graphic conspicuous log mystery

The Great Conspicuous Log Mystery

By Roger Underwood

Holidaying at Nornalup last summer I decided one day to take a trip in to Point Conspicuous. I had not been there for many years, but my mind conjured up a memory of soaring limestone cliffs, granite outcrops, and Southern Ocean rollers coming in to a wide, spray-drenched beach. It was also part of my plan to check out the red-flowering gums (Eucalyptus ficifolia), which are one of the most widely planted of all Australian trees, but are native only to a tiny pocket of woodland just inland from the Conspicuous coast.

The red-flowering gums were very beautiful, but something else entirely captured my interest.

Since I had last visited Conspicuous, the parkies had constructed a first-rate wooden path and ladderway down from the carpark to the beach.

Roger Underwood and log at Conspicuous Beach
The "Spiccy Log", January 2019   [Tap for enlagement]

As we approached the bottom of the path, I caught sight of a large and weather-beaten log wedged in a gully at the foot of the dune. It was so totally out of context with its surroundings, that I had to scramble down for a look. Little did I know that this curiosity over “The Spiccy Log” (as it is now known) would lead me on a voyage of discovery, and to investigations into Indonesian rainforests, endangered species, oceanography and war-time history.

The first thing I noticed about the log was that it had been neatly cross-cut with a saw at both ends. This indicated that it was a product of timber cutting, not simply an old fallen tree washed down from the bush. I briefly considered that it might have originated on a farm further inland, but this was clearly not possible. The little creek in which it was lodged was dune drainage, and was unconnected to any inland waterways …. and in any case, our native eucalypts all have timber that is denser than water and does not float.

The second thing I noticed was that the log was heavily pitted by marine borers and eroded by salt water and ocean waves and winds. It looked to me as if it had been at sea and then sand-blasted on the beach for a great many years.

Later I wondered if there was any folklore about the log and contacted the local historical society, and the Parks and Wildlife people. Nobody knew anything. I checked with an old mate Ray Flanagan, who had been a forester at Walpole, had lived nearby and had fished at Conspicuous beach many times over many years. Ray knew the log well. When he had first come across it, he said, it had been right down on the shoreline with the surf smacking over it, only recently arrived. This had been maybe 25 years ago.

So, I calculated that since its arrival, the log had moved about 500 metres inland across the beach and into the dunes. Presumably it had been washed and rolled in by the violent winter storms which notoriously lash this part of the coast.

Spiccy log sample
Timber sample, showing weathered exterior
and well-preserved heartwood
[Tap for enlagement]

The next job was identification. Here I was helped by the Walpole Historical Society who organised approval from the Parks and Wildlife Service, and then the extraction of a small sample of the timber, which was duly delivered to me.

The outer layers of the log were crumbly and fissured, but the inner heartwood was still sound. The timber was brown and light. I could see at once that “The Spiccy Log” came from no native Western Australian tree, but for an accurate identification I needed specialist advice.

Changii tree (considered to be Hopea sangai (1930)
The Changi Tree, considered to be Hopea sangal,
photographed in the 1930s (source: Wikipedia)

So I took the sample around to a forestry colleague Dr Graeme Siemon, one of Australia’s foremost experts on timber identification. Within minutes he had tracked it down: the log had come from a Hopea sangal tree.

Hopea sangal is a very rare tree, found only in the rainforests of the Indonesian/Malay Peninsula, in PNG and Thailand. In Indonesia the tree is known sometimes by the common name cengal while the timber is (or rather once was) sold under the trade names of merawan and giam.

I have not been to Indonesia and do not know the tree in question. However, some elementary research soon disclosed two things of interest. Firstly, the tree (in the wild) is so rare these days, that the numbers can be counted almost on one hand. It has been selectively harvested for its valuable timber over the years, but evidently logging was not followed by regeneration. [Perhaps things are different today, but up until a few years ago the standard of forest management in Indonesian rainforests was far from satisfactory and logging was not automatically followed by reforestation, as is the case in WA].

Secondly, there was once a famous Hopea sangal tree that grew adjacent to the notorious Changi Goal in Singapore, where so many Australians had a hard time during the second World War. Known as “The Changi Tree” it was extremely tall (quoted by Wikipedia as 76 metres, which I do not think can possibly be correct), and was a major landmark in Singapore from at least the 1880s until the early 1940s. It was felled at the time of the Japanese invasion in World War II, as the locals feared it would be used as an artillery ranging point.

So how did a log of Hopea sangal find its way from the rainforests of Indonesia to a beach on the south coast of Western Australia? There are two possibilities: (i) it fell off, or was jettisoned from the deck of a freighter carrying logs to Australia; or (ii) it floated down of its own accord.

leeuwin current chart

The first explanation is unlikely. Australia has never been an importer of rainforest logs (sawn timber, yes, but not raw logs), and even if it was, surely these logs were so valuable as to have been well secured, and carried within the ship’s hold. I think it more likely that the log entered the sea by floating down-river from a timber camp in Borneo or Java, or perhaps escaping from a log raft in an Indonesian harbour.

At this point I sought the advice of the Professor of Oceanography at UWA, Dr Charitha Pattiaratchi. He unhesitatingly supported the ocean voyage theory, drawing my attention to the Leeuwin Current that flows all the way down from Indonesia and Malaya along our west coast, before rounding Cape Leeuwin and flowing strongly to the east. According to Professor Pattiaratchi (who also drew my attention to the picture left), a buoyant log could very easily “go with the flow” of the Leeuwin Current, and end up on Conspicuous Beach … although the voyage might take many years.

This being the solution to the mystery, it is surprising that more Indonesian logs have not turned up, either on west or south coast beaches. The answer is probably that they have, but they have not been recorded or investigated. I have heard an unconfirmed report of a log on the beach at Coodamurrup (west of Walpole) and I am well aware that baulks of Burmese teak washed up on the west coast in the early days, and the pioneer settlers made good use of them. Perhaps logs arriving on south coast beaches might have ended up being slabbed out for cattlemen’s huts, or used for firewood by fishermen.

Whatever the case, the history of “The Spiccy Log” is intriguing, and the mystery can be considered resolved … or at least a credible explanation is presented.

My lingering worry is that the theory lacks proof. What we now need is for a benevolent millionaire to arrange for the tagging and release of 50 buoyant logs (sustainably harvested, of course) into the ocean currents flowing south from Indonesia, and their discovery on a south coast beach in some future decade. There would, of course, be a number of people and organisations who would object to such a scheme (nocturnal yachtsmen among them), but to me it doesn’t seem too different an idea from the tagging of whales or sharks, and would be a worthwhile contribution both to folk history and science.

Roger Underwood
January 2021

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Afterword

Roger is a forester, writer and historian. He worked for nearly fifty years in forest conservation, research and bushfire management and loves to return to this area.

The Society values Roger's interest and his willingness to share his writing with us ( also "A Job for a King")

Spiccy log November 2020
The "Spiccy Log", November 2020
Photo: Don Burton
[Tap for enlagement]

As indicated in"The Great Conspicuous Log Mystery" Roger requested a sample of the log and the Society was happy to arrrange it.

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One Sunday afternoon in November 2020 some members of the Society lead by its President Elizabeth Shaw (and Don Burton with saw in hand) extracted a sample from the log.

Left is a photo of the log almost 2 years after the above photograph with Roger. Shifting sands cover (and uncover) with the movement of time!


If anyone has a similar story or something to add to the above explanation of how the log came to be there, please do contact us.  Send email.

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