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The Umpherston Sinkhole

My recent visit to this peculiar garden.

Whenever I travel around Australia or abroad, I like to visit local gardens. For a visitor, a garden can say a lot about a community. The community’s past and present economic fortunes, climate, and appreciation for their city or town are all represented in the gardens they create and maintain.

So I can only conclude that the people of Mount Gambier in South Australia have an easy-going nature and a great sense of humour, because it was there that I recently visited the most peculiar garden I have ever seen in my life: The Umpherston Sinkhole.

Yes, even its name is odd.

But the name is very fitting for a garden that made me laugh at its sheer absurdity and fall in love with its beauty and novelty.

A view of the Umpherston sinkhole.

What is the Umpherston Sinkhole?

The Umpherston Sinkhole is named after James Umpherston, who established the garden in 1884. Umpherston purchased a farm property in Mount Gambier in 1864 which contained a large sinkhole (or cave remnant).

Thousands of years ago, the sinkhole had been a cave that had formed because parts of the Mount Gambier limestone had been dissolved. When the top of the cave chamber eventually collapsed, a large open pit (called a sinkhole) was formed. The Mount Gambier district has hundreds of such caves and sinkholes; there are even some in the city centre!

Umpherston used the sinkhole on his property as the basis for his garden, which he named “The Caves”.

Being retired, Umpherson wanted to create for the people of Mount Gambier “a pleasant resort in the heat of summer”. So he set to work clearing the existing vegetation off his property and from within the sinkhole. He carved a path in the side of the rock and erected a set of wooden steps so people could comfortably enter his sunken garden, which he planted with all sorts of ferns, shrubs and flowers.

The garden was an immediate success and became quite famous. People from Mount Gambier and surrounding districts would frequently come and visit. The sinkhole originally had a lake within, and Umpherston even organised boat rides for interested people.

James Umpherston died in 1900, and his garden fell into disrepair in the following years. In 1949, the South Australian Woods and Forests Department purchased the property and established sawmills nearby. As the water table dropped as a result of agricultural activity, the lake disappeared.

By 1976, the garden was nothing more than a ruin and a rubbish dump. It was at this time that staff from the Woods and Forests Department decided to restore Umpherston’s legacy.  Slowly, they removed the rubbish and cleared the weeds. Umpherston’s terraces were still there, and so the staff restored them and planted hydrangeas and other species along each row.

Once again, the garden was a hit with the people of Mount Gambier. In 1994, the South Australian Forestry Corporation (as the Woods and Forests Department had become known) handed the garden over to the City of Mount Gambier, and in 1995, the garden was added to the South Australian Heritage Register.

Visiting the Sinkhole

Visiting the sinkhole is a unique experience. A long ramp provides the initial entry point, which is followed by a set of enclosed steps. It is from here that the first real view of the Umpherston Sinkhole can be seen – and what a view! Being barely a third the way into the sinkhole, it provides a great overview of the entire garden, which beckons below. The sinkhole is round, and from here one can see the various terraces in the garden.

One then descends to the sinkhole floor, where hydrangeas and tree-ferns greet the visitor. The sinkhole ‘walls’ are garnished with a ‘wallpaper’ of hanging ivy, which partially conceals the jagged rocks that surround the garden. Whilst there’s no longer a lake, there is a fountain that operates periodically.

Wandering the terraces offered many different vantage points to appreciate the garden. Children also seemed to enjoy running across the terraces, and it made an excellent location for them to enjoy a game of ‘hide-and-seek’.

After Sunset

As dusk approached, I noticed more and more locals arriving with bags of bread or fruit, and torches as the garden became illuminated. Initially curious, I soon realised what it was all for. Each night, several dozen possums emerge from the shrubs and rock crevices and each night, the locals take food for the possums in the garden.

Everyone seemed to be having a great time hunting for possums with torches, and watching them eat the food provided. Of course, having been so well fed, the possums had become quite particular about what they would and wouldn’t eat!

Umpherston’s Legacy

One one level, this really is the most ridiculous garden I have ever seen. Viewing it with 21st-century eyes, one can only be surprised at this horticultural folly and quite reasonably ask ‘How could anyone ‘destroy’ such a natural wonder, and turn it into this garish pleasure garden?”.

But this isn’t a 21st-century garden. It’s a 19th-century garden, created in a period before conservation laws existed. And perhaps we should be grateful that such laws didn’t exist, or we’d have been deprived of such a wonderful public space.

As a person with horticultural qualifications, I readily acknowledge that this garden lacks botanical interest. There’s nothing particularly special or eye-catching about the common mop-top hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla cv.), tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) and ivy (Hedera helix) that dominate the plantings in this garden. But seeing them used in such a creative manner and in such a unique context makes this a most desirable garden to visit.

So what does this garden say about Mount Gambier? This garden showed, above all else, that it is cherished by the people of South Australia’s second-largest city.

Watching parents take their small children along (as their parents had done for them) was a delight, especially given how much the children enjoyed the garden. Teenagers were appreciating the garden too, as were some elderly residents that came out just to see the possums. Tourists from Asia and Europe were astounded at the novelty of the garden and were taking plenty of digital photos to show their relatives back home.

There are few places that will bring all of the diverse sections of a community together, but the Umpherston Sinkhole does just that.

Surely, as James Umpherston looks down from above, he’d be delighted to see that his garden is still enthralling the people of Mount Gambier, 120 years after its creation. As he’s hoped, it is a most special place indeed.

Getting there: The Umpherston Sinkhole is located on the Jubilee Highway East in Mount Gambier, South Australia. Entry is free, and the garden is open from 6am to 1am daily.



13 responses to “The Umpherston Sinkhole”

On 10 January 2010, Andrew wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I have not seen the sinkhole, but it is very much on my list of places to visit. Great photos.

On 10 January 2010, isobel wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

What a lovely story, and you seem to have the gift of being able to impart knowledge in such an interesting way. One just gets carried away with the whole article. It is really pleasing to read the history, and to know now ‘THE SINKHOLE’ is such a treasure. Your description of the evening visit by so many differing age and interest groups, and the enjoyment of all was a delight. Thank you indeed!

On 13 June 2010, kylie wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

What a great read.I knew there was a sinkhole in Mount Gambier, But had no idea of this history. I must thank you for the preview of the history as now, one has more to ponder when taking a step into history when entering this wonderous sinkhole. great researching, thanks.

On 6 August 2010, robert tracey wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

hi matey i been to the sinkhole when i was young we rode our bikes there everyday for 3 years we were that use to the place we even slid down the vines climbed the fence and slid them like a firemans pole all the way to the bottom now the vines dont go right to the bottom they fall short 5 to 10 feet

On 26 August 2010, meg wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

This is fary land but only real. I love this place it is Must go there! 🙂

On 15 May 2012, bella wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I am doing a assesment on the umpherston sinkhole and this infomation is really useful! With the history and the photos I definally think this is the best website for the “umpherson sinkhole” thanks

On 13 August 2012, Mariana wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Thank you very much for such detailed descriptions and explanations! I am a teaher looking for information – I will be pointing my students to your website!

On 29 December 2016, Aylah wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Awesome.Really cool and saw the possums out at daylight.

On 25 March 2017, Midge Wallace wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

This is so interesting, as our family is right in the throes of a Facebook discussion about James Umpherston. Thank you for all this information – he has been a bit of a name on a page to my family and that is all. He married a Great Great Aunt of mine, Margaret Ferguson (I see when I click on the link about him that he was 66 at the time and she was 35). The instigation of our family discussion was that I have in my cupboard a sugar bowl and cream jug set engraved with ‘JU’. How did I come by that? My Grandmother was also a Margaret Ferguson, from Bordertown, and she was niece to the wife of James Umpherston. She would visit them, and while there met her husband to be, David Collins. They established the lovely farm Enderly at Suttontown, where my mother was born. Here’s another connection – my mother, Madge Collins, actually attended Umpherston Girls College for a time. She didn’t enjoy it however! That would have been around 1924.

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