Anne here. Do you enjoy hearing stories of ordinary people who dream big dreams and, by blood, sweat, tears, heart and determination, bring them to life? I heard about one such magnificent dreamer last month, when I went up to Innisfail in Far North Queensland to conduct a weekend of writing workshops.
It's crocodile country — tropical rainforest (jungle), miles of sugar cane and big rivers teeming with crocs. This was borne in on me when I asked the landlady of my B&B if it was all right to paddle in the river at the foot of the stairs. (That's it in the pic.) "Yes, of course," she said, "but don't go out too deep. There are crocodiles in the river." Somehow, after that, I lost the urge to paddle, despite the heat. But I digress — I promised you a story of a big dreamer.
My first inkling of this story came when my hostess, writer and artist Jacque Duffy, told me that one of the most romantic spots in Australia was just down the road from her — Paronella Park.
I'd never heard of it. I assumed Paronella was some kind of bird I'd never heard of. Wrong. I googled it and found a place that looked like it belonged deep in the jungles of South America. But it's in Australia.
The story starts in 1913 when José Paronella arrived in Innisfail from Catalonia in Spain, leaving behind his fiancée Matilda. A poor cane-cutter to start with, he worked like fury, buying land, clearing the rainforest (jungle) and selling it to sugar cane farmers. It took him eleven years before he was ready to head back to Spain and fetch his Matilda to start their grand life in Australia.
Alas, she hadn't waited for him, but not one to repine, José married her younger sister, Margarita, and brought her back to Australia. I cannot imagine what she thought of this new life — it was isolated and rough country with a punishing tropical climate, not to mention an endless array of poisonous spiders, snakes and crocodiles, but she seems to have taken on board José's dreams and worked beside him to bring it to fruition. (As did most women in the district —women in those days were pretty amazing.)
Inspired by the Spanish castles of his childhood, José began to create his own Spanish-style paradise on the jungle-covered steep slopes of his chosen site. He started by carving 47 steps, cutting up steep slopes through the tropical jungle so he could transport his building materials.
Next he build a small stone cottage and he and Matilda moved in. But that was just the first stage. The dream grew and grew — perhaps as well as Catalonian castles, he had dreams of the European-style pleasure gardens he remembered from his youth because as well as a castle, he created an entertainment area, a ballroom, picnic grounds, a swimming pool — there are crocodiles in the river, remember — an outdoor movie theater, tennis courts, even an ice-cream parlor, where Matilda made the ice-creams — in a time when most of the surrounding cane farmers didn't even have electricity, and life was very primitive — to José, nothing was impossible. And everything was business — because of course, in isolated, entertainment-starved North Queensland, people flocked to Paronella Park.
It was all built by hand by José and his workers — his fingerprints in the cement between the stones are still visible today. He was very inventive and seized every opportunity to improve. He installed North Queensland's first hydro-electric plant in the waterfall to power the site.
Stone paths weave through the jungle, taking you to different parts of the estate. (In this pic, we're carrying umbrellas, not because of rain, but because of the bats hanging in the canopy overhead—we didn't want to be splatted on.)
José died in 1948, and Matilda and her two children kept the estate going, but after first Matilda and then her son Joe died, the remaining daughter struggled to keep things going. Two years after she sold the park, a fire destroyed much of the castle in 1979, leaving the ruin you see today. Further damage was caused by tropical cyclones.
The story might have ended here, and the fast-growing tropical jungle reclaimed this extraordinary creation, but in 1993, a young couple traveling through North Queensland, found Paronella Park — fell in love with it, bought it and ever since have worked to reclaim and repair it — and open it to the public again.
The following two photos are courtesy of Jacque Duffy.
It's a magical place, with a haunting beauty. There's something both magnificent and eccentric about José's dream and the creation he and Matilda built — a little piece of Catalonia, carved by hand out of the tropical jungle on the other side of the world. And we are so much the richer for it.
What about you — do you know any stories about magnificent dreamers? Amazing pioneering women? Ever been to a castle? Encountered a crocodile or a snake? Or what's the most romantic place you know?