There are some places in the world that make you weak at the knees with nostalgia and Paronella Castle is one of them.
It was the impossible dream of an ambitious Spanish immigrant who sailed to Australia in 1913 to make a life for himself and his fiancé waiting back home. José Paronella worked for over a decade worlds away from his homeland, first as a labourer cutting sugar cane, and then slowly building his wealth, buying, improving and selling cane farms. In his first years of travelling around Queensland, he discovered a virgin forest land alongside a waterfall and knew at first sight that he would one day call it his home. Over a century later, the ruins of his incredible story remain in the jungle…
After 11 years away making his fortune, in 1924, Paronella returned to Spain to claim his bride, only to find that Matilda had married another. But don’t feel too sorry for him because José married her adventurous younger sister, Margarita, and in 1925, he happily sailed back with her to Australia on a honeymoon voyage. In 1929, the couple purchased 13 acres of jungle along the Mena Creek for £120.
They spent the next 10 years building their Spanish castle in the wild with their bare hands, but not with the intent to keep it hidden all to themselves. The Paronellas wanted to share their dream castle with the public and built it with the enjoyment of visitors in mind. After constructing a modest house on site for themselves, they began work on the castle using old salvaged railway tracks to reinforce the concrete, which they covered with plaster, leaving behind their own fingerprints in the walls.
In 1935, as promised, the park officially opened to the public, complete with a movie theatre, dancehall, tennis courts, refreshment stands, a collector’s museum, tea gardens, swimming pool, a playground and 7,000 exotic trees individually planted by José.
Everyone was invited to Paronella park and the hospitable couple organised weekend movie nights for the public and hired live bands to entertain in the dance hall which featured the giant equivalent of an early 1930s disco ball, covered in 1270 tiny mirrors. It was the perfect family day out and the ideal location for weddings and society gatherings of the day.
One fateful day in 1946 however, the jungle turned on the castle when a mass of giant logs swept through the area during the wet season, pushing through the creek and destroying the refreshment areas, the theatre and severely damaging the region’s first hydro electric plant José had built in 1933 to power the park.
But José and his wife didn’t give up there. They repaired, rebuilt and replanted and were open for business again within 6 months, with newly added fountains.
Sadly, only two years later, José died of cancer, leaving his wife, son and daughter to keep the park alive. But nature had other ideas.
Over the years, the site was a frequent victim of floods and cyclones which meant constant renovation work and countless dollars to keep the park going. When only the Paronella grandchildren were left to carry the load, José’s dream was sold in 1977 and within two years, a great fire took its turn on the castle, leaving only the walls standing in the thick of the jungle.
For many years, nature reclaimed the property and Paronella was all but a lost park until 1993, when Mark and Judy Evans rediscovered the castle and became its new owners with a vision to revive José’s impossible dream.
There had already been another damaging cyclone in 1986, a flood hit one year after the Evans bought it and two more cyclones came in 2006 and 2011. Like the pioneering couple before them however, Mark and Judy have persevered through the setbacks, working with descendants of the Paronella family to uncover the secrets of the park.
Their goal was not to recreate exactly what José had built in the 1930s, but to preserve both his and nature’s work of art. With small, gradual restoration and preservation projects, they’ve uncovered paths, identified wildlife planted by José nearly a century ago, restored his hydro turbine at a cost of $450,000 and created a museum in José’s original family home. For their efforts, they’ve received ecotourism awards and are beginning to see the fruits of their labour.
The unique location is once again open to visitors, offering storytelling tours and night time experiences to see the park lit up at night (courtesy of that restored generator). You can wander the ruins, feed the fish at the bottom of the waterfall by the moss-covered picnic tables and even stay overnight in one of the park’s six cabins. There’s also a small café and the possibility to tie the knot at this fairytale castle in the jungle.
The impossible dream continues at Paronella Park.
Photos via Paronella Park unless indicated otherwise