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As Grassroots As It Gets

It was a sunny day when I drove up the Cook Hospital Hill, and quite surreal to see the difference in the landscape from when I had worked as a shorthand typist at the Cook Hospital in the 1980s.

Here in Tairāwhiti, we have some of the most beautiful botanical gardens and arboretums in the country. I was stoked to be checking out one of the less known Tūranga gardens with Ray Gowland to learn more about this grassroots community project.

The gardens are in a 1.85 hectare Council reserve close to where the old Cook Hospital had overlooked the city. You can access the tranquil little valley from either Diana Avenue at the top of Hospital Hill or Valley Road, opposite The Farmyard, in Mangapapa.

It was interesting to note while I was digging around historical documents that the main hospital in the late 1800s had been in Aberdeen Road. The new hospital was built on the hill because new premises were needed for the increasing numbers of sick people with “Gisborne fever” and epidemics of typhoid, diphtheria, and influenza. Very relatable as we experience our own Covid-19 pandemic!

The hospital was built on what had previously been farmland, at the top of the hill where the water reservoirs now stand and was opened in 1914. By the 1980s, the time had come to modernise again, but due to land movement, a new hospital facility was built in Ormond Road, opening in 1985. It was noted at the opening of the current Gisborne Hospital that there was no longer any need to have typhoid or tuberculosis wards.

The old hospital was demolished in 1988 and residential housing popped up in the 1990s and 2000s. Ray Gowland recalls it was the Turanga Lions Club’s idea to create a “small Eastwoodhill” close to the city. Lions Club members began the garden project in 2001, and despite the club closing in 2011, Ray stayed on as Project Convenor to develop the gardens.

The site had been left untouched for some time, so it took a massive effort to get it under control. “It was just a steep cliff. A complete jungle covered in honeysuckle and weeds. A dumping ground for rubbish and machinery. We put up fences and walls. Cleared it. And planted the full gambit of native trees, Rewarewa, Kauri, Manuka along with Rhododendrons, Camellias and other flowers. There’s an underground bunker, but we never found it.

Volunteers have been helping Ray with the mahi - developing, improving, and extending the gardens ever since. In addition to thousands of volunteer hours, donations from the Turanga Lions Club, Williams Family Trust and Gisborne District Council have contributed to the project. The Council staff and contractors continue to provide support with plants and advice.

At the moment, four volunteers meet every Friday morning for three hours of weeding, planting, maintenance, some good banter and a cuppa. Two of them, Martin Cox and Graeme Miller, share similar stories as retirees wanting to give back to the land and the community. The camaraderie and putting the world right are top of their minds most days.

Martin has been helping for eight years and Graeme, two. Martin asks anyone sitting at home, retired or at a loose end, not to be shy to lend a hand. He likes to meet and talk to people from different walks of life and have a bit of a laugh. While Graeme is a keen gardener, he also got involved to meet people and keep up his fitness, “It’s a big job with only the four of us.”

Ray, Martin, Graeme and the other stalwart of support for the gardens, Gail Wadham, are doing awesome work. They are achieving lots for Papatūānuku and for the nature she provides. Like many other voluntary projects, there is more work than they can handle.

We highly recommend you take your whānau to check this lovely little corner of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa out. They are peaceful and easy walking with heaps of different tracks for the kids to explore.

Afternoons in the gardens are especially lovely with the golden sun filtering through the tall gums.

If you’re interested in lending these guys a hand, or for any further information, you can contact Ray Gowland on or follow Turanga Gardens on Facebook.

Story by Sandra Groves


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