You might see pixies and fairies on a guided tour of native flora in central Perth that won’t cost a king's ransom, saysAnna King Shahab.
A free guided tour in Perth's Kings Park is a great way to get a feel for the subtly beautiful Western Australian flora.
It's one of the largest inner-city parks in the world, larger than New York's Central Park, and rather than displaying the typical exotic plantings seen in any botanic garden, it's filled with hundreds of plants not found anywhere else in the world. That's because two thirds of Kings Park's 405ha are protected native bushland, a haven for Western Australian flora and wildlife, with impressive views down to the city skyline and Swan River and mountain ranges in the distance.
Free tours, guided by volunteers, leave from outside the kiosk several times a day. I happened to be in the city during the Kings Park Festival, which celebrates the wonderful array of wildflowers that grace the southwest region each spring - flowers that are seen nowhere else in the world. So I donned a hat on a warm September day and joined in the 90-minute Wilderness and Wildflowers tour under the capable guidance of Jan. The tour precis sounded like a journey into a fairy dell, promising we'd meet "milkmaids and postmen, pixies and fairies, donkeys and spiders". (Arachnophobes read on: we're not talking eight-legged creatures here.)
Passing a free Sunday concert and food trucks setting up for the day, as well as vibrant Everlasting displays, we headed down to the boardwalk that snakes (see what I did there? Don't worry, you won't see any) through the Bushland Nature Trail. There are elements of striking and structural - the kangaroo paws and banksia fit this bill, but mostly the spring wildflowers of this region are subtle, modest things. Yet, when you take in a whole scene, as well as when you get up close to see minute detail, you realise these plants are incredibly beautiful.
The whole effect is painterly - tiny flecks of soft pastels and bright yellows are interspersed with muted greens and browns, and the play of light filtering in from the morning sun creates further busyness.
Most of the wildflowers we spot go by charmingly evocative common names: the bacon and egg shrub has small but bright crimson and yellow flowers; the donkey orchid boasts two elongated lateral petals; the pink fairy orchid is the most gorgeous shade of bluish-pink; the milkmaids have white flowers on tall stems and the shaggy, purple pixie mops.
We learn how the orchids, unable to attract pollinators because they have no nectar, cleverly mimic other flowers to attract insects and complete fertilisation.
The native wisteria climbs throughout everything. It's a deep shade of lilac and has two little green "eyes".
Overall you get the feeling the walk is populated by a host of benign little creatures watching you pass by.
As we pass from the trail into the Kings Bush area we meet some taller trees. There's marri, she-oak and jarrah, one of the handsome hardwoods the southwest is famous for.
Further along than we reach on this walk is a karri forest as well as banksia glades and giant boab plantings. Jan carries a swatch of polished wood samples so we can see what each tree, which we see as rough, grooved bark, looks like as a commercial product.
The Aboriginal Noongar people knew myriad uses for the plants found on this trail. We learned that the resin from the trunk of the shaggily handsome grasstree was mixed with kangaroo dung and charcoal to make a glue that came in handy for toolmaking. The gum from the marri was used like a plaster for wounds and marri blossom made a sweet drink. The free 90-minute Indigenous Heritage Tour offers a wealth of such insights
And the spiders? Well, we weren't looking for eight-limbed varieties. But as for spider orchids, we did spot one or two. They are such delicate things, spindly petals and subtle colours - more daddy longlegs than redback - and utterly innocuous.
Need to know
• From September to May, be sure to wear a hat (corks optional) and carry water as Perth temperatures can get fair sweltering.
• There is a toilet en route during the Wilderness and Wildflowers tour but there is no allocated break time on the tours.
• As in any reserve, don't walk off-track, pick any plants or leave any litter.
Getting there: Air New Zealand offers almost daily nonstop flights between Auckland and Perth.