Season 1, Episode 3

Paronella Park

Host Benjamin Starr continues driving his own adventure and today is visiting Paronella Park, located hour and a half South of Cairns.

Created by Jose Paronella, who also built his own hydroelectric system to supply power to the park – Benjamin chats with Mark Evans, who purchased the park in 1993, don’t miss this fascinating story – of a man with a dream!

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Mark Evans

Read the transcript

Ben:

Well we’re still driving our own adventure and Paul’s been driving along the road with me and I was saying coming out today; it’s amazing all these little towns and little little buildings that sit on the side of roads what do people do here to survive? So we end up at this place called Paronella Park and I have to tell you, Paul you might want to get on the mic there because we’ve got Mark Evans here who is the custodian of this wonderful wonderful place, How on earth did you get it down that little track over there? Because we have to get some photos of this and put it up on the website I imagine.

 

Paul:

I’ve driven these vehicles around quite a bit, but that was probably one of us precarious entries I’ve ever made into a park. I’ll tell ya what, it is so worth it looking at that.

 

Ben:

Mark, you’ve got an amazing story to tell me, but this place dates way back to a man who had a vision I mean looking around you might think he was a little crazy?

 

Mark:

Look, many people were coming out to north Queensland back in the nineteen-teens and early nineteen hundreds and José  was an adventurer in many ways but it was tough times back in the Catalan area of Spain, and he like many of his fellow country people decided North Queensland or another part of the world. In his case it was north Queensland. He was incredibly a hard worker, a lot of cane farms here in the early days would be cleared but the stumps would remain in the sand and in the ground. So what he did he actually used detonation and blew the stumps out, so what he created was these first class cane fields.  And he then builds them up and sold them and the word is that fifteen farms were purchased. Cleared, developed as cane farms, and sold by him and that’s where he made his money.

 

Ben:

And yeah so I imagine you know back then, money would be the big thing I mean it’s still is, but to create something like this but how do you describe this to people?  

 

Mark:

I describe it as someone’s dream. Because he talked about achieving something special and if you think about it, and you tell someone you’re going to create fountains, tunnels, bridges, tennis courts, you’re going to put Queensland’s first hydroelectric power to make your electricity. You’re really talking a language that in most people they would say you’re crazy. He had twenty thousand pounds by the time he started this park.

 

Ben:

Good grief.

 

Mark:

Twenty thousand pounds that’s like a million, couple million dollars and he’s gonna waste it on this? Now it even comes back, and we’ll get back to this later, but it comes back to today. It’s so out there, that our visitors on arrival I can actually say to them have you been or ask them “how have you got here?” they say, “oh we were told to come here” and I’ll ask them “do you know what you are visiting?” and they’ll say “not really”.

 

Ben:

And that’s exactly what it is you don’t know what it is that you’re visiting

 

Mark:

No, you came here today first time you’d heard many times about Paronella.

 

Ben:

I’d seen it as a little boy on TV, I’ve watched it on Burkes Backyard growing up, I’ve always wanted to be but I never knew sort of how to get here.

 

Mark:

How to get here, what was the big thrill of it, and what and I can tell you that we met a lady really early on, and Jose he and his wife Margarita had a child and then another. But that lady came back here is a seventy-year-old and, I can tell you that that seventy-year-old Teresa was a young girl watching her dad build this park and she was able to tell us how people thought he was crazy. She was able to tell us how he built the hydroelectric system.

 

Ben:

Isn’t that fascinating?

 

Mark:

We’re on a back road here, the old highway, and really it had been let go then it got going again but unfortunately there was no money to be made here so it was not sustainable and that was the thing. So the Paronella’s rented after Jose’s death, then they sold it in the seventies and to be quite honest that just fell into disarray, disarray and it had one fire in the building and so on. So, what we discovered was this place, that was run down but most of all it was overgrown. But where Judy and I walk through here, we walked through, and that was our first vision of it I said to Judy “I think I’ve seen this before” and that’s when I didn’t realise at the time. But we subsequently bought the park after the bank managers said we were crazy, and when we bought it we then met the Paronella’s including first of all Joe Paronella,  the grandson the Mayor of the Tablelands Council and he came here and I think it was when I saw him in his face I saw his dad. Now I saw his dad on TV and that’s what I said I said to Joe, “Joe  was this park on TV a long time ago?” and he said “yes 1964” and I said “that’s amazing”.

 

Ben:

That’s before man on the moon, let’s put that in perspective.

 

Mark:

And I said I asked him, I said “did you guys have a cockatoo?” Strange question. He turned around before I had the chance to spit out the words I was about to say, and it and it and it had no feathers and he spat out very quickly “it was bald” and I knew straight away I had seen it on TV as a boy. I don’t mind saying I was twelve years old and it was still clear in my mind this place in north Queensland.

 

Ben:

Mark, your passion is amazing and it’s interesting the series of interviews we’ve been doing over the last few days. The people that we’ve been talking to, the passion and love for something comes through on everything.

 

Mark:

We’re fortunate to have found this place, but it’s it’s very earthy. It’s you know, Jose’s work is made out of concrete, yes the moss and the growth has taken it over. It’s become a place for gardeners  to come, it’s a place for landscapers  to come, it’s a place for architects to come. But it’s also a place for families just to sit down and have a picnic.

 

Ben:

Well you must find a lot of people here would visit and walk out changed as a result of it. Like they must there is something very spiritual about the whole place.

 

Mark:

You are spot on and I can tell you now, that there is a huge change because very often that person that you’ve just described, that changed person arrived here with a blank sheet. And that blank sheet was their friend, their cousin, their aunty, told them to come here and their words were “don’t miss it, go to Paronella Park”. So, we hear that, so they come in with no preconceived, yes exactly, no expectation and they wander through, they do the tour, they hear the story through these passionate people that tell that story and they walk out changed. I have the fortunate job of owning this property, but I also have the fortunate job of greeting the guests in the car park. I do that every day, greeting guests but most of all saying goodbye and what we did we took this to the night time why? Because Jose lit up the waterfall to show off. Because nobody believed he could make electricity, that’s the words of Teresa. Now he’s lit the water fall so we have the will both waterfalls lit as he had them, we also now light the top building and this lower building. what we added was another layer we bought another image  to Paronella Park and that was the image of  music and sound in live form so we now put this live string quartet in front of the building.

Now what’s happened it’s it was always while this is life changing, this is amazing now people are saying the best experience they’ve had in all their travels anywhere – and I’m talking about people that said “we were in a boat cruising down these rivers in Europe and it was amazing and they would have people playing violins  and music and singing”. The you look at that building there

 

Ben:

It’s a stage

 

Mark:

Exactly right. It’s an opera.

 

Ben:

It’s an opera isn’t it?

 

Mark:

And that’s exactly what happens every night you can see we’ve even got it set up now, because we know that there will be a couple hundred people seated here tonight and watching that that string quartet from Wollongong of all places. Wollongong. Wonderful Wollongong and they came here two years ago. They fell in love with the park, they came back last year and performed two nights. We had huge crowds and now every night right throughout the year, for six months, they will be performing we’ve already said to them “you’re back next year”.

 

Ben:

Tourism is an amazing industry on its own. Because I mean as you said this sat here for forty years, it took someone like you and your wife to arrive with this passion to restore it to what it was, and you have to put your own mark on it as well. And now you’re finding all these other companies coming in that feed off it. I mean you know I just think tourism is an amazing industry why is it important that people come and visit places like this?

 

Mark:

Well I think it is a part of people’s heritage. I think that it celebrates immigration. I think this person contributed hugely to not only Mena Creek in north Queensland, but to Australia. This is an example to be quite honest of how many families in Australia that have created their own home and with their own hands, built their farm up from nothing and there they were building it up. He’s you know powered it because there was no electricity and it you know he’s got his own electricity to do that. Now I think it’s a celebration of those people across Australia.

 

Ben:

Definitely

 

Mark:

One of the things that people comment on is they’re quite surprised. I don’t introduce myself in the car park as the owner of Paronella Park, I’m just that old bloke in the carpark that comes out with my hat on and says “welcome” and it’s interesting because a staff member will be asked the question maybe on a tour “who owns this place?” “oh, did you meet that guy out there?”. They don’t use the word old, no no, the gentleman in the carpark and that and they can’t use the word old. But and it’s just beautiful because those people come out, and they say, “it’s so nice to know that you are involved in this business today”, and we’re involved in it not through necessity. We’re involved in it because we love it, and that to me is so critical. We are well into our sixties, we’re heading toward seventy both of us and I’ll tell you that most people including my younger brother have retired around us. And we this to me is a little bit like a game of golf, it’s what we get up and wake up to and enjoy and I know that it’s lovely meeting guests sure you get that one person every now and then that doesn’t quite get it or doesn’t want to see it and that’s fine. But 99.9% of people walk through this property and walk out as changed people.

 

Ben:

Which is a marvelous thing. Finally, what can governments learn from you and this wonderful historic place? They’re the custodians of all these regions

 

Mark:

Yeah look I think I see money being handed out to startups and I don’t disagree with that, but I think startups fail in eighty percent of cases and I think sometimes you’ve got to back winners. And I believe we are one of a number of winners in north Queensland, and those winners are people that have developed with their heart and soul a business from the ground up and Jose  got no help we’ve got basically no help and I don’t complain about it but I can tell you we could turn this into something even more special with a little bit of assistance.

 

Ben:

Oh gosh yeah.

 

Mark:

It tends to be more things like the road is awful.

 

Ben:

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

 

Mark:

Those little things you know?

 

Ben:

The experience of it.

 

Mark:

But not, the the other comment if I may if people could come here in the wet season, I think that is the most exciting season. We call it the green season up here, but I think the wet season you know the November through to March is the time of the year when it can rain, and rain is beautiful – and a lot of people from out west would know that. To come to here now you’ve got the benefit of technology so you can actually arrive here and know if a road is going to be cut but there’s always alternative routes. But the water falls the streams.

 

Ben:

Stunning.

 

Mark:

It is it’s beautiful.

 

Ben:

I mean it is stunning and I mean I think every day in this place is a different day it’s never the same is it?

 

Mark:

Day and night yeah, all different.

 

Ben:

What is your favorite? Is it the tours at night, or the ones at day?

 

Mark:

Look I find  because  the night time is more peaceful I think night time is that time we offer people  a little bit of  a place to stay here and they wander in and they’ve had a beautiful day. Had a magnificent day and I have to say to, they say “what’s the difference between the day and night I say “it’s chalk and cheese” I say “the story is the day the magic is the night”.

 

Ben:

Well look I have to say thanks for a life changing experience this morning – I mean I’m just sort of in awe of this place and I love your passion and thanks for being a great custodian and I mean you are obviously  living this man’s spirit in in everything that you do and  it’s a pity he’s buried up the road not in the park maybe we could get him moved down here?

 

Mark:

His head stone is here really the family moved headstone. 

 

Ben:

Well that’s a lovely that’s a lovely gesture isn’t it? And look Mark I really wish you well and thank you very much for having us here today and I think we’re the first Mercedes Sprinter to ever get down the pathways, so there you go, there’s a first.

 

Mark:

It’s absolutely wonderful.

 

Ben:

So for people listening if they want to come out and see you, quickest way they get off in Cairns airports so they fly in, they hire a car and what should they do just drive down the freeway?

 

Mark:

Head down the highway and they’ll be here in one hour and twenty-eight minutes.

 

Ben:

And they’ll be greeted by a young man at the front in the in the front door saying, “welcome aboard”.

 

Mark:

Welcome aboard and he’ll put his hat on.   

 

Ben:

There you go well we’ll take our hats off to you Mark thank you very much for your time.

 

Mark:

It’s an absolute pleasure and thank you for visiting

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