Original story published in Tropical North
When you think of a luxury resort in Tropical North Queensland, it is only natural for your mind to wander to an island paradise with palm trees, blue skies, sandy beaches and stunning fringing reefs. What you probably wouldn’t imagine, and certainly what I didn’t picture, is an outback lodge on a working cattle station, its history as captivating as the surrounding landscape.
Nestled in the shadow of Ngarrabullgan, an impressive tabletop mountain ten times the size of Uluru, Mount Mulligan Lodge is a luxury outback retreat surrounded by red dirt and eucalypt woodlands, 150km northwest of Cairns. We arrived in the middle of wet season after a 2.5 hour 4WD transfer from Cairns that took us into and beyond the rainforest, past small country towns in the tablelands and onwards into the North Queensland back-country. The drive followed dirt roads and dusty tracks, crossing numerous creeks with wild brumbies sighted along the way.
Nearing the end of the journey, as we drove up a small hill and pulled off the road, the breathtaking view of Mount Mulligan was revealed in all its glory, its 18km sandstone escarpment rising proudly from the bushland. The mountain has held a strong indigenous significance for the local Djungan people for thousands of years, well before early settlers arrived to name it Mount Mulligan. From our vantage point, Ngarrabullgan took up most of the horizon, but its impressiveness didn’t fully sink in until we arrived at the lodge. The property’s front gates framed the rock face towering over us, a viewpoint that immediately hammered home the sheer size of the mountain.
With a champagne in hand, we are guided from the main pavilion to our suite where an itinerary of unique experiences awaits. Situated on 28,000 hectares, Mount Mulligan has an array of signature and bespoke experiences that showcase the captivating landscape, seclusion and rich history of the heritage property. Still operating as a working cattle station, mobs of cattle are often spotted around the lodge and amongst the historical sites dotted around the property. Self-guided exploration of the abandoned Mount Mulligan township is encouraged, with the old cemetery, coal mine, hospital and chimney stacks to be discovered.
Visiting in wet season, the vibrant green undergrowth contrasts the rich colour of the red outback soil, with numerous waterfalls sprouting from the escarpment of Mount Mulligan. Getting to one of these waterfalls was the first experience on our list.
At dawn, our guide, Jack, met us outside our suite in an all-terrain vehicle. With the glow of the sun starting to creep over the horizon, we followed narrow off-road tracks to a vantage point at the foot of the escarpment, where we watched the golden light of sunrise flood across the property. From here we would walk, with little more than a goat track to follow up the mountain, to where the promise of a waterfall swim awaited us.
Scrambling around boulders, we snaked our way up the foothills of the escarpment, Jack stopping at various times to share points of interest; a flowering Kapok tree with seeds that resembled cotton, and native beehives hidden on the underside of low ledges. Djungan people, Jack explains, would knock just half the hive off the ledge, leaving enough intact for it to continue to grow, creating a sustainable food source that they could return to time and time again.
After almost an hour, we rounded a huge boulder that revealed a hidden oasis amongst the rocky bushland. A vertical rock face stretched high into the sky, and from it sprouted a waterfall, the white stream of water stunningly juxtaposed against a red, brown and black mottled rock face. Forming a natural pool and encircled by large flat boulders, the falls were irresistibly inviting. Behind us, a view of the property’s rugged terrain stretched as far as the horizon.
Diving into the cool water and emerging from beneath the cascading falls, the soft hum of the water hitting the pool’s surface echoed around the gorge walls. There is something about the energy of fresh running water that leaves you feeling more alive than other swimming spots. This picture-perfect experience was perfectly topped off with a hot coffee Jack brewed for us by the water’s edge.
Mount Mulligan’s waterfalls only flow after heavy rain, and out of respect to the local Djungan people, are the highest point on the mountain that guests of the lodge can visit. In Djungan tradition, Ngarrabullgan is the birthplace of the rainbow serpent and is one of Australia’s oldest known indigenous sites. Archaeological research suggests that the Djungan people lived on the mountain at least 37,000 years ago, only moving away from the mountain 600 years ago. It is a rare example of an indigenous narrative reflecting a change in land-occupation, with the Djungan people believed to have moved away due to a Dreamtime story that tells of a malicious spirit, Eekoo, who lives on the mountain. To this day, the Djungan people approach the mountain with caution and rarely visit its summit, and out of respect, the lodge staff and guests do the same.
After our swim and morning brew, the hike down was a breeze and we arrived back at the lodge with time for a slow, relaxing breakfast on the deck of the dining pavilion. Overlooking the still water of the weir, we watched water birds skip across lily pads while black cockatoos rested in the paper barks, the sounds of soaring eagles echoing off the rock face of Ngarrabullgan above. To a background of singing cicadas and a gentle rustle of eucalypt leaves, we basked in the surrounds of this contemporary outback sanctuary, a peaceful break before our second dose of adventure for the day.
Handing us the keys to an ATV, the staff assured us we were in for a treat with this next experience. We buckled ourselves in and adjusted our goggles, setting off down the driveway after a quick brief on how to drive the vehicle. We left the lodge and flew through the rugged terrain of the property towards the Branch Lookout at the southern end of Mount Mulligan.
Clouds of red dust flew into the blue sky as we passed termite mounds and ironbark trees, the mountain towering beside us. Stopping to take in different vistas of the property, our guide, Phoenix, pointed out wildlife and bushland flora, weaving in historic stories and the traditions of the Djungan people.
The creek crossings were where the tour truly came alive. With the consistent rainfall the wet season brings, the usually-dry creek beds fill with water for just a few weeks each year. Strewn with river stones of all sizes, and paper barks sprouting mid-stream, we would stop before each crossing to switch our vehicles into 4WD and watch as other guests navigated across. The first few crossings we edged across tentatively, but by the third our inner thrill seekers took over and we began flying in at pace, bouncing over submerged boulders and parting the knee-deep water with ease.
After navigating our way up a steep incline with deep trenches, we rolled over the hilltop to a view of the southern end of Ngarrabullgan, coming to a stop at a perfectly-placed picnic table underneath a tall gum tree. Wallabies darted away as Phoenix pulled out a tablecloth and began pouring hot drinks for a classic country ‘smoko’ with scones and pastries.
After a thrilling morning, we spent the afternoon cooling off in the infinity pool, lazily napping on the loungers under the shade of the trees. For those less adventure-inclined, the resort also offers stripped back activities thoughtfully designed to offer authentic outback experiences in a laid-back style. At the weir, guests can kayak along a eucalyptus-fringed shoreline, wander its perimeter spotting rainbow lorikeets and azure kingfishers, or try their hand at catching a barramundi with the fishing rods provided.
The spacious suites bring the expansive landscapes of the property indoors, with a high-pitched ceiling featuring exposed rafters of spotted gum timber. The dark timber panelling and creamy colours of the walls inspire a retreat-like feel that contrasts against the stark outdoor environment. Complemented with beautiful timber furnishing and buttery leather lounges, the standout feature is the deep, corrugated iron baths, situated on the private balcony with uninterrupted views of the weir.
In the evenings, the fire pit with a view of Ngarrabullgan puts a luxurious spin on a traditional outback campfire. Guests are offered champagne and encouraged to gaze at the stars around the crackling fire, exchanging stories from the day with others before settling down for a dinner that delights with locally-sourced produce and freshly-grown fare.
For our last evening, we drove our private golf buggy up to the sunset pavilion to enjoy a cheeseboard with views of the sunset. As the sun dipped below a cloud bank and the rock faded into darkness, we were told of the vibrant red glow that would overcome Mount Mulligan if it were a clear sunset - reason to come back again soon.
The following day we reluctantly packed up and boarded the helicopter back to Cairns, the alternative way guests can access the resort besides driving. Rising from the helipad, we flew over the resort and skimmed past the rock face of Ngarrabullgan, before turning toward the coast. The sheer size of outback Queensland immediately became apparent. Below us, a palette of muted colours covered the undulating countryside, a seemingly endless expanse of sparse bushland with snaking creeks and the odd waterfall.
A distant sliver of green grew in size as we neared the coast, and then passed by in an instant. In comparison to the endlessness of the outback, the rainforest looked preciously small from the air, just a narrow corridor of canopy skirting up the coastline. As the rooftops and roads of Cairns appeared, reality hit us, and with it, an immense appreciation for the grandeur of the outback and the intimate experience of our fleeting few days in the shadow of Mount Mulligan.