A castle built out of love in tropical Queensland, Paronella Park is the fairytale you’ve never heard, writes Steve Madgwick.
Plenty of people said “no way, José” to José way before it was cool to say ‘no way, José’ to people whose name isn’t José.
These three simple words to not-so humble Spanish pastry chef José Paronella spurred him on to build a fairytale castle in Queensland’s tropical scrub-turned-rainforest with the able assistance of his first love’s sister (more on that later).
José immigrated to Australia from Catalonia in 1913 after hearing there was plenty of work going on Sydney’s emergent railways. But his spirit and dreams were never going to be pinned down under the scheduled existence of labouring on the railroads.
With little English to speak of, barely lint lining his pockets and a penchant for balmy weather, José headed north, way north, to Far North Queensland, seeking adventure and a fortune deep enough to finance his return to Spain for a (pre-arranged) marriage to his betrothed, Matilda, and their subsequent journey back to Australia.
Unfortunately, José was so engrossed in his own prosperity, buying and flipping land from the proceeds of his cane cutter’s wage, that he neglected to write home to update Matilda and family of his plans. Actually ‘neglected’ doesn’t quite cover it. José did not contact home for 12 years. While he fostered a dream to build a Spanish castillo in the tropical surrounds of Mena Creek, Matilda and her parents sat waiting; patiently. Oh, how they waited.
Finally, José decided that he had fulfilled his ultra-eligible bachelor criteria and headed on the slow boat back home, his eyes on the bride. Unfortunately, Matilda’s parents, not knowing whether José was dead or alive, had given up the ghost. Matilda had moved on (or was moved on, as was the custom) and married off to the next ‘in line’. Tragedy? Not exactly. “No hay problema,” said Matilda’s folks. “Why don’t you marry Margarita [Matilda’s younger sister] instead?”
And so it was… the newly-met newlyweds boomeranged to tropical Australia to realise José’s regal visions, which had been fertilised by tales of knights in shining armour, recited to him by Grandma Paronella.
However, don’t think for a minute that Paronella Park – designed in an eclectic style – was an entirely eccentric folly. The couple’s plan was not just to build a castle for themselves, but an entire ‘pleasure garden’ for visitors, an adult theme park, if you will, which opened for business in 1935. Apparently José’s final inspiration was the splendid waterfall bursting to life out of a seasonally fulsome Mena Creek.
Almost a century later, 500 to 600 souls per day still wander the park’s trails, marvel at the strange architecture of the castle, a cottage and the original grand staircase (complete with portentous flood markers). This is not just a testament to the shared vision of José and Margarita, but also to the current king and queen of the castle, owners Mark and Judy Evans. The tree-changers slogged it out in the computer industry for three decades before buying and restoring the (then) sickly park in the mid-’90s.
“We came in not knowing much about the area, especially about cyclones and floods, which was probably a good thing,” says Mark, so excited he’s almost yelling. He’s the talker, Judy the brains, he jokes. “We drove for 18 months around Oz in a caravan looking for business opportunities that were ‘something different’. We looked at places like Rainbow World. Thankfully, Judy wasn’t so excited about that one.” While in Cairns, almost by accident, they heard second-hand accounts of the outlandish castle in the rainforest. “When I saw it, it took my breath away. How could I possibly not know about this place? We walked through the park and didn’t even talk. We just had to put in an offer.”
Mark and Judy realised that it was going to be a challenge to get Paronella fully operational, but “that was part of the mystery”. Unfortunately, their bank manager didn’t quite embrace the mystery, initially refusing them a loan. That was until the banker’s wife persuaded him that the Evanses were indeed a visionary young couple.
Incredibly, they bought the park without knowing its rich backstory; only enlightened after José and Margarita’s daughter (70 at the time) turned up soon after the sale and offered them her insider’s tour. They found out how José had amassed the equivalent of $1.5 million from his toils and dealings and sank it into the project, which took six arduous years to complete.
José would pour concrete for 20 straight hours, and between them they planted more than 7500 plants, trees and ferns, effectively transmuting five hectares of scrub into genuine rainforest (the forest has doubled as the Panama jungle in the 1993 film Sniper. It was also considered as a set for the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean).
While the concrete castle started out as José’s prophecy, Margarita was undoubtedly ‘the rock’ behind Paronella Park’s realisation. And so it was built, and so they came… locals revelled and celebrated life and their limited leisure time in the tea gardens or in the cafe by the pool, sometimes with a game or three of bocce.
Grand black-tie events energised the lower refreshment room (even when the tropical temperatures were high and humidity stifling). Margarita would serve Catalan dishes while a live jazz band played on the castle’s roof.
Impish kids would steal pennies from the wishing well to pay for a treat from the ice-cream shop. Canny Margarita cottoned on; fishing an eel out of the creek, putting it in the well, along with a sign: ‘Electric Eel’. The larceny more or less ceased after that.
Sadly, fire gutted the ballroom back in the ’70s, incinerating not just the stunning polished wooden floors and gold-trimmed curtains, but many of the mid-20th century collectables too, such as a 1200-piece diamond-cut mirror ball, which cost £49 back in the day (the whole park originally cost the couple around £120).
In many ways, Paronella Park was ahead of its time, featuring one of Australia’s first hydro-electric projects, which supplied power to the park (it’s working again now). The fountains are gravity-fed and the original construction was accidentally eco-friendly; with many of the building products sourced locally, from the clay and sand to the use of abandoned railway tracks for structural reinforcement.
After a lot of elbow grease and a few setbacks (including a pasting by Cyclone Larry in 2006), the park lives large again, more an attraction for its kitschy moss-covered history, its five-hectare rainforest setting and its sheer ‘who knew this was here?’ factor than a pleasure garden these days.
On The Darkness Falls Tour, torch in hand, Paronella would be a sublime setting for a horror film. The creepily lit moss-covered structures assume an entirely altered personality and the trails offer nocturnal bounties to the curious; turn off the torch and search for glowing fungus and fireflies among the sky-high karri pines and undergrowth (at the right time of year).
So while the micro-bat strewn Tunnel of Love lies closed, in need of some structural love, and you can’t swim under the main falls anymore, thanks to a couple of saltwater crocs who visit from time to time, thousands of punters a week revel in the park’s folklore. Mark and Judy see the park as a work of art, maintaining and preserving it, with big plans afoot too – watch this space.
Naturally, Paronella is a popular wedding hotspot (hosting about 15 a year) plus there’s about one proposal a week too (they’ll leave the waterfall lights on if you ask nicely). Perhaps visitors are trying to channel the spirit, the unrestrained joie de vivre from another aeon, or perhaps the love of José and Margarita itself.
“Some people say there’s a presence here,” says Mark. “Once, after dark, I heard people talking and looked around and no one was there. I don’t believe in spirits… but there is something.” A haunted castle? No way, José.
Details: Paronella Park
Paronella Park 1671 Innisfail Japoon Rd, Mena Creek Queensland.
Getting there: Find the park at 671 Japoon Road (Old Bruce Highway), around 20 kilometres south of Innisfail.
Playing there: Entry is $45 for adults, $24 for children or $128 for two adults and two children. Day visits don’t require pre-booking, but book ahead for a night tour.
Eating there: Eat at the park’s cafe, or head just up the road for a pub meal on the verandah of Mena Creek Hotel.
Staying there: The park has six basic cabins for hire, plus a caravan and camping ground.