Exploring Australia’s Treasure Chest of Life MC version



In Australia’s tropical North Queensland, Mazda Stories meets a diverse group of eco-conscious residents who believe that what we do today will matter tomorrow.

Port Douglas’ unique geography makes it one of the most enthralling places on earth, largely due to the fact that this coastal town of Far North Queensland (or ‘FNQ’, as it’s known to locals) sits alongside not one, but two World Heritage Sites: the 2,300 km Great Barrier Reef and the 180-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest. 

Despite the former being one of the seven wonders of the natural world (award yourself a point if you can name the other six) it’s actually the tropical rainforest, and the people who live and work within it, that I am on my way to see. The Captain Cook Highway is the only main road between Cairns and Port Douglas; it’s a beautiful winding highway that hugs the edge of the Coral sea, and the glittering water reflects off my Zircon Sand Mazda CX-5 as I navigate the coastline in style. 

Considering the area is such a pristine paradise, it’s unsurprising to learn that many of its inhabitants are committed, perhaps even driven, to eco-friendly, regenerative ways of living and working, including the first place I’m here to visit: Oaks Kitchen & Garden, a Southeast Asian cooking school that uses home-grown, organic ingredients.

Greeting me there with Rosie, one of her many pet chickens, is Rachael Boon, a qualified chef and avid gardener who takes me on a tour to show off the endless number of things she’s growing on her property. 

“Because of our tropical climate, we get some exotic fruits that you can’t find anywhere else – it’s so unique and special,” she says, pointing out a tree bursting with ripe dragonfruit. “Up here in the North, we can grow a lot of things from Southeast Asia and a lot of ingredients for Thai cooking.”

“Growing food and putting that onto a plate for others to enjoy, that gives me joy.”

RachaEl Boon

Rachael uses permaculture practices in her daily harvested garden, meaning they’re designed to work with the local climate and environment. “It means the garden dictates what we are going to put on our menu,” she says. “We’re growing things that suit the tropics and that work really well naturally. And by doing that, the food just tastes better, it’s fresh and we can grow it in abundance.” 

Chef Rachael uses a verdant four-acre site to create a farm-to-table experience characterised by vibrant and flavorful dishes

Bringing people together to share a good meal is one of life’s great pleasures for Rachael. “Growing food and putting that onto a plate for others to enjoy, that gives me joy – it’s why I’m so passionate about food and cooking,” she says.

With the CX-5’s impressively capable all-wheel-drive system making easy work of some of the more challenging terrain, I head off to meet another local artisan paving her way.

Leah Kelly is a celebrated designer of organic, hand-made fashion. Taught to sew as a child by her grandmother, Leah specialises in pieces notable for their high-quality craftsmanship and use of natural materials like hemp, pineapple fibre and banana bark, all made in her off-grid, self-built home. 

“You are not only doing yourself and the planet a favour, but the future generations to come.”


“It’s the opposite of fast fashion, because each piece takes a lot of time to make, is designed to last and comes from my heart and soul,” she says. “I believe it’s an important way to do things – by living and working sustainably, you are not only doing yourself and the planet a favour, but the future generations to come.”

Using materials such as banana bark, bamboo and pineapple fibre, Leah Kelly hand-crafts eye-catching designs that have been featured in London and Paris Fashion Weeks

Leah’s acclaimed work made it all the way to London Fashion Week in 2021, which shone an international spotlight on her exquisite creations. Leah also believes her work is a simple way to bring joy to the world. 

“When you wear something that you feel comfortable and proud in, your spirit is uplifted,” she says. “I think that has a huge positive impact on community and on social behaviour as a whole.”

Feeling suitably inspired and uplifted myself, I take off to my next destination, as the CX-5’s front ventilated seats offer a welcome respite from the humidity that hums over this part of the world.

My final port of call for the day is Botanical Ark, a private ethno-botanical garden. Its owners, New York transplants Alan and Susan Carle, firmly adhere to the Japanese philosophy of omotenashi – a mindset that puts others ahead of oneself.

Their supreme act of thoughtfulness was to take a treeless cattle farm in 1982 and transform it over 40-plus years into a paradise designed to help save thousands of precious rainforest plants used for everything from food to spices, shelter, medicine, cosmetics, fibres, oils and dyes.

“Our message to the world is to respect the planet.”

Alan Carle

The Botanical Ark, says Alan, sprang from humble beginnings. “I just wanted to feed my family,” he laughs. “We wanted to have a happy, healthy life, and I got carried away.” The eight-hectare property includes two houses and a man-made lake, all built by the Carles. “We had to build everything – the roads, the crossings for the creeks to get in here,” says Alan. “We basically created everything that you see today. It’s been a labour of love.” 

The Carles have made more than 40 trips to rainforests around the world to source plants, introducing to Australia everything from African breadfruit to dragonfruit, which the Carles brought to the country in the 1970s.

Started over 35 years ago, The Botanical Ark evolved from a subsistence farm into an ethnobotanical garden that emphasises the use of plants for foods, medicine, cosmetics and more

Alan lets me sample ‘miracle fruit’, which masks certain receptors on your tongue so that something sour, like a lime, will suddenly taste deliciously sweet, and the South American ‘ice cream bean’, which is nature’s version of cotton candy.

“If we really want to look after our planet, we have to start with the rainforest. This is the treasure chest of life on Earth.” 

“We’d like to think our legacy is that we’ve provided a tool chest of resources for people to use for the future,” says Alan, who, with Susan, views Botanical Ark as a ‘Garden of Eden’ and a gift for others. It’s omotenashi in action. “Our message to the world is to respect the planet – let’s look after the mother that looks after us.” 

Dynamic, comfortable and responsive, driving the Mazda CX-5 between Oaks Garden and Kitchen, Leah’s off-grid studio and The Botanical Ark has been an experience in and of itself. Bringing me closer to an area where sustainability, innovation, and a healthy focus on community have taken root, the journey gave me hope for the future. With local thought-leaders like Leah, Rachel, Alan and Susan, it’s certainly in very good hands.

James drives THE MAZDA CX-5 in zircon sanD

James Jennings, a writer and presenter specialising in motoring and entertainment, drove the Mazda CX-5 in North Queensland. Making the most of the CX-5’s Mazda Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) and Off-Road Mode, powerful driving dynamics and fuel-saving Mazda M Hybrid technology, it was the perfect travel companion for his tropical adventure.

Words James Jennings / Images Jason Ierace / Films Grainger Films

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