“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong under the shade of a coolabah tree.” This classic song about the Australian outback has a strong connection with the surrounding landscape and so does Mt Mulligan Lodge. Perhaps surprisingly, when you compare the two, some other things are also identical. Guests at Mount Mulligan Lodge are just as jolly as the swagman about the wonderful spot they’ve found to lay their head. There is also a beautiful ‘billabong’ shaded by eucalyptus (coolabah) trees in front of their sleeping spot for the night. But that is where the similarities end. With luxurious outback suites and sophisticated dining and fine wines included in the tariff, a stay at Mount Mulligan Lodge is most certainly not camping!
It takes three hours to reach Mt Mulligan Lodge by 4WD from Cairns, either self-drive or via a transfer, or you can travel there by helicopter in 30 minutes. We opted for the self-drive option which allowed for stops to photograph Mt Mulligan. Our family gasped when it first popped up in front of us about 10 minutes from the lodge. Mt Mulligan is a working cattle station and a herd of cows checked us out as we snapped away at the stunning scenery. Sitting in the heart of Djungan country, Ngarrabullgan (also known as Mt Mulligan) is an 18km long sandstone escarpment that towers up to 400 metres over the surrounding landscape. Ngarrabullgan is a sacred site that carries with it more than 37,000 years of indigenous heritage. It is visually stunning and has a palpable sense of place.
After a cool drink and an orientation walk around the lodge, we checked into our accommodation which overlooked the weir and the surrounding bush. Our Outback Suite was perfect for our family of two adults and a teen with an adjoining lounge room where our son could sleep and have his own space to relax. If you’re travelling as a couple, an Outback Room would be more than large enough as even the ‘smaller’ suites at Mt Mulligan Lodge are huge. We loved the way our accommodation felt connected to the outback with its rustic wood and leather design touches and view of the weir. Each suite also comes with a golf buggy for getting around the property. With a maximum of just 20 guests, the lodge never felt crowded, even on our final night when it was fully booked.
One of the reasons we chose Mt Mulligan was because of the range of experiences included in the tariff. Activities like 4WD safaris, ATV adventures and private guided walks can add thousands to the cost of a family holiday; at this lodge they’re included in the stay. We had previously experienced the convenience of included tours at Orpheus Island Lodge, Mt Mulligan’s sister property on the Great Barrier Reef, and were impressed by the quality of what was on offer and the excellent added value.
At Mt Mulligan Lodge, the guided tours were more adventurous than the ones on Orpheus Island and perfect for a family with tweens and/or teens. They included a demonstration of Australia’s oldest operating gold crusher, exploring the historic Mount Mulligan mine and abandoned township, and a self-drive ATV adventure around the cattle station. We skipped sunset drinks at Orpheus Island Lodge as a courtesy to other guests as we felt our lively 11 year old was a bit too young to fit in. As a 16 year old, our son joined us for sunset drinks overlooking the mighty Mt Mulligan escarpment and we all enjoyed chatting with the other guests who were passionate travellers and great company.
Sunset drinks alternate between the firepit down by the weir and the rustic and aptly named Sunset Bar which offers great views of Mt Mulligan. Bar stools and tables and a few long wooden seats outside allow ample space to sit at the Sunset Bar but most people mill around and chat during the convivial cocktail hour. With its superb views and plenty of space to congregate, we preferred the Sunset Bar to drinks by the weir but they’re both good in their own way. If you visit during winter, the firepit down by the weir would be lovely and cosy but it was a little too toasty for us on a warm spring afternoon.
Many guests were at Mt Mulligan because their overseas holiday plans to celebrate milestone events had been cancelled due to COVID so they had opted for a luxury local stay to mark the occasion instead. All of them – ourselves included – were blown away by what had been waiting for them all along in their own backyard. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how fast the time flew by while we were at the lodge. We had been wondering if we would get bored during our three night stay but there was no danger of that happening with loads to see and do around the property and at the lodge itself.
In fact, we found ourselves hastily filling the gorgeous corrugated iron bathtub on our balcony on our final afternoon so we could enjoy one of the signature experiences at Mt Mulligan before we left. Some couples only stayed two nights and while this still would have been lovely, we agreed you need at least three nights to make the most of a stay here. If your love of luxury is larger than your wallet, check the website as there are often buy ‘three nights get one free’ or similar deals available.
One thing that caught us out is that Mt Mulligan Lodge is a bit different from other five star accommodation as it has a self-serve bar. On our first afternoon, we waited for ages for someone to come and take our drink order after we sat down. This seemed strange as the service had been superb and very prompt up until then. Finally, we remembered the extensive self-serve bar we had been shown during our orientation and how we were supposed to help ourselves any time we liked. Don’t make the same silly mistake we did!
Dining at Mt Mulligan was a highlight with hearty dishes such as pan roasted lamb rump served with ratatouille, potato gratin, fetta, pea and mint puree, and red wine jus and lighter options from the surrounding region. Dinner is a set dish for entrée and dessert, with a choice of two meals for mains and the menu changes daily. The lunch menu stayed the same during our stay which was more than fine by us. The barramundi and chips were so good that we had them every day. There was also an interesting wine selection which ventured beyond the major producers to highlight boutique wineries from some of Australia’s best wine regions, plus a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks (much to the delight of our son).
Breakfast begins with a continental selection of fruit and muffins served to the table and an a la carte choice of café classics such as smashed avocado and poached eggs plus more adventurous dishes like baked shakshuka eggs (a highlight, don’t miss it). Combined with the view of the swimming pool and wildlife flitting around the weir, it was the perfect way to start the day and set us up for a morning of ATV adventuring around the 66,000 acre station which is home to almost 2,000 Brahman-cross cattle.
If you aren’t keen on driving the ATV yourself, have a chat to the activities staff on your first afternoon and see what can be arranged as an alternative. It’s also worth requesting one of the four person ATVs if you’re travelling as a family. We assumed we would automatically be given one of these but this didn’t happen and we were split up for our first tour. This was disappointing as I could see ‘the boys’ having a ball up ahead while I rode a few vehicles back with another guest. After this excursion, we requested a four person ATV for our next tour and this was ready and waiting the following day.
Touring the old Mt Mulligan township was fascinating and a trip highlight. While the tale of this mine is a tragic one – it remains the site of Queensland’s worst mining disaster – the tour provides an intriguing insight into the gold fever and mining boom which dominated Australia in the late 1800s. When you drive past the stumps of houses and the hospital which is now staff quarters, it’s not hard to imagine Mt Mulligan township as a hive of activity and home to around 300 people.
On the tour you can see remnants of the railway line connecting the town to Mareeba, the church, school, general stores, brick kiln, and a couple of pubs. And, of course, there is the mine. No one is exactly sure what caused the explosion which killed 75 people on 19 September 1921 but it was so large the ignition of the mine’s coal dust was heard 30 kilometres away. The mine at Mt Mulligan ceased operation in 1957 and was blasted shut but you can climb down and peer inside the opening during the tour.
Our days settled into a lazy rhythm with breakfast followed by the morning’s tour then lunch. In the afternoon, we swam in the pool and chatted with other guests as we spotted sparkling blue kingfishers flitting through the trees. Our teen went kayak fishing in the weir for barramundi and watched kangaroos coming down to the water to drink in the late afternoon, followed by sunset drinks and dinner as a family.
Our final day at Mt Mulligan Lodge finished with a visit to the Tyrconnell Gold Mine which is located a 20 minute drive from the lodge on the road back to Cairns. We self-drove behind the 4WD bus carrying the other guests so we could continue our journey to Cairns after the tour finished. Tyrconnell was the richest mine in the area and employed 100 men with the crusher running 24 hours a day at its peak. While the Mt Mulligan site is mostly ruins, the Tyrconnell Mine remains virtually untouched and looks like a Hollywood film set, complete with the original maps of the mine laid out on a table in the manager’s office.
Even better, the mighty circa 1920s crusher still works. Our guide Ben is also the General Manager at the lodge and one of the few staff who can confidently coax the historic machinery to fire up on demand. He beckoned everyone down a set of stairs to where the mechanical beast was waiting to be brought back to life. With a few expert twists and a slow thumping, the crusher’s pistons slowly started up and stamped and pounded like something wild and untamed. After a cold drink and a final chat to the other guests, we took ourselves and all the wonderful memories from our stay at Mt Mulligan Lodge back to Cairns.
Tips for Visiting Mt Mulligan Lodge
Every guest receives a branded water bottle which can be refilled throughout your stay and comes home with you as a souvenir. Bring it with you on excursions.
Bring a wide brimmed hat, long sleeved shirt and a pair of light long pants for excursions and put on plenty of sunscreen, especially on the back of your neck.
You can customise the drinks in your mini bar. Our son had the Coke replaced with non-alcoholic ginger beer and we requested sparkling mineral water in our mini bar.
While most SUVs can handle the drive to Mt Mulligan, taking an SUV hire car on dirt roads can void your insurance. Check with the car hire company before you hire an SUV.
Disclosure: The writer stayed as a guest of Northern Escape Collection and would not hesitate to return to this superb lodge at her own expense.
If you’re spending some time in Cairns before or after your stay at Mt Mulligan Lodge and need somewhere to stay we have reviewed Riley, the Oaks Cairns Hotel, Bailey Residences, and the Pullman Cairns International.