Sleeping volcanos and fading bushscapes, mossy rocks and ice-blue waterfalls... North Queensland’s Kinrara has been around for millennia but now – for the first time – you can explore it in style.
I'm face to face with a 12-month-old Brahman heifer. Sure, there’s a windowpane between us but she’s no more than a metre from the passenger seat of our 4WD, her eyes fixed on me with that vacant, bovine gaze. She’s not the only one; about 100 of her kind are staring, too.
Here in the outback savanna, in cattle country 250 kilometres south-west of Cairns, our LandCruiser is surrounded by cows. Tracing a path through their paddock, our convoy – three 4WDs carrying 14 people – has been negotiating stones, hummocks, eucalypts and ambling beasts for 10 minutes. Callum O’Brien, our guide and driver, edges the vehicle forward a little, kicking up a swirl of beige dust. The heifers blink ambivalently then gradually part and we’re on the move again.
Five minutes later, we pull up at a patch of bleached grass on the opposite side of the field. As we pile out of the 4WDs, laughter ripples through the group; it’s a mix of awe and disbelief. Behind us are hectares of grass dotted with livestock and gum trees in a palette of parchment, cinnamon and sage-green, while in front is a miniature rainforest with an emerald canopy of umbrella palms and fig trees. At its centre, a clear spring gushes from an unseen source into a shallow three-tiered waterfall between banks stacked with lush ferns. Cattle. Outback. Rainforest. Waterfalls. The combination seems incongruous and remarkable.
Ambling down to the water’s edge, we start stripping down to our swimmers. “Walk like a bear!” says Callum. He’s grinning but this is honest advice. He demonstrates a hunched-over pose that apparently works well when you’re navigating mossy rocks and ankle-deep rushing water. Some of us giggle as we clamber into the spring with ungainly imbalance; the more nimble skip down the tiers to a deep pool. On the banks, a casual lunch is laid out; picnic chairs appear; a red-and-white blanket is spread across the grass; someone hands me a beer.
The picnic at the spring is just one of the excursions on Kinrara Expeditions’ five-day upscale bush-camping experience that includes adventures such as hiking, kayaking, four-wheel driving and watching cattle-mustering. Operating from April to September, the trip takes in a nature reserve, a national park and a 23,000-hectare cattle station – all named Kinrara. It puts you in the heart of the outback among quintessentially Australian scenery, along with serene and verdant oases such as the spring. The juxtaposition of these landscapes is unique, unexpected and very beautiful – I’m struggling to think of another experience or place like it. And while the faded bushscapes, peaceful watering holes and fertile pockets of rainforest have existed for millennia, they’ve never before been accessible in this way. The expedition – created by Callum with his brother and sister-in-law, Shane and Robyn O’Brien, who own the cattle station – gives you an entrée to it all.
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The camp site is set amid sparse gums by an expansive lake (another remarkable feature, as permanent water in this part of the world is almost unheard of). The central open-air pavilion features a long dining table, a bookshelf stacked with reading material and swinging hammocks. Our spacious tents have private decks, which are perfect for stargazing. This is not glamping – it’s more authentic than that (and the bathrooms are shared) – but with details such as crisp white linen, it’s not really camping either. Especially so given that six of the 14 people are here to look after us, from serving sundowners to preparing satisfying meals like roast beef or baked barramundi with platters of vegetables and salad.
That said, the camp plays second fiddle to the evocative scenery and range of excursions. One morning, I kayak on the lake’s glittering surface, drifting among reeds and lily pads, surrounded by hundreds of waterfowl. Another morning, I watch Shane and his three sons muster a herd through the sepia-hued bush. And one afternoon, we tag team in helicopters over the volcano – exhilarating!
Oh, yes, did I mention there’s a volcano in Kinrara National Park? From the air, the dramatic 400-metre-diameter crater appears thick with rainforest. Now solidified, the lava that emanated is black, ragged and strewn with vegetation but you can clearly make out the corrugated waves on the earth’s surface – another gobsmacking item on the list of things to explore. “Caviar country,” fellow guest Len calls it, indicating the fecundity and sheer rarity of this place – the contrast of rainforest, lava outcrops and “traditional” bush.
Overall, there’s very little structure to our schedule. “Because we’re in the bush, nothing is set in stone. We wake and see what the weather brings,” says Callum. “And I want guests to feel unique and special, not homogeneous. So I call everyone before they come, to find out what interests them.” Trips are therefore limited to 12 people. Our group happens to have a scientific leaning – botanists, ecologists, bird experts, a neuropsychologist – and our ages range from the 30s to 60s but the appeal here is broad. Gregarious Callum has hosted groups with a focus on art, CEOs on executive retreats and three generations of a family with a variety of interests.
Callum’s overarching goal is for guests of Kinrara Expeditions to unplug from their hectic day-to-day lives and reconnect with the land. He means this both figuratively and literally. On our first night, I’m swinging in a hammock, catching the last stretches of a burning sunset over the lake, when he wanders over, barefoot and grinning, and hands me a glass of chilled white wine. Looking around, I notice that several others – guests and staff – are barefoot, too. It’s a simple, sensory way to “get your feet connected to the earth, get a sense of being grounded”, he says. I kick off my shoes, exposing my pale, mollycoddled soles, but I’m only game to go barefoot on the dining pavilion’s concrete floor. Worried about creepy-crawlies, I secretly slip into my shoes before heading back to my tent.
After a few days, though, I’m in the shoeless groove. Today, on our final morning, I forget my shoes entirely. I don’t even notice until I’m at the breakfast table. And I’ve lost track of the days. Is it Monday, Friday or Thursday? Does it even matter? It’s a blissful feeling and a sure sign that I’ve left the everyday behind.
The only decision I need to make before our transfer back to Cairns is whether to paddle on the lake, sip coffee while spotting wildlife or jump into a 4WD for more sightseeing in this extraordinary and diverse landscape. I opt for the latter, wondering what Callum has in mind. Maybe we’ll visit another waterfall, explore more cattle country or do something entirely different? He settles into the driver’s seat then turns around and looks at us, a big grin etched on his face, “Ready for another adventure?”