flowers and large fruit, while P. foetida is an invasive species with purple and white flowers and small fruits. When sampling P. foetida, care should be taken to only taste the ripe, orange fruits, as the green fruits are toxic.

The walking trail ends at the Bald Rock car park inside the Town Common. Unless you want to make the 8km hike back to Pallarenda, it is suggested you have a car organised to meet you here. But the adventure's not over year! A 4km track takes you from the imposing granite monolith of Bald Rock north through mangroves and salt flats to the beach at Cape Marlow. Along the way, you can find Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa), which has salty-sweet berries, and Samphire (Sarcocornia sp.), whose succulent leaves can be used as a boiled green. Grey Mangroves (Avicennia marina) are found beside the saltwater creeks, but the use of their fruit requires extensive preparation.

As you make your way through the back dunes, keep an eye open for Broad Leaved Cherries (Exocarpus latifolius). 

Broad leaved cherry

These shrubs are parasitic on the roots of other plants, similar to quandongs and sandalwoods. The ripe fruit is lipstick red and acorn shaped. Only the top segment is edible, and it has a sweet burst followed by a lingering, dry, resinous taste. You'll also find Stringy Mangoes (Mangifera indica) and Tamarinds (Tamarindus indica) growing in these dunes, planted by early settlers. The mangoes ripen in Nov-Dec, while the Tamarinds bear fruit all year round. The Tamarind pods can be cracked open to reveal a sticky pulp surrounding the seeds. The pulp is sour but refreshing, and is an acquired taste, but has a flavour similar to apricots.

Once at Point Marlow, it is only a short walk down to the mouth of the Bohle River. This is a popular fishing spot, because it gives access to a vast network of undisturbed mangroves. Barramundi and Mangrove Jack are common catches, along with mudcrabs, oysters and prawns. Stingrays are also a common site in the tidal creeks. Saltwater crocodiles, dugongs and sea turtles have all been recorded in the waters around Cape Marlow, but it goes without saying that these animals are protected and should not be harvested. In the rockpools along the foreshore, edible algae such as Ulva sp. can sometimes be found.

Upon returning to the Bald Rock carpark, it's time to explore the wetlands. Bald Rock Lagoon sits in the shadow of the aforementioned monolith, and contains water for most of the year, drying out thoroughly at the end of the Dry season. This is a good place to find Bulkuru sedge (Eleocharis dulcis), which is commercially known as Chinese Water Chestnut. The bulb-shaped tuber is a favourite of Brolgas. Keep in mind that this is a Conservation Park and it is illegal to dig these (or any other plants mentioned here) up. As for edible greens, the wetlands of the Town Common harbour Kang Kong (Ipomoea aquatica) and Goat's Foot Convolvulus (Ipomoea pes-caprea), which can be steamed or lightly boiled and served with meals. In some of the deeper pools, blue waterlilies (Nymphaea gigantea) can be found. The tubers, flowers and seeds can all be eaten, but the tubers may need some preparation. In the late Dry season, these wetlands play host to thousands of magpie geese, who migrate here after the outlying swamps dry out. Again, it is illegal to hunt these birds, or any animals mentioned here, but the sheer volume of geese emphasize how easy it would have been to survive here in pre-European times.  

Sharing the Town Common with the geese are many other sources of game meat, utilized by the original indigenous inhabitants, including freshwater turtles, agile wallabies, catfish, eel, sand goanna, quail, brush turkey, and even the Australian bustard. 

Our final stop on the tour will be at the Freshwater Lagoon bird hides. A 200m walk through riparian woodland takes you from the carpark to the closest hide. At the very beginning of the walk are several interesting species. The Peanut Tree (Sterculia quadrifida) is distinguished by bright red seed pods (follicles) that split open to reveal glossy black seeds. The seeds can be eaten raw once the black coat has been cracked off, and taste slightly like peas. The pods turn red in the mid dry season, around the same time as the Kapoks begin flowering. 

In the same spot you can find the Beach Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), which produces yellow and maroon flowers throughout the Wet season and into the early Dry. Like the Kapok, these flowers can be eaten, and the flowerbuds can be used in jams and preserves. Further down the path you'll find a Beach Almond (Terminalia sp.) tree, which produces hard nuts with an edible kernel, the Leichhardt Tree (Nauclea orientalis), which bears small soft fruits towards the end of the Wet Season, Pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), with its distinctive woody orange nut hiding a tasty kernel, and the Cheese Fruit (Morinda citrifolia), infamous for its odiferous fruits. Be sure to sample some of the Green Ants, too. They can be readily found nesting in Morinda bushes or Burdekin Plums. All you have to do is grab one by the head (crushing it), and then bite down on the abdomen. It'll give a burst of sour lime-juice flavour, which is very refreshing on a hot day.  The Townsville Town Common is a particularly rich environment for bush foods. There are many food sources not even covered by this little summary, including the acacias, beans, yams, grass seeds and fungi. This diversity is typical of the Coastal Dry Tropics, though unfortunately it is too often overlooked. There could be some great bush food industries come of this area, if anyone was willing to try. 

This 'tour' is just a guide as to what's available and where it can be found. If you do ever visit the Townsville Town Common, I recommend you take your time and don't try to squeeze everything I've mentioned into one day. It's a lot of walking, and you'll be so flat-out you won't enjoy it. Because after all, having a good time is what it's all about. So go on, get out there and try some tucker!
































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