As we prepare to go for a hike in the towering, primaeval rainforests just outside Lamington National Park, Katie – our 24-year-old guide and local farmhand – unpacks the gear. Water. A gnarled stick used to navigate the uneven terrain. And a machete.
“Katie is a demon with that thing,” exclaims Amber Cordingley-Erpf, 51, who runs the Cedar Glen Farmstay, where we are staying. She peers at me. “You look scared!”
It turns out the machete is needed. We are visiting at the height of the Australian summer: after a period of severe drought, recent rainfall has made the grasses explode. As our party of four winds up the steep mountain, Katie – compact but strong – slashes the undergrowth, creating our path.
The goal of the two-and-a-half-hour hike is a series of caves perched on the mountainside. The going is tough – unstable footing; thick, thorny bush; and steep terrain – but the caves are impressive. In one, we crawl inside the damp, cramped interior to find a colony of tiny bats flitting in the dark. In another, a single cow’s skull has been propped up on a rock. It overlooks a vast, breathtaking vista of the Lost World Valley below.
“It’s just like the old days,” says Michael Erpf, Amber’s husband, who has joined us for the hike. “Exploring the countryside and machete-ing your way though the jungle.”
The Lost World is located in the Scenic Rim, little over a one-hour drive from Brisbane. Despite this, it feels remote. Farmhouses – built in the local Queenslander style, with timber walls, corrugated iron roofs and wide, wrap-around verandahs – dot the undulating hills. Beef and dairy cattle roam free: when we walk down from the caves, we follow a cattle track, trampled by bovines who go high in search of virgin grass.
The lush greenery, towering mountains and, yes, the cows, remind me of the Swiss Alps. At dawn and dusk, mobs of kangaroos graze the land. Eagles soar high overhead. Blinding white cockatoos screech over the valley, before settling in impossibly high trees. There is an explosion of butterflies. Dingoes, we are told, prowl the forest.
Yet it is the close-knit community, combined with such majestic nature, which makes the Lost World Valley such a draw, both to live in and to visit. “A lot of the people who come into the valley very rarely leave,” says Michael, 60, who recently moved to the area. “It’s a really tiny community. Everyone looks after everyone else.”
Such old-fashioned hospitality comes in spades at Cedar Glen, which offers guests activities ranging from boomerang throwing (“Keep it nice and straight so it chops through the wind,” instructs Katie) to learning how to crack a whip, a method once used to herd animals (warning: it’s loud). Then there are the daily picnics on the gurgling Albert River.
Amber and her helper Karen set up a table stuffed with sandwiches, hot lamb pasties with home-made yoghurt, lemon slices and sweet, dense carrot cake. As we eat, Karen collects sticks, snapping branches with her feet, to make a fire. Water is scooped from the river in an old tin can to heat up for tea.
“This is called the billycan,” explains Karen, who sports wacky heart-shaped sunglasses and a hat decorated with feathers collected from the farm. “The earliest settlers would boil their water in it. You just wait until the water has come to a nice roaring boil, then you sprinkle on the tea leaves. What you do is swing it around your head and that makes all the tea go from the top to the bottom.”
Swing she does – and the boiling water, miraculously, stays put.
The feeling that we are dipping into the lives once lived by the early settlers and farmers – with their machete-clad explorations, piping hot billy tea and river swims – is compounded by our bedrooms in the old homestead, built by one Edgar Stephens in 1901 from locally grown timber. No fewer than 10 of Edgar’s children were brought up here and the 425-hectare property remains in the hands of the Stephens family today.
It was just under 40 years ago, in the early 1980s, when Janet and Peter Stephens first launched the farm stay to supplement their income from cattle farming.
“We raised our four kids here,” says Janet, 81, who still resides in a house on the property named, rather wonderfully, Humpybong. She gestures towards the Cedar Glen homestead, a handsome white Queenslander with a dusky green roof. “I worked for a firm of antique dealers in London, so I was really keen on fixing it up a bit.”
Janet explains that Peter, who has since passed away, grew up at Cedar Glen. He milked the cow every morning before having to catch and saddle his horse for the ride to school. The couple met on a bus from London to India and were married in England. Janet arrived in Australia more than half a century ago as a Ten Pound Pom – a popular scheme of mass migration from the UK, named after the £10 ($13) processing fee.
Today only guests stay in the homestead. Yet it retains its dusty, old-world feel.
Many of the items, including a dark wooden dresser in the dining room, are family heirlooms, transported by Janet from England. Faded black and white photographs of the Stephens – playing with the lambs; one of a sultry dark-haired woman in a white dress and bonnet next to a snow-white horse – are dotted around the rooms and cottages. There’s an old iron dinner triangle hanging from the verandah, once used to call the farm workers to their meals (according to Michael, the sound of ringing “reverberated around the valley”). Janet, meanwhile, cooked for guests on a wooden combustion stove, which was kept alight for 24 hours a day. It also provided the hot water.
Last year, Janet passed the lease for the business onto Amber and Michael, who live in the next-door 1900s Wallaby Cottage, named after a family of resident wallabies. “It was time to hand over the reins,” she says, gently squeezing Amber’s shoulder.
For Nathan Overell, who runs the self-catered Worendo Cottages, the Lost World is a place where life has “come full circle”. Nathan grew up in the valley riding horses and bikes before he left to work as an editor, camera operator and producer for 18 years across the globe. In 2013, with his third son about to be born, he and his wife Jodie decided to move back. “There isn’t a day that goes by that something doesn’t stop me in my tracks and make me pause and reflect on the natural world,” he says.
As at Cedar Glen, we stay at the main homestead in Worendo, a 1910 white timber Queenslander with spectacular views. The building was originally built in Brisbane, where it was earmarked for demolition. In 1995, Nathan’s parents purchased the land in Worendo and decided to move the house there – wholesale.
“We had to cut the building in half and bring it out on two trucks, before stitching it back together,” says Nathan. After extensive renovations, it served as his parents’ home for almost 20 years.
Signs of family life remain: there’s a basketball hoop in the backyard and the bookshelves are fully stocked. Those touches add appeal. Yes, Worendo offers a number of activities: for an extra cost, you can book in-room massages or a helicopter ride. But the best things are free. From fishing in the lake, stocked with bass, to kayaking in the river to, as Nathan notes, “just sitting on the deck watching the mist roll over the mountains. It is a place to reconnect with each other and slow down.”
The Lost World Valley, after all, isn’t glamorous but authentic. For a more sophisticated meal in the Scenic Rim, your best bet is The Kooroomba Kitchen, located just over an hour’s drive away at the Kooroomba Vineyard and Lavender Farm. Here, chef Daniel Groneberg serves up Australian dishes with a twist: think pan-seared scallops with carrot puree, pistachio crumb and lime caviar or lavender honey glazed duck breast with cherry-pepper jus. A modern architecturally designed chapel – with open wooden slatted walls that provides views over the lavender garden through to the Great Dividing Range – is worth the visit alone.
Back at the Cedar Glen Farmstay, our lunch at Kooroomba, with all its polished beauty, seems a long way off. Here, the furniture might be worn, the floorboards might be creaky and the paths muddy, but it is that very same homely simplicity that makes it special. As Amber puts it: “It’s a bit rundown but people love that. That’s the character of the house. That’s what we come here for: the imperfectness.”
The road to recovery
The best way to travel Australia this year? With an appetite and an empty esky
Esky, cooler, icebox… whatever you call it, it’s the must-have accessory for a road trip in Australia this year.
Following the recent bush fires, friends Eleanor Baillieu, Elise Mason and Erin Boutros founded Empty Esky, an initiative designed to support local businesses in re-hit regions countrywide by encouraging urbanites to head out of town to fill up on local produce. And it’s been a hit: so far, over 500 fire-affected businesses have listed with Empty Esky and countless road trips have been planned by hungry travellers using the platform’s online map. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” says Baillieu. “So we hope everyone can do their bit to help restore our local businesses.”