East of Derby you’ll start to notice the region’s distinctive boab trees, their bulbous trunks and spindly branches creating startling silhouettes. As much a symbol of the Kimberley as cattle stations and deep red sunsets, it’s widely believed that seeds from the African baobab – the common name of the genus Adansonia and of which the Australian name is a contraction – arrived in the Kimberley by sea from Africa thousands of years ago, gradually evolving into this distinct species.
The trees’ huge size enabled their most dubious function as temporary prisons for local Aboriginal people. The most notorious example of a prison tree, located about 7km south of Derby on the Derby Highway, held indigenous people kidnapped in the mid- to late nineteenth century from the Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek areas.
Today you’ll see carved boab nuts sold as homewares across the Kimberley, the intricate patterns worked into the flesh by Aboriginal artists. At the beginning of the rainy season the tree produces flowers and fruit, foretelling the beginning of the Wet. Aboriginal people also chew the bark for water – the huge trunks can hold up to 120,000 litres.