Steering through dirt fissures and rocking the wheel from side to side along a narrow, often one-lane road, it felt like we were following the trail of a giant serpent along a mountainside. Zigzagging, up, up we went, the views more spectacular with each turn. Then, at the end of a winding cathedral of trees, we arrived at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.
Located an hour-and-a-half from the Gold Coast in Queensland’s Lamington National Park, the retreat lies amidst rugged mountain scenery, wildflower heaths, over 500 waterfalls and highlands that form the world’s best preserved shield volcano, Mount Warning Wollumbin. As we’d just driven roughly a kilometre above sea level during the onset of winter, the air was forest fresh as we stepped from our car.
While our journey here from Byron Bay was relatively short, it wasn’t always this way. In 1914, when the first guests stayed at the then spartan retreat, it took them two days travel from nearby Brisbane. The last stretch involved a 25-kilometre ride on horseback across steep ridges ending in darkness.
When eight O’Reilly brothers purchased the land in 1911, they intended it for dairy farming, but decided upon tourism after visitors arrived in increasing numbers. Then, in 1915, the declaration of Lamington National Park established the place as a traveller’s haven. The park was named after a rather gruff fellow, Queensland Governor Lord Lamington, who also lent his name to Australia’s iconic dessert which he referred to as “those bloody poofy woolly biscuits.”
With not a lamington in sight, my partner and I strode past the café and checked into our Mountain View room before Teagan, a helpful staff member, showed us around the property.
Apart from the original rainforest retreat accommodation, there’s also the Mountain Villas, which comprise 48 luxury two and three-bedroom villas with striking views over forest-clad mountains. Here there’s a large pool that juts over the forest, a Lost World Spa room and an aromatherapy room, while conference and wedding facilities lie handily nearby.
Returning to my balcony, I soaked up a mountain sunset layered with orange and grey hues with a glass of shiraz from O’Reilly’s nearby vineyard. After this sanitising experience, we decamped to the Rainforest Bar and enjoyed olives, dips, bread, a creamy seafood and mash pie and more shiraz from our fireside, tree trunk-esque table. We then strolled down to the steaming outdoor spa and relaxed under a brilliant, starry sky.
The following morning I managed to haul myself out of bed for the 6:45am morning bird walk, guided by bird enthusiast and O’Reilly’s employee of over 30 years, Glen Threlfo. Besides his way with birds, Glen is a character, as he had us sleepy types either captivated or engaged in a morning chuckle. The rare whip bird, Glen points out, “is Mr Whippy, whose ice-cream truck goes out of business during winter.”
Other fine birds that hopped onto Glen’s hand, following a well executed whistle, were the yellow-breasted robin and grey and rufous fantails. The walk is a 30 minute journey along a boardwalk through rainforest.
Tree Top Walk
After Glen’s tour I continued through the forest to O’Reilly’s Tree Top Walk. The first of its kind in Australia, the Tree Top walk, which is a succession of swaying bridges that stretch across lovely sections of rainforest, was built in 1988. There’s also a ladder at one point that takes you to a bird’s eye view above the forest canopy, where you can spy lines of forested mountains.
A buffet breakfast at the centre of the universe
Heading back towards reception, I bumped into Duncan, an old acquaintance from Byron Bay who, it turns out, has worked at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat for the past ten years. He left me mulling over this rather curious statement right before I embarked on the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast. “O’Reilly’s is like the centre of the universe. At one point or another, everybody passes through here.”
I thought one day I might return and meet one of my heroes – such as Ian McEwan, Bill Bryson or Audrey Tautou – while I worked the coffee machine, then had eggs, toast, mushrooms, fruit and yoghurt. I had to stop myself it was all so tasty. Luckily I also managed to catch up with third generation family member Michael, ‘Big Mick’ O’Reilly, who I caught slicing some of the cafe’s natural honeycomb.
The Stinson plane
It’s certainly worth mentioning the Stinson plane incident, which is, by and large, the most famous O’Reilly story on the mountain.
In 1937, a Stinson plane heading from Brisbane to Sydney crashed in Lamington National Park, killing four of its seven passengers. A search for the wreckage ensued, although no sign of the plane was found. However ten days after the crash, Australian author and bushman Bernard O’Reilly embarked on his own search and found it, along with two survivors (one man perished searching for help).
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat hosts walks to the wreckage site, which retraces Bernard’s steps. The journey is an arduous 35 kilometre return day walk open to experienced bushwalkers only. For those limited by time or fitness, a replica of the Stinson plane (above) sits on the front lawn of O’Reilly’s.
Birds of Prey Show
Our final activity at O’Reilly’s was perhaps the most memorable. Here Mark Culleton calls his feathered friends one by one, who swoop, soar, bounce, hover, chew and chatter their way amongst onlookers. Birds such as owls, a peregrine falcon, Stella – the whopping wedge-tailed eagle and Flickr – the hovering female kestrel provide a palpable insight into just how incredible nature is.
While these creatures dart in and out of the audience, Mark will tell you lots of interesting facts about birds and Australian wildlife in general. You can even put on a glove at the show’s finale and have a picture taken with a bird (of your choice) perched on your arm.
With the day now coming to a close, it was time for me to head back down the trail of the giant serpent towards home. I hope to pass through the centre of the universe again, at least to try the flying fox and sedgway tours I missed out on, which I hear are a real hoot.
For more information, contact O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.
Disclosure: I stayed as a guest of O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat for review purposes, although all opinions expressed here are my own.