Lost in the labyrinth

Hedges, fig trees and even a field of sunflowers enclose maze-goers across the state, writes Rachel Sullivan.

As we dive into the narrow alleys between hedges in hot pursuit of our children for the umpteenth time, we begin to understand why mazes have been so popular for so long: the delicious thrill of getting lost, the strange silence in the heart of the maze and that rush of relief when you eventually emerge blinking into the sunlight. Then we hear our children's screams of delight and realise they've returned to the chase.

Since King Minos built a labyrinth to imprison the mythical minotaur at Knossos on the island of Crete, mazes and labyrinths have drawn thrill-seekers and fired the imaginations of artists. Mazes have appeared on coins and on the walls of caves, and featured in crime novels and film noir. There are pavement mazes on the floors of medieval churches, including one in Chartres Cathedral near Paris.

Probably the most famous maze, however, is the one at Hampton Court Palace near London, which was planted more than 300 years ago by William of Orange. It replaced an orchard planted by Henry VIII with almost a kilometre of winding paths enclosed by tall yew hedges.

Maze building in NSW has a much shorter history and the warmer, drier climate dictates the use of different materials and ideas from enormous patterns carved in fields of sunflowers, to timber constructions whose gates can be opened or closed periodically to change their layout, to alleys of interwoven ornamental figs that are a horticultural curiosity in their own right.

Amaze 'n' Place, Alstonville

At around 2000 square metres, Amaze 'n' Place's see-through, open-structured maze is ideal for families: children can tear along the maze's gavelled pathways to reach the centre tower, while their parents can take a more leisurely approach to penetrating the maze's secrets. It is the only such open-structured maze in the world, according to its owners. The lattice effect was achieved by meticulously weaving together thousands of ornamental fig trees. People visit as much to admire the maze's construction as they do to explore its nooks and crannies. And in the tradition of mazes the world over, riddles are provided to keep adults entertained, while games for children involve puzzles and statues of fairies, dragons, crocodiles and gnomes scattered throughout the paths.

Wardell Road, Alstonville. Adults $12, children and concession $10, families $36. Open daily 10am-5pm. Phone 6628 7518, see amaze-n-place.com.au.

Bago Maze, Wauchope

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Part of the Bago Vineyards, this native lilly-pilly hedge maze was planted on Christmas Day 2006 and is still growing. It is expected to open within three years. From above, the maze resembles a bunch of grapes on the vine. Once it reaches full height within the next 18 months, it will be the largest hedge maze in NSW, covering 10,000square metres and with 2000 metres of pathways. The design of the maze has been inspired by the surrounding vineyard and bushland, with some paths spiralling to the centre and other pathways radiating like tendrils to the perimeters of the maze. Two towers are planned and will overlook the hedges, helping walkers to plan their way out. A series of boardwalks and bridges within the maze will add another dimension to the experience for visitors.

Other planned developments around the maze include an amphitheatre, a viewing and picnic deck, garden walks, a cellar and a children's playground. Meanwhile, visitors are welcome to view the maze's progress while enjoying a tipple at the cellar door.

Milligans Road (off Bago Road), Wauchope. Open daily 9.30am-5pm. Phone 6585 7099, see bagovineyards.com.au.

Coffs Harbour Butterfly House

In the tranquil subtropical setting of Coffs Harbour's Butterfly House lies a maze within a maze. After wandering past the fluttering, jewel-like residents of the Butterfly House, visitors to the large wooden maze negotiate their way through a series of butterfly-related clues to find their way to the maze's heart. Here they discover a second, colour maze, resembling a butterfly's view of a flower, whose secret path is unlocked by correctly answering quiz questions geared to suit each member of the group. The gates in the outer timber maze are periodically moved to keep its design fresh for returning visitors.

The on-site tearoom serves light meals and provides activities for children, helping to make the Butterfly House either a destination in its own right or a pleasant way to break a long journey in the car.

5 Strouds Road, Bonville. Adults $14, children $7.50, concession $12, families $40. Price includes entrance to butterfly house and maze. Open daily 9am-4pm, closed Mondays during school terms. Phone 6653 4766, see butterflyhouse.com.au.

Amazement, Central Coast

From maddening mazes to cuddly farm animals, Amazement has a range of activities for the whole family. Owned by Gennie Nevinson, who played Deidre Chambers in Muriel's Wedding, in summer Amazement has three mazes, most notably the giant "summer maze" whose design is cut from a field of 2.4-metre-tall sunflowers. One year it was in the shape of outlaw Ned Kelly, with accompanying quizzes and riddles on all things Kelly, while last year's design was a guitar with a musical quiz trail accompaniment. The "lilli-pilly maze" is a year-round attraction for children, while the romantically inclined can find their way to the love seat in the "heart labyrinth".

Amazement also has electric and pedal cars and farm animals, including alpacas, donkeys, goats, chickens, ducks and rabbits. Barbecue facilities give families the DIY lunch option or visitors can pre-order a picnic hamper.

170 Yarramalong Road, Wyong Creek. Adults $15, families $45, children and seniors $10. Open 10am-4pm on weekends, public holidays and school holidays. Phone 4353 9900, see amazement.com.au.

Harpers Mansion, Berrima

The state's only English-style hedge maze is at Harpers Mansion, a National Trust property overlooking Berrima, in NSW's Southern Highlands. Growing on the site of the old stables, the tall rectangular hedge maze and grounds of the early colonial house were laid out by landscape designer Michael Jackman (brother of Hugh) when he leased the property in the late 1990s. The maze itself was planted in 1999 and its two-metre-plus walls provide relief from the summer glare. The recently reopened house and grounds are managed by the National Trust, with the maze and cottage-style gardens superbly maintained by day-release prisoners from the nearby correctional centre, who are working towards horticultural qualifications.

Wilkinson Street, Berrima. Open Saturday, Sunday and public holidays (except Good Friday), 10.30am-4pm. Adults $7, children $3, concession $6, families $15. Price includes entry to house and maze. Phone 4877 1508, see harpersmansion.com.

Cracka Maze, Thredbo Valley

Climatic vagaries meant a horticultural maze was out of the question when the Cracka Maze was being built in 1980. Instead, it's a solid timber maze: 670 posts, 14,000 linear metres of timber and 13,426 nails. There is a series of gates that can be opened or closed to stop anyone mastering its passages. Access to the maze is through an old Manly Ferry turnstile and while it keeps adults guessing for about 20 minutes, local children can run through the maze' in under a minute.

The maze is adjacent to Crackenback Cottage, an award-winning country restaurant, cafe and bar. It brews Australia's widest variety of schnapps, sells home-made preserves and has huge open fireplaces and a vineyard. The original cottage was built in 1884 and was used during the Crackenback gold rush as a general store for the gold miners. Visitors exhausted by their adventures in the maze or on the slopes can stay in the stylish woolshed-inspired guesthouse at nearby Crackenback Farm, designed by renowned architect Glenn Murcutt.

902 Alpine Way, Thredbo Valley. Maze entry $2. Phone 6456 2198, see crackenbackcottage.com.au.

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