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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Olive Pink Botanic Gardens; legacy of a remarkable woman

I'm just back from Ecuador - at least corporally, the whereabouts of my brain is more problematic - but any postings arising from that trip will have to wait until I've had a chance to process photos. Meantime however I'd like to offer another in my periodic series on favourite botanic gardens; see here for the most recent in the series (which links to the previous one, and so on), or check Botanic Gardens under Labels elsewhere on this page.

Alice Springs, in central Australia, has one of the most beautiful settings of any Australian town, set in the desert and nestled against the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges. Its chronic social problems are no secret, but it is still a place which demands and receives the loyalty and love of many people.
Location of Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

Alice Springs looking south from Anzac Hill to Heavitree Gap in the MacDonnell Ranges.
The Todd River - nearly always comprising dry sand - passes through the Gap.
In the east of the town (left of this photo) is one of my favourite parts of town, a peaceful haven called Olive Pink Botanic Gardens - the name might raise eyebrows but it commemorates one of the great characters of Australian history, though few outside of the Centre, or academic anthropological circles, will know of her.

Olive was born in Tasmania in 1884, studied art, and later taught it in Perth and Sydney. Her 'very dear friend' Captain Harold Southern died in the slaughterhouse of Gallipoli in 1915, and she remained single for the rest of her life. Retrenched during the Great Depression in the late 1920s from the New South Wales public service (where she designed posters for the Railways Department) she went sketching in the central deserts, became fascinated by the lives of Aboriginal people, and studied anthropology at Sydney University. The highly influential Adolphus Elkin assisted her to get Australian National Research Council grants to work among the Arrernte people of the central deserts and the Warlpiri of the western deserts. Her published work on the Arrernte was highly acclaimed, but she earned the wrath of the establishment by refusing to publish her Warlpiri studies because they included details of rituals not permitted to outsiders.

She worked to establish a 'secular sanctuary' for Warlpiri where they could come to terms with European encroachment without interference from state or church but was largely thwarted by the academic establishment, which used its influence to deny her access to many communities under government and church control. In Alice Springs she worked as a cleaner at the court house, constantly agitating for social justice for indigenous Australians, in pursuit of which she was unrelenting, 'difficult' and even vitriolic, though it is fair to say that she was probably cantankerous in other matters too. She lost her basic galvanised iron hut and her job, and lived for some years in a tent, finally setting it up on the land where the botanic gardens now stands; by the time she succeeded in getting the area gazetted as a flora reserve in 1956, with herself as Honorary Curator, she was already into her 70s. 

That didn't stop her from working, with Warlpiri assistants, in developing the gardens until she died nearly 20 years later in 1975. When she settled there the land was badly degraded, with most of the shrub and tree cover gone. Famously she assigned names of dignitaries to trees she planted; when she wasn't getting the support she demanded for one of her causes she let the world know by ceasing to water the tree associated with the offending official!

After her death the Territory government took over the site and undertook extensive plantings, exclusively of central Australian species, track and 'theme habitat' construction and development of an interpretive centre. The gardens opened to the public in 1985.

My photos date from my most recent visit, when the area had experienced a run of dry years, so the gardens weren't looking their best - please trust me that they generally look more inviting than these images might suggest, as there was little of the natural herb understorey present. There is a feeling too that resources might not be all one might hope for at present. Of the 16 hectare site, only five hectares are planted; the rest, primarily comprising the adjacent hilly country, is regenerated bushland.

Red Cabbage Palm, Livistona mariae, which grows naturally only in nearby Palm Valley.
Interpretation is excellent, particularly with regard to traditional uses of the plants.


Eremophilas, or Emu Bushes or Fuchsia Bushes, one of the most widespread and beautiful of desert shrub groups, feature in the plantings.
Eremophila christophori, Christophor's Desert Fuchsia or Dolomite Fuchsia Bush, grows only in the Alice Springs area.

Eremophila polyclada, 'Flowering Lignum' for its superficial resemblance (at least when not flowering) to the entirely unrelated sprawling lignums, Muehlenbeckia spp. Its natural occurrence is a little further to the east.
 There is an excellent little cafe where one can enjoyably relax while profitably watching the birds come and go to the artificial watering points in the rocks and to the foliage above.


Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula, a ubiquitous colonial honeyeater,
taking advantage of a little pipe-fed pool by the cafe.
Grey-crowned Babblers Pomatostomus temporalis, an engaging and highly social species, in the trees above the tables.
Australian babblers are not at all related to Old World babblers. (The apparently much larger bird on the right is simply all fluffed up after a dip.)
Perhaps the star bird turns of the gardens however are the Western Bowerbirds Chlamydera guttata, which have bowers near the carpark, though many visitors are unaware of them. 
Male Western Bowerbird displaying to a rival male, showing off his normally hidden pink nape (it is only conspicuous when the neck feathers are raised).
The extraordinary bower, his display arena, decorated with bones, shells, flowers and plastic scraps.
The remarkable bowerbirds deserve, and will receive, their own story here one day; for now, just make sure to look them up when you visit!
Next time you go to central Australia - and I hope it's in your plans - you will inevitably spend some time in 'the Alice'. When you do so, please put time aside for a visit, or two, to the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, one of its true treasures.

BACK ON WEDNESDAY


3 comments:

Susan said...

I visited Alice Springs in 2004 (or maybe 05) and frustratingly, didn't hear of this garden until afterwards, so I have never seen it. I didn't know anything about Olive Pink, so thanks for the biog.

Harvey Perkins said...

Thanks, Ian, for great little bio on Olive Pink. When I was in Alice for a conference in 2010 I only managed a quick early morning visit to the gardens, but did add the carpark Western Bowerbirds to my Australian List. It is deserving of a longer visit!

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan and Harvey - glad to be of service! Add it to your list for your next Australian visit Susan - you've already committed to crossing the Nullarbor, so just do a detour... And you've got no excuse Harvey not to go back for a proper exploration - it's really just up the road.