Unravelling history at Mount Mulligan in the Australian outback
Mount Mulligan Lodge is a wonderful retreat in North Queensland’s outback. Antonia Black travelled there to experience this extraordinary place for herself and learn its fascinating backstory
Under the shadow of a majestic mountain, which holds an indigenous significance of 37,000 years, lies the sensitively designed Mount Mulligan Lodge, arguably the most comfortable retreat in North Queensland’s outback. A strong sense of peace welcomes you upon arrival, as the surroundings are utterly serene – save for the occasional rustle of a wallaby or call of a bird overhead – and the vast grounds of the lodge sprawl all the way out to the horizon.
It is easy to be lulled into taking everything at a gentle pace at Mount Mulligan – right from dawn, as the sunrise’s rosy glow across the smooth weir stops you in your tracks, until dusk, when the sun appears to set in slow motion. There is no better place to witness this than the aptly named Sunset Bar, where you can cast your eye over the eucalyptus trees below, as they catch the golden evening light. Even the moon rises later than it does in most other parts of the country here.
While we are all familiar with the iconic colours of the outback, this ochre landscape is mesmerising when seen in person. We highly recommend driving from Cairns. You will be struck by the surprising variety of Queensland’s topograph, as you twist and turn through the boundless countryside, with atmospheric dust clouds billowing up behind your 4WD car. Each bend brings a new version of stark beauty: be it a slightly richer tone of earth, more delicately shaped eucalyptus trees, more imposing termite hills or higher viewpoints across sweeping forests. A number of cockatoos with their vivid-red tails flitting above might join you along the way and, if you receive the same stroke of luck that we did, you may be fortunate enough to share the road with an unusual frilled-necked lizard. The drive is an adventure in itself and should not be underestimated. If you are short on time, you can access Mount Mulligan by a 35-minute scenic helicopter flight from Cairns, which doubles up as a phenomenal way to see the changing and contrasting landscape, as well as a convenient journey.
The welcome at this lodge really is second to none: not only do the friendly staff greet you immediately with exactly what you need after your dusty drive – refreshing cold hand towels! – but you are ushered into the airy lounge, where spoiling welcome drinks of hibiscus spritz await you. These provide the first taste of the phenomenal cuisine that you will experience during your stay here, and it is wonderful to relax under the shade while admiring the lodge’s shimmering weir and infinity pool, before being taken to your sophisticated private pavilion to settle in.
While we, at cazenove+loyd, believe Arkaba Conservancy is an exceptional outback retreat, the luxurious amenities at Mount Mulligan are unparalleled. But the underlying difference is the stories that these homesteads tell: Mount Mulligan sheds light on the tale of Queensland’s gold and coal mining history, which underlies its 280sq-km working cattle station, whereas Arkaba focuses upon their fantastic wildlife conservation.
If you’re looking for supreme comfort, then Mount Mulligan has it all. Choose between soaking in bubbles in your al-fresco bathtub, taking a rejuvenating dip in the state-of-the-art pool or simply unwinding in the green surroundings. The eight pavilions, with their al-fresco bathtubs, face the eucalyptus-fringed weir and the striking mountain beyond, and provide sanctuaries of cool and calm in the heat of the outback.
The dining is also excellent, as are the many ways in which you can enjoy it – from private picnics in secluded spots to dining under the stars on a multi-course menu. The lodge uses locally grown produce as much as possible, and their unwavering loyalty to local farmers and their surroundings is evident in every dish. The friendly staff are always on hand to help here, and really do tend to your every need, from pointing out where the closest laughing kookaburra is to making you a cocktail to sip by the pool.
If you’re feeling in need of something a little more active, kayak or stand-up paddleboard along the glistening weir in the company of curious wallabies hopping around on the banks. Or perhaps you would prefer to try your hand at fishing. If you catch a barramundi, the chef will rustle it up for your dinner and pair it with a crisp Australian wine. The lodge’s naturalist can accompany you on a hike, spotting an array of wildlife and new endemic species along the way, finishing at the arresting Sunset Bar.
For a taste of adventure, the ATV excursion is a must. Whizzing through boulder-strewn creeks, dusty outback trails and cattle fields was a highlight of our stay here, especially as we took a pit stop at a picturesque lookout point to refuel with a delicious homemade picnic. Here, our guide shed some light on the Aboriginal history of the sacred mountain above us and its 35,000-year-old caves, some of which date back to before the Egyptian pyramids.
A real draw of Mount Mulligan Lodge is the unique old township atop a nearby hill, from which it takes its name. It is key to take an immersive tour of this now deserted area during your stay to learn about its captivating past. Originally home to a coal mining community, Mount Mulligan town once bustled with around 300 people but was abandoned in 1958. Little remains to this day, so a knowledgeable and engaging guide is vital in order to bring it to life. Our enthusiastic guide, thankfully, unravelled its history for us in great detail, and with incredible passion, as she showed us around the somewhat mystical site. We enjoyed this experience and were particularly impressed by the area’s poignant spiritual connections.
The township’s cemetery, with its beautifully carved headstones, is also an interesting site to explore. It speaks of local legends – from the shells on top of the graves to encourage good souls to pass through to the placement of rocks to keep the bad souls out. The names and ages of all those affected by the 1921 mining disaster are listed here, which really drives home the tragedy and leaves a mark on you, making you form an affinity with the ghost town and its, otherwise, dreamy location.
If you’re tempted to delve further into the area’s history, we suggest visiting the heritage-listed Tyrconnell Goldmine, which was discovered in 1876 by James Mulligan. Conveniently located a short drive from the lodge, this site harks back to Australia’s Gold Rush era, with its imposing quartz gold crusher, claimed to be the oldest in the country, and its intricate machinery. Luckily, another great guide, Alex, described the gold-mining process to us from start to finish so we left with a thorough understanding. We were also given an inside glimpse into the miner’s cottage, complete with family possessions, monochrome photographs and well-preserved artefacts.
We so loved our time at Mount Mulligan Lodge. It is safe to say that it surpassed every one of our expectations. From its spoiling service and extraordinary setting to its intriguing history and ingrained sense of freedom that comes with being in the middle of nowhere, it is a very special spot indeed.