Last year I overdid it, positively gorged myself, on garden travel. But just after enjoying a wonderful weekend at the Melbourne Garden DesignFest in the middle of November, there was one more tour that couldn’t be missed. For the last couple of years, three friends and I have headed off to Great Barrier Island, just off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand, for their superbly organised ‘Spectacular by Nature’ Garden Tour.
From the moment they weigh your hand luggage at the airport, along with your bag, and hand you a recyclable boarding pass, you know it’s going to be different. Then you straggle out onto the tarmac, along with a dog or two, and haul yourself aboard a seriously tiny tin tube with worrying bits of sticking plaster keeping it intact and a baby-faced six foot tall pilot folds himself into the cockpit and basically tells you not to touch anything in rapid-fire kidspeak. At least I think that’s what he said. It’s obviously going to be an adventure.
Spectacular views of the city and then the islands of the Hauraki Gulf unfold beneath you, even a pod of orcas, and in a mere 30 minutes you are circling over the island itself before whizzing along the grass landing strip at Claris. We always hire a car – you have to – and this time it sounds as if the brakes seized a century ago, but this is the Barrier and we have taken out full insurance, so you go with the flow. Last time we had to re-attach the entire undercarriage after a bit of a jolt. Luckily a couple of us are farm girls at heart!
There are actually four separate tours, all named after one of our statuesque native trees. This time we do the Totara Tour, beginning with an intrepid woman called Emmy, who operates the radio. Not the local talkback/music mix it turns out, but a solar powered marine radio for all the boaties out on the high seas who rely on it for survival. Aside from that vital role, she has managed to establish a garden, battling wind and Kaka, a parrot-like bird which eats everything in sight. Retaining your sanity here depends on a certain sharing mindset – especially when it comes to the Kaka.
Next up is another local woman who went to a permaculture course and was sold on the concept of sustainability. Her old-fashioned rose and fruit-filled garden proves the point. Nothing is wasted and everything works in harmony with nature.
Then we hop on a boat and skim over the water to the main wharf at Tryphena. This is where you arrive if you don’t fancy the flight from the mainland; four hours of variable conditions but you are often entertained by a dolphin extravaganza along the way.
The hidden garden comes next after a ramble through the bush and hidden it is: there is no access road at all. We spread out to enjoy our delicious packed lunches provided by willing volunteers – all proceeds of the tours go to the Community Health Trust.
We walk it off through some pristine original native bush, soaking up the peace and shade. Then it’s off to an artist’s garden above Schooner Bay, where every piece of the house was carried up from the cove below and painstakingly put together half way up a semi-cliff.
Last of all, we visit a property belonging to the doctor and his wife, the nurse, at the Health Centre in Claris and are swept off our feet, by everything: the setting, the garden and the house. The beds are all mounded up because the quiet-looking stream floods periodically. We decide all gardens should have mounded beds – the well-selected plants are set off to perfection.
After fish (to die for), chips and salad in the bar at Tipi and Bob’s and a last tranquil night in our beach house above a picturesque bay at Gooseberry Flat, we visit the market day and rose festival, complete with competitions for the best arrangement and decorated hat. As one of our group used to visit her grandfather’s place here every summer, there is much hugging and reminiscing with warm-hearted elderly locals before we go.
Finally, Gerry, one of the organisers, signs us up for next year as the tours fill up quickly. Sadly that will be our last tour, so we think of all the friends and relations who simply can’t be allowed to miss this experience. Who knows? Many locals tell you they came for a weekend and never left – that’s the Barrier for you.
Great Barrier Island – Spectacular by Nature Garden Tour http://www.thebarrier.co.nz/gardentour.htm
ps Don’t forget to come a week earlier for the second Auckland Garden DesignFest to be held on the weekend of 16 & 17 November 2013: www.gardendesignfest.co.nz