Heading to Mary Valley, if only for a few days, rewards with luscious natural wonders, delicious culinary offerings and villages and hamlets big on small-town quaint.
Where, I wonder, is the appropriate place to check the big black dog’s pulse? Perhaps two educated fingers tenderly applied above the right forepaw? Fortuitously, the doggy doormat snorts, shudders and spasms back to life. She is an immaculate obstruction, strategically splayed out the precise width of Amamoor General Store’s doorway to ensure she will receive paramount attention.
“Oh, you want to get through,” exclaim her up-turned eyes, face still melted onto the floorboards. Sluggishly she rises, sways six steps, and plops down again. Inconceivably quickly, her flanks bellow with a slumber reserved for those at ease with their existence.
Amamoor is 45 squiggly kilometres west of Noosa, one of a sprinkling of charming unsung hamlets along the spine of the Mary Valley. The valley, named for the river that snakes its way through, is billed as Noosa’s hinterland, but it feels more like the hinterland’s hinterland; hinterland-squared, if you will. The drive from the Sunshine Coast’s chic capital shouldn’t be measured in kilometres or minutes – beats per minute is a more apt metric.
Mary’s hamlets hint at another, more serene era: a time when a general store was a general store, a place where you stopped by for a chat as well as commerce. A place where a burger with the lot for some reason included pineapple and full-fat milkshakes were served mandatorily in big frosty cups. If you can’t find what you’re looking for within this corrugated-roofed structure on your road trip, then you can probably do without it until you head back to the harsh outside world again.
Across the barely troubled road from Amamoor General Store dwells a sepia scene from Grandma’s tissue-paper-divided photo album. Its wooden station house yearningly gazes down the train tracks that vanish into the foliage, ever awaiting the thrice-weekly, recently reborn Mary Valley Rattler.
On the banks of Yabba Creek at 4.30am, most organisms with any sense of self-rejuvenation are still snoring like a liquored-up grandparent. But there are a few exceptional exceptions. My kayak wordlessly excuses itself through a low mist, which hovers low over this sweet little Mary River tributary like a wispy aura, confounding reflection and reality. Tannin browns and deep greens merge like a finger painting until crepuscular rays creep in, gradually, progressively illustrating the rainforest’s intricacies.
Except for having to rise and shine maliciously early, Ride on Mary’s Ian Harling may possess the sweetest, cushiest job known to humankind. Essential skills? Ability to discern bubbles, spot telling ripples, seek out subtle splashes. On a good day, his expertise wins you a fleeting encounter with one or more of the area’s hyper-elusive platypuses.
We navigate gingerly, aware that a careless paddle plonk will keep the flighty submariners submerged. We drag the kayak over shallow spots, stealthily duck under low-lying branches. An eastern whipbird sharply circulates news of our approach, at least to those fluent in Eastern Whipbirdish. A marble-sized bubble pops through the natural mirror, an advance guard to the bubble trail that ensues. Breath held, finally, a bulbous bubble bursts into a shiny, silvery head, at one with the water. Its duck bill wiggles determinedly, pragmatically; does what it needs to do and, then, poit. Four more bubbles alchemise into four different platypuses over the next half-hour, flickeringly, before the Queensland sunbeams cast them back into their respective burrows. Ian reckons this is a grand day on the creek (it’s mating season). After floods in both 2011 and 2012, he saw barely any of the bashful monotremes for 18 months. Strangely, the suspicious splashes persist. A thin tail fin slices the water, that of a Queensland lungfish, native of the Mary and Burnett river systems. A Mary River turtle belly-flops clumsily off a rock.
Along with the Mary River cod and the giant barred frog, this uncanny clique came closer than they know to oblivion. The Queensland Labor government planned to dam the Mary River at Traveston Crossing, which would have decimated the habitats of these already threatened species. In 2009, Peter Garrett, federal environment minister at the time, intervened just in time to stop the project. Fittingly, much of the credit went to the efforts of the Save the Mary campaign (which divided hearts and minds in these communities). It’s astonishing how much you see and learn just by rising early, shutting your trap and opening your eyes.
Doing the forest boogie
One moment, we sedately clip clop past full-bloomed jacarandas outside farmhouses that can’t see their neighbours. The next, I am shot into a bouncy, shadowy, blurry time warp, which dispatches me into the realm of an ancient volcano encased by an atmospheric forest of a deep green rarely seen on the Australian mainland.
Splendidly tall bunya and hoop pines are the most stunning strangers in this strange land. Imbil State Forest has been logged in the past, but its lungs feel strong, inhaling the sticky humidity and expelling a fresh essence in return, a ready-made souvenir that I know will revisit me at arbitrary moments in the years to come. “We have one rule here – don’t fall off,” says Mary Valley Adventure Trails’ Brenda Davy. She had introduced my horse as ‘Bucky’. A chuckle, what seems like a leap year later, signals this as a standing gag.
Bay-coloured Zohar is anything but a Bucky. My proud-statured time machine, an English-bred Arabian, is equally pure of lineage, heart and temperament. Lucky, really, because my previous horse-riding experience is limited to the equivalent of adult pony rides. Brenda was sussing me out from the moment I got out of the car; plus, she trusts Zohar enough for the pair of us to “go for a little boogie” (gallop).
Her regional self-reliance and trust, foreign to big-city folk these days, breeds confidence. If you’re a half-decent rider, Brenda is happy to send you out onto these stunning trails aboard these stunning steeds with just a map, a compass and a “catch you later”.
I treat sure-footed Zohar gently, and he rewards me by doing all the work up a narrow rocky rise I assumed was beyond me. Up front, Aspen’s artfully wiggling rump and proud blonde tail trot through the forest dapples as though she strode straight out of Daryl Braithwaite’s film clip all those years ago.
Homeward bound, Brenda bellows “let’s boogie” for a final time… t-dant, t-dant, t-dant, my bloodless fists clench, unopenable; tears of speed and rapture spray from my eyes into the wind. As we re-enter the home paddock, today’s unridden Arabians collectively canter towards us like they want to get the goss. And that bloody song auto-plays inside my helmeted head: that’s the way it’s gonna be, little darlin’…
Exploring and adoring
Three human-sized teddies dressed in overalls man the outside of Imbil Fire and Rescue Station, slumped over like they’ve overindulged at the Railway Hotel across the road. Surrealism, Mary Valley-style, I guess. Through the mandatory country town rotunda, the bears survey Imbil’s pragmatic selection of all the shops you need in a micro town ringed by former pineapple plantations. The small-town, awninged aesthetic seems genetic; there’s neither the demand nor will to franchise here. The Rattler Cafe is the pick of the caffeine and brunch bunch, and there is a slow-food market on Sundays. They just call it a market though.
Where State Route 51 flies over the bluff down into Kenilworth is the best section of slow road to explore in the district. The views are ever-changing and wander into the realms of New Zealand’s South Island at times.
Kenilworth’s cafes and curio shops are speckled with hinterland boho. Ironically, West ‘N Colour purveys cowboy and cowgirl hats and outfits that make statements; and kitschy knick-knacks like flamingo statues for the lawn or lounge room. Outside, Clint Eastwood snarls endorsement from a Spaghetti Western mural.
Feed and watering opportunities are manifold for such a wee town, from Devonshire tea at Nanna McGinn’s to coffee doughnuts at Kenilworth Bakery.
Kenilworth Dairies’ tasting station is full of local experiments in dairy goodness, starring speciality cheddars infused with local flora combos like lemon myrtle and macadamia. The criminally creamy chocolate mousse and mixed berry yoghurt will make you dance a slow, satisfied jig. Food nerds take heed, the larder here is brimming with an uncommon range of local condiments and sauces, from bush tomato chutney to mango rum butter.
Meanwhile back at the (Amamoor) Lodge
Hypnotised by Mary’s virtues, it’s quite easy to drive past Amamoor Lodge’s farm-road entrance more than once (I did, twice). For the record, it’s near Diamondfield Road, named for the red cedars once logged here that were said to be worth more than a big bag of diamonds.
Chester the border collie howls a little personal welcome; he’s as eager to please as the lodge’s owners, Christine Buckley and Malcolm Oakley. The main lodge grew from the existing 1930s farm workers’ cottages in 2005, now flanked by wide Queenslander-style verandahs out the back. The large common area is country-cosy homely, with warm woods and a brick fireplace at its heart. A stained-glass window featuring a koala and a cocky is the most curious of the provincial curiosities.
We settle on the verandah as the day subsides; crickets chirp their dinnertime mantra. Below us, lilli pillis and tea trees fringe the freshwater pool. In the vee of the valley, the gums seem to join hands, making the 20-hectare property an important link in a local koala corridor.
Dinner’s up. Christine and Malcolm turn up the hospitality to family-strength, offering Christmas-sized offerings. Chester gives me a head tilt that unequivocally says, “We’re friends, right? You know what to do.”
Malcolm presents his mango macadamia melody, cradling it like a Fabergé egg; it’s a local tour de source. The mangoes hail from the garden; the mint from the veggie patch. The macadamias make a short jaunt from nearby Gympie; the cream commutes from Cooloola. Naturally, the ginger is the Sunny Coast’s own. “Unfortunately, the crème fraiche is from the supermarket,” apologises Malcolm. But no apology is required; this is an affectation-less plate of the hinterland squared’s strengths and seasons. The Mary Valley is defined by such elementary, unpretentious joys: inspired puddings, immovable needy pooches, rainforest gallops and early-rising, eccentric creatures. It’s absolutely worth a day or two of meandering motoring, just a few slow heartbeats down the road from Noosa to boot.