The waterfall at the bottom of the garden sold Frank Shipp on the site for the Maleny Botanic Gardens.
The waterfall at the bottom of the garden sold Frank Shipp on the site for the Maleny Botanic Gardens.

Frank's vision for the future

FRANK Shipp motions to the south-east.

"That was what I was after," he says. You can almost see a smile.

His hinterland block has "breathtaking views to the Glasshouse Mountains", as brochures might say.

But this is unique.

He and a small band of staff so far have built a dozen or so terraces on 3ha of a 44ha piece of heaven that cascades off the eastern fringe of the Blackall Ranges.

Each tier is swathed in flowers, shrubs and trees, exotics as well as natives.

More than half a dozen have ponds, pools and streamlets running through them.

It is the start of Frank's dream, the Maleny Botanic Gardens.

Since 2005, he has been mapping out a project that will open up all of the site to anyone who wants to wander through.

And he believes he can have the botanic gardens completed in two years, after buying the property "for a little less than $2 million".

"It took me a couple of years to find this land," the softly spoken South African said.

"In fact, it was more ... I looked for two years and then gave up."

Frank, who moved to Australia in 1998, had driven up religiously from his Kallangur childcare business three times a week.

He knew what he wanted, but the reality had not met the vision.

Until, that is, an agent called the self-made millionaire.

"I was told it might be what I was looking for, so I thought I may as well have a look," he said.

Renaissance, a former cattle property on Maleny-Stanley Rivers Rd not far from the Maleny Showgrounds, looked promising from the start.

He did not have to see all of it before he knew it was the one.

"I got as far as the caves and waterfall," he said.

"That was the clincher."

The waterfall is in rainforest towards the bottom of the land that had been earmarked for a smattering of holiday cabins.

"Look, it would have been such a waste," he said.

"This is as beautiful as the Daintree. It's quite special."

Frank had intended that the garden would be private, but last October something changed.

He allowed the Open Gardens Scheme to give others a glimpse, and, he said, it shocked him.

"The reaction of the people who came through was absolutely astounding," he said.

"I couldn't believe how much they appreciated it. It got me excited about it all over again.

"I knew I'd keep it open after that."

The gardens have already hosted several charity fundraisers and played a significant part in some weddings.

Since last year, more than 10,500 people have walked through to "smell the flowers".

The power of the garden still surprises him, though.

"A family wanted to bring their grandfather through a few weeks ago," he said.

"He was 95-years-old and in a wheelchair; couldn't walk or talk.

"They came through and it seemed okay. A quiet sort of affair.

"But a week later we got this wonderful letter - I think the gentleman may have written it himself - saying how inspirational he thought the garden was.

"It was fantastic."

Frank is a dynamo.

Call the botanic gardens and ask for him, and inevitably you will be told he is "out and about".

The 61-year-old confessed he liked to keep moving.

Almost every day he is in his bobcat - secreted away, in those rare moments that it is not in use, at the side of his property - doing a spot of gardening.

"I am a little full-on," he said.

"Once I start something I like to get it finished.

"I have been described as a bit of an obsessive compulsive."

Frank's eight staff include a driver for a heavy crane to move around the massive rocks on the property, a couple who propagate plants, maintenance people and office staff.

"We all do a bit of work in the garden," he said.

"They are committed people, wonderful people."

And he returns the devotion. Rumour has it he bought a car for a couple of his staff who live at Gympie and drive down to work.

"Well, I was a little worried about them, coming such a long way," he said coyly.

Most would think what Frank and his team have done in a short time at Maleny is astounding.

Not him, though.

"I've been a little frustrated at how slowly it has progressed, honestly," Frank said.

"We've had a few problems ... landslides with all the rain, and we've had machinery breakdowns at critical times.

"Since we started, we have lost two years and three months to rain.

"There's been times - too many times - when it's just been too wet to do anything."

Frank was born in Durban on South Africa's east coast. He had three sisters.

"We were dirt poor," he said.

"Dad was a carpenter, and Mum worked at home."

He was not a scholar.

"I tried to do the equivalent here of Year 10, but I just wasn't much of a student. I ended up leaving before the end of the year to do an apprenticeship," he said.

He was taken on as a machinist.

Frank found he had natural business acumen, and the work ethic instilled in him stood him in good stead.

He made a small fortune with his own company in Durban, turning out industrial compressors for factories.

"Well, knowing a little bit about pumps has helped putting the ponds in," he said, referring to the gardens.

His wife Barbara, whom he met shortly after finishing school, died of breast cancer before he headed east, eventually settling in Brisbane.

He has two grown-up children and a nine-year-old.

Though he has not tallied it up, he estimates the work has cost about $3 million so far.

He has more grand designs for the gardens.

"They are all in my head," he said.

The gardens have 4km of paths, and that is expected to at least double by the time it is finished.

Frank wants to put in a petting zoo, a cafe and perhaps a chapel, and can see a time when there are guided tours of the rainforest down to the waterfall and caves.

And once that is done?

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I wouldn't mind travelling overseas for a bit ... maybe visit other gardens to get some ideas.

"I really don't know much about it, you know. But I'd like to learn."


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