Shed those urban woes
Outback Queensland has a new luxury retreat
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