A great grey rain cloud passes over the deep red sand. Fingers of sunlight burst through the receding front flooding the sand dunes with golden light. Tiny blue wrens and wagtails dart about catching flying insects emerging from the wet spinifex. ‘It looks like something from the red centre,’ says Barry Iddles. The man who is known as Melbourne’s caterer to high society is looking from a window onto a manicured landscape on the outskirts of Melbourne. Designed to emulate Australia’s parched interior, it is one of many Australian landscape vignettes at Cranbourne Gardens, part of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Since Barry took the reins of the Boon Wurrung Café in the gardens’ visitor centre he has fallen in love with the grounds that surround his workplace.
‘This view reminds me of a trip I took with my family to the outback over 21 years ago,’ says Barry. ‘Those rich colours and sparse vegetation.’ He is known not only for his upmarket catering but also for his acclaimed menu at the Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club and fun snow destination diner, Elk at Falls Creek. ‘What I love about these gardens is that they offer these series of unfolding vistas and intimate spaces that have this impact on you. They remind you of places you have been to and times you have spent with people around the country.’
He leads us past the rock pool waterway, a shallow man-made stream where, despite the weather, children play with trousers rolled up past their ankles. We head around a garden planted with woodland eucalypts, the hill covered in stunted Mallee gums so cannily arranged that it feels just like The Little Desert. We head past tea trees that grow by the edge of the great central water feature in the gardens in a way that evokes the coves of Wilsons Promontory or the New South Wales South Coast.
We come to what looks like a backyard. ‘This reminds me of the 1950s houses we grew up in,’ says Barry. ‘It is so cleverly done.’ He points to a long path by the side of the lake. ‘And this is the Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Walkway,’ he says. ‘This is where we hold The World’s Longest Lunch as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March. Imagine 100 and more well-dressed people all sitting down, shaded by umbrellas, enjoying beautiful food and local wines. All looking out over this view.’
The gardens cover over 300 hectares of natural bush complete with wild kangaroos, bandicoots, koalas and wallabies. The landscaped section of the Australian Garden covers 15 hectares with sweeping lawns, dry river beds, decorative lily pond walkways and the Ian Potter Lakeside Precinct, which can hold 200 people. ‘This is becoming a very popular place to hold weddings,’ he says. ‘We can really look after people very well and as you can see it is such a beautiful place to get married; the scenery makes a great background for photos.’ He has locations in the gardens that can hold as few as 36 and as many as 300 people for weddings and special events.
We walk back to the café via an outcrop of rocks so huge it seems we are walking through a desert canyon. From the top of the mound we get another view of the red sand garden and the Visitor Centre, itself nestled into a small hill so it looks like a man-made escarpment. We walk through the café into the Tarnuk Room, a large room with wood features and an imposing view across the red sand and the gardens beyond. There’s no hint of the Melbourne suburbs a kilometre beyond the garden. The room can fit 150 for weddings and functions.
We wander back into the Boon Wurrung Café next door. Flowering native plants in pots decorate the tables, bringing the garden story indoors. The café is named after the local Aboriginal people and there are hints of native bush foods on the menu. This is a place for families to gather and relax before or after a stroll through the gardens. There are snacks as simple as a plate of freshly baked scones with real cream and jam and a pot of tea, or there is more substantial fare, starting with a bowl of hearty soup and crusty bread. ‘We cater for everyone in the café,’ Barry says. ‘Everyone who comes to enjoy these beautiful gardens will find something on the menu that suits them.’ An old-fashioned country boy at heart, he couldn’t resist putting traditional grilled sausages on the menu, served with delicious chutney. Lunch could be an osso buco, fillet of pan-roasted barramundi, simple fish and chips or penne Napoli for the kids.
‘This is such a beautiful place, so close to Melbourne and in many ways is still yet to be discovered by many,’ he says. ‘It is one of the state’s treasures.’
Cranbourne Gardens, part of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is at the corner of Ballarto Road and Botanic Drive, Cranbourne off the South Gippsland Highway, Melway Ref: 133 K10
Tel 03 5990 2200
For more information about Boon Wurrung Café and weddings and events at the gardens and/or Tarnuk Room function centre contact: