In a quiet corner of South Australia’s Riverland, four towering date palms hold a secret worldly history deep within their roots, but a local committee is working hard to bring them back to life.

Key points:

  • Four date palms in the Riverland are being restored to maintain their long-standing history
  • They’re the last surviving trees from a group of fifty that were gifted by the French Government in the 1890s
  • The Barmera improvement committee is working to create more of a tourist attraction at the site

Grown in Algeria, as a gift from the French Government to the colony of South Australia over a century ago, these Deglet Nour date palms in Barmera are the last survivors from an original collection of 50.

From humble beginnings in Biskra, which was French-ruled Algerian territory in the 1890s, the palms became part of an SA Government initiative to establish fruit growing along the outback rail and overland telegraph lines.

After leaving the French port of Marseille, on the maritime steamship Ville dela Clotat in 1894, the trees arrived on Australian soil in the Adelaide suburb of Semaphore.

It was not until being transported to the outback areas of Lake Harry, Marree (formerly known as Hergott) and Oodnadatta in 1895, they could find a resting place to spread their roots and produce dates.

These Algerian grown date palms travelled halfway across the world by boat, paddle-steamer and rail before ending up in their Barmera home.(Supplied: Berri Barmera Local History Collection and Dave Reilly)

But after 20 years of outback living, sandstorms, wildlife issues and saline bore water meant the date palms had to be transplanted once again, moving further south to a more suitable climate and soil by the River Murray.

In 1914, the large living palms were trucked to the Marree railway station, tied down onto flat bed railcars and transported by train to Morgan.

They soon hit the water once again, this time on a river paddle steamer, making their way to Cobdogla, before being planted at the Southern End of Lake Bonney in Barmera, where the surviving few still stand today.

New possibilities for palms to thrive

Over the last century, the date palms became forgotten about and were left abandoned until the Barmera Improvement Committee began restoring their legacy several years ago.

“Certainly they were overgrown with a lot of native plants, which have now been removed, but we just wanted to make them visible to travellers that come through,” Mr Waterman said.

The Barmera local said the forgotten palms have not produced any dates in years, but he was hopeful they will start bearing fruit again, now the committee has installed new irrigation at the site.

The four remaining Deglet Nour date palms in Barmera are getting a face lift in the hope they will produce fruit again and become a tourist rest stop.(ABC Riverland: Laura Collins)

In recent years it has worked with the local council to install a driveway and signage to attract passing tourists, and is in the process of uncovering a section of an old channel to add to the site.

“There aren’t many channels around the place that tourists can go and have a look,” he said.

“We’re digging it up … and it’ll be fenced off so that there are no accidents or people falling in.