It's springtime and the South-West is bursting into the colours of an artist's palette. I'm standing, surrounded by jarrah trees at Holberry House in Nannup, 280km south of Perth.
The Bunbury Men of Song, an all-male choir, are harmonising to the melody of What a Wonderful World.
Today it certainly is. Tulips and daffodils are blooming, birds are singing, and spring leaves are glowing a bright, young green. Between you and me, it feels just the sort of magical day for spotting the mythical Nannup tiger - a meat-eating marsupial which many claim is not really extinct.
The South-West in springtime is something to be shared and in 1999, the Festival of Country Gardens was conceived to showcase gardens in the area. Sponsored by the Water Corporation of WA and Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes, the 2010 festival includes 18 open gardens around Balingup, Bridgetown, Boyup Brook, Manjimup and Nannup.
The prelude from October 8-10, features 11 gardens and the main festival from November 4-7 includes a variety of 16.
Expect heavenly areas of natural growth as well as cultivated country gardens that have been spruced up for the world at large and for keen gardeners who can meet the owners.
"It's an exuberant time of year and, weather depending, it's a peak time for flowers, especially roses, and perennials such as daisies and irises," said Peta Townsing, festival organiser and chairwoman of Blackwood Country Gardens Inc.
"Apple and cherry trees should still be in blossom for the prelude and by the main festival poppies, pansies, marigolds, stocks and valerian ought to be flowering. In the spring woodlands, orchid enthusiasts can expect a field day spotting spider, sun, cowslip, donkey and enamel orchids and members of the pea family - look out for the curiously named egg and bacon plants," she said.
A variety of walks will be organised and details should soon be available online and at visitor centres.
Nannup is blooming lovely during early spring, with tulips, hyacinths and daffodils flowering voluptuously, and there are some kaleidescopic photo opportunities.
"Tulips flower well into September, providing there are not too many hot spells," Ms Townsing said.
You will also find tulips aplenty in the Kulikup hills, 38km east of Boyup Brook. Tulips With a Difference, a commercial farm selling mail-order bulbs, is open to the public on selected days until September 27.
"We have over 100,000 bulbs which should be in bloom until we close, with the main flush being in mid-September," owner Lyn Chambers said.
Before the sun bursts on to the electric yellow of the acacia trees, I find myself looking down on to a valley of morning mist between Bridgetown and Nannup. The drive is picture perfect with sylvan vistas of rolling hills and patches of wildflowers.
You might prefer to meander along the Blackwood River Drive from Nannup to Balingup which has been voted WA's No. 1 tourist drive.
Head 2km south of Balingup to the 60ha Golden Valley Tree Park and be impressed by the Irish strawberry tree. "Once a shrub, it now thinks it's a tree, having grown taller than the average house to cover an area of about 1000sqm," Ms Townsing said.
In the arboretum visitors will find more than 3000 trees, including 30 species of oak - not normally found in the southern hemisphere. Many of the trees date back to about 1880 when two farming properties, Golden Valley and Yungerup, were established.
"The strawberry tree was probably one of the first plants to be cultivated on the homestead for decorative appeal, and the heirloom variety of pear tree, called Josephine, is also of historical interest," Ms Townsing said.
By the end of October wisteria and roses should be blooming at Windy Hollow Homestead in the Kangaroo Gully area 6km east of Bridgetown.
"The house and garden date back to 1918. It's a big old garden, three acres in all, with lots of colour and shady trees," owner Pam Taylor said.
In Nannup, Holberry House will be glammed up for the main festival with roses, rhododendrons and spring bulbs planted around the noted Sculpture Walk, while the delightfully named Wombledoone will feature roses, protea bushes and a cottage orchard.
Ramblers can expect the unexpected. "Spring is the best time to enjoy the forest as suites of wildflowers peak in a splendid display of colour, variety and beauty. You never know what you might discover," said Bridgetown farmer Jenny Dewing, who leads the forest walks.
Ms Dewing discovered a new plant species on her bush block near Bridgetown. "It's a scaevola, a ground-cover with dainty white fan flowers.
"The State herbarium identified it as a new species and it was later named scaevola ballajupensis after Ballajup Rock where it occurs. So far this plant hasn't been found anywhere else and it's been given a priority conservation status."
But the festival is not entirely about flowers. The towns themselves are noteworthy and quaint. Walking around the historic mill town of Nannup is like stepping back in time, and the vintage cars parading along the main street during my visit fit in perfectly with their surroundings. I'm entertained by some of the finest pedigrees of the auto world which will return in November for the festival's Art in the Garden Village fair.
And the Nannup tiger? I ask Louise Stokes, owner of Holberry House, if the beast is myth, fact or legend. "The viability of the Nannup tiger or thylacine seems to have been reignited," she said. "The question now being asked is when will one be found, rather than does it exist?"
Fanning the folklore, Nannup Lavender Farm with its roses and oriental lilies will feature an exhibition on The Legend of the Nannup Tiger during the festival.
"We'll have an exhibition with models of thylacines decorated by local artists," festival co-ordinator, Heather Walford said. "Many people in the district have said they've seen something they can't quite explain in the last few years and have thought it could be a thylacine."
The last-known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936 but, after recent claimed sightings, Nannup locals are said to have painted stripes on sheep.
So if you're on a trip to the gardens and woods of the South-West and happen to spot a striped, wolf-like creature, then pay attention.
It may be a sheep or it could be a carnivorous marsupial with an enormous jaw. Survive to tell the tale and you too might become a legend.
- fact file *
> For a full list of the Festival of Country Garden's open gardens and walks, contact Peta Townsing, chairwoman Blackwood Country Gardens Inc and festival organiser: www.countrygardens. com.au or 9764 1111.
>> Art in the Garden Village - art, music, crafts and gardening fair - coincides with the main festival and takes place in Nannup from November 4-7. It's a collaboration between the Nannup Arts Council and The Festival of Country Gardens. On November 6, Especially Tulips, Nannup, will host a garden fair, including art and garden stalls. In Bridgetown on November 7, Ford House Retreat, on the banks of the Blackwood River (built in 1896), will be the venue for a garden fair with 40 stalls of plants, food, gifts and garden-related products.
>> Nannup Visitor Centre: www.nannupwa.com.au, 9756 1211.
>> Balingup Visitor Centre: www.balinguptourism.com.au, 9764 1818.
>> Bridgetown-Greenbushes Visitor Centre: www.bridgetown.com.au.
>> Golden Valley Tree Park: www.goldenvalleytreepark. org.au.
>> Wombledoone Garden: Dean Road, 9756 0165.
>> Ford House, Bridgetown: www.fordhouse.com, 9761 1816.
>>Windy Hollow Homestead: 9761 2523.
>>Tulip Farm and gardens overlooking Nannup: Especially Tulips: 9756 1286.
>>Display of Tulips at Blackwood Wines: www.blackwoodwines.com.au, 9756 0077.
>>Tulips and sculptures at Holberry House: www.holberryhouse.com.au , 9756 1276.
>>Tulips, spring bulbs, perennials, roses at Mossbrook award-winning gardens, 9756 1515.
>>Mythic Mazes and Sculpture Garden: www.mythic mazes.com.au, 9756 2121.
>>Tulips with a Difference, Lynne & Kevin Chambers at Boyup Brook: 9767 3069.
>>Tulips, lavender, spring bulbs at Nannup Lavender Farm: www.nannuplavender farm.com, 9756 0242.