After bouncing about on a hot dirt track, there are few sights more welcome than a smiling lodge host bearing a chilled glass of bubbles. It’s an apt introduction to Mt Mulligan Lodge, a unique north Queensland getaway, which genuinely merits the description “outback escape”.
Our original plan was to helicopter in – a quick 35-minute trip from Cairns – but a sudden tropical storm grounded air traffic, so we’ve switched to a 4WD. Since turning off at the small township of Dimbulah, we’ve passed just one dusty ute and a handful of floppy-eared Bos indicus cattle.
I’ve been hanging out for a first glimpse of Mt Mulligan, our destination lodge’s namesake, since leaving Brisbane. This massive tabletop mountain, known to First Nations Australians as Ngarrabullgan, sits on Djungan land. It’s a sacred site, revered as the birthplace of the creator being, the Rainbow Serpent. Cave shelters located on the mountain have been dated back 37,000 years.
We’ve journeyed up through 180-million-year-old rainforest on our climb out of Cairns, pushing past papaya orchards and dairy farms on the Atherton Tablelands, before finally heading into the bush.
At Mt Mulligan, a 28,000-hectare working cattle station, we turn the corner of the main pavilion, Champagne flutes in hand and it’s like walking onto a film set – with towering, widescreen views of the mighty Ngarrabullgan, the undisputed star.
Kempt green lawns lead down to a dark, almost mirror-like body of water, prettily edged with water lilies, in which Ngarrabullgan is partially reflected. There are weeping paperbarks and red gums, and across on the other side of the weir, a small mob of wallaroos and wallabies is lazily grazing in the late afternoon humidity. The only sound is desultory guest chatter from the pool deck and the occasional splash of a barramundi in search of its afternoon tea. As I drink everything in, I’m convinced I feel my pulse rate slowing.
Mt Mulligan Lodge is an all-inclusive property but the pleasures of staying here are as much about what’s not part of the package. For example, there’s no formal reception area, check-in fussing or having to present a credit card to cover extras. With a maximum of 32 guests at any time, there’s a hyper-personal approach to everything.
Welcome drinks and a chat with affable lodge manager Tegan Stanley is as casually formal as it gets. Unless you specifically request a key, your guest suite remains unlocked during your stay.
Stanley shepherds us inside a high-ceilinged communal area with fold-back floor-to-ceiling windows, cleverly lit river stone-filled gabion walls and shou sugi ban charred timbers. The airy main pavilion is the axis on which everything here turns. This is where we meet head chef Jeremy Fenech.
A Luxury Lodges of Australia member, Mt Mulligan Lodge is part of the Northern Escape Collection. The group includes Barrier Reef gem Orpheus Island Lodge, rainforest retreat Daintree Ecolodge and the luxury motor yacht M.Y. Flying Fish. Dietaries for guests who’ve stayed at group properties are noted and passed on, but Fenech prefers a personal touch. He greets every arrival to check food preferences, and as we chat we snack on locally grown betel leaf wraps topped with caramelised rectangles of rice, makrut lime and apple.
“Most guests are open and trusting and many have heard about the food from other guests, so they’re keen to try it. But I’d always rather make a guest happy than take them out of their comfort zone,” says Fenech, a native Queenslander raised partly near Rockhampton and partly on Brampton Island in the Whitsundays, where his dad managed an exclusive resort. “Mt Mulligan has a unique Australian identity and I want to keep that in the food we serve.”
On Brampton Island, Fenech recalls being inspired by the sense of fun and creativity shown by the chefs. Since completing his own apprenticeship in Brisbane, he’s been honing skills overseas, including at three-star Michelin restaurants (Dieter Müller, Germany) and paddock-to-plate destinations (Riverstone Kitchen, New Zealand; Capella Lodge, Lord Howe Island). These experiences have made him purpose built for Mt Mulligan.
Covid ended Fenech’s most recent role, as executive chef at a Bavarian castle hotel, Schloss Liebenstein. Now he’s luxuriating in the Australianess of his new surroundings, waiting for his German wife Mascha and their puppy to join him. “I just love how Aussie this feels to me,” says Fenech. “It’s so easy to switch off here. There’s a waterfall I head to every morning before starting work and the other day when I drove in, there were wild brumbies on the track.”
Since arriving mid-2021, Fenech’s been doing more than appreciating the wild, rugged setting. His produce list already reads like a rollcall of the best growers from across this surprisingly varied region – everything from rich biodynamic dairy products, tomatoes, lychees and dragon fruit from the Atherton Tablelands, to cassava and galangal from Innisfail and bananas from Tully.
There’s a pristine haul of reef fish on regular dispatch from Cairns and in time Fenech hopes to use cattle raised at the property on the menu. He’s also about to add a community of native redclaw to the weir’s barramundi population – although this will require careful logistics to prevent the barra eating the baby cray, as guests are not the only ones keen to taste Fenech’s food. Recently, feral pigs broke through a fence to attack citrus trees in the area that’s now being transformed into a native fruit orchard.
As you’d expect in such a remote location, sustainability is an important commitment. The resort gets most of its water from the picturesque weir, which is filled by wet season run-off and a spring then precision filtered. Power is generated mainly by solar. There’s a tiger worm farm to handle food waste and a recycling system for cardboard and glass. Hives to house both European and native bees are en route.
Longer term, Fenech hopes to set up a grill in the garden where he’ll hold cooking classes while chatting about produce – akin to the set-up at New Zealand’s Riverstone Kitchen.
Not that there’s a lack of pursuits at Mt Mulligan. You can head out on self-guided walks, fish for barra, kayak, take helicopter flights or, best of all, go on tours led by anthropologist and tour manager Simone Phillips.
A pre-dawn expedition to the foot of the mountain is well worth the early wake-up. Sunrise washes Ngarrabullgan in even deeper tones of red and gold, creating indelible memories. At the other end of the day, a timber and tin hilltop sunset bar looking over the expansive mountain top is an atmospheric spot to discuss the day’s venturing over convivial sundowners.
Phillips is generous with her knowledge of what she describes as the contested and complex history of this landscape. She tells of Eekoo, a malign spirit who lives in a lake at the top of Ngarrabullgan, while taking time to point out an intricately woven bowerbird’s bower, say, or a tree traditionally used by the Kuku Djungan to craft dilly bags, or perhaps a bush whose blooms traditionally mark the arrival of the wet season.
As well as giving an insight into the traditional owners, Phillips also tells the stories of the gold prospectors and coal miners who have lived here. You can visit the remains of an old gold mine, or a deserted coal mining township on the property where 75 miners tragically died in 1921, the state’s worst mining disaster.
One activity to definitely carve out time for is Dining Under the Stars, a seven-course dégustation enjoyed alfresco on the grass beside the weir. It’s Fenech’s chance to put his Michelin expertise to full use, with chefs ferrying out dishes like coral trout ceviche brightened with the tang of local passionfruit, a carpaccio of kangaroo with tamarind and wattleseed, and a showstopping confection of flamed red claw. North Queensland trevally with tarragon, spears of wild asparagus and a creamy confit egg yolk pairs beautifully with Brokenwood’s Indigo Vineyard chardonnay; while a dessert of Atherton strawberries, goat’s cheese and a black olive sorbet is made sweeter with a Yalumba Botrytis Viognier.
There’s even hot damper – made over a firepit installed alongside the table and served with Davidson plum butter. Under an almost full moon, with the soothing sounds of the night as backdrop – frogs croaking, fish jumping, flying fox wings flapping – it’s the kind of experience gourmet travellers dream about.