I’d driven the road from Townsville to Cairns once before in 2013 but at that time I’d not heard of Paronella Park. I headed up that way again in 2017 and in the intervening years I’d heard multiple times Paronella Park was worth a visit and had won many tourism awards. So I added it to my itinerary between Cardwell and Innisfail. The park is not new, it has been open since 1935. As I drove north I saw many billboards advertising its charms and wondered why I didn’t notice it before. Or was it simply clever marketing in the last few years that had raised its profile?
There is no doubting Paronella Park is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary story. Situated at Mena Creek it is a 15km detour from the Bruce Highway, 200km south of Cairns. I parked on the south side of the creek at a lookout admiring Mena Creek Falls. It was the dry season so not at its most spectacular but sitting pretty right next door was Paronella Park in all its glory.
The Park is approached by a swing bridge which looks down on the creek below and part of the ornate park. The park was a pre-war dream of a Spanish immigrant named José Paronella who wanted to build a Castilian castle in the Australian tropics. Paronella was born in February 1887 in La Vall de Santa Creu, a small village in Catalonia. On five hectares of virgin scrub beside Mena Falls he built a park in his name with a castle, picnic area by the falls, tennis courts, bridges, a tunnel, and covered it with 7500 tropical plants and trees that is now a lush rainforest.
José Paronella’s father tended olives for local farmers and his grandmother’s tales of “romantic Spanish castles” and the “nobleza” profoundly influenced José’s later dreams. As a young man, he moved from Catalonia to Cairns in 1913. For 11 years he worked hard, cutting sugar cane then purchasing, improving, and reselling cane farms. By 1921 he was an Australian citizen and a wealthy man. Paronella received an extortion letter from The Black Hand demanding £500. The Black Hand had been established in Sydney and Melbourne, and was making inroads into the Italian communities in Innisfail with many murders, bombings, and blackmails. Paronella was susceptible to extortion as he had been involved in tax evasion. In 1924 he returned to Spain under a false name intending to marry Matilda Soler, his betrothed before coming to Australia. But Matilda had found another man so he married Matilda’s younger sister Margarita instead. He took Margarita back to Australia where the couple worked hard together to continued to build their fortune. They also had two children Teresa and Joe (Jr).
José first saw his park in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1929 he was in a position to buy it which he did for £120. Immediately he got to work building his pleasure gardens and reception centre for public enjoyment. Paronella was strongly influenced by the Moorish architecture and gardens of Spain, and the design of Villa gardens visited during his European honeymoon. He also admired the work of Antonio Gaudi, and created garden elements inspired by those in the Alcazar Garden in Seville and the Botanic Gardens in Madrid.
The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. The steep structure has reminders of past floods. The two brown tiles about half way up represent the 1996 flood level (lower) and 1967 and 1994 (upper). Near the top is a third tile representing the huge height of the 1946 flood.
After building a house for themselves, the Paronellas started on the castle and accompanying lookout towers and pillars. Apart from the stone house, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete from old railway track. The concrete was covered with a clay and cement plaster put on by hand, leaving their fingerprints as a reminder.
It took six years to open the park but the buzz was growing at the scale of what they were doing. In 1933 the Brisbane Sunday Mail reported what the “pleasant-faced Spaniard” was up to in the Deep North. The paper was impressed but struggled to avoid racist overtones. “Joe Paronella. An amazing fellow of 47 and with none of the swagger the world has pinned to his race.” But it did ask him the question why he put so much effort into it: “It is because I wish to do something. I make my money in (the) sugar industry and in selling my farm. I travel and see the world twice. Never do I see any place as beautiful as Queensland.”
Paronella did much of the work himself. He also employed a canecutter who had worked as a carpenter in Malta and the canecutter’s nephew to work on the project full-time. He used many unemployed men who had arrived in Innisfail and exchanged food and shelter for labour. In 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. Queensland governor Leslie Wilson was at a conference in Innisfail and visited the new park. Wilson was impressed and told journalists “Paronella has created a place of beauty which will be a great attraction to visitors in the future. His buildings are of unique design. The Park is a credit to North Queensland. It is absolutely remarkable to see what one enterprising man can do.” Access to Mena Creek from Innisfail had improved and the park was immediately popular. It boomed during the war years as thousands of American servicemen descended on the park with plenty of money to spend.
The theatre showed movies every Saturday night. And when they removed the canvas chairs from the Hall it was transformed into a favourite venue for dances and parties. The highlight of the ballroom was a myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. Its pink and blue spotlights of pink and blue shone on the reflector from the corners of the hall and when rotated slowly, it produced a coloured snowflake effect around the room. Upstairs was the Paronella Museum housing coins, pistols, dolls and samples of North Queensland timbers. Evidence remains of the disastrous fire that swept through the Park and destroyed the hall and cafe in 1979. The Park was closed for years, but was slowly revived despite further damage caused by cyclones and floods.
The tunnel of love was built in 1932-1933. The reinforced concrete structure provided a short cut to the fernery. It was closed in 1993 for safety reasons. The closure has allowed the colony of little bent-wing bats to grow from 40 to 500.
Paronella planted these majestic rows of Queensland kauri pines (Agathis robusta) in 1933. They can live for a thousand years. Paronella planted over 7000 trees and the whole park was threaded by pathways, bridges and avenues. He also built a shaded orchid and fern house for Margarita to tend exotic plants.
An astonishing feature of the park is a hydroelectric power station, the first in North Queensland. Installed in 1933 it worked using gravity according to Paronella’s own design. Water falls nine metres into the turbines where were coupled with DC generator. A belt-driven governor controlled the speed and changed the angle of water flow to maintain constant rotation speed. Paronella used the station to power the park though he had to change it to AC after the 1946 floods. The system, along with the entire park, was destroyed after cyclone Larry in 2006 but the current owners restored it with the help of a German company specialising in old hydro systems. Up and running again since 2010, it continues to power the entire park and also supplies the grid.
Two years after repairing from the significant damage of the 1946 floods, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, Teresa, and Joe, to carry on. Teresa married and moved to Brisbane while. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Floods, renovations and maintenance kept the family busy after Margarita died in 1967 and son Joe in 1972, Val found it too hard and sold up in 1977. The park was closed after the 1979 fire. Mark and Judy Evans purchased the Park in 1993 and began a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding.