The Umpherston Sinkhole
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.
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’.
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!
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.