Enter a world of jagged mountains and fern gullies in Queensland's Scenic Rim and you'll find resilient locals helping the region and its wildlife recover, writes Lee Mylne.
Resilience is etched in the face of Queensland farmer Trevor Turner as he strides along a country road ahead of a herd of cattle on "the long paddock". For generations, in times of drought and hardship, farmers have led stock off their land to graze along the roadsides. As bushfires followed drought last year, and the global pandemic made small businesses wish for their own version of the long paddock - a greener pasture of some kind - resilience is a quality conjured by many.
A chance meeting with Mr Turner outside the village of Mount Alford in south-east Queensland's Scenic Rim - inland of the Gold Coast and about an hour's drive from Brisbane - is a moment of serendipity that sums up the challenges faced by the people of this region. A Rural Fire Service member, Mr Turner spent more than two months fighting the summer bushfires that scoured the Scenic Rim and was named regional volunteer of the year.
What a difference a year makes: like the green shoots springing from the blackened trunks of trees, the Scenic Rim's tourism industry is again thriving. Spend a week touring the region and you will meet locals who are proving resilience, resourcefulness and optimism are in their blood.
Home to six national parks, the Scenic Rim sits within a volcanic caldera formed about 25 million years ago. Parts of Main Range, Lamington, Springbrook and Mount Barney national parks are within the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia.
Naturalist Arthur Groom coined the term Scenic Rim when he and his mate Romeo Lahey founded Binna Burra Mountain Lodge on the edge of Lamington National Park in 1933. Listed by the National Trust and a favourite with nature-loving families and bushwalkers, Binna Burra was devastated by the bushfires that spread through the park in September 2019, razing the original lodge and closing the popular holiday spot for a year.
Like many tourism operators in this region, Steve Noakes, chairman of Binna Burra Lodge, is upbeat about the future despite the disastrous year behind them. Binna Burra's restaurant, campsite (with safari tents if you don't have your own) and 24 modern self-catering apartments, which escaped major fire damage, are open for business, all with sweeping views of the Numinbah Valley.
One of the surviving lodge buildings is now the Bushfire Gallery, where visitors can learn more about the wildfires that destroyed so much of the bushwalkers' haven. Plans are afoot for Australia's first commercial via ferrata, a protected climbing route which at Binna Burra will feature a steel cable rail fixed to the rock, metal steps, ladders, suspension bridges and zip wires.
Set to open in late 2021, it will cover exposed sections of the mountains surrounding the lodge. When the action is over, climbers will be able to retire for a drink at the new Bushwalkers Bar in Groom's original cottage, which survived the inferno. As I head out on Binna Burra's Tullawallal Walk with Mr Groom's granddaughter Lisa, it is clear that much of the natural beauty that has drawn visitors back time and again is still intact.
Lisa Groom is philosophical about the past year. The tour company founded by her father in 1975 to guide hikers around the world has also been hard hit - this time by the global pandemic. International ParkTours has dropped the first word of its name and Ms Groom says it's "like coming full circle" to be leading walks in Lamington National Park.
"We are weaving our history into this new storyline," she says, as we stop near ancient Antarctic beech trees for tea and ginger nuts made to her grandmother's recipe.
"We're creating new walks and new festivals for 2021."
The Gondwana Festival, to be held throughout March, is a partnership between Binna Burra, ParkTours, O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in the Green Mountains section of Lamington National Park (linked to Binna Burra by the 20-kilometre Border Track), and Mt Barney Lodge in Mount Barney National Park.
"Out of disaster comes opportunity", is the mantra of Binna Burra CEO Jonathan Fisher, appointed to oversee the recovery. His spent the past 12 years at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gold Coast, about an hour's drive from Binna Burra. Injured koalas and other wildlife were among many patients treated at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital as the bushfires raged. Free tours of the hospital, part of entry to the sanctuary, are an eye-opener to their plight.
"Last year we treated more than 13,000 animals - sometimes as high as 92 in one day," says hospital foundation director Whitney Luzzo-Kelly. "A year later, we are still seeing animals that survived the fires."
An early casualty was Ember, one of the 600 koalas treated at the hospital each year, who was suffering from smoke inhalation, dehydration and burns to her footpads. After 67 days of treatment and rehabilitation, she was released.
Innes Larkin, owner of Mt Barney Lodge, is "really positive" about the collaboration with other tourism operators and buoyed by opportunities ahead, despite the fires that devastated the mountain which provides the setting for his adventure tours.
"You have to travel a long way to see an impressive mountain like this," he says. "I've been all around the world climbing mountains and I come home and sit on my veranda and think, 'Damn, that's a good-looking mountain.' It's spectacular. And when you get out on that wild, rugged ridgeline, it's outstanding fun."
The desire for space and nature are driving interest in Mt Barney Lodge's outdoor activities program.
"It's brilliant because we get the opportunity to share our passion for the area, teach [visitors] about the geology, the Indigenous history, the wildness and the rare and unique animals and plants that only exist in our part of the world," says Mr Larkin. As I sit on the wide verandah of a timber Queenslander - one of two that make up the lodge, along with two rustic huts, two camper-trailers and a campsite - I'm inclined to agree with Mr Larkin's assessment of Mount Barney, an impressive jagged silhouette on the skyline.
Self-catering has been made easy with the delivery of a Scenic Rim Farm Box, a handmade wooden crate stocked with supplies. When the 2020 Eat Local Week was cancelled due to the pandemic, its organisers looked for another way to support regional producers. An instant hit, the farm box concept is giving the Scenic Rim's food artisans and niche producers a much-needed outlet. My box holds bacon, eggs, mushrooms, bread, local wine and cider, steaks, fresh vegetables, olives and cheese. The 2021 Eat Local Week is scheduled for 26 June to 4 July.
For those who work up a thirst on the road, Mike Webster's Scenic Rim Brewery at Mount Alford turns out a range of seven beers and serves Dutch/German food in a colonial-era general store where the shelves are stocked with jams, chutneys and honey.
On the banks of Lake Wyaralong, Overflow Estate 1895 is planning five glass-fronted cabins to add accommodation to its cellar door and restaurant offerings. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the view while making friends with their black labrador, Nero.
Four-legged friends of another kind are the attraction at Summer Land Camel Farm at Harrisville, where owner Paul Martin has the third-largest camel dairy herd in the world. Feral camels are milked daily; the milk is used for lactose-free milk products, cheese, chocolate, gelato, a skincare range and vodka. After a tour, you can tuck into camel sausages, camel and Guinness pie, or a camel korma curry at the cafe.
Lastly, I negotiate a 10-kilometre twisting ribbon of mostly unsealed road from the highway to the luxury Spicers Peak Lodge at Maryvale. Wallabies bound past and brightly coloured lorikeets flash in the trees. Emerald shoots of new growth are vivid against scorched tree trunks. It is intensely beautiful. Koalas and wallabies found refuge on the plateau as bushfire encircled the lodge, coming within a metre of the two free-standing private lodges.
On a guided "wallaby walk" around the lodge grounds, we encounter red-necked wallabies and wallaroos grazing as contentedly as the guests in the lodge's five-star restaurant. A week in the Scenic Rim is a lesson in ingenuity and innovation. And that word again: resilience.
On a whiteboard in the office at Mount Barney Lodge, someone had scrawled: "Tourism will never be the same again." They may be right, but the future seems theirs for the making.
Fly: One-way flights to the Gold Coast start at $57 from Sydney or Newcastle; $80 from Melbourne; $156 from Canberra; and $139 from Hobart.
Stay: Studio apartments in the Sky Lodges at Binna Burra start from $280 per night. Safari tents and campsites also available. Visit binnaburralodge.com.au.
Do: To learn more about Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary or to make a donation, visit currumbinsanctuary.com.au.
Explore more: visitscenicrim.com.au
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