When the first sunrays strike Mount Mulligan shortly after dawn it glowers red, as though on fire, and casts a rosy tint over the Queensland outback. At the foot of this vast monolith – at 18 kilometres long it’s five times larger than Uluru yet virtually unknown – a tranquil weir mirrors its surroundings: the weeping paperbarks, the fiery rock face and, if you’re lucky, Kevin the wallaby splashing in the shallows. The scene from my deck is so enchanting it makes me want to whip out an easel and watercolours to capture it on canvas. And I don’t even paint.
Opened in April 2019 on a cattle station about 1800 kilometres northwest of Brisbane, Mt Mulligan Lodge is an exceptional addition to Australia’s growing roster of luxury resorts.
It’s not easy to reach. First you must fly to Cairns and then drive 2.5 hours west or take a 35-minute helicopter flight over the orchards of the Atherton Tablelands and the calm waters of Lake Mitchell towards this colossal sandstone ridge on the horizon.
Mount Mulligan was named after the first white man to set eyes on it. In 1876, James Mulligan discovered alluvial gold here in the Hodgkinson River. Within a year, 2000 men were panning for their fortunes; the Tyrconnell gold mine opened outside nearby Thornborough in 1877 and, in its first decade of operation, extracted $2.5 million worth of gold from the rugged region.
Some 40,000 years earlier, the Indigenous Djungan people arrived on this patch of sherbet-orange earth. They called the massive mountain Ngarrabullgan and believed it was the sacred home of an evil spirit called Eekoo. Like the more famous Uluru, climbing it is forbidden.
The area is rich with archaeological relics; the tabletop is home to two of Queensland’s oldest Indigenous sites, Ngarrabullgan Cave and Nonda Rock. Little wonder then that the mountain feels like a living presence.
This meshing of Indigenous and colonial history – of mining, agriculture and Dreaming stories – is just one attraction of Mt Mulligan Lodge, which sits on 28,000 hectares where guests share the Wilson Archer landscape with 2000 head of Brahman cattle, dozens of bird species and the occasional wallaby.
The resort’s other charms include the accommodation – eight contemporary waterside suites housed in shearing-shedinspired cabins of corrugated iron, louvred windows, redgum and spotted gum. With their pitched ceilings, deep verandahs and uncluttered interiors of linen and leather, the rooms are shady sanctuaries cooled by billabong breezes. Each comes with a bathtub on the deck, a wood burner for cooler nights and an electric buggy for impromptu explorations.
Two elaborate tents on the opposite bank of the weir, which were opened last year, offer an even deeper sense of serenity and isolation. Besides other guests and the small contingent of lodge and station staff, there’s nobody else out here. No people, no houses, no roads, no televisions and absolutely no chance of a phone signal.
Mt Mulligan Lodge’s nearest neighbour is a woman called Helen who lives in a former Chinese public house at the (almost) abandoned gold-mining hub of Thornborough. Population one.
Despite its isolation, there’s plenty to do here. On an all-terrain-vehicle tour I visit the 19th-century gold mine, which, like the lodge, is owned by Northern Escape Collection, operators of Queensland’s Orpheus Island and Daintree Ecolodge. (Northern Escape’s private jet can transfer its guests between the reef, rainforest and outback.)
The mine is evocative with its impressive shaft, tower and steampunk-style crushing machine that finally ceased commercial operations in the 1980s. The British-made mining equipment and neat settler houses are slowly eroding into the earth. Right beside the resort lies the ghost township of Mount Mulligan, founded at the start of the 20th century as a coalmining settlement. On an excursion, I follow the old main road past ruins, some merely stumps now, of hotels, a post office and picture theatre and the tell-tale remains of a bakery’s brick oven.
The town took shape after coal was discovered here in 1907. But it proved to be cursed when, in 1921, an explosion killed 75 men out of the 300 people who lived there, virtually wiping out the male population. A visit to the cemetery confirms the tragedy. Most headstones note their namesakes were “accidentally killed” on 19 September 1921.
Australia's Newest Luxury Lodge Combines Indulgence and NatureEncounters like this, melancholic as they are, enrich my stay at the 20-guest lodge. As Northern Escape manager Jody Westbrook says, “You have adventure and excitement then come back and it’s so peaceful. People relax into this place and the experiences, particularly as they’re forced to disconnect.”
Solar-powered, sustainable and remote, Mt Mulligan makes the most of its local area by fishing red claw yabbies out of swollen rivers and sourcing produce from the nearby Atherton Tablelands. Guests – only one honeymoon couple from Queensland during my stay – might graze on sustainably caught black tiger prawns with papaya and herbs from the lodge garden or a rib-eye steak with shimeji mushrooms and Davidson plum jus as part of four- or six-course dinner menus.
Unrushed breakfasts in the dewy cool of station mornings feature biodynamic eggs and ricotta from Mungalli Creek in the Tablelands and housemade baguettes, granola and wild-rosella jam.
Lunches are either à la carte or you can have the kitchen pack a picnic, as I do, to enjoy at one of the tables placed around the rock. At the south end of the escarpment, surrounded by termite mounds, I munch on salad, frittatas, bresaola wraps and lamingtons as harrumphing brumbies, one as black and glossy as licorice, eye me from a nearby eucalyptus grove.
Pastoral life is central to the Mt Mulligan experience. Wandering Brahmans are a common sight and during quarterly musters, guests get to take a look into the region’s lifeblood industry as cattle are herded into yards and readied for market.
At the lodge, we gather in the main pavilion made of redgum and pylons recycled from a Sydney pier, with soaring gabion walls filled with river stones. A wraparound deck surveys trim lawns, grass trees, an infinity pool and the lilypad- laced weir. Kayaks, paddleboards and fishing rods await those keen to explore.
A fireplace divides the dining room and the bar, where we lounge on posh camp chairs and sage-green sofas and help ourselves to house wines, beers and spirits. Or staff can shake up sitespecific cocktails such as finger lime Mojitos and Mulligan Margaritas, made with local limes and habanero chillies grown here since the Chinese market gardens of the gold-rush days. There’s also an unexpectedly strong wine list of Australian and European labels, including a vintage collection heavy on French burgundies.
Lodge days draw to a close with drinks and canapés in a designer shed of spotted gum and corrugated iron, the landscape tinted pink once again. After dinner, I take a seat outside beside the firepit and look up. Out here, far from any light pollution, the sky seems to be stretched tight like a canopy over the station, the stars closer and brighter than I’ve seen them before. Jupiter and Saturn hover directly overhead, visible to the naked eye but partly eclipsed by the brilliance of the Milky Way.
Image credit: Jason Ierace, Wilson Archer.