The driest state in the driest continent. So goes the South Australia Tourist Board. And over Easter, Paul and I visited some of the driest towns in that state.
As a gardener, spending time in such dry regions does things to you. It plays with your emotions and sends you on a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The highs, when you see beautiful natural scenery, full of colour despite the aridness. And when you observe a seedling, seemingly growing in no soil at all; a true ‘Aussie battler’.
The lows, when you witness the best gardening intentions and effort, with depressingly sombre, sparse results.
Our first stop was Mintaro, a slate quarry town with a population of just 223; famous for its historic charm and picturesque 19th century buildings. We were quite smitten from the start.
Admittedly it was Good Friday, but we didn’t see another soul. Well, apart from the very small dog that really didn’t want us to venture up the road it was guarding. What it lacked in size, it made up for in yappiness. Paul told me to be super brave and we eventually made it past the dog with all our limbs intact.
The stone work of the buildings, as across the whole of South Australia, was just stunning and we so wanted to snap up what looked like a disused cottage with an old, established garden. Unfortunately, we were forced to come to our senses when we couldn’t find a reasonable solution to the seven hour commute for Paul.
The 1854 slate quarry still operates today but tourism is an equally important industry for Mintaro’s residents. Despite the searing heat and obviously desiccated red soil, such effort had been put into its gardens, which aided the enjoyment of our visit no end.
Feeling much more autumnal than when we left Sydney, we ventured on to Bungaree Station, a sheep farm set up in 1841, when the South Australian colony was just five years old. George Hawker, from Hampshire, had travelled to Australia with his two brothers and with no maps, roads or bridges, rode on horseback some 160 kilometres into the bush to find a spot to set up their new life.
Bungaree comes from the Aboriginal word, ‘Bungurrie’ or ‘place of deep water’. It is quite levelling when you learn that the Hawker brothers dug through 2.5 metres of hard, dry soil, using whatever was in their packs, before finding water. I wondered how many other times they did this on their journey, to no avail.
By the 1880s the station grew to employ over 50 staff and in sheep shearing season that number more than doubled. A church was built and a gardener employed for the first time. I’m not sure whether it would be soul destroying or the most satisfying job in the world, gardening here. I suppose a bit of each.
Paul fell in love with the lush green lawns, such a contrast to the straw-coloured land all around. Whilst the garden wouldn’t win any prizes outright, it was heartwarming to see what could and has been done given the impossibly difficult circumstances. Roses, with flowers so delicate, often the toughest plant of all in dry climes.
We completed the historical tour and it certainly was a step back in time. Quite touching to learn that the Hawker family still live and run sheep at the station, some 174 years later. I craved the simple life that I envisaged they had, free from traffic and noise and excessive distractions. Reality, of course, was that I’d be doing well to survive a month out here.
A few emus later (how bizarre is this country?), we arrived in the Flinders Ranges.
It was the starkest scenery; it quite reminded us of our trip to the mountains of Oman. Spectacular rock formation with trees growing quite from nowhere.
We walked and walked and really felt a million miles away from all civilisation. (Slightly smelly) mountain goats were our only company.
The day we left it began to rain. When I say rain, it wasn’t the most dramatic rain we have ever seen. Certainly not up to Kuala Lumpur standards, but having said that, the saturation of the rainbow we saw on our drive out was more impressive, even, than the lightning of Malaysia.
A few moments on and we were flagged down in the road. With just one caravan-towing car ahead of us, you do just wonder what you would do if you met a mad man along these roads. Fortunately, it turned out to be a sheep herder rather than a mad man, and not just any old sheep herder at that. Within the space of less than 60 seconds this herder moved approximately 200 sheep from one fenceless side of the road to the other fenceless side of the road with not a sheepdog in sight. It really was a sight to behold.
After the rainbow and the sheep incidence, the third curious event of our drive through nowhere was the sight of bush fires. Not the most settling sight at any time but particularly unnerving for an uneducated Pom driving towards them. It got redder and redder, but as we drove through the red air, we realised it was simply dust; what was left of the top soil being lifted up and transported high into the sky and carried away. Red because the iron had oxidised through lack of water; so dry that it was simply dust; blown away because no plants secured it to the ground. How impossibly difficult to grow anything. Such harsh land.
Our final destination before heading back to Adelaide was the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden; the number one attraction, hosting the number one restaurant, in Port Augusta, according to TripAdvisor. Even Paul was excited.
We arrived in cold, damp, dreary weather without so much as a coat, poncho or umbrella between us. But that wasn’t going to put us off. However, as we started to explore the gardens and ventured towards the main areas, it gradually dawned on me that there were no more ‘main areas’. The sparse, dull, half dead areas we had seen so far were the gardens. Oh gosh.
Then, relief, we found a section with new landscape architect-designed gardens. We read the sign about the coastal garden design…
…and then looked up.
Paul told me it was ‘pretty good, actually’. I didn’t mince my words with my reply. They had spent all this money having six courtyard gardens professionally designed and they were not just uninspiring, they actually made me feel deeply saddened.
Paul tried again, to explain that the entire venture was probably pretty new; all around us the plants were still growing and filling out…as we walked past a sign proudly stated that the gardens were created in 1993.
This was the best that Port Augusta had to offer. An empty (on Easter Monday) garden; empty of visitors and largely empty of plants. It was cold, it was wet and I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. We went inside for a very early lunch.
There were a couple of families inside. Kids eating ‘hot chips’; parents drinking coffee and shouting at the kids for anything and everything. Oh my. It was another world. I looked out at the bleak gardens in front of the bleak landscape and wondered how on earth these people got through each day.
Fortunately, lunch solves many problems. We had an absolutely delicious hot chicken salad and I snuck in a hot chocolate to make sure I properly warmed up.
With food inside me and warmed fingers and toes, I remembered that this is not what Port Augusta looks like 364 days of the year. With the perpetual blue sky in hiding, it was an unusual view in front of us. Indeed I have driven through Port Augusta before and remembered that deep blue of the sky, the very Australian ochre of the soil and the perfectly balanced grey green of the salt bushes. In fact I was so entranced I even wrote a blog on its beauty.
We went out for another walk and I managed to see the highlights without the lowlights; to take photos at angles that obscured the bare soil and captured the flowers that brightened up a dull day. I realised that I was seeing state of the art gardening, pushing the boundaries of what had been done before and I needed to celebrate both what had been achieved here and the fact that this wet day was itself a huge blessing for Port Augusta. Oh, the irony of the Arid Lands Botanic Garden, as we stood there getting soaked!
The Flinders Ranges were truly beautiful, in their rugged, remote, untouched way. But the gardens I saw, in Mintaro, Bungaree and Port Augusta were the part of the trip that I will never forget. I realised how much I need green things around me, and how lucky I am to have them. And I realised how wonderful plants are to adapt and battle on, regardless of the harshest conditions. It also very much reminded me of the affinity I have with Australia and how lucky I am to live and explore here.
Seeing the struggles faced by South Australian gardeners reminded me to never complain about watering the garden again, as I grow my Gardenia and Hydrangea in the sandy soil of this dry country with my endless supply of water. These plants are my two loves, my two extravagances, but I feel more at ease with the drought hardy plants that fill most of my garden.
Trips like these remind you of the magical things in life, that we so often take for granted. I salute all you (real) arid lands gardeners out there, with your 222mm of annual rainfall. What do I know about dry gardening?