An expatriate Australian has built an extraordinary showpiece, a tropical Vanuatu garden on the outskirts of the capital city.

The overgrown path leads gently down from the shady orchid gardens, past the fragile and intricate Twelve Apostle irises. A subtle scent wafts through the still, velvet air heavy with humidity. A passing shower, testimony to an active wet season, left a glossy shine on leaves and adds to the tropical ambience. Not far afield awaits a square palm-shaded pond with flowering waterlilies, papyrus and water hyacinths. On the other side of the pond, accessible via a row of stepping stones, a bright pink and blue gate with an old wooden door beckons.

Once through that door, it is like stepping into another room. Behind it the escarpment drops dramatically down and the path begins to descend steeply around a tight corner. Then the view opens up out over the escarpment to the ocean. “You got to have this concept of rooms where you only have two or three plants and they make a statement rather then just boring shrubs here and there, not forming any story,” explains Lesley Batty, owner and co-creator of The Summit Gardens near Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. Lesley is dressed in a bright yellow and orange dress and slate-grey clogs as she wanders through the gardens. Together with her investor husband Jim, they bought the property that now incorporates the gardens in 1998. She moved permanently to Vanuatu in 2000.

Jim had been coming over from Australia since about 1994 trying to put together investor schemes which grew plantation timber. On their extensive property just a half hour drive east of Port Vila on the island of Efate they successfully grow sandalwood, the local nangai nuts, tamarind, Tahitian lime and other citrus, including tangelos and mandarins. Part of the property is also the Summit Gardens. They are perched at an altitude of 200 metres above the sea right where the escarpment dramatically drops down to a shallow strip of flat coastal land. It is one of only two publicly accessible gardens in the South Pacific island nation and considered a world-class tropical garden.

The beginnings of the Summit Gardens however were anything but glamorous. “When we moved in here it was very, very basic,” Lesley says. “Obviously we had all the trees but it was that fairly typical gardening where you have a shrub stuck here and another one there and you have grass all around it. I’ve always liked gardening. I lived in Darwin for 20 years and we went over to Bali and other parts of Indonesia and always admired those sorts of gardens.”

Although the garden is now well and truly established and is maintained by a crew of dedicated local gardeners, Lesley can’t stop admiring what is largely her creation. “I still have to go out there and cast my eye over it,” she admits. “I love it all but it’s hard to beat the Escarpment Gardens, with the view and the colourful flowers.”

This story was originally published in the August 2014  issue of Australian Country. Order the latest issue or subscribe to the magazine here.

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Words and photography Don Fuchs