WORDS BY ALISON GOTTS, PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIGBY GOTTS
Travelling across the outback of northern Queensland, we stumbled across the extraordinary story of Albert de Lestang, who leased seventy five acres from the government in 1920, to experiment with food trees on a property near Lawn Hill, which was, and still is, an oasis in the desert.
The place is called Adel’s Grove, after the initials of his name, and it is close to the Riversleigh Fossil Fields and the Lawn Hill National Park. 340 kilometres north west of Mt Isa.
He was a fanatical plant collector and sold and traded seeds with nurseries and botanical gardens throughout the world. By 1939 he had planted and recorded over 1000 varieties of plants. Water from the creek was carried in kerosene tins to the garden, and channels were created to divert the water to irrigate the trees.
In early 1950 disaster struck and a man-made fire destroyed all his buildings and records while he was away, though the fruit orchard survived. In the same year he then experienced record floods and a plague of rats which ring-barked his orchard.
An extract from a letter Albert de Lestang wrote to David Gordon, Nurseryman in Glenmorgan, 18th September, 1952, shows his despair:
“The priceless botanical collection of over 2000 varieties have been abandoned, the gardens overrun by saplings, kunai grass and sword tussocks; what the fire left of the fences is wreck, yards gone, home site bare of buildings but the flimsy shack I live in. What still stands of the one time glorious gardens is the fruit plantation I try to maintain for a living. Having cut all experimental work for lack of equipment and labour, too old and weak to carry on alone, failure to find one to take over from me at death. Since the place is destined to revert to wilderness is better now than later.”
Albert died in 1959 in a nursing home at Charters Towers. He was seventy five years old.
The question is ‘how much of Albert’s botanical legacy can still be found at Adel’s Grove?’ Adel’s Grove is now a privately run camping ground and restaurant, offering tours of the area to visitors, on the banks of the Lawn Hill Creek. The oasis that Albert depended on to keep his plants alive, now provides a picturesque spot for campers, amongst the remnants of his fruit plantation.
A botanical list which was recorded by de Lestang in 1939 of the species he had introduced is still available. Scanning the list, which has more than 600 species on it, some rare fruit names draw the eye:
We walk along the banks of the creek, and I imagine what the area would have been like in the 1930s and 1940s, and look for evidence. There are many large Mango trees still thriving and burnt out mango stumps standing as monuments. The mango harvest would still be bountiful – November may be a good time to visit. Lime trees are scattered through the area, but apart from some bamboo clumps, there are some cassias, a custard apple sucker growing out of a stump, but no other fruit trees.
A conversation with Albert begins in my mind. What fruit trees thrived here, under his gentle care? What did he learn about growing rambutans, fifty years before the rambutan industry started in tropical Queensland? We have tried to grow Salaks and we wonder – how successful were they for him? This is a special place for a rare fruit enthusiast to explore, and rake over the ghosts.
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