Shed those ur­ban woes

Out­back Queens­land has a new lux­ury re­treat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PAULA HEE­LAN

It’s the dry sea­son in north Queens­land’s Gulf Sa­van­nah re­gion. On a six-hour road trip from Townsville to Gil­ber­ton Out­back Re­treat, we are driv­ing across red desert roads, through the Great Di­vid­ing Range. The coun­try is scrubby, all eu­ca­lypts, blood­wood and iron­bark trees and mas­sive ter­mite mounds. Fresh­wa­ter crocodiles sun­bake at river cross­ings and we’re keep­ing a keen eye out for roos on the road.

The wet sea­son up here, from Novem­ber to March, brings im­mense trop­i­cal down­pours, turn­ing rivers into rag­ing tor­rents. If you’re not keen to drive so far or pre­fer to visit dur­ing the wet sea­son, when roads are of­ten cut, he­li­copter or small plane char­ters are avail­able to Gil­ber­ton, where we ar­rive in the fad­ing, golden light of early evening.

Lyn and Rob French’s 35,612ha cat­tle sta­tion is rich with nat­u­ral won­ders, from panoramic land­scapes to abun­dant flora and fauna; Gil­ber­ton is also in­ter­na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant for the con­ser­va­tion of its cul­tural her­itage. Home to seven gen­er­a­tions of the Martel­lFrench fam­ily, Rob’s first an­ces­tor here was a team­ster who bought the prop­erty in 1869 to sup­ply meat for the butcher’s shop he opened dur­ing the north Queens­land gold rush.

Now the cou­ple is wel­com­ing guests and shar­ing the Gil­ber­ton story. Lyn says her fam­ily re­alised the po­ten­tial for tourism and de­cided to de­sign and build a lux­ury cabin. The Gil­ber­ton Out­back Re­treat was hand­crafted from lo­cal gran­ite, sand­stone, quartz, iron­bark, iron­wood, lance­wood and cor­ru­gated iron.

High on a cliff over­look­ing the Gil­bert River, the re­sult is ex­tra­or­di­nary. Stand­ing in this clev­erly de­signed hut, with at­ten­tion given to ev­ery de­tail, in­clud­ing a glass bar­ri­cade that al­lows un­hin­dered views and open air be­tween roof and walls, it’s akin to be­ing on a ship’s deck, hov­er­ing above the out­back. The self-con­tained hut is an­chored deep into the hard rock, pre­sent­ing a whole new take on the iconic tin shed and the no­tion of sleep­ing un­der the stars.

Guests can help them­selves to sup­plies in a shop-sized pantry, cooked meals can be de­liv­ered or you can join the fam­ily at the homestead, where the din­ing-room walls are lined with photos dat­ing back to the 1800s. Rob and Lyn tell sto­ries about the joys, chal­lenges and re­silience of liv­ing in such re­mote reaches. To­day, there’s lit­tle left of the once-thriv­ing Gil­ber­ton town­ship. Af­ter the gold rush col­lapsed in 1873, prospec­tors were chased off by Abo­rig­ines, but the Martell fam­ily dug in and stayed to de­velop their cat­tle prop­erty.

Next morn­ing, a mod­er­ate trek into the hills with Lyn takes us to an Abo­rig­i­nal rock art site. More than 30,000 years ago, the Ewamian, Jana and Wool­gar peo­ples walked this land. They set­tled on a rocky plateau sur­rounded by gre­vil­leas, lance­wood scrub and a nat­u­ral rock spring.

We sit un­der a cave ledge with billy tea and pan­forte, ad­mir­ing the art, a birthing stone, arte­facts and what’s be­lieved to be an­cient Asian rock etch­ings. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists and sci­en­tists are spend­ing long pe­ri­ods on Gil­ber­ton sur­vey­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing his­toric sites as well as plants and an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a mob of rock wal­la­bies.

I re­turn to the re­treat and un­wind in the free-stand­ing tub, the wide-an­gle vista and chilled cham­pagne on call. And then an un­ex­pected show un­folds. In the soft light of the late af­ter­noon, I watch a mas­sive wedge-tailed ea­gle soar, col­lect­ing sticks for a nest high in a pa­per­bark tree on the other side of the river.

On our last day, Andy takes us prospect­ing with his me­tal de­tec­tor and within 20 min­utes we find a lit­tle piece of gold. Ten min­utes later, we find more. Lyn says some peo­ple come to Gil­ber­ton just for the prospect­ing. But, for me, it’s about em­brac­ing all there is on of­fer in this wild part of the world. I leave want­ing more. Imag­ine vis­it­ing in the wet sea­son to see the river brim­ming and wildlife teem­ing?

Paula Hee­lan was a guest of Gil­ber­ton Out­back Re­treat.

An old gold pit cuts out a great swimming hole, top; Gil­ber­ton Out­back Re­treat, above left; Abo­rig­i­nal rock art, above right

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