Building a Fruit Farm

A History of Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm 1987 – 2014

Camp under the Black bean tree 1989

Buying the Land

We had visited Cape Trib in 1985 on our way to teach in the NT, and been fascinated by the rainforest and the idea of an isolated lifestyle. The few days we spent there on a fruit farm were so memorable that the thought of actually living there slowly evolved as we taught in the desert.  We returned to the fruit farm in 86 during one of the school holidays, were instantly remembered by the owners, and welcomed in for a cuppa. We told Dawn that we had been looking at buying land and asked what she thought of the possibility of us living there. Her reply, “Well, there’s a block for sale over the back, I’ll get Hans to show you where”, set us on another new path to last right through to retirement age.

looking west from the house site

Hans arrived within the hour and took us around into Nicole Drive. We stood on the dirt track looking east across a totally cleared 2.2 Ha of head high grass. We didn’t find it at all interesting, as although there was some scrub alongside a creek flowing down its northern boundary, there was no rainforest even on the edges, and it was the rainforest we found attractive.  The idea of living in the area persisted and we dropped in at a Real Estate office in Mossman to discover that the 5.5 Ha block alongside the grassy paddock was also for sale, and it was mostly rainforest.  We made the link that if we could buy both blocks, we would have enough forest to enjoy as well as enough cleared land for a farm. Before leaving to go back to Epenarra we arranged for a solicitor to make offers on both blocks and for Alison’s Dad to arrange the sale of our Port Melbourne cottage.

The two blocks of vacant land were going to cost us $110K and $55K, pretty much all we had invested in the stock market and the cottage. We were feeling flush with cash as we had invested the $65K paid for the Muddie into the stockmarket during a growth phase and had watched that grow over two years to around $150K. Alan had our power of attorney, so was able to sell up the cottage on our behalf to raise the cash for the land. Our choice to sell the cottage rather than all the shares was an unfortunate decision as it turned out, as the stock market crashed in 1987, taking our investment there back to its starting point by the time we knew about it and asked  Alan to get it out.  However, we had enough cash to erase all our debts and to buy the land without having to borrow, as we knew that without our professional salaries there would be some lean years ahead.

We visited several more times in 87 and 88, taking stuff that we knew would be useful. For our final trip over we had bought an old caravan in Darwin for $200 and managed to get it roadworthy for another $200 with enough registration to drive it to Qld. On the way across, I called my father as my mother had been ill with cancer, only to discover that she had died that day. Alison dropped me in Cairns to fly back down to Melbourne for Mums funeral while she continued alone towing the van on up to Cape Trib. One of the Cape Trib locals then helped her to back the van into its final resting place, where some of it still sits today.

Bob Gotts using our shower in the creek.

Dad drove me back from Victoria after Mum’s funeral, turning the trip into a working one by visiting some of his furniture sales agents along the way, and then stayed with us in our caravan for a week or so while we used our hike tent. He was a little shell shocked by our choice, but was never critical of us dropping out.   Facilities were a bit rough for many months, although it didn’t seem much of a problem to us. Our shower was a bag of water hoisted up a tree over the creek, while our toilet was a hole in the ground, filled in and dug again elsewhere every few weeks. The creeks that gurgled cheerily by our camp only ever flowed for a few weeks after at least 50mm of rain. During the wet seasons that meant flowing water full time, with fresh and clean swimming holes everywhere.

Building the House

There was no phone, power or town supplied water available on our land. State supplied grid electricity was (and still is) a pipe dream for some of the locals, insisting that the promise had been made that it would be coming when the land was subdivided. Listing of the crown land rainforest as World Heritage had really killed that possibility, but over the next ten years several grants were made available for us to purchase solar panels, cutting our fuel bills significantly. Water was less of a challenge, as the 4m plus rainfall meant that household use at first could easily be fulfilled from roof catchment and tanks. As our orchard grew, irrigation was needed to be able to water the trees in the dry times, and that meant a bore had to be drilled for a reliable supply. That is a story in its own right. Telstra turned up in the valley shortly after we set up the van. A microwave tower connected us to the world via Port Douglas, and a huge telstra bulldozer buried a cable and a waterline from the road all the 300m down to the van, putting up a loop at the house site and levelling a few bumps in the drive as he went.  So we had a land line, but no mobile service would arrive for decades.

AG taken by Barb Dodson1989 Looks like the pineapple was a bit tart.

We had explored the flat areas of both blocks, driving around through head high grass, clunking into the occasional boulder, to identify a camp site as well as possible house sites. The camp site was obvious, next to a creek junction and sheltered under two huge rainforest trees, a Black Bean and a Silky Oak, both around 30m high and 80cm thick at the base. Alison had parked the van in here and our camp grew around it with an old steel frame from Epenarra giving us a roof while pallets from the Cairns wreckers gave us a floor off the muddy ground. All the cleared land was very rocky, but the house site had to be out in the open away from the possibility of falling trees. We had been shocked by the realtor when he pointed out a flattish spot on the ridge in the rainforest, suggesting it as the ideal house location with views out to sea. Buying the forest to then clear it for a house and a view was not even a faint possibility. We didn’t say anything to him, just eye rolled at one another. We wandered the flat land and eventually identified the rockiest area as being near one of the creeks about 100m from the camp. This was to become the house site as it couldn’t be used for a garden or fruit trees. It did lead to some creative digging clearing holes for posts and concrete stumps.

Our goal right from the outset was that we would establish a self-supporting tourism based fruit farm, but as trees are quite slow to grow, we would need an alternative income for many years before that goal could be realised. We had arrived with total cash assets of $29K to set up the farm and build a house.  Alison started work almost immediately at the new resort at Coconut beach as a cleaner while I did some odd jobs for them renovating old deck chairs.  I then was offered a terms work teaching at Eltham College replacing an old friend while he was off on long service leave, stepping back to where I had been 6 years before, but where very few students knew me.  They were quite shocked as they tried to treat me as a newbie, whereas I knew and had helped establish many of the systems the school used for student management.  I ended up as an advisor and counsellor for the other new teachers and supporting them in their issues with the school not able to recognise their problems.

We had house designs drawn up while we were still in the NT, and a drafting engineer drew up  formal plans for council, so by mid 1989 we were able to start building.  The house was to be a timber frame on concrete stumps, raised off the ground sufficiently to crawl underneath. Digby barrow mixed and poured the concrete by hand for each of 49 stumps, using timber ply as formwork and a water level to set the height.  Each stump had to go down 900mm into the ground and be larger at the bottom than the top as part of the resistance to cyclonic wind lifting the whole house. Reinforcing rods were embedded in the concrete stump as well, one of which came out the top and had a thread cut to bolt down the timber bearer.  As the timber frame was built up onto these bearers, another long bolt ran from below the bearer to above the wall top plate every meter along each wall.  This house wasn’t going to move in any sort of a wind. Nearly all the hard wood timber was second hand, sourced from a friendly wrecker in Cairns, and one load of the big bearers from Townsville.

Nailing down the kitchen floor.

Our focus for the house was to get the bathroom and toilet operational, so with Hans organising the septic tank and plumbing, the walls and floor went in quite quickly on that end of the house.  Old bits of sheet metal were the first wall lining, replaced by native pine weatherboards later on. Then the focus shifted to the kitchen and bedroom, with blue tarps walling off the unfinished bits of the lounge room, study and carport.  We had been really lucky in establishing a friendship at a wrecking yard in Cairns, so we were able to leave him a list of the timber we wanted and that would be extracted, de-nailed and stacked waiting for each visit to town.  The best find there was enough 5m long 200 x 50 hardwood beams to do all the rafters for the house.  We were also able to buy an old house for wrecking on the Cape Kimberley turnoff, only 45 minutes drive south, and that provided much of the wall framing as well as the galvanised iron for the roof.

The centre piece for the lounge was a large stone fireplace, just like our muddie but without the conversation pit. Cape Trib locals were a bit shocked that anyone could ever feel the need for a fire in that climate, but given our large library we felt it could be useful to help dry out the area. It was lovely in the depths of winter, to have the fire warming us when the air temp was a chilly 20 or so.

Dave Watson building the fireplace while I’m on the ground mixing mortar and passing up rocks.

Alison nailed up a jobs list blackboard on the side verandah, where the weeks work could be seen and crossed off as it was done. For many years the top job on the list was “Finish the House”.  The chance to actually cross this one off came in 2000, when we were overseas and the house caught fire, destroying the carport and severely damaging the study and lounge room.   Insurance paid to rebuild the damage, and a friendly local builder was quite happy to finish off many of the odd jobs, like plastering, that were never quite finished. The main reason the house wasn’t destroyed was because we had used cement sheet as the internal wall lining for its mould and water resistance instead of plasterboard. The fire was unable to penetrate to the furnishings, but we both felt it may have been better to have the entire house replaced as the builder did such a good job.

Alison’s job at the resort was always to be short-lived, so it wasn’t long before she found a teaching job at Wangetti and moved to live down there during the week, coming back to help on the farm on weekends. She still had a burning desire to use her professional skills and eventually moved to work as a curriculum developer in Cairns at the Tafe college.  Some of this work could be done from home using conference calls. I remember her running a class for firefighter trainers in nsw from the bedroom on the phone.  As the technology developed, this became teaching teachers how to best use the internet for their training. By the late 90’s we had a satellite connection for our internet which enabled Ali to work more from home, even connecting to her TAFE computer, while management could cope with that.

What Fruit to Grow?

As the house became usable, our focus shifted to the orchard. What were we going to grow?  We had always held to an organic philosophy, and we decided to not only use this but to add in a permaculture basis. We both took time out to do 10 day permaculture design courses. Alison with Christine Lang at Crystal Waters and me with Robyn Francis near Mullumbimby. We both came back with lots of ideas, many of which although wonderful in a temperate or subtropical climate failed in the far northern wet tropics. It took us quite a while to get used to having the sun in the southern sky for several months each year, and solidly overhead most of the time. We ran a few permaculture short courses for the tropics on our farm through Cairns TAFE, but we were a bit too remote for numbers to make them economically viable.

We knew that diversity is the key concept for a stable ecosystem, so grow everything became our catch-cry. We joined the Rare Fruit Growers association and at our first meeting won the door prize, half a dozen rare tropical fruit trees in pots. From then on, seed hunting next door and from everyone in the group meant that we could collect plants from all over the world without having to actually go there. Although diversity was important we also wanted to be a commercial farm, so we had to choose something to specialize in growing to have the volume to make it worth shipping south. The choice had to be made from plants that were well adapted to the climate, that we enjoyed growing and eating, and that had no identifiable problems with being grown in Australia. There was lots of debate, but our top 5 priority list in order came down to Durian, Mangosteen, Salak, Breadfruit and Rambutan.

Durian fall when mature, very dangerous to walk under the trees!

We both loved Durian and Colin and Dawn next door grew several varieties which they had imported from Thailand.  They were happy to give us access to do our own approach grafting onto seedling trees.  Its distinctive flavour had a huge potential market in the Asian communities around Melbourne and Sydney, and many westerners were also discovering the delights of this fruit. The catch was that the trees are very big with quite weak timber, making them very vulnerable to cyclonic wind, and once damaged they become easy killed by fungal attack, not easily countered organically. We decided to plant 50 or so and see how they went, but not to rely on them.

Mangosteen tray ready for market.

The sweet and sharp flavour of Mangosteen has made it the Queen of the tropical fruits, always loved once discovered, and always expensive. It grows easily from seed, with 2-3 in every fruit.  The catch was that although it grows well in our climate, it is very slow and it was likely to take at least 12 years to get a significant crop. We would prefer to have an income before then, so although we could plant as many as we could fit in, we would need other fruits to sell earlier.

While we were still teaching at Epenarra and after we had bought the property, we arranged a seed collecting trip to Thailand, coming back through quarantine in Darwin with 20 kg or so of seed. We had bought a truckload of Durian with the help of a translator, but we weren’t allowed to take them back to the hotel because of the smell. So we sat in the street opening all the fruit to pick out the seeds, dropping the flesh into plastic bags for the translator to do with what she would.  The shells went back into the truck for him to dispose of. We also bought 20 kg of mangosteen, and spent several happy hours sitting in the roof garden of our hotel opening the fruit to eat the flesh, the best way of cleaning the seeds. All of these seeds had to be totally clean and packaged into sealed clear bags so that every seed could be seen by the quarantine officer before it would be allowed back into Australia. We then mailed them across to Colin and Dawn, who potted them up for us to plant out when we came to live there.

Salak – snakeskin fruit from Bali, each about the size of a golfball.

Salak looked to be a strong contender for main commercial crop. It is a small palm that blows down easily in a wind but happily grows back up again with a bent trunk. The fruit is easily harvested close to the ground and has a shelf life of up to several weeks with care and cool conditions. We could find a few seeds but needed more so we decided in 92 that Digby should go to Bali to collect several thousand to put in a serious crop. The Bali salak is the only species of the genus with both male and female parts in the flower, meaning that it can self pollinate while all the others depend on an outside factor doing the pollination.  On return his backpack was filled with seeds. Everything else had been dumped. On presenting this to quarantine in Cairns, the shell shocked officer took them away to inspect, calling us a few hours later that it was ok to collect them.  Pots for them were going to cost several hundred dollars, so we hunted for an alternative and found thousands of dumped 500ml yoghurt containers at our Cairns wreckers at $10 for the lot.  Drainage was solved by firing a 22 round through 100 at a time.  They were in our nursery area for over a year before they were big enough to plant out.

Breadfruit mature and ready for cooking, best as oven baked chips

Breadfruit is a huge tree, and cyclone proof by being very weak, dropping branches in a wind. It survives severe damage to fruit the following season with no issues. We had two tree varieties growing locally and we were allowed to collect root suckers from those to get growing in our nursery. The fruit is eaten as a starch vegetable after cooking, and we couldn’t imagine a big market for such an uninteresting vegetable, but we decided to grow 30 or so as a windbreak along the western boundary on Nicole Drive.

Rambutan, the hairy cousin to lychee, but much more tropical.

Colin and Dawn were growing Rambutan as their major commercial crop and were experiencing several issues with fruit bats and birds, using high voltage  wires and cannon fire to keep them at bay. We thought we would plant a few trees as we loved the fruit, but we didn’t want to face that level of competition.

Those four species gave us the structure for the formal orchard with trees in rows running north south.  Three rows of breadfruit along the road frontage, then durian, salak, mangosteen, salak, durian and so on.  Over the first decade, the durian slowly died off from root fungal attack after each producing a couple of fruit. They were replaced by mangosteen.   The 1500 salak were growing very well, but there was insufficient pollination for a big crop. Digby hand pollinated for a while but this was not sustainable long term and eventually they were pulled out one by one, leaving about 50 there today. By early in the 2000’s it was obvious that we were to be a mangosteen orchard, with about 150 fruiting trees at that time, developing to about 400 by 2014.

Odd corners of the orchard block and all the land around the house became our food forest.  We could always find room for another plant somewhere, so by the time we moved out there were around 150 species or varieties of mostly tropical fruits and vegetables growing somewhere on the farm.  Sometimes the climate won, as the poor plant just couldn’t cope with the high humidity and rainfall.  We tried many times to get sub-tropical finger limes to grow all to no avail. We did however manage to get a loquat to grow and fruit despite its temperate climate origin.

One of the wonderful discoveries with this range of fruit available was the realisation that many fruits are not seen in markets because they have some sort of a problem making them difficult to sell.  Too short a shelf life, too soft to move, too odd tasting or textured, over ripe too quickly and so on.  Some of these difficult fruit were our favourites, with huge potential if the problems could be overcome. Two of these were soursop and davidson plum.

Sarah serving soursop to a group of fruit tasters

Soursop is a member of the custard apple family, but the flavour is sharp and tangy and the flesh is very fibrous and seedy, making it too difficult to eat easily.  It also has a very short time of best flavour after ripening, with off notes coming in one or two days after softening. We discovered that the perfect ripe fruit could be easily peeled and the fibrous flesh fed through a mouli to extract the thick white creamy juice.  This could then be cooked with sugar as a jam, retaining all its flavour and a vibrant sugar/acid balance. Any amount of the jam could be sold to the tourists passing through, as everyone would return for more once they tasted it.  The trees also became a very profitable side hustle, as the dried leaves made up as tea had a reputation as a cancer treatment.  We started growing the trees and heavily pruning them to encourage foliar growth. Leaves could be stripped by hand, collecting a wheelbarrow full in minutes.  We would then spread them to dry on sheets in the sun, or bundle them into the tumble drier if the weather was too damp. Even so, the leaves did tend to go mouldy if left in their packaging, so instructions to complete the drying went out with every pack.

dried soursop leaves being bagged up for mailing.

Davidson’s plum is a native rainforest fruit, found in nsw as well as in the far north. It has a deep red flesh and is inedibly sour, but after cooking with sugar makes the most beautiful red jam. The trees grow very straight and tall with a single stem, branching out at about 10m off the ground. Fortunately the fruit drop when mature, so can be simply collected from the ground every few days during harvest time. Unfortunately, the cockatoos also love eating the seeds, picking the fruit to open them well before maturity. Our challenge was to protect the foliage so far off the ground.  Bamboo poles around each tree held a pvc hoop hanging on a cord from each pole, with netting hanging from the hoop like a stocking. This could be hauled up and down when necessary, stopping the birds as they wouldn’t try to fly down inside.  We were also experimenting with pruning the trees, hoping to get them to branch and fruit lower down where the birds were less likely to see them.

Davidson Plum, fresh and tart.

Rocks and Water

All our flat land had been cleared of rainforest back in the 30’s when the area was first settled. From the written histories, it seemed that much of our orchard block had been cleared to plant bananas by a 13 year old boy with a cane knife!  I suspect that the high rainfall and clearing combined to strip most of the topsoil, leaving thousands of exposed rocks. It was rarely possible to dig a hole with a spade, nearly always the rocks had to be levered out with a crow bar before the remaining soil could be dug out. The positive side of this was that the soil was very well drained, while the clay matrix around the rocks held water that the plants could access. The rocks themselves were the remains of a lava flow that happened under the sea. It therefore cooled very quickly, to a grain free and very hard rock, unable to be drilled or shaped in any way with tools I had. The Cape Trib headland is the same rock, which is why it is still there.

The first bore driller we hired to give us a permanent water supply set up his rig on about 5 places, drilling away on each spot before hitting a rock the drill couldn’t break, which simply turned with the drill bit. He could only pull out and move to try again.  He was able to tell us that although there was plenty of water down about 10m, all the ground was all too rocky to that depth for him to leave us a bore. We decided to dig a well.

Drill rig in the orchard

A backhoe came in and was able to dig a large hole about 5m deep. Over the hole we built a platform floor with pallets and set up a poppet head with an old tree trunk and wire rope. Digby would fill a bucket and Alison would wind it up to tip into a barrow before sending it back down, only dropping it twice, enough that Digby hid under a jammed crowbar for each transfer. Large rocks could be carried up. Over two dry seasons we managed to get down to about 15m before it became impractical.  This became our main water supply for several years, but it still tended to dry out over winter. A reliable bore was still needed.

The second rig to pass through the valley set up in the middle of the orchard. He drilled away for a day, to about 50m, and with the drill still down there he turned off the engine to listen.  We could all hear rocks falling down the hole around the drill bit, splashing as they hit water. George turned white in panic, as the drill bit was worth many thousands of dollars and was likely to be jammed down there by the falling rock.  He got all his gear up as fast as he could and left the valley never to be seen again.

The third attempt was successful, with a hammer drill pushing through the rocks like butter and a hole drilled and cased to 35m in a morning. Once he had left we poured a concrete slab around the bore and built a stone shed around it as a pump house and generator shed. This is still the main power and water supply near the house, and water can be pumped from there up to a header tank on the hill to supply gravity fed pressure to the house or across to the orchard for watering trees.

A fourth driller rather cannily spotted an area in the orchard where the surface soil was mostly clay, with few rocks. He drilled there successfully and cased a bore hole to 40m, but the water flow has never been strong enough to pump from it for more than a few hours at a time. It did mean that there was a bore for water on both titles when the time came to sell up.

The rocky surface had to be dealt with as all the mowing equipment was destroyed by crashing into rock. The permaculture philosophy teaches that you should always turn a challenge into an asset, so the rocks had to be viewed as an inexhaustible resource. A typical days work would see us moving about 3 ton of rock, towing a trailer around the orchard collecting all the exposed rocks and dropping them either in a pile out of the way or next to the stone wall that was slowly growing across our road frontage. The generator shed, chimney, gabion walls and causeway in the creek and the paving around the house were also all from this “free” resource.

Tourism

We believed from the outset that tourism would be the main source of income for our farm. Coconut Beach Resort opened just as we arrived, PK’s jungle lodge had been the mainstay backpackers for 10 years or so, while Pilgrim Sands was the best campground we’d ever visited. Tourism development continued at a rapid pace through the 90’s, with Ferntree taking over the Jungle Lodge and adding many more beds, Pks building a new backpackers on the main road while Pilgrim Sands eventually selling out to become another backpackers. This meant that there were about 1800 tourist beds in the valley within 4 km of our farm. This was our obvious market audience and we had to identify a way to extract money. 

Dawn was running a fruit tasting tour on her farm next door, so that was out even had we enough fruit. I bought 20 pushbikes and set them up for hire in all of the resorts. Reception looked after the hiring while I cycled around every afternoon to keep them running.  This earned about $4000 a month, the only drama being to get a couple of the resorts to pay up on their invoices, often a couple of months overdue. The attrition from rust and abuse on the bikes was a huge issue, needing me to spend a couple of thousand a month on parts and replacements. We gave up on gears, simplifying them to back pedal brakes, but they still were a good way to earn living expenses. I was also able to get work with Masons Tours as a rainforest guide, doing several morning walks and spotlighting walks at night a week for a fair portion of the takings.

Right through the 90’s we also enjoyed a steady stream of WWOOFAs, mostly young travelers coming to work on an organic farm in return for board and keep. We had the caravan for them to stay in and meals at the house. They would also be asked to cook at least one meal typical of their homeland. Some simply took over as housekeeper cooks, while others had to call home to get mums instructions for dinner. We soon learned that we had to work alongside them, and not abandon them to the farm, as enthusiasm did not necessarily mean adherence to instructions.

building the gabion wall in the creek with scottish wwoofas in mid summer.
Gabion wall doing its job
Wwoofas bagging carambola against fruit fly.

Our initial vision had us building 4 small cabins on the edge of our forest, but Douglas Shire at the time refused to allow planning approval for any bed and breakfast development. Their view was to only support the big end of town, with locals only being useful to supply the cannon fodder to keep the resorts running.  They still accepted our application fee, about $1200, before rejecting it out of hand. By the end of the 90’s, council had swung to be supportive of small business, and actually encouraged low key farm development, allowing us to build two or more cabins as well as a gazebo for presentations and a granny flat for friends and family when my father announced he was coming to live with us.

First cabin by the creek.

Around the mid 90’s Dawn and Colin decided that their main trees needed more time and gave up on the fruit tasting. Masons took it on as they had a good collection of fruiting trees and an established presence in the resorts from their rainforest tours. By 1998 they too decided that fruit tasting was not worth the trouble as they had to buy in too much fruit as well as pay a presenter. We knew that this was our chance and grabbed the opportunity. Our tasting tour started off as a casual walk around the orchard, tasting any odd fruit that presented itself.  We had planks on bricks to sit on in the garden, which we moved onto our deck if it was raining. It didn’t take long before we had the octagonal gazebo to do the presentations, with comfortable seating for 30 or so.  Cyclone Rona at the end of 1999 then caused a 2 year interval with extensive tree damage and Digby took a position in Samoa as horticulture advisor for a UN fruit tree development program. After the Samoan experience, the fruit tasting became serious business, with a paid presenter and a troop carrier purchased for transfers. The tasting became a daily event throughout the year, late in the afternoon so it didn’t disrupt the working day too much. We would arrange to have 10 unusual fruit picked from the farm or bought from a farmers market in Cairns as part of my weekly run. we would work our way through the menu, then go for a walk around looking at some of the trees, whatever was in season at the time.

Typically we would enter the orchard to be met by 50 or so of our muscovy ducks, rushing over to see if we had food. The ducks would then pretend to be part of the tour and follow along with the people. We continued to run the tour with various presenters until around 2014, when the farm was put on the market.

digby in full flow

We thought we knew what we wanted as accommodation cabins, and drew up sketches to show a draughtsman. He said, “Well that’s pretty boring, why don’t you do this?” and slashed in two diagonal walls, opening up the deck and the bathroom, and yet giving more useable space. We saw the bonus immediately and he then prepared formal drawings for council in extreme detail to help Digby with the construction.  Council agreed to let us build two cabins on the creek side and we decided to build one and see how it went before committing to more. Poles and frame were up when Cyclone Rona came through and changed everything. 

Fruit Tree Advisor

We spent several months with chainsaw in hand cleaning up the mess before Alison’s friend,  Julia Thaggard, then Director of Innisfail TAFE, offered Digby a couple of weeks expenses paid on Samoa teaching organic growing. This was simply intended as a holiday and a step back into academic mode, but one of the attendees at his classes proved to be setting up a major fruit tree development project for Samoa, and when we reached the end of classes he offered Digby a position as farmer advisor. As this was for 12 months spread over 18, I refused, on the grounds that there was too much to do cleaning up the farm.  He then told me that it would pay US$8000 a month, tax free! I said I’d talk it over with Alison and get back to him. Alison, of course, hit the roof and said call him and accept now! 

Alison with her Samoan host family on Savai’i.

So I did and my career as a horticulture advisor for real started. Alison took leave from TAFE and spent time either with me in Samoa, on the farm in the BB cabin or off touring on her own somewhere. A young couple with three kids came to be caretakers for us for the duration, so we had a neighbour, Geoff, come in to roof the cabin while Ali cut and nailed weatherboards for the outside cladding so she would have somewhere dry to live while there.   The cheapest way for the UN to get me to Samoa was on a round the world ticket via Auckland, so I would typically go for the term and arrange to meet Ali somewhere to do something exciting, before coming back the long way around a couple of months later to start again in Samoa.  In this way we managed a few short walks in Hawaii, hiked the GR5 from Nice to Geneva through France, a train trip across Canada, cycled the Loire across France for a few weeks and hiked the GR20 across Corsica while Alison on her own walked the Camino St James, cycled the south west coast of Ireland, wwoofed in Hawaii, and enjoyed her first opportunity as a girl on her own.  Several other contracts followed as a direct result of the Samoa time; in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, East Timor and Tonga. But the Samoa time gave us the freedom and funding to really get our business going.

Legs must always be covered, so a lava lava is worn in public.
My work crew ready for some action mixing potting soil.

Internet Stuff

Alison typically used her time out from TAFE for self-development as well as self indulgent travel.  Her curriculum development role was based around using computers for learning, but it was time for her to learn about using the internet more deeply for web site design and promotion.  This could all be used not only for her teaching but also for the promotion of our B&B. Up until this time, we had called our farm Trib Valley Fruit Farm, but Ali insisted that the location be more accurately embedded in our registered name. So we formally became Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm with Cape Trib as our domain name. This gave us the impressive email addresses of alison@capetrib.com.au and digby@capetrib.com.au and a website at www.capetrib.com.au which meant it would come up on any search system, despite being mildly illegal, as location names were not permitted at the time. Ie. you couldn’t register capetribulation as a domain name, but as capetrib was not a place and was part of our business name, that was ok.  Many other elements made up the ranking in a search, but Ali persisted in chasing the number 1 position, with strong competition from several other businesses in the area.  She went on from there to build our website to promote the rare fruit, the fruit tasting, the b&b accommodation with links to a booking agency. Eventually the only way to book to stay at the B&B was through the website.

Bed and Breakfast

Once we were back home full time from Samoa, Digby went on to get the cabin finished and up to scratch for paying guests. Our first booking arrived around Easter 2002, with bookings pretty much contiguous from then. We insisted on a minimum two night booking through the website, leaving single nights vacant deliberately as time outs for us.  If we were feeling hungry, a vacancy sign sometimes went up to accept a walk in, but those nights off became too important for our sanity.  We were also very up front with the B&B description of what we were offering, as we felt it important that expectations should match reality, unlike the normal pattern in a resort stay. Complaints were rare, but did occur when one partner of a couple might make the booking without running it past the other. The absence of phone, internet, air conditioning or a spa, not to mention the prolific insect life could make life difficult for some, especially Germans and Californians, while we found Oreganos well adapted to life there. One young couple arrived and disappeared an hour later to never return. We later found that he had not warned her about what to expect, and they simply did a runner back to a Port Douglas resort. No refund requested or offered. I remember a midnight knock on the door with a guest upset by a spider on the floor. I had to go down and search for it.  A major part of our offering was the full cooked breakfast.  We had experienced the usual prepacked continental waiting in the fridge and detested it.  Guests were expected to let us know their choice for the cooked course and what time they would like it presented on their cabin deck. They could choose any of banana pancakes, French toast with maple syrup and bacon, omelette or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, poached eggs with hollandaise and ham on a muffin served with hot croissants and jam anytime between 7:30 and 9:00. I’m salivating as I type.

French Toast anyone?

We ran the one cabin for the rest of the year, before committing to the second a bit further away from the house. The same plan and materials were used for the build, although the walls were made a little lower and the main pole a bit shorter to give the roof a gentler angle.   Once this was up and running, we started getting in people to help with the change-overs, and sometimes with the breakfasts although Digby typically was the cook. A couple of Daihatsu 4wds came up for cheap sale in Port Douglas, registered but not roadworthy capable but ideal for farm work. The better one with a closed canopy became the B&B changeover vehicle while the open one became the farm workhorse. Washing the linen at changeover was a huge chore and not one we had the equipment or power to do well, so we initially used a commercial cleaner in Craiglea, who provided all the sheets and linen as well. This task eventually moved to Alsco in Cairns and became part of the weekly town run.  We would deliver the soiled towels and sheets every Friday and pick up clean sets.  Enough spares for several full changeovers of both cabins were held in the linen room built into the granny flat.

Commercial fruit

By 2002 our oldest Mangosteen trees were at 14 years, and starting to fruit seriously, with one harvest around October and one in April, if weather had been kind. We would only know for sure if we were getting a crop about 3 months beforehand as flower buds started to appear. We would typically spend July and January with bated breath watching and hoping for buds. Once a harvest got going we would have to pick each tree two or three times a week as each fruit could only be picked once ripening had started. Sometimes we could handle it ourselves, but often we would have two pickers and 2 packers working to get the fruit in before it fell. Digby would drive the loads up to Mareeba twice a week and to Mossman on Thursday to a trucking company with each load aimed for a market in Sydney or Melbourne. We would find out what we had been paid for each load about a week later, and so discover whether we had made any money after staff and transport costs. We sold the fruit in 3 kg trays and could get anywhere from $18 to $45 a tray.  Stall-holders sold poor quality fruit in Rusty’s market in Cairn for around $10 a kilo. Our reject and small fruit went to the Tony and Trudy at the Shannonvale fruit winery for $1/kilo, as mangosteen  can make a very dry and tasty wine.

 Every fruit had to be cleaned and inspected before being packed to ensure it complied with the standards set by woolworths and coles for retail sale. An ant discovered coming out of a pallet of fruit could be enough to have that entire load dumped as unclean. As ants loved nesting under the 4 leaves on top of each fruit this was a real threat but we only once came close to losing one pallet. Fruit coming in from the field were dropped into a soapy water bath, poisonous to ants and other insects, then fished out for wiping down and packing.  We had no refrigeration capable of storing the fruit, so transfer to a cool room had to happen fairly quickly after packing. Every Thursday we could take a load down to near Mossman and a cool room at the transport depot for collection on Friday. Other days the load had to go all the way to Mareeba and the main transport depot.  Once there I would have to hand load a pallet from the back of the troopy, then use a fork lift to get it into position in the correct cool room. As I would usually arrive out of hours there was no-one there to help or tell me what to do, so this was quite a learning experience, especially figuring out how to drive the fork lift!

Load of mangosteen heading for Sydney

Winding Down

Hiking had always been a major part of our lives, and the Appalachian trail on the east coast of the USA was brought to our attention a couple of times in the early 2000’s.  Bill Bryson’s book “A walk in the woods”, was one of those stimuli to get us thinking about doing it. The AT is a 3600 km footpath in forest  through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, and typically takes around 6 months walking with full gear and food, hitching into towns to resupply when necessary. This was a daunting challenge, even for us, so we thought that we should attempt a shorter distance to see if we were still capable of carrying a full pack. The Bibbulman track in WA had been designed to mimic the Appalachian Trail, but was only a third of its length, and flat! Just on 1000 km running from Albany to Perth, we decided to do it first and see how we went.

The story is here, https://iamfootlooseandfree.com/2016/12/11/bibbulman-track-2008/

We had a ball, with Taryn and Craig, a couple of our WA friends helping along the way and we committed shortly after that to do the AT as well in 2010. That story is here

and here

However, the upshot of completing the AT was that we had to find time to do more of these long hikes while we could, and the best way to do that was to sell up. A couple of years went by renovating and prepping the house for sale while we also coped with various health issues warning us that time was limited. The farm was sold by 2014, while we bought a suburban block in Mossman and had a small cottage built close to shops, bowls club and hospital, moving there to live in 2015.

We did manage several more long hikes, in the USA https://iamfootlooseandfree.com/2016/11/01/500-miles-of-the-pacific-crest-trail-through-the-high-sierras/

in the UK https://iamfootlooseandfree.com/2017/10/10/pennine-way-september-2017/

and back in Australia https://iamfootlooseandfree.com/2016/04/13/hans-heysen-trail-june-2015/

but time ran out for Alison, with her contracting a severe Uterine Cancer and dying after 14 months of pointless and extreme treatment and pain in May 2019

So the farm is in new hands, still running as an orchard with air bnb accommodation and off site managers, with frequent visits from the Sydney based owners.

I’m still trying to figure out how to enjoy life without my best friend.  After a brief stint on Tonga as an horticulture advisor, I am now living in Corryong in Victoria, still planning to do some more long walks once Covid is a memory. A BnB walk of the Cornish Coastal path is up there on my list, so we’ll see what comes next, although it won’t be with tropical fruit!

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