Luxury in the Rugged Outback
WROTHAM PARK STATION, Queensland | With the exception of a trip to Alice Springs to visit Uluru (Ayer's Rock), the average visitor to Australia clings the coastline, dividing time between comfortable, attractive modern cities and resort hotels on long, sandy beaches. The vast emptiness of the outback beckons, but its comforts, until recently, have been few. And then there's the famously persistent flies, to which most locals are inured. "We just do the Australian salute," they say, giving a lanquid wave in front of the face. Nevertheless, many a hat sports a fly net.
But at Wrotham Park Lodge at the north end of Queensland, 300 kilometres (185 miles) or a 40-minute charter flight west of Cairns, fly nets are out of place.
"No flies here mate," says Cam, the activities guide. "We're five-star. We don't allow 'em."
The lodge, opened in 2004, is an offshoot of Wrotham Park Station, a cattle ranch covering nearly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).
Its homestead and 10 satellite guest quarters sit high above the Mitchell River. An air-conditioned sitting room, all dark wood and leather, is lined with gently humming, glass-fronted fridges containing an extensive collection of Australian wines, micro-brewery beers and every cocktail ingredient ever invented.
The lodge receives a maximum of 20 guests at any one time, and a dining table long enough to seat them all gives views across a shockingly blue plunge pool and then the river's canyon to endless vistas of eucalypti. The wrap-around verandah faintly echoes that of many a farmhouse, but there all resemblance to traditional outback conditions ends, lost in luxury.
The glass-fronted but very private cabins provide panoramic sunrise views from bed. Kites float effortlessly on thermals. The odd mob of pink-chested parrots, called galahs, cackles past. Leave the blinds up at night and starlight streams in.
Service is efficient and good-natured, with one staff member for every two guests, including three chefs who produce meals to match the best that Sydney bistros can offer.
Early-morning horse rides splash through the shaded Mitchell, which for much of the year is a series of pools harbouring barramundi, harmless freshwater crocodiles and bull sharks temporarily stranded hundreds of kilometres from the sea. Fishing is never dull.
The lodge is a new source of income for the cattle station, but takes up very little of its space or resources. The station rhythm remains undisturbed by daily visitors from the lodge, who take their chances on observing mustering, vaccinations, dipping or pregnancy testing, depending on the season.
But elegant morning tea beside a spring-fed, lotus-filled lagoon is guaranteed, part of a half-day tour of the station by air-conditioned vehicle. Freshly baked cookies and other delicacies are consumed, observed by hundreds of ghostly pale Brahman cows, bulls and calves, sheltering beneath palms and gum trees at the waters' edge. Before pouring our hot beverage, the guide settles the leaves by swinging the tea-filled billycan round his head in the traditional outback manner.