I want to tell you a story.
It’s probably the closest thing to a real-life fairytale I’ve ever encountered, and it takes place in the middle of the rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia.
Our starting point is an unexpected location, though. We pull into a tarmac car park beside the highway where white cars shimmer in the heat and walk beneath a row of metal letters, their edges slightly crumbling with rust.
We keep on going down a small dirt track, letting the tree branches knit themselves closer and closer together as we step deeper inside the forest. The sounds of the outside world fade away: car engines and human chatter replaced by bird calls and the breeze moving through the leaves.
And then we see it.
At the edge of a clearing is a giant waterfall cascading over soft rock and splashing to a lake below. We’ve found the centrepiece of Paronella Park – the ruins of a castle built almost a hundred years ago, which have lain abandoned for half that time.
But now the castle is coming back to life.
The century-long history of Paronella Park
In 1925, a young Spaniard named Jose Paronella arrived in Australia. It was his second visit to the continent, and he’d decided to start a new life in Queensland along with his new bride, Margarita. Back in his Spanish homeland Jose had originally trained as a pastry chef, but during three years spent working in Australia he’d become a wealthy man.
Now Jose was planning to recreate a dream he’d had since childhood. Thanks to countless stories his grandmother told him about Spanish history, Jose had decided to build a replica of Spain in Queensland: his own recreation of a Spanish castle for other people to enjoy.
And that’s what he did.
Despite having little experience in construction, Jose Paronella bought five hectares of virgin land at Mena Creek Falls – much of it covered in a tangle of trees and vines – and began to build.
The resulting structures which sprang up were not just his dream castle, but also botanical gardens and tennis courts, a cafe and a grand staircase, and even a ballroom which doubled up as a theatre and cinema.
Because the famous Mena Creek waterfall provided ample opportunity for swimming, Jose built picnic tables on the ground beside it along with diving platforms, a toilet block and a set of changing cubicles nearby (which guests could pay to use!).
If you haven’t already realised, this man was one hell of an entrepreneur.
Before long the park had attracted curious visitors. Paronella became known as the Pleasure Gardens of Cairns, and each week there were groups of people eager to ride boats around the lake, swim beneath the water falls, and dress up on weekend evenings for dances, movies and music concerts under the stars.
A lost taste of Europe in the rainforest
Jump forward almost a hundred years though, and today’s lost world of Paronella looks quite different to Jose’s initial dream.
Now the sloping pathways lead past thundering falls and toward a steep flight of narrow stairs, their bannisters covered with ivy and twisting vines.
At their base are heavy stone tables, some of them cracked and most covered with layers of spongy moss. It’s almost too easy to imagine plates and picnic baskets laid out on top; and if I squint at the falls beyond I can half-see a rowing boat filled with excited guests.
It’s as if the ghostly guests of Paronella Park’s past are still just around the corner.
As we wander further through Paronella Park, I begin to see this place as more than just a set of abandoned ruins.
Of course there’s something undeniably magical about discovering a lost jungle world– particularly when it looks like a modern-day Angkor Wat – but the human touch here is undeniable too.
Our guide tells us that the Grand Staircase was actually used as the main thoroughfare to carry countless bags of sand and cement around the site. I skim my fingers over the rough surfaces of the bannisters and balustrades, all of which are covered in fingermarks from Jose’s own hands.
I start imagining Jose Paronella himself, valiantly striding through tree-lined pathways as he planned out his legacy.
An extremely ambitious man, Jose seemingly always had a new invention in mind: everything from creating a hydro-electric plant to power the park to attempting an underground aquarium by slotting fishtanks into earth walls he carved out of a tunnel – and when that failed, he used the humid earth to grow mushrooms instead.
When word spread about the crazy Spaniard building a castle in Queensland, a local municipal department even gifted Paronella Park with thousands of exotic and native plants, including hundreds of Kauri trees which can live for two thousand years.
Although he must have planted them with the knowledge that he’d never actually see them grow, Jose seemed certain that his park would live on despite him – and he was absolutely right.
The rediscovery of Paronella Park
Jose sadly died from cancer in 1948, and after the park changed hands a few times it eventually fell into disrepair. The jungle began to reclaim it.
For almost thirty years Paronella was forgotten, until a Perth-based couple named Mark and Judy Evans came looking to buy a caravan park.
The estate agent suggested a small piece of land which included some castle ruins hidden in the tangled undergrowth – and just like that, Mark and Judy found themselves the new owners of a lost civilisation.
When they realised how incredible this place was, the couple came up with a plan to restore the park to its former glory in whatever way they could. The paths have been cleared and the gardens reconstructed; the family’s cottage has become a museum filled with artefacts and memorabilia; and the park is becoming a popular wedding venue.
The arrival of a long-lost Paronella relative
The only thing missing from the restoration was history, as the Evans’ didn’t know what stories the park could still be hiding from them. Everyone they asked said that the park’s original owners had all disappeared – until one day, when an old lady arrived at the gates.
As Mark welcomed her to the park and asked if she’d like to visit, the woman replied,
“Actually, this was my father’s park. I’m Teresa, his daughter. I haven’t been back here for forty years.”
Thanks to Teresa filling in the gaps, Mark and Judy were able to begin constructing a mental picture of the people who built Paronella Park.
A vulnerable, nature-powered park
Despite the restorations, Paronella is sadly still extremely vulnerable. The landscape which Jose chose is built on a cliff, and the propensity for cyclones and flooding in Far North Queensland means there’s always a danger of nature wreaking havoc on the park.
In 1946, it was flooded by thirty feet of water and was precipitous in the park’s eventual closing by Jose Paronella; and since Mark and Judy resurrected Paronella in 1993 there have already been three separate cyclones which have knocked down walls, taken off roofs and threatened them with extreme flooding yet again.
The entire park is powered by nature, and despite the resulting beauty it’s also extremely likely that everything could vanish tomorrow.
Today in @queensland: Explored a ruined Spanish castle hidden in a tropical rainforest✅ Gazed at a crashing waterfall from every possible angle for far too long✅ Finally learned how to use shutter speed on my camera, and may have squealed with delight when the water looked like silk ✅ . . . @ParonellaPark #ThisIsQueensland #ExploreTNQ
What’s fascinating though is how different generations view and experience this place. Jose had initially envisaged Paronella Park as a well-kept set of gardens complete with outdoor entertainment, yet by the start of the 1960s people had TVs and their own local cinemas which meant the park’s visitor numbers started to drop.
Strangely enough, allowing the forest to take over the park for a few decades has meant a resurgence in tourism. Nowadays this part of Far North Queensland is attracting visitors precisely because it’s a lost, forgotten place to be explored.
Australia’s very own Angkor Wat.
If you’ve got a dream, hard work does pay off
Jose might not have expected his park to end up exactly like this, but his dream to create a place of magic in the rainforest has stood the test of time.
I’m still amazed that more people don’t know about Paronella Park. Then again, there’s something rather special about it remaining a secret.
Have you ever found a place like this on your travels? What do you think of Paronella Park?
NB: My travels in Australia were thanks to Visit Queensland – but the excited scribblings about Paronella Park all come straight from me. (As did the many extra hours I forced our group to wander the park because I simply couldn’t get enough…)