Areas around Kununurra, in north-eastern WA, have attracted the world’s biggest Indian sandalwood plantations, due to great amounts of water available to them from artifical Lake Argyle. Approximately 5500ha of sandalwood is planted on the Ord River plain and at Kingston Rest farm, 60km south of Kununurra.

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    TFS was founded in the late 1990s after government trials showed Indian sandalwood could be grown
    in the Ord River Irrigation Area, around Kununurra in the east Kimberley.

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    TFS expect to undertake its first major harvest of mature trees around Kununurra, those approaching 15 years, this year.

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    Slaking the thirst of 500 sandalwood and 1200 host trees per hectare isn’t easy – they need 10 million litres per hectare per year. But there’s no shortage of water for TFS’s Kimberley plantations, thanks to Lake Argyle, the huge artificial lake of more than 900sq.km, created when the Ord River was dammed in the 1960s.

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    Two-day-old seedlings glow during an east Kimberley sunset at Kimpton’s plantation.

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    Views from Clontarf Hill over TSF’s Kingston Rest plantations.

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    Today, most of the world’s sandalwood is Indian sandalwood, a cousin to our species. Rich in aromatic oils, it is currently worth up to $110,000 per tonne. Australian sandalwood, which grows in the harsh hearts of South Australia and WA, is lower in oil but can fetch up to $15,000 per tonne.

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    A few major queries hang over the upcoming 2013 harvest, TFS’s first, including how international buyers – and prices – will react when significant volumes of oil come onto the market from the Australian plantations.

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    In a covered nursery millions of Indian sandalwood seedlings are thriving until they grow big enough to transplant into Kununurra plantations on the Weaber Plain of the Ord Valley.

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    Sandalwood also needs plenty of labour, and 250–300 seasonal workers are employed at peak times. The seedlings must be handled with great care – each one costs about $5.50 to grow from dry seed, and the young plants respond badly to herbicides, so the plantations require constant weeding.

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    Plantation workers work to irrigate the crop.

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    An insect blends in among prunings.

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    Sandalwood travels the length of the country from Kununurra in the far north of WA to Mount Romance on WA’s south coast.

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    Michael, here pruning a tree, is from Manchester in the UK and is being sponsored to stay in Australia and work on the plantation.

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    A dam pump station provides non-mining engineering work in the remote north-west. The Carrboyd ranges paint the background.

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    Backpackers prune a block which, planted in 2010, has another 11-12 years left to mature.

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    Contractors walk the rows carefully planting seedlings, which will take at least 14 years to mature.

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    Peter Tidswell takes a tray off a truck, followed by others planting seedlings, checking for quality and firming soil around base.

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    The M1 channel in the foreground is the main irrigation channel from Lake Kununurra. Several smaller tributaries then flow from it feeding TFS’s plantations.

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    A planting machine is used to help plant seedlings among the many rows tackled by seasonal workers each year.

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Gallery: The sweet scent of sandalwood

By AG STAFF | February 26, 2013

The woody scent of joss sticks, exotic balms and Chanel Noº5 may soon come – not from the Orient – but from Kununurra.