Bunya Realty

Early Australian History:


An excerpt from the book “The Petrie Family…Building Colonial Brisbane”
written by Dimity Dornan and Denis Cryle

Andrew Petrie’s official justification for his pioneering excursions was largely commercial, for the northern districts of New South Wales were becoming a valuable source of timber.  His objective was to locate and identify forest giants which covered the river banks and open ranges to the north of Moreton Bay.

According to Archibland Meston, some 600 species of Queensland woods were identified in the first fifty years of white settlement.  Complementing the timber trade was a flourishing botanical industry between Britain and the colonies.  In addition to cedar planks, which were shipped south from Moreton Bay and the Clarence, new plant specimens were conveyed to Sydney and subsequently to England where they were eagerly sought at auction.

In 1841, after a series of trips to the Glasshouse Mountains and the Maroochy River, Andrew Petrie dispatched a shipment of forty-four pine plants to Sydney, and reported the discovery of several new pine species.  The most impressive of these was the Bunya Pine, which he proudly named Araucaria Petriani.

When Ludwig Leichhardt came to Moreton Bay and visited Petrie, he shared his host’s admiration for the “noble and gigantic Bunya, whose umbrella-like head overtowers all the trees of the Bush”.

J D Lang visited Moreton Bay in 1842 to gather material for his emigration work, Cooksland, and was supplied with valuable information from his former employee.  After enumerating the various species of Moreton Bay Pine to Lang, Petrie meticulously described the features of the Bunya-Bunya Pine, optimistically indicating its commercial potential:

This tree grows to an immense height and girth.  I have measured some ordinary sized trees, 150 feet high, and about four feet diameter.  They are as straight and round as a gun barrel.  The timber grows in a spiral form, and would answer admirably for ships’ masts of any size.  This Pine bears a great strain transversely, one of its superior qualities;  also there is no sap-wood or knots in the barrel, the lateral branches being never above two or three inches in diameter and growing from the outer rind of the tree.

However,  Petrie also recognized that the Bunya tree, (Aboriginal “Bonyi”) was highly prized by the Aborigines, for it bore cones as large as a man’s head and provided a plentiful supply of large nuts.  Bunya nuts were not part of the blacks’ regular food supply, although they were sometimes buried or ground into meal.  Rather, they were a delicacy which occurred triennially in a restricted area of southeast Queensland, 100 kilometres in length and between 25 and 26 degrees in latitude. 

This region, first penetrated by whites during the years of penal settlement, was known as the “Bunya Country”.  Harvesting the cones was traditionally the work of select individuals who scaled the massive trees with the aid of vine slings.  An early Woodford settler, Charles Archer, considered that the blacks, by eating the nuts before they ripened, prevented the number of trees from increasing.

One hundred and fifty years after its discovery by whites, the Bunya Pine continues to invite speculation because of its distinctive scarring and environment.  Petrie’s laborious quest for Bunya roots took place in the forests between Caboolture and Maroochydore. On the basis of pioneering excursions, undertaken during 1839-1841, Petrie gave his name to the Bunya and made out a convincing claim to have been “the first white person who risked his life with others in procuring the first plants of this tree”.

Andrew’s claim was a substantial one, given the physical danger which such a quest involved. Seasonal migration to the Bunya country by Aborigines (from as far as northern New South Wales and Wide Bay in south east Queensland) was a source of anxiety and confusion to early white observers.

The unprecedented size of these gatherings encouraged convict anecdotes of cannibal orgies involving several thousand participants.  Henry Stuart Russell, who visited Wide Bay with Petrie in 1842, gave credence to these rumours in his Genesis of Queensland.  Andrew Petrie himself denied popular allegations of cannibalism, while his younger son, Tom, the first recorded white person to attend a Bunya gathering in the mid-1840s, provided a more accurate description of the event:

He (Tom) traveled from Brisbane with a party of about one hundred (Aborigines), counting the women and children….The tribes were all assembling from every part of the country, some hailing from the Burnett, Wide Bay, Bundaberg, Mount Perry, Gympie, Bribie and Frazer Island, Gayndah, Kilcoy, Mount Brisbane and Brisbane.  When all turned up, there numbered between 600 and 700 blacks.

Lasting for six weeks of the late summer months, the Bunya feast has been compared to a colonial parliament, council of war, sporting meet and period of mourning.  For the Aboriginal tribes who responded to the messengers and smoke signals dispatched by the host tribe, it was indeed a major cultural event.

The location of the triennial feast varied.  When young Tom attended in the mid 1840s, it took place in the Blackall Ranges.  Twenty years later, 400-500 blacks gathered at Durundur, near Woodford.  Not only were the Bunya trees considered sacred, but the creeks and mountains surrounding them were steeped in Aboriginal mythology and folklore. 

By night, dark spirits kept visitors at a distance.  A climax of these feasts was the inter-tribal fights between warriors of the host tribe and their challengers.  In most instances, fatalities on each side were restricted to one or two young males, although there were undoubtedly occasions when old scores were settled and adjacent camps became “a thorough battlefield.

For whites like Andrew to seek out the Bunya Pine forests was not only to risk physical danger, but to confront the taboos of an ancient regional culture.  White contact with the Bunya Pine dates from 1829 when John Graham, a convict absconder, returned to Brisbane town and informed Alan Cunningham of his find.  Andrew Petrie’s source of information was, in all probability, Samual Derrington, the convict escapee who accompanied him to Bribie Island in 1837.

Piecing together information available in the settlement, Petrie proceeded north with a small party which included his eldest son, John, still in his teens.  Petrie’s map, recording his earliest exploration, was sent on to Sydney, but has not survived.

It is likely that, after camping on Bribie Island, where he recruited Aboriginal guides, Andrew crossed from Point Hutchison to the mainland and journeyed overland to the Maroochy River.  This approach to the Bunya country, used on subsequent occasions, differed from that of most early white explorers who preferred the ranges and hinterland to the mangroves and forests of the Mooloolah and Maroochy rivers.

Accomplished through swampy and difficult terrain, this leg of the journey occupied the party for the best part of a day.  The search on land for the Bunya made it inevitable that the party would encounter Kabi blacks, some of whom had never seen whites.  Nevertheless, the return of Graham, Derrington and five others from the district before 1838 suggests that the Maroochy blacks were not as inhospitable as was popularly believed.

The most dangerous part of Petrie’s journey was undoubtedly his entry into the pine forests in search of small Bunya plants.  Here the party, scattered and immobilized, was most vulnerable to sudden assaults. Andrew adopted the Aboriginal name Mooroochedor (“Place of Swans”)  for the river which he had discovered, and located impressive forests of Bunya Pine and cedar along its banks.  According to Aboriginal oral tradition, the party then traveled west and ascended the Blackall Range, after gaining local knowledge of further Bunya stands inland.

On this and other occasions, Petrie was able to solicit aid and information from the Kabi. For the Aborigines, as Henry Reynolds makes clear, did not always respond aggressively to white newcomers.  Indeed, they demonstrated considerable curiosity towards small exploring parties whose mobility was less threatening than permanent occupants.  White equipment, be it compasses, tools, rifles or rations, was closely scrutinized, along with accompanying animals.

Petrie’s exploration constitutes a noteworthy case in contact history because of the special significance which the Aborigines attached to the Bunya Pine. When he sought to procure cones from the fully grown trees, Aboriginal guides protested that the pines were the property of local tribesmen. As Tom explained:

Each blackfellow belonging to the district had two or three trees which he considered his own property, and no one else was allowed to climb these trees and gather the cones….The trees were handed down from father to son, as it were, and everyone knew who the owners were.

Aboriginal reaction to Andrew’s request was governed by long-standing beliefs which forbade all but the owners from harvesting the Bunya.  Charles Archer, who observed the custom at Durundur, was pleased to record that “the blacks have acquired some idea of the rights of property”.  Private ownership was a rare occurrence among Aborigines, and testified to the Bunya’s ritual importance.

Petrie however, was determined to secure a few of the precious cones with an offer of rations and tools.  This was the first in his series of expeditions to the Bunya country.  By mid-1840, Andrew reported to Barney that he had traveled some 200 kilometres by sea and a further 400 kilometres by land in efforts to locate it.  Each attempt was fraught with misunderstanding between races, and proved no less difficult than the first.

His Official duties in the settlement kept Petrie from returning immediately to the Maroochy River.  Instead, he made a series of shorter excursions to the Caboolture and Pine Rivers during late 1840.  Commercial considerations made it preferable to locate Bunya plants and trees close to Moreton Bay.  As most trees were to be found near the source of coastal streams, Petrie and his men were usually forced to leave their boat crew and proceed overland on the final leg.  On the Caboolture River trip, their success was small:

I procured one small plant…the only one in the scrub and there is only one large tree and another about 20 feet high…When about this age, you would take them for a different species of the tree, having very little resemblance to one at full growth.

Petrie’s official report confirmed an interesting episode, when  he cut a sample of wood from the trunk of the large Bunya tree which was growing on the Caboolture River bank (near the location of the old bridge).  His Aboriginal guides, Tunbar and Dundawaian, “showed they did not like this at all, complaining that they had piloted the party to see the tree, not to cut it…they almost cried in their distress, saying that the tree would die of its wounds”.

Mr Andrew Petrie had to assure them that it would not, and he promised supplies of tobacco.  Andrew sought to calm his guides’ immediate objections, but was unmoved by the Bunya’s ritual significance.  Aboriginal custom dictated that any such act would provoke a formal challenge from the traditional owner.  On his return, Petrie had the block of wood polished as a souvenir and kept it in his possession.  “Petrie’s Pine” was regularly displayed at the settlement and contributed to Andrew’s status as a local explorer.