Shed those urban woes. Published in The Australian, Travel & Indulgence
It’s the dry season in north Queensland’s Gulf Savannah region. On a six-hour road trip to Gilberton Outback Retreat from Townsville, we are driving across red desert roads, through the Great Dividing Range. The country is scrubby with mostly small eucalypts, bloodwood and ironbark trees and massive termite mounds are prolific. Fresh water crocodiles are sunbaking at water crossings and we’re keeping a keen eye out for roos on the road. The wet season, from November to March, brings immense tropical downpours turning rivers into raging torrents. If you’re not keen to drive to Gilberton or prefer to visit during the wet season when roads are often cut, helicopter or small plane charters are available. We arrive in fading, golden light.
Lyn and Rob French have opened their scenic cattle station to the world. Their 35,612-hectare property, Gilberton, is rich with natural wonder from landscape panoramas to abundant flora and fauna; Gilberton is internationally significant for the conservation of cultural and historical heritage. Home to seven generations of the Martell-French family, Rob French’s forebear was a teamster who acquired the property in 1869 to supply meat for his butcher shop set up during the north Queensland gold rush. For first time, the Frenchs are sharing the Gilberton story.
Lyn says her family knew potential for tourism lay in its own backyard. “Keen to value add to our cattle operation, we decided to design and build a luxury cabin.” The Gilberton Outback Retreat was hand crafted from local granite, sandstone, quartz, ironbark, ironwood, lancewood and corrugated iron. Perched high on a cliff overlooking the Gilbert River, the result is extraordinary. When you open the cabin door and step in the surprise is momentous. “Oh my God,” is all I can say as we take in the vista before us. Standing in this cleverly designed hut, with attention given to every detail, including a glass barricade to allow unhindered views and open air between the roof and walls, it’s as though we’re standing on a ship’s deck, hovering high above the outback. But the self-contained hut is, indeed, anchored deeply into hard rock and is a whole new take on the iconic tin shed and sleeping under the stars.
The Frenchs wanted to create a place to give guests a heightened sense of relaxation, pleasure and the real Australia. “We want guests to feel they are on their own in the bush, but close enough to us to enjoy our hospitality or assistance if they choose.” You can help yourself to supplies in the homestead’s shop-sized pantry if you prefer to cook; home cooked meals can be brought to you or join the family at the homestead.
On our first night we relish a hearty three-course meal with the family. The dining room walls are lined with family photos dating back the 1800’s. As Rob and Lyn tell stories, we are reminded of simpler times and genuine people. We can’t get enough as we hear about the joys, challenges and resilience of people living remotely. Today there’s little left of the once thriving Gilberton township. After the gold rush collapse in 1873, prospectors were chased away by hostile Aborigines, but the Martell family dug in and stayed to develop their cattle property. We learn about cattle production, land management and distance education. The three French children, now accomplished young adults, learned through School of the Air. Extraordinary close family relationships form in the bush, and the Frenchs are testimony to this. Each of them is generous in nature, kind and essentially quick-witted.
Next morning a moderate trek into the hills with Lyn takes us to an ancient Aboriginal rock art site. More than 30,000 years ago the Ewamian, Jana and Woolgar people 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 thought to be ancient Asian rock etchings created before the Aborigines arrived. Archaeologists and scientists are now spending extended periods on Gilberton to survey and identify historical sites as well as new plants and animals, including a mob of small, rock wallabies spotted near the Aboriginal site.
I walk back into the hut where the stand-alone tub with the wide-angle vista and chilled champagne are calling. As I unwind in the warm water, an unexpected show unfolds before me. In soft, golden light of the late afternoon, I’m watching a massive wedge-tail eagle soar back and forth. It’s collecting sticks for its nest high in a paperbark tree on other side of the river. The splendid sense of being in this largely untouched wilderness is taking hold.
On the last day, deciding what to do is difficult. It’s tempting to stay put in this exquisite little retreat, to soak up every last minute. But knowing we’re leaving soon, I don’t want to miss anything, particularly the limitless photo opportunities. We call Andy and he takes us prospecting. He has a slick metal detector and within 20 minutes of scouring, 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. Head over heels in love with the place, I leave wanting more. Imagine coming in the wet season to see the river brimming and wildlife teeming in the northern summer light?
If you want to drive rather fly in by charter flight, road trip takes 5.5 hours (4WD preferred) from Cairns or Townsville.
Prices at the Gilberton Outback Retreat vary depending on which tours and activities are required. Top price is $900 per person, per night, which includes all meals, drinks, guided tours and activities. No Internet available.