South Australia’s desert diversity on show in the Far North

By Nick Carne

You’ll find a greater variety of plants in a desert than in a rainforest and a perfect place to discover that diversity – and its beauty – is just three hours from Adelaide. And it’s free.

The Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden (AALBG) on the outskirts of Port Augusta has been quite literally growing for more than 20 years and is now an internationally recognised showcase for just how vibrant a barren, arid environment can be.

On any given day you might share the trails with hard core gardeners, complete novices, bird watchers from all parts of Australia or visiting academics keen to see something unique. An American professor who has written texts on the relationship between people and gardens reckons it’s one of the best parks he’s been to.

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Some people do arrive with reservations, however. Volunteer guide Christine Nayda is used to people getting off tour buses with looks that say “I’ll go because it’s part of the trip but surely it’s just desert with a fence around it… And then I watch their faces light up when they realise it’s so much more than they ever expected,” she said.

Christine, who’s secretary of the Friends of the AALBG, has been involved for nearly 20 years. “When I first started the plants barely came up to my knees; now you get out of the car into a forest,” she said. What particularly delights her, and her fellow Friends, is the growing number of family groups taking part in the daily morning tours or simply finding their own way around. It reveals, she says, a growing understanding of the importance of Australia’s natural heritage.

Covering more than 250 hectares on the shores of Upper Spencer Gulf, the Garden is a rare mix of arid and marine environments – but the spectacular views of the Flinders Ranges to the north leave you in no doubt that you’re nearly in Outback Australia.

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You’ll find plants – and, in fact, can buy plants – from as far afield as Shark Bay in WA or the desert regions of south-west Queensland (essentially anywhere with rainfall below 250mm a year). Specific areas allow you to explore the vegetation of particular regions, such as the Gawler Ranges or the Mallee country. The Eremophila collection is the biggest and best anywhere in the world, but Christine’s personal favourite is the area dedicated to the Great Western Desert.

It was all made possible thanks to the vision and persistence of John Zwar OAM, who was Parks and Gardens Superintendent with Port Augusta City Council when he first put forward the idea in 1981. The Council remains a major supporter, and Zwar, despite now working in Adelaide, is still president of the Friends of AALBG.

And Friends they truly are, taking on everything from attracting sponsors and running tours to turning up every Wednesday to help three full-time gardeners keep things at their best. Their efforts have helped fund special fencing, an award-winning Visitor Centre and all manner of natural history displays and interpretive trails. But for most of them, however, it’s all about the plants.

The Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden is open every day except Christmas Day from 7.30am until sunset, and there’s something worth seeing at any time of day.

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