Friday 25th March 2016
To English eyes, Alstonville looks like an American pioneer town, a modern version of the types of places we became familiar through the many Westerns we watched growing up. By contrast, our knowledge of Australia was acquired by watching 20th Century dramas like Neighbours, The Sullivans and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.
So as a Brit, while I have long been aware of the convict ships that brought the first Europeans to Australia, I have never had much awareness of the modern Australia’s pioneering past. And yet the country has hundreds of communities with pioneering roots and Alstonville, it seems, is a quintessential pioneer town.
Sure there is an Australiana Pioneer Village experience you can visit for five dollars per head, elsewhere in New South Wales, which has a fascinating history all of its own dating back to the 1960s. But Alstonville is a living and evolving example of an historic village that seems to thrive today, whilst retaining many remnants of its pioneering past.
The Big Scrub
Alstonville (which originally went by the name of Duck Creek Mountain) was built in ‘The Big Scrub’, which was Australia’s largest subtropical lowland rain forest covering an estimated 900 square kilometers and dominated by White Booyong and Australian Red Cedar trees. The Big Scrub was cleared for farming and now only 1% remains, though the preponderance of wood-panelled buildings in the town is a reminder that this community grew out the forest it destroyed.
One of the remnants of the Big Scrub is the macadamia nut tree. Apparently, the world’s first commercial orchard of macadamia trees was planted on the Alstonville plateau in the 1880s. Today, the town’s Summerland House Farm boasts 7,000 trees producing 100 tonnes of macadamia nuts each year. Their processing plant has a dehusking machine that takes over a 1,000 photos of each nut in microseconds to assess whether the nut will be accepted or rejected.
I offer all of this information as background to the magical experience we had on our first evening in Alstonville. We decided to take a walk beyond the confines of the high street and found ourselves travelling through a park, over a creek and onto the road out of town on an elevated footpath shaded by trees.
The Magic Of Free Food
We hadn’t gone too far when my foot landed on something crunchy. Closer inspection revealed it was a pecan nut, which isn’t native to Australia, making this experience slightly less ‘authentic’ than it might have been had I trodden on a Macadamia nut instead.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a high-tech dehusking machine with 1,000 cameras handy, so I used my eyes and came to the conclusion that this nut was a good’un. And one of the things I know about the pecan nut is that it is not solitary by nature, it tends to hang out with other nuts. So Jakkie and I began hunting for its friends.
It took a while, but we eventually found the tree the nut had fallen from and as we felt around in the grass verge we began to discover there were a fair few unharvested pecans hiding around the base of the tree.
We began collecting as many nuts as we could carry and it wasn’t long before we were joined by a white-bearded local complete with shorts, boots, bush hat, white beard and a knob-handled walking stick, who was out walking his sheepdog.
“It’s not a very good harvest this year,” he observed, “there’s a flock of little corellas in town who have knocked them all off” he said with a shake of the head, as if describing a biker gang smashing up the town centre.
Gathering Nuts With Strangers
Then he bent down and started harvesting nuts and passing them to us. And so he became our foraging companion for a while, asking us about our travels, sharing stories of his own trips around Australia, showing us how to spot possum nests in the branches up above and taking us to a second pecan tree we hadn’t spotted and collecting some more nuts for us.
Eventually, the conversation dried up and he headed back home with his dog, leaving us with a pile of pecans, a new awareness of the nesting habits of the Australian possum and a feeling of excitement about the adventures ahead of us.
And that was our magical experience in Alstonville, on day one of our travels around Australia.