Alive with volunteer spirit

The Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden attracted more than 100,000 visitors last financial year and is helping to reinvent Port Augusta as the “arid garden city”.

The desert botanic garden, which opened in 1996, is regarded as Port Augusta’s top tourism destination and earlier this year was ranked the country’s best regional botanic garden by Australian Geographic magazine.

The 250ha space is owned by the Port Augusta Council, which recorded almost 107,000 visitors to the garden in 2017/18.

The council says the garden’s success is down to the efforts the Friends of the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden, a volunteer group which helps maintain the plants, assists in the running of the onsite nursery, lead guided tours and raise funds.

The volunteer group has raised more than $1m for the garden, while voluntary labour over the past four years is valued at more than $4m.

The group says visitors to the garden contribute $18m to the Port Augusta community, a figure based on research carried out by Tourism Research Australia.

Friends president John Zwar OAM came up with the concept for an arid botanic garden for Port Augusta in 1981, forming the Friends group in 1994 before the garden was finally opened in 1996.

Located on the shores of the Upper Spencer Gulf and offering stunning views of the Flinders Ranges, the garden features significant areas of natural arid zone vegetation as well as coastal vegetation.

Many of the plant collections feature rare plant species in sections dedicated to particular regions of Australia including the Flinders Ranges, Eyre Peninsula, Central Ranges, Gawler region, and Great Victoria Desert.

John says the garden’s popularity has helped raise the image of Port Augusta, which has faced recent struggles with the closure of the Alinta power plant.

“It’s really helped raise the image of the town and people are calling Port Augusta the arid garden city now, whereas it didn’t have this image before,” John says.

“The place, which has gone from being flat for a year or so, has really started to pick up again and I’m hopeful that the garden is safe.

“We now have the world’s largest solar thermal power station going in north of Port Augusta and I think there are another five wind, solar and pumped hydro (projects) going in.

“Port Augusta is a great place to live and there are a lot of positive things about it; it’s a great location near the Flinders, near the sea, and right on the doorstep of the outback.

“Loads of tourists and travellers are passing through and the garden has a captive audience because a national highway – the Stuart Highway – passes right through.

“It’s a really great place to showcase arid zone vegetation and I think tourists really appreciate it.”

John says the Friends group has about 400 members including locals and people from around the country and overseas.

About 30 people regularly volunteer on site, he says.

“Without the support of the volunteers, I’m sure the garden wouldn’t have eventuated in the first place and it wouldn’t keep running like it is at present,” John says.

About 160 species of birds, including rare species, can be spotted in the garden and two birdhides provide the perfect place for birdwatchers to observe quietly.

The garden is also home to an award-winning AridSmart section which shows visitors how to use water wise gardening techniques at home.

The Arid Explorers Garden offers a children’s nature play area with a shelter shed, logs, rocks, a dry creek bed and red sand pit.

Travel and restaurant company TripAdvisor rates the garden’s Blue Bush Café as the second-best restaurant in Port Augusta. Dishes use native produce including lemon myrtle and quandongs.

The garden is also an important place for research with students and researchers conducting studies into the heat tolerance of various arid zone plants.

The Port Augusta Council’s director of corporate and community services, Anne O’Reilly, says the garden is a significant benefit for the regional centre.

She says the Friends group members are valued and passionate ambassadors in the community.

“The garden would not be the success that it is today without the support of the Friends,” Anne says.

The Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden is at 144 Stuart Highway, Port Augusta, and is open daily from 7.30am to sunset.

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