Kerry’s Garden, Chillagoe, Far North Queensland, Australia

Bowerbirds and Bottlebrushes

Words & Pictures: Tiffany Daneff

It’s so hot in Chillagoe that people climb into their truck to drive a single block to the general store (there’s only the one shop in town) –  rather than suffer the sun.  So when it comes to gardens the main thing is to create coolth and shade, for humans and plants.

Kerry’s family go back to the origins of the old mining town which was founded beside Chillagoe Creek in 1900 by the workers in the nearby copper smelter.  Chillagoe has changed little since – other than the fact that these days the population has dropped from thousands to somewhere under 300.   That said, the geologists are back and cores are still being drilled out of the mineral rich ground and examined in a hope of striking lucky.

Even when I visited in the cool season it was broiling for a limey and the only respite was on Kerry’s airy verandha which felt all the cooler for the hanging baskets, the pots of bougainvillea, succulents and enthusiastic figs and rubber plants.  Cacti flourished around its edges and in every nook and cranny Kerry could pop one in.

In spite of the heat I was drawn into the sun and, in particular, towards the humpy house, or what we in England would call a wendy house.  This had been built by Kerry’s father for his granddaughter who clearly treasured it with as much love and care as the bowerbird his bower (see below).  Succulents hung from the verandah and inside was a homey little kitchen with everything in its place.  Beyond the humpy was a shady arbour and store room filled with tins and pots ready for planting up.

You have to come here to appreciate just what a miracle has taken place on this plot.  Beyond the fence is nothing but aridity, dessication and dust.  Inside trees soar to the blue, birdsong fills the air while insects and humming birds busy themselves about the scarlet bottlebrush and pinky yellow lantana.

Not to be missed

The bowerbird nest beautifully constructed in the leafy shadows beneath a tree on the borders of the garden was one the most exciting and memorable things I saw on my Australian trip.  As you can see in the photo the male satin bower bird had clearly spent a lot of time making it pretty for some lucky female with all sorts of carefully gathered and arranged treasures – shells, bottle caps, shiny green glass, bits of silver foil.  No need for anthropomorphizing when you have this kind of carry on in the undergrowth.  And we get excited in England when we get a robin on the gatepost.  (PS These bowerbirds are cool too.)

Definitely an experience right up there with seeing crocs on our helicopter ride over Daintree rainforest.


This is a private garden so, sadly, you can’t visit.

Other gardens nearby

Round here it’s more about exploring and enjoying the landscape than relaxing on lawns.  You can swim in the gloriously cool Chillagoe Creek and visit the fantastic limestone caves in the Chillagoe Mungana National Park.  This is a dry land of eucalyptus, ironwood, paper barks, fig and tea trees.   Bird life is busy – look out for galahs (roseate cockatoos) on the phone lines and red winged parrots.

How to get there

From the exhausting hippy hang out that is Cairns (which is where everyone goes to catch a boat to the Great Barrier Reef) drive west up into the hills and just keep on keeping on for about 200km (three hours).  There is a train station too.  If you want somewhere to stay head for the Post Office hotel and ask for Dorothy.