Travel Story Western Australia’s orchid hunter

Queen of Sheba (Thelymtra speciosa), Bremer Bay.
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Meet Noel Hoffman, 86, who has been searching for and studying Western Australia’s orchids his entire life.

In the 1930s as a small child, Noel Hoffman went to work for the day with his father. When his father stopped to stoke the gas producer on the truck on a road near Tambellup, young Noel wandered off into the bush. He found some spider orchids and, heaven forbid, picked a bunch for his mother. 

That was Noel’s first encounter with what would become an enormous part of his life, for this WA orchid enthusiast is co-author of three editions of Orchids of South-West Australia.

His passion for orchids wasn’t rekindled until his teaching days when school principal Ron Oliver shared some slides of orchids he had taken. “I thought you little beauty,” he says.

Noel bought a camera and, with Ron, built up an impressive collection of orchid slides with a view to writing a book. Ron had to step away for work but WA Herbarium orchid curator Andrew Brown took up the baton, publishing the first edition of Orchids of South-West Australia with Noel in 1984. When Noel and Andrew started researching, there were 160 named orchids. Now there are more than 450.

“When you photograph them or look at them closely they’ve certainly got a beauty all of their own. While they may not be as big and showy as the exotic ones, they certainly still have appeal,” Noel says.   

He has been busy capturing that beauty for more than 50 years. “It wasn’t until the late 1950s that I bought my first 35mm camera. It was a Practika reflex camera and while it had many good features, one had to take great care when taking pictures so as to not waste film. Nowadays it’s just bang, bang, bang — you can take hundreds of shots and you’ll find something that is pretty good.”

As for the thrill of the hunt, only last year Noel found a donkey orchid that is likely a new species. He also names the uncovering of an underground orchid as a highlight. “All you see are a few little bracts poking about 10mm above the ground.” 

The Queen of Sheba orchid has a special place in Noel’s heart and he says a good place to see them is Tozer’s Bush Camp, west of Bremer Bay on the edge of the Fitzgerald River National Park. 

Favourite areas for orchid hunting include open sheoak and jam tree country of the Wheatbelt, and post-bushfire swamp areas in the South West. He lists Narrogin, Brookton, Wagin, Pemberton, Bridgetown, Balingup and Albany as other hotspots. 

And to spot these elusive little flowers? “Look in open bushland. You get a feel for where to go and look. I suppose you develop an orchid eye. Don’t tread on them, and never ever pick the blimmin’ things.”

Top image: Queen of Sheba (Thelymtra speciosa), Bremer Bay. 

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