Monday, October 5, 2009

Road trip part one: Paronella Park

Wow, what a lot of country there is in Queensland! We just spent two weeks touring up north, saw much, and missed a great deal more. Over the next few days I'll try to put together a few thoughts on some of the highlights of the trip, including a map. Today: Paranella Park.

The bible of our trip so far has been Lonely Planet's guide to the East Coast of Australia. It's well-written, informative, and usually pretty accurate. But sometimes it misses the mark. Paronella Park is one of those times. Barely rating a mention in the text, and not even listed in the index, we might have missed it entirely if our friends Mike and Erika hadn't told us about stopping there during their tour of the north.

You can find the whole history of the place here if you're interested, but here's the thumbnail version. Early in the last century, a Catalan fellow named Jose Paronella got engaged to a girl in his home town, and left to make his fortune in Australia promising to return to her when he was rich. 13 years later, he came back only to find that she had married someone else (she waited 8 years, he hadn't written a word, and she decided enough was enough). The family, to save face, offered him her younger sister instead, so Jose took her and returned to Australia. He had indeed become rich, buying and selling cane farms primarily, so he decided to build her a Spanish castle in the Australian bush.

For the next 20 years, until his death in 1948, Jose built his castle. It wasn't a private place; it was built as an attraction, a place where people could come and buy ice cream, swim at the foot of the waterfall, stroll through the gardens. Since it was located on what was, at the time, the main highway, it did pretty well too, attracting hundreds of people every weekend. Some of it was cutting edge: there was a ballroom which doubled as a cinema, powered by electricity from Jose's own hydro plant; the tunnel of love was originally supposed to be lined with enormous aquariums, although that plan had to be abandoned; the ballroom featured the first mirrored "disco ball" anyone in the state had ever seen, imported from California.

After Jose died, the park passed through various family hands, and eventually was sold. Keeping it open was obviously a huge effort, a battle against fires, floods, cyclones, and all the other excitement Queensland's tropics have to offer. When the Bruce Highway was built 30 kms or so to the east, the road became a very quiet backwater. Eventually Paronella Park was just abandoned. For 20 years or so it sat vacant, a crumbling ruin in the jungle beside a small caravan park. In 1993, a couple named Mark and Judy Evans stayed at the caravan park while travelling the country with their children. They toured as much of the site as they could, and fell in love with it. Eventually they bought it, traced its history, and started clearing away the jungle.

The result is this really quite magical place. More than anything else, it reminded me of the ruins where King Louis lives in The Jungle Book: even though the architecture is Spanish rather than Indian, and there are no monkeys to be seen, there's still that sense that this is a place that was once quite remarkable, and which has been here for hundreds of years.

The caravan park is still there. Since your admission fee includes both day and night tours, as well as a site at the caravan park, we camped there overnight. That meant we got to see the site at night, which was particularly cool: we watched fireflies, saw the fountains lit up, fed masses of eels that inhabit the waterfall pool, and saw tiny baby bats in the tunnel of love.

Above all, it's pretty clear that Paronella Park is a tribute to the energy and vision of Jose Paronella. He designed everything and did almost all the work himself, just hiring a couple of local guys to help him with a bit of the heavy lifting. If he were still alive he would no doubt be clinically diagnosed as -- to use the technical term -- an obsessive nutjob, and I have not doubt he must have been a royal pain in the ass to live with. But what a creation he made.

I'm not sure whether the place will last for long. The sand Jose used in the cement apparently has an algae in it which is slowly eating the place. On top of that, cyclones and floods seem to be quite regular events in that part of the country. It may be that, 20 years from now, the whole place will have vanished back into the jungle. But for now, it's a remarkable place and well worth stopping.

I've posted some photos here.

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