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A SPECIAL PLACE AT WHAKATANE

Sophie Rishworth drives through the Waioeka Gorge and finds a garden delight in the Eastern Bay of Plenty . . .

Whakatane is one of Tairawhiti’s closest neighbours. It has an estimated population of 37,100, and takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to get there through the wild Waioeka Gorge.

En route you will drive through three towns that start with O -- Opotiki, Ohiwa and Ohope.

The gorge has a bit of a bad rap because of the winding road’s effect on some tummies.

But this stretch of road has beauty in its seams, a wildness that reflects how New Zealand used to be and we counted at least 12 waterfalls on the drive through.

As soon as you drive down the hill to Whakatane, if you’ve come in through the beachside settlement of Ohope, you feel a bit more “connected”. After being in the splendid isolation of Gizzy, suddenly you have access to 20 different towns all within a one hour radius.

The i-Site there reports domestic tourists are keeping them busy during New Zealand’s time of closed borders.

Something off the beaten track but well worth a look, and you do have to book, is Maggie’s Funtastic Garden at 34 McCracken Road, RD2, Whakatane.

The prices are ridiculously cheap — $5 for adults, and a gold coin donation for kids. It is basically to cover the paint and plywood for Maggie’s future creations.

It is set among sprawling gardens, with pathways that lead you through a child-size western town, flower varieties and trees you have never seen before.

As the adults enjoy the gardens the kids run ahead to see the pirate ship, the plane, the time travel machine and the fairy woodland and dinosaur section, And that’s not naming it all.

Maggie’s mother and father, Joan and Tracy Fenton, had a dairy farm and a pig farm on the property in the ’60s.

Maggie said her mother started the garden with “a few gladdys”.

“She also had a plant nursery for about 30 years called Easy Grow Nursery. To this day I still have people who remember her.”

Her mother’s original garden has been transformed.

Maggie always wanted a pirate ship and a Western town and today she has both, built by hand and sprawling over the second generation garden, with twisty paths that take you from one garden delight to the next. The plants themselves are fascinating.

There is even an old plane for kids to jump in — a nod to Maggie’s past.

In 1981 she qualified as a pilot.

When asked what kind of pilot she was, Maggie says, ”not a very good one — I crashed in 1983.”

She was piloting a small aircraft to fly three hunters in to Te Urewera. The aircraft went down but passengers and pilot survived with just a few cuts and bruises, and a night in the bush.

The next day they were rescued by the air force.

“I don’t waste time buying a Lotto ticket. I believe in fate and think that was my luck.”

In 2005 Maggie switched to helicopters and became an instructor until the company she was working for went bust.

Today she uses her intelligence and attention to detail to create this magical garden. Maggie loves Pinterest, getting inspiration from the posts. She builds using fibre glass and/or plywood, and completes the job with paints.

We’re not just talking small fairy houses — although those exist as well — but huge dinosaurs, a time travel machine and a pirate ship.

Maggie loves seeing children having fun on her creations. During orange season you can pick your own, and there is a picnic area.

Next on her list are pedal cars for kids to ride on roads she will create.

She hosts birthday parties for children, and other family celebrations.

“I’m constantly adding to it. I want to make a monster tunnel and where kids can go through — little bit scary but not too scary.”

The garden is just 20 minutes from Whakatane.

Make a day of it and take your togs to visit Awakeri Hot Springs just down the road.

Call Maggie on 027 272 9828 to make a booking to visit this extremely fun garden in Whakatane.

THE SECRET GARDEN: Maggie Fenton (left), and Maria Hyland (right) with Maria’s granddaughter Olive Bunbury (left), and Sylvie Whitworth, at the entrance to Maggie’s Funtastic Garden’s Western Town. Pictures by Sophie Rishworth
REMEMBER THIS CAR?: Olive Bunbury and Sylvie Whitworth sit in an old-school car that only their parents remember — it’s a copy of The Flintstones’ car from the popular TV cartoon originally broadcast in the 1960s. The Flintstones was the most financially successful and longest-running network animated television series for three decades, until The Simpsons, which debuted in late 1989, overtook it.
TINY VILLAGE: The fairy houses were individually made with love by Maggie Fenton.
LAND AHOY: The pirate ship is a very popular attraction. It was built by Maggie and has stashes of gold, and a plank.
VROOOM: In a nod to Maggie’s past as a pilot, a two-seater plane was built in the perfect size for kids to hop in and “fly”.