My helicopter pilot negotiates the wide chasm of the Hodgkinson Valley as the afternoon sun illuminates Mount Mulligan, an 18-kilometre sandstone escarpment that rises above the woodland like the spine of a prehistoric creature. Banking right, the appearance of a blue weir lined with a cluster of metal roofs is the only hint of the luxury lodge below.
Opened in April Mt Mulligan Lodge is located on a private 28,000-hectare working cattle station in Tropical North Queensland, 160 kilometres north-west of Cairns. Part of the Northern Escape Collection, a curated portfolio of boutique experiences including Orpheus Island Lodge and Daintree Ecolodge, the lodge accommodates just 16 guests across four standalone pavilions.
I'm met at the helipad by assistant general manager Ian Ireland, who whisks me to the main pavilion by electric buggy. "You can explore more of the property later," says Ireland, explaining that each guest room is assigned its own buggy. "We also have private all-terrain vehicles for tours to the far reaches of the property." Yes, it's that kind of place.
The main pavilion is the focal point of the lodge, a timber, stone and glass space overlooking the infinity pool, weir and Mt Mulligan, designed by Melbourne-based studio Dubois. With its handsome looks and elegant lines surely this is the love child of R M Williams and McLeod's Daughters, with a dash of Nordic flair.
The four accommodation pavilions are spaced along the weir with views across the water to Mount Mulligan. Suites are spacious, with a king-sized bed and couch, and an adjoining, private living area, plus a second bedroom that can be interconnected or booked separately. This flexible design allows three configurations: Outback Room, Outback Retreat or the entire Outback Pavilion with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a central living space.
When I step inside my massive 88-square-metre Outback Retreat it's all I can do not to gallop around and whinny with joy. The contemporary country decor is instantly inviting, from the spotted-gum floorboards to the wide verandah. The outdoor bathtub, fashioned from corrugated iron and shaped like a water tank, has me momentarily puzzled. Do I drink from it or bathe in it? Timber louvres allow for natural cooling, but there's also ceiling fans and airconditioning. A Scandinavian-style fireplace takes pride of place in the living room.
Other thoughtful touches include yoga mats, insect repellent, high-end binoculars, a selection of T2 teas (a win for this non-coffee drinker) and bathroom products from the LaGaia Unedited range. Currently, Wi-Fi is available only in the main pavilion.
In keeping with Northern Escape Collection's ethos of reducing their impact on the environment, the lodge is primarily powered by solar energy, waste is minimised at every stage and rainwater is collected for irrigation and watering. Even the carbon emissions from guests' helicopter flights are offset through a partnership with carbon offset provider non-profit Greenfleet.
Working with local suppliers to source seasonal and sustainable produce is paramount to chef Amanda Healey. "My style is refined simplicity," she says. "I like to let the food speak for itself." Healey currently sources 80 per cent of her supplies from local farmers, including chocolate from Daintree Estate, beef from Bushy Creek and macadamia nuts from Wondaree. Nothing goes to waste. Even a fallen tree provides Healey with the inspiration to smoke a brisket of meat using the bark and wood shavings.
"My goal is to build up our own kitchen garden to eventually reach 100 per cent, locally-sourced ingredients," she says. Because Healey makes everything from scratch – including the bread, pasta, and cultured butter – she knows exactly what additives are in her food. "This way I can accommodate any dietary requirements."
Three gourmet meals are included daily (plus evening canapes and a mini bar that is restocked twice a day), with the evening meal, typically a four or five-course degustation. One dinner includes scallops with charred corn and chimichurri, bush tomatoes with peach and fresh mozzarella, and pork belly with sweet potato, pickled apple and roasted onion.
While the lodge itself is out-of-the-box brand-new, the human history of Mount Mulligan, Ngarrabullgan to the local Djungan people, stretches back 37,000 years. The conglomerate and sandstone tabletop mountain, a geological wonder roughly 10 times the size of Uluru, dates back millions of years.
To learn more, three excursions are included in my stay. With guide Tobias Nahrhaft riding shotgun, we head off in an all-terrain vehicle to explore the southern corner of Mount Mulligan. Bouncing along dirt tracks and navigating boggy rivers I soon gain control of the bucking beast, a cross between a moon buggy and something out of Mad Max.
We stop frequently, to let Brahman cattle cross our path or to watch the weaners being fed at one of the feeding stations. At the Branch River we pause to listen to the chatter of red-winged parrots and pale-headed rosellas, but it's the hulking presence of the mountain that calls me, either from a distance – its sheer sides glowing like they are on fire – or from my room, where I can see every scar and wrinkle.
After a gourmet picnic Nahrhaft leads me on a strenuous hike to a cluster of caves high on the mountainside. To Indigenous people the mountain is home to the mischievous spirit Eekoo, a figure that is integral to their creation stories, and said to still live on the summit lake. For some inexplicable reason the Djungan people suddenly deserted the mountain 600 years ago. When the wind whistles through the treetops, it's not cool air sending goosebumps along my spine.
A second excursion takes us to the deserted coalmine and town of Mount Mulligan, a short drive from the resort. What was once a thriving village became the site of Queensland's worst mine disaster when, at 9.25am on September 19, 1921, a series of explosions killed 75 men.
All that remains today are the skeletons of the kiln, magazine buildings, power house and chimney, its sentinel shape standing guard almost 100 years later. Under the shadow of Mount Mulligan we wander through the old cemetery, many of its lonely graves marked with the same chilling date. "A quarter of the town's population was lost in one day," says Nahrhaft. "There were no survivors." Afterwards, we follow a heritage trail where signs mark the cricket pitch, general store, post office, picture theatre and RSL hall – the simple trappings of any outback town.
On my final day I eschew a four-wheel-drive tour of Tyrconnell goldmine, in favour of a day relaxing around the resort. It's early morning when I lower a kayak into the still waters of the weir, the dip of my paddle pulling me deep inside the reflected masterpiece of Mount Mulligan.
From water level the exposed, honeyed rocks look like they are held in place by the sinewy arms of the river gums; a weathered landscape upholstered in tropical green. While gold was once mined below in this region, today the treasures are all above ground.
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly to Cairns from Melbourne and Sydney. Mt Mulligan Lodge is a 2.5-hour drive from Cairns. Helicopter transfers are $800 return for one adult. See qantas.com.au , jetstar.com.au, virginaustralia.com.au
An Outback Room costs $1700 a night for two people including three gourmet meals daily, quality Australian beer and wines, curated experiences and an electric buggy. See mountmulligan.com; northernescape.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland and Mt Mulligan Lodge.