Visitors flock to Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World 

OPERATOR: Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World
REPRESENTATIVE: Frank Shipp (owner)
LOCATION: Maleny, Qld
WEBSITE: malenybotanicgardens.com.au

Since opening to the public in August 2012, the privately owned Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World has grown to become TripAdvisor’s Number #1 ‘Thing to Do’ on the Sunshine Coast. John Power speaks to owner Frank Shipp about this extraordinary scenic attraction.

When Frank Shipp immigrated to Australia from South Africa in 2003, he had no idea he would one day own and run the most popular tourist attraction on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

With its sweeping terraces and pocket lawns, the precinct poses maintenance challenges for grounds staff.

Nestled in the tropical lofty hinterland of south-east Queensland about 20 minutes’ drive inland from the coast, the ever-expanding Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World covers some 20 acres within a broader 110-acre property, the majority of which is native forest. Frank purchased the property in 2005, and despite its previous use for grazing he soon became obsessed with idea of constructing a botanical wonderland on the site. 

“It started off as a hobby and it wasn’t supposed to be as big as it is,” he laughs, “but I’ve got an obsessive-compulsive nature and it just got out of hand.”

The obsession was not without its hurdles, Frank recalls, considering the abrupt gradient of the land, high rainfall, as well as the immense labour involved in terracing, manicuring and maintaining the land.

“They don’t call it Rainy Maleny for nothing,” he says, acknowledging annual rainfall of approximately 2m. 

“I estimate we’ve lost about a year to rain since we got going in earnest with development of the gardens in August 2007.”

In the beginning Frank took a hands-on interest in the development of the precinct, personally operating medium-to-heavy machinery, including a Daewoo 22t excavator and 7.5t Komatsu excavator with a power tilt grabber. And it was a tough learning experience, he admits – on his first day at the controls of a Bobcat the machine tipped and rolled, and Frank was fortunate not to be submerged in a dam. 

“It was just my ego that was damaged, but that accident gave me an instant lesson I’ll never forget.”

Walk-through aviaries are a highlight of the property and feature more than 600 birds from around the world.

Over subsequent years the gardens grew in scale and magnificence, reaching a point in 2012 when Frank decided to turn the precinct into a publicly accessible tourist attraction. (Previous exposure through Open Garden Scheme viewings had garnered overwhelmingly positive feedback.) In 2013 a highlight of the gardens – a walk-through bird aviary – was opened, and since then additional connecting aviaries have been built to expand the habitat; indeed, a fourth aviary is near completion. Nowadays there are close to 600 birds on the property, accounting for 81 per cent of visitor patronage.

By opening the gardens as a full-time tourism enterprise back in 2012, Frank hoped the earnings might help offset the high maintenance costs and expedite further capital improvements. Little did he suspect, however, that visitor numbers would exceed 55,000 per year by 2017–18!

COLOUR, VIEWS and CULTURE

Maleny, like its neighbours Montville, Eumundi, Flaxton, et al., is renowned as a sophisticated and cultural haven with strong artistic credentials and striking natural values; this status has influenced the ever-evolving design and function of the gardens, confirming their purpose as a destination of relaxed quietude, flair and colour. In keeping with this philosophy, Frank says he has excavated numerous terraces over the years to serve as private and meditative spaces within the gardens, and to accommodate lawns as well as level garden beds to showcase both native and exotic flora.

Nevertheless, frequent flooding has continued to cause damage to granitic rock pathways while rendering life difficult for a small team of grounds staff. There are at least six kilometers of pathways throughout the property. In response to these practicalities, Frank says he has opted for a range of high-quality and reliable outdoor power equipment to keep the precinct in tip-top condition.

“For example, I have three main lawn mowers, and one particular person is responsible for doing all the mowing, which can take a full day,” he said. “I only use Toro ride-on mowers.”

These include a 30” ride-on purchased in 2007, a 52” ride-on purchased in 2008, as well as a 60” unit procured a couple of years ago. He says he also inherited a small John Deere mower from the previous property owner, which continues to find use around the property. These mowers are all capable of negotiating the sloping terrain and often damp turf without significant problems, Frank notes.

As mentioned, two excavators have also been used continually to help shape the gardens into their present form, and to shift copious amounts of rock scattered throughout the area. The 22t excavator was bought second hand to save upfront costs, while the smaller 7.5t Komatsu “has probably done 80 per cent of all the work on the property since we got it in 2008”.

Of course, an additional fleet of smaller handheld equipment is used to maintain the property, almost exclusively consisting of Stihl machinery. 

“I have about six chainsaws, all Stihl – and I’ll stay with them no matter what. There is also a whipper snipper and a pole saw.”

Other mainstream equipment includes a fleet of 4WD Polaris buggies, some equipped with sprayers to help eradicate weeds like ‘cobbler’s pegs’ abutting pathways, as well as seven electric Yamaha carts. Visitors use these carts to make their way around the compound, and another three units are on order and due for imminent arrival.

Pump equipment is equally vital to the smooth operation of the property. In particular, Frank says a network of looped artificial cascading ponds rely on water pumps to shift water from the lowest pond back to the highest water feature. This is achieved with a pair of Grundfos 7.5kW pumps, the main one of which has a 25m head.

Most water used throughout the gardens comes from natural underground springs.  “You only have to dig 2m and you are bound to hit water,” Frank joked. “In fact, when I bought the house the previous owner said, ‘You have liquid gold here,’ and that was one of the incentives to build the gardens.”

Drinking water is collected and stored in seven 25,000L tanks, supplemented by six concrete tanks with capacities ranging from 90,000–110,000L each.

Frank’s attitude to machinery is straightforward: buy equipment new whenever possible, respect servicing schedules based on logged operational hours, and always tend to small repairs immediately before they become major concerns.

In this respect, Frank says his background has been of practical assistance. “I served as an apprentice fitter and turner in my younger days, and I’ve always worked on cars and engines,” he explained. 

“Eventually I started working with air compressors and pneumatics, and ended up with an agency for them distributed by Atlas Copco. So I’ve got a fairly sound mechanical background – unless something major goes wrong, we handle things ourselves.”

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY

One of the most exciting aspects of the grounds’ maintenance relates to opportunities to use solar and battery-powered technologies, which Frank says are “absolutely” in keeping with the overall principles of the property; he is an avid supporter of experimenting with green energy-powered equipment, including outdoor power equipment (OPE), and says he looks forward to the day when the property, “which has sizeable energy requirements,” is largely self-sustaining.

“I can’t wait for that technology,” he enthused. “I’m waiting on the latest Tesla power pack and that will power a lot of the office and other equipment – I’ll be able to store power at night. I already have a solar-powered pump transferring water, which has been in operation for quite a few years. But if I could go ‘all solar power’, then without a doubt I would.”

The gardens are accessible either by foot or by Yamaha electric cart.

In years to come, Frank says he would be thrilled if he could use solar energy to recharge battery-powered OPE devices and machines.

One innovation already up and running on the property is an electric vehicle recharging hub (provided at no cost by Tesla), which can recharge up to two electric cars at once. Guests can enjoy a cup of tea in the magnificent surrounds of the gardens while their vehicles are being recharged!

In just six years, Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World has become a popular and beloved feature of the hinterland landscape, and a favourite attraction amongst both bird lovers and admirers of international floral exhibits. It is a tribute to what can be achieved privately with vision, quality equipment, and an artistic temperament.