Like a transplanted version of Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, Paronella Park is an imposing moss-covered monument in the green patchwork jungle of tropical Far North Queensland.
But while Ankor, built over 30 years in the first half of the 12th century, was the ultimate cultural expression of the Khmer civilisation, Paronella Park was the lifetime’s work of just one man, Spaniard José Paronella – an elegant dream built of concrete which continues to defy the elements.
A man of vision and passion, Paronella built his castle beside Mena Creek Falls on the lush Atherton Tablelands, 120km south of Cairns.
Lighting and power were provided by North Queensland’s first waterfall-powered hydro electric generation plant, switched on in 1933, supplying power to the castle, its grounds, a movie theatre and dance hall.
Opened to the public in 1935, the grounds featured a waterfall and picnic area, tennis courts, bridges and a tunnel set amongst gardens which now feature more than 7,500 different tropical plants.
Today, National Trust-listed Paronella Park is a multi-award winning tourist attraction – a place for weddings, birthdays, social gatherings and day trips.
It is still a place of dreams, its decaying moss-laced stonework a timely reminder of the power of the human spirit.
José Paronella grew up in Catalonia, Spain and immigrated to Australia in 1913, where he worked for 11 years first as a cane cutter and then a cane farmer. He returned to Spain in 1924 and married Margarita, returning to Australia for their honeymoon in 1925.
Back in 1914, José had walked along Mena Creek, noting its beauty and location and making a mental note to one day return, which he did in 1929 with the purchase of 13 acres of virgin scrub for £120.
Not content with being a cane farmer all his life, José set about building European-style landscaped public gardens and a reception centre.
Apart from the Paronella’s first house, which was made of stone, the castle and all of the pond and garden structures were made of poured concrete, reinforced with salvaged railway track.
The concrete was covered with plaster made from clay and cement which was applied by hand, leaving behind José and the other workers’ fingerprints as a footnote to history, a reminder of their long labour.
When Paronella Park opened in 1935, the theatre showed movies every Saturday night and with the removal of the canvas chairs, the great hall was a venue for dances and parties.
Filled with vibrancy and music, the local landed elite and Cairns upper-class flocked to Paronella Park to enjoy its European-style music and entertainment.
Impressive for its time, particularly for Far North Queensland, the dance hall featured a giant rotating mirror ball suspended from the ceiling, covered with 1270 tiny mirrors.
On Saturday nights it was a dreamscape, as pink and blue spotlights shone on the ball as it rotated slowly, throwing a swirling storm of colourful snowflakes around the room, from floor to ceiling.
But trends die, and in the 1960s the dancing stopped and the hall was dedicated to functions and weddings.
More than 7000 trees were planted by José, including the magnificent kauri trees that line Kauri Avenue, and a 100m Tunnel of Love was excavated through a small hill leading to spring-fed Teresa Falls, named after José’s baby daughter.
The soundtrack to this dream was that of running water, with the creek highlighted by small, rocky cascades and traversed by small bridges.
The tea gardens, which overlook the swimming lake, feature concrete-slab tables and nearby there was a children’s playground called The Meadow.
Paronella Park also produced bottled spa water, tapped from a spring which bubbled from a massive rock beside Mena Creek Falls, with José claiming it was better than famous spring waters he had tasted from Spain, France and Italy.
In 1946, the first rains of the Wet Season brought disaster. Logs and branches in the upper reaches of Mena Creek shifted downstream and piled up against a railway bridge not far from the castle.
When the back-up of water and debris broke the bridge, the mass descended on the park, destroying the refreshment rooms and badly damaging the theatre and hydro-electric plant.
Despite the setback and associated hardship, the family set about rebuilding, repairing the castle, replanting the garden and building a fountain.
In 1948, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, daughter Teresa, and son Joe, to carry on.
The family managed Paronella Park for another 29 years, rebuilding after floods in 1967, ’72 and ’74, finally selling the property in 1977.
In 1979, a fire swept through the castle and for a time the park was closed. Paronella Park also endured Cyclone Winifred in 1986, a flood in January 1994, Cyclone Larry in March 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in January 2011.
Paronella Park’s current owner/operators, Mark and Judy Evans, purchased the property in 1993 and set about putting it back on the tourist map, taking up the role of custodians for the park, which they see as a work of art which must be maintained and preserved.
In November 2009, $450,000 was spent on restoring the property’s original 1930s hydro-electric system, resulting in the park being awarded Eco Australia’s GECKO award for Ecotourism in 2011.
Today, the Paronella Museum is a home for local memorabilia, including coin collections, pistols, dolls and samples of North Queensland rainforest timbers.
José’s dream lives on through the hearts and minds of the daily visitors to Paronella Park who marvel at the power of one person’s abstract dream to blend the harsh form of concrete with water and the natural beauty of the tropics to create a legacy which has endured for 83 years.
All photos courtesy of Paronella Park