Magical woods

It's a lot bigger than I expected, and much, much taller. Measuring more than 3 metres across at its base and reaching high into the clouds, it would have been a giant long before Captain Cook even set eyes on our fair land.

For more than 20 years I've heard whispers about this mysterious messmate that, hidden among other old growth trees on a road verge between Braidwood and Araluen, is firmly entrenched in local folklore. In fact, a few years back an old bushie at the Braidwood Pub ushered me to the side and asked if I knew about ''the fairy tree''.

It's not the way I spent my courtship years but, hey, I never had a fairy tree to visit.

It was as if he didn't want his mates to see him confiding in an ''outsider''. Either that or he was nervous using the word 'fairy'. I've even got a file back at Yowie headquarters crammed full of letters and emails in which readers, sometimes anonymously, have asked if I'd ever made a pilgrimage to see it ''with my own eyes''.

Most write about the location of the tree as if it's a state secret.

While it isn't a matter of national security, the location of the Araluen Fairy Tree is certainly a secret guarded closely by those in the know. However, this column's recent expose on significant trees (Timeless Trees, May 18) flushed a new wave of informants out of the wood work (sorry, no pun intended!) and after several follow-up (and, in at least one instance, covert) phone calls, I've finally made it to the infamous tree.

Apart from its size, the first thing you notice about the towering gum is its large hollow, likely the result of fire damage many years ago. Despite being widely referred to as the ''Araluen Fairy Tree'', it was initially called ''The Redman Tree''.

Gary Sully-Watkins of the nearby Reidsdale Cidery (well worth a visit but a story for another day) has been fascinated by the tree for a number of years and believes that the name dates back to the 1800s, when the McCorran family first arrived in Reidsdale (also called Irish Corner) from Ireland.

''They were told of small hairy 'Red Men' creatures who lived in the forest and rode on rabbits, bareback,'' explains the cheery cider-maker who adds, ''they associated this phenomenon with leprechauns and began to leave food offerings, as was traditional in Ireland.'' Apparently the Redman's fabled existence was spoken about within the McCarron family for generations, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that this particular gum tree became popular among local children following the discovery that it concealed a Redman's hideaway by five-year-old Jeneane Peterson in 1965.

In her historical account of Irish Corner (Reidsdale Remembered, The History of the Irish Corner: A Rural Community), Jill Clarke reports that little Jeneane ''was playing on the side of the road with her brothers [Ray and Phil], who were looking for rabbits and collecting bark for the their night fire. Ray and Phil urged Jeneane to look behind 'that large old gum', as it was a good place for a rabbit to hide. But a rabbit was not what she found … she found a 'Redman's House'! The little girl was amazed and dumbfounded. She called her brothers and they all peered into the massive hole on the side of the tree. Within the tree was an elaborate and petite home,'' Clarke writes.

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Clarke's account of the tree's discovery continues, ''a kitchen dresser was furnished out of wood and on it laid cups and saucers, plates, pots and pans. A tiny set of canister labelled with tea, flour and sugar were lined up on the top shelf of the sideboard.

The kitchen table was laid ready for a meal on a very neat and starched tablecloth. A wooden bed was placed in the corner with warm blankets, eiderdown and two small pillows.'' According to Clarke, ''the family members decide not to tell anyone outside their folk''.

However, news soon spread and before long many locals had heard of the fairy tree, and in the 48 years since, ''thousands of local children have asked their parents to stop off at the fairy tree and quietly crept to the entrance hoping that they would spy on the fairies,'' pens Clarke.

Today, the Fairy Tree seems to have bucked the trend that the only fun kids can have is on a computer screen, and it is as alluring as ever. Just two minutes after I arrive at the tree, a P-plater and his girlfriend pull up in a cloud of dust.

With a fluffy dice hanging from the rear-vision mirror and doof-doof music blaring from the stereo, it's not the type of visitor I'd expect to be paying homage to a tree decorated with angels, ribbons and kids' toys. The young man explains that he grew up in the area and has brought his girlfriend here see the tree for the first time. It's not the way I spent my courtship years but, hey, I never had a fairy tree to visit.

Unfortunately, despite its prolonged popularity, the Fairy Tree's days may be numbered. A large termite nest now fills most of the hollow where children once played and according to George Morton of Araluen, whose family has been visiting the tree for five (and soon to be six) generations, ''the nest has become so big that it is now impossible for even the smallest kid to sneak into the tree''. You can get a better appreciation of the size of the hollow pre-termite infestation days by the photo, above, that Chris Woodland of Termeil snapped of his kids playing at the tree in spring of 1977. The nest also now obscures a rope ladder that was installed in the late 1960s as an escape route for the Redman when he heard human voices approach. A spokesperson for the Palerang Council (official custodians of the tree due to its location on council land) reports that the council is aware of the termite nest and that ''the Fairy Tree, including dolls, letters and children's decorations'' was recently nominated to be heritage listed under the Draft Palerang Local Environmental Plan. This is potential good news for the tree for, according to my council insider, if approved, such a listing would afford the tree special protection including the possibility of a grant to attempt to rid the tree and surrounds of termites.

Let's hope at least an attempt to save the tree is made for this ancient messmate means a lot to generations of bush kids. It's much more than a curious cubby-house, it's part of a rich folklore that helps bind the social fabric of this tight-knit rural community with strong Irish roots. Long live the Araluen Fairy Tree - a living treasure.

Fact File

So where is it? Sorry - not wanting to be subjected to the wrath of the Redman (or fairies for that matter!) as the blabbermouth who publicly revealed its co-ordinates, I'm keeping mum about its precise location. If you really want to visit the tree, you'll have to ask Braidwood and Araluen locals of its whereabouts. Consider it as a sort of character check to confirm you're a bona fide visitor and will afford the tree due respect.

Lasting legacy: Over the years many children (and big kids, too) have left coins at the tree. Fay Anthon (nee McCarron) has collected many of these and sent them to a children's hospital in Sydney with a note to say that the donation was from ''the Redman''.

Did you know? Since discovering the extent of the tree's termite infestation, members of the McCarron family have been busily scouring the bush and nearby wilds of Monga National Park to find a suitable replacement. No word yet as to their success.

Fairy cakes: To raise awareness of the plight of the Fairy Tree, Gary Watkins-Sully is baking a special batch of fairy cakes this weekend to accompany the winter solstice luncheons he'll be serving at The Old Cheese Factory in Reidsdale (about a 20-minute drive from Braidwood via the Araluen Road). But a word of warning - apparently they're not the child's party type, but rather the Irish fertility cakes that ''have magical properties to enable you to see fairies''. Bookings recommended. Ph: 4846 1999 or braidwoodmade.com.au for more info.

More: Jill A. Clarke and Colin Borrott-Maloney's book, Reidsdale Remembered: The History of Irish Corner: A Rural Community (2012), has a chapter on myths and stories, which delves into the origins of the Fairy Tree.

MAILBAG

Bimberi beckons

It's not only in mid winter that the mercury dips well below zero in the ACT high country (Warming to Snow, June 15). One Canberran who'll be keeping well clear of our frigid high peaks this winter is Russell Wenholz of Holt, who, as a Commonwealth government surveyor spent a few chilly nights on the ACT's highest peak, Mount Bimberi, in the early 1970s. Although Wenholz was on our territory's rooftop in late spring, he recalls that even then the cold was so intense that it made him get to work faster. His clearest memory is, ''at 10pm going outside the observing tent to read barometers and finding the glass face had frosted over''. ''In November 1971 a helicopter picked us up when we finished - I recall looking up in the sky for them but, of course, when they came they came from below us - the sunlight flashing off the top of the rotor blades - such is Bimberi's altitude,'' Wenholz reports.

CONTACT TIM

Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick.

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