Whangarei's hidden delights

By: Heather Whelan, Photography by: Heather Whelan


Whelan 3 Footbridge at the Quarry gardens Whelan 3 Footbridge at the Quarry gardens
Whangarei s hidden delights 2 Whangarei s hidden delights 2
Whangarei s hidden delights 5 The Varder V sculpture is designed to erode and change over time Whangarei s hidden delights 5
Whangarei s hidden delights 7 ‘Terracatta Army’ from Sculpture Northland 2017 Whangarei s hidden delights 7
Whangarei s hidden delights 8 The Great Plate display in the Yvonne Rust Gallery Whangarei s hidden delights 8
Whangarei s hidden delights 9 Left to right: Quirky sculptures have taken up residence among the foliage at the Arts Centre Whangarei s hidden delights 9
Whangarei s hidden delights 11 Whangarei s hidden delights 11
Whangarei s hidden delights 4 Entrance to the gardens Whangarei s hidden delights 4
Whangarei s hidden delights 13 Coronation Reserve information sign Whangarei s hidden delights 13

Tucked away in Whangarei’s Western Hills are two hidden gems: old quarries given a new lease of life and linked by a pretty bush walk. Heather Whelan goes exploring.

Garden oasis

A fluttering flag at the roadside marked our turn from Western Hills Drive onto Russell Rd. A few twists and turns, then we saw a parking area (an overflow from the main car park and suitable for large motorhomes).

A short distance along a bush-lined driveway was Quarry Gardens, a subtropical oasis in what was once a stone quarry. Beside the main car park a modern building nestled into the foliage, its design echoing the industrial heritage of the site – many remnants of its stone-quarrying past are integrated into the gardens.

This building housed the Visitor’s Information Centre and Quail Cafe. Over a bridge and inside the building we were tempted to stop for a coffee but decided to explore the gardens first.

Signage outside the building explained some of the history of the gardens. We learned that in the 1940s the quarry was an industrial site and, after its closure in the ‘70s, the land became little more than an overgrown rubbish dump.

Twenty years later, a far-sighted local called Laughton King had the dream of establishing gardens there. The council, who owned the land, came on board and a group of volunteers began the task of clearing the site and establishing a garden.

Now the 24 hectare site is home to a variety of native and exotic plants and is bounded by native bush. As we gazed round we realised the gardens were landscaped within a natural amphitheatre: the hillsides rose steeply – with steps leading up in places to tracks that encircled the gardens.

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The old stone quarry has been transformed

We wandered first through the ‘five senses garden’ where we were encouraged to smell, touch, listen and look at the mainly subtropical plants – but not to taste! We were asked to take photos instead.

Winding paths led us past a bromeliad area, studded with orchids, and on to a camellia collection. Many of the 115 varieties donated to the gardens, are unique to the Quarry Gardens, in that they are not to be found in other public gardens anywhere in the world. This must be a Mecca for camellia buffs.

Exotic fauna

We couldn’t help taking photo after photo of the strange and exotic plants. There was a tree with huge thorns growing from its bark. It was called the silk floss tree, which sounds much more benign than the sharp prickles would lead you to expect.

A native of tropical South American forests, it has a cotton-like fibre in its seed pods. Nearby an Australian Burrawang, a cycad dating back to dinosaur days, thrust palm-like leaves skywards, and a chili plant from the Andes came with a warning – its peppers are extremely hot.

Locals to the rescue

At the rear of the gardens a waterfall dropped 40 metres into a man-made, but natural-looking, lake. We took a track to the top of this waterfall and looked down at the gardens spread beneath us. From this vantage point we could fully appreciate the amount of work that has 

gone into establishing and maintaining the gardens. Whangarei Council passed responsibility for the gardens to the Whangarei Quarry Gardens Trust back in 2000 and volunteers meet weekly to tend the gardens and establish new areas.

The local community is justifiably proud of the gardens. This was demonstrated after an arsonist set fires on the hillside around the gardens in 2005. in just one day,10,000 native trees were plantedy by 250 volunteers to help revegetate the slopes.

As we walked back down to the cafe for a welcome snack we noticed school children had left brightly painted, concrete-filled gumboots beside plantings of kauri trees that line one of the pathways. They had environmental messages written on them, illustrating that you are never too young to treasure your surroundings. 

Funky shapes

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At the Sculpture Northland exhibition, Quarry Gardens

Near the cafe we stopped to admire a sculpture. Created by Chris Booth, the towering wood and stone ‘goddess’ named Varder V, has been designed to slowly decompose and alter over time.

On another occasion we visited the gardens to admire the varied works by local artists and sculptors as part of the Sculpture Northland exhibition. Tucked in among the plantings were everything from dragons to a feline ‘terracatta’ army.

A space for artists

The Quarry Arts Centre, further along the Western Hills, has been a hub for the art and craft community since the 1980s. We drove past a funky mosaic guardian sculpture at the entrance and parked outside the Quarry Cafe.

Unlike the popular Quail Cafe at the Quarry Gardens, this little cafe had a much more hippy vibe. With seating inside for four, while six can sit outside, it must be Whangarei’s tiniest cafe. 

The Arts Centre itself was the brainchild of the late potter Yvonne Rust, who founded the trust. A gallery was first opened in 1984. After a rebuild in 2011, it is now known as the Yvonne Rust Gallery and has regularly changing exhibitions.

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We admired the quirky and curious creations in the Grate Plate display. Opposite the gallery we discovered the Quarry Craft Co-op Shop, where we browsed handmade treasures in glass, leather, pottery, greenstone and textiles.

I couldn’t resist some glass earrings, knowing they were unique. Dotted around the quarry were slightly ramshackle – almost organic – buildings: homes and workshops for the artisans who thrive at the Arts Centre.

Quirky sculptures, examples of the artists’ work, could be seen outside the buildings and in gardens. Seeing a sign advertising an upcoming market, we made a note to check it out.

This was an event not to be missed. Live jazz was issuing from the veranda outside the gallery and the area was crammed with stalls selling ceramics, glassware, garden art – there was something for everyone and the Arts Centre was the perfect backdrop.

A bush walk

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The start of the walk through the Coronation Reserve

Behind one stall we spotted the start of a walkway and decided to investigate further. This was an entrance into the Coronation Reserve, a stand of native bush in the Western Hills, named to commemorate the coronation of King George V, and with tracks that link both quarries.

We couldn’t resist exploring, so set out from the Quarry Gardens one sunny morning a while later, and followed a track up and into the hills. A turn led into the Coronation Reserve where we walked along the Frank Holman Track, marveling that we were so close to the city yet deep in bush.

Before dropping down into the Quarry Arts Centre we took a side track for a look at a pa site. From here we could get peeks down into Whangarei. Then, after another look around the Quarry Arts Centre, we retraced our steps and rewarded ourselves with lunch at the Quarry Gardens.

Further information

  • The Quarry Gardens are at 37A Russell Road, Whangarei. The gardens are open 7 days, 9am - 5pm. Quail Cafe is open Wednesday - Sunday, 9am - 3pm.
  • The Quarry Arts Centre is at 21 Selwyn Avenue, Whangarei. The gallery is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am - 4.30pm. The cafe is open Monday - Friday, 10am-2pm.
  • Information about the tracks in the Coronation Scenic Reserve can be found at wdc.govt.nz. You can also find a downloadable and printable map on this website.

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