The small town of Gilgandra in the NSW Central West has a prickly secret that has yet to be fully spilled on Instagram.
For decades, drivers taking a break from the monotonously mesmerising landscape have been drawn to a small nursery at the edge of town, only to find themselves smack bang in what could be a film set – think The Twilight Zone, The Day of the Triffids, Road Runner or even Breaking Bad.
Orana Cactusworld nestled beside a small cottage and café near the Newell Highway. While some towering cacti are visible from the road through the unremarkable wire fence, nothing can prepare you for the sheer magnitude and absolute strangeness of the prickly panorama inside.
Giant ponytail plants stand sentinel at the entrance, waving you through to a bizarrely beautiful sight of hundreds of cacti with bulbous bodies and spindly arms that soar into the bluest of blue Central Western skies. And if their Dalek-like appearance is not strange enough, some of them are wearing Devo-like flowerpots on their "heads".
"The hats protect them from winter frosts," explains nursery owner Lester Meyers, who knows more about cacti than just about anyone – with good reason. He first started collecting the plants in 1948 when his curiosity was pricked when he spotted some in a local woman's garden.
"I was delivering milk when I was in primary school and I saw them and she gave me a couple. I just liked 'em and they sort of grew on me," he says in something of an understatement. Meyers, now in his 70s, has run the nursery for 50 years and every conceivable space there, including in a hangar-sized greenhouse, is home to a cactus or succulent.
In the beginning Meyers sourced seeds and plants from around the Central West – "the pioneers out here used to grow them", he says, but then he began importing seeds from Mexico, the US and Chile. He estimates he now houses about 1000 varieties, including the cartoon-like prickly pear and the popular white rat tail cactus.
Gilgandra's heat, lack of humidity and well-drained, sandy soil is good for cacti, though Meyers has to watch they don't get too wet and frost can be a problem.
"Maybe 200 kilometres north-west would be the perfect country," says Lester. "Though beggars can't be choosers."
But he hasn't chosen too badly by setting up in the same town he grew up in: the plants, much like Meyers himself, appear to be thriving. In fact Meyers says his good health may be partly attributed to his plants. "All those times I've drawn blood with the spines – I reckon my blood has had to keep rejuvenating."
The main difference between Meyers and other cactus growers is not just a matter of number – he also grows a lot of his cactus in the ground rather than pots, hence their large size.
Meyers describes his love of cacti as a passion rather than an obsession, and you would want to be passionate about a plant that can be painful as well as beautiful.
"You have to respect these plants. If you clash with them you'll always come off second best."
Meyers doesn't really have a favourite specimen but does have a soft spot for the older plants – some of which he's been nurturing for almost 50 years. Yes, cactus growing is only for the patient.
"I might have had a word or two to one of them if they are taking their own sweet time to flower, but whether they listen is another matter."
Orana Cactusworld has now reopened after closing a few weeks because of the pandemic. Meyers has no website and has no plans for one – word of mouth seems to do the job, particularly once those alien pictures make their way online.
Orana Cactusworld, 29 Castlereagh Street, Gilgandra, is about a six-hour drive north-west from Sydney and is open most weekends. Make sure you phone ahead if you are planning to travel a long way. Phone: 02 6847 0566
Entry $2 gold coin donation.