Cool way to visit the Red Centre
Rachel Buchanan, The Age
July 19, 2006
Xanthorrhoeas, hold your heads up high. Paperbarks, be proud.
Vanilla lilies, willow myrtle and woolly grevilleas, all of you
rejoice, because at last you have a public garden that celebrates
your spiny, flaky, fragrant, all-Australian beauty.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne, the outer-suburban
sister to the better-known gardens in South Yarra, were established
in 1970 for "the conservation, research, display and enjoyment of
Australian native plants". They opened to the public in 1989.
Visitors to the 363-hectare site could walk through remnant heathy
bush, exploring swamps, wetlands and creeks, and enjoy the birds
and animals that lived there: honeyeaters, fairy wrens, robins,
Now, this original, wild area has been joined by the 25-hectare
Australian Garden, designed by landscape architects Taylor Cullity
Lethlean with landscape designer Paul Thompson. It opened in June.
In this spectacular garden, native plants go black-tie.
Around a dry river bed and a raised central dance floor of red
desert sand, Australian plants are grouped in formal garden beds:
the ironbark garden, the box garden, the peppermint garden, the
bloodwood garden, arid garden and a eucalypt walk. A serpentine
path leads to a bridge over a small waterfall and waterhole
bordered by an escarpment wall, a looming sculpture made from
oxidised iron. According to the brochure, the structure reflects
similar red sandstone plateau walls at Uluru and Kings Canyon. On
reflection I can see this, but my initial thought was, hey, check
out the amazing train wreck.
The waterhole is at the end of the best water feature you've
ever seen: a shallow canal dotted with square stepping stones at
different heights (children are invited to wade between the
lifesaving flags, so if you're visiting while it's still freezing
cold, put children in gumboots and bring dry socks and trousers for
the trip home!).
The waterway has subtle, angled terraces, so when the water
begins to flow it tumbles over the little shelves from one side to
another, like a curtain being drawn or a fringe falling over a
face. It's mesmerising and clever.
This side of the garden contains exhibition beds to give people
ideas for how to use natives at home. There's a kids' backyard, a
home garden, a water-saving garden and a diversity garden, in which
a few of the beds were mulched with shells whose blue bellies were
turned up to the sky. I liked the future garden the best. It was a
series of breast-like, round raised garden beds bordered by some
kind of coloured foam, mulched with bits of rubber (old tyres)
chopped very small like liquorice, and decorated with red and white
striped poles. The whole effect was very zany Dr Seuss, and I'd
love to replicate it at home.
After my visit, I sat in Boonerwurrung Cafe, which is at the
front of the stylish new slated visitors' centre that perches on
the garden's rim. I drank my coffee and enjoyed the view. By some
trick of midwinter light, the Dr Seuss beds appeared to levitate.
On the opposite side of the garden, clusters of 400-yearold
xanthorrhoeas (grass trees) bent over crushed rock. A man with a
sun tattooed on his left calf took his son's hand. The large,
central red sand garden keep off, staff only looked
brilliant and maybe a bit sinister beneath the low, grey rain
clouds. The Dandenongs were dark blue behind it all.
Visitors pay nothing to walk around the Australian gardens at
Cranbourne that have been designed by nature, but it costs $9 for
an adult to visit the Australian Garden. It seems a lot until you
see the site, how carefully it's all been done, how expensive all
the materials are, the tonnes of river pebbles and stones (which
river did they come from?), those ancient grass trees (which
forest?), all that red sand (which desert?), the shells (which
beach?). Maintenance will cost a fortune.
Not everyone will like this garden: the expensive artifice of
the inaccessible red centre; the monumental metal escarpment; the
literal silliness of the bright watering cans on sticks in the
water-saving garden; the inevitable cafe and gift shop. Maybe I
didn't like all of it either, but at least it felt safe to look at
the red centre through the windows of a cafe.
I've been to the real Red Centre, to Alice and Uluru and Kings
Canyon. I was frightened by the vastness of the horizon up there,
and the buzzing, thumping, chirping, scratching noises of the
desert night. On the endless bus trip back from Alice to Adelaide,
the Australian garden burned out the window, hot, hotter, 40, 42,
46 degrees, then black clouds hit the red dirt and great bolts of
lighting flashed and forked across the sky, but there was no rain,
and the garden remained dry.