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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, bandicoots, possums.

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.

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