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The re-birth of Binna Burra

Tim Baker | July 28, 2021

The original old dinner bell that has summoned diners at Binna Burra for over eight decades survived the bushfires that devastated the heritage-listed, eco-tourism icon.

In fact, the intense heat of the fires sealed a crack in the 100-year-old bell, which can still be found in the historic Grooms Cottage, the original timber slab home Binna Burra founder Arthur Groom built in 1934.

Perhaps Binna Burra, too, will somehow come through the horrific bushfires stronger and in better shape than before, like metal tempered in extreme heat.

On the one-year anniversary of the fires, in September 2020, Binna Burra chairman Steve Noakes told the assembled dignitaries, politicians, fire fighters and locals: “The bell which signalled our gathering today was part of a locomotive built for Lahey Brothers timber mill down in Canungra in 1910. The bell is a symbol of Binna Burra’s resilience. It’s now 110 years old and the ring is louder and clearer since it was the only item that survived the 2019 fire destruction of the lodge and the cabins.”

I’ve come to Binna Burra on a glorious Gold Coast winter’s day one year on from its re-opening to see how the beloved eco-tourism institution is faring in its long and painstaking re-generation. Last time I was here, the place was crawling with tradies in hi-vis, feverishly preparing for the re-opening. Now, it’s heartening to see patrons dining in the teahouse between bushwalks, caravans and tents and camper trailers set up in the campground, the Sky Lodges heavily booked and day trippers descending for a bit of forest time amid all this natural splendour. Not even conspicuous plumes of smoke wafting skywards in the distance from winter controlled burns is enough to disturb the mood of optimism on the mountain on this fine day.

But, of course, Binna Burra hasn’t just had the bushfire recovery to deal with. It hasn’t been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire so much as, out of the fire and into the virus. Fortunately, COVID travel restrictions has meant local visitation has been strong, as Queenslanders discover the natural wonders of their own backyard rather than jetting off to distant shores.

“We don’t have a demand problem, we have a supply problem,” says Steve Noakes, as Binna Burra attempts the fine balancing act of managing its fire and COVID-ravaged bottom line with the rebuilding of accommodation, while preserving its founding principles and cultural heritage and attracting a new generation of bushwalkers and nature lovers.

There are 19 new “glamping” safari tents to provide mid-range accommodation between the basic camp sites offered, and the luxury of the newly restored and renovated Sky Lodges, with their mod cons and spectacular hinterland views.

The new Binna Burra teahouse is open for business and the original old Grooms Cottage has been converted into an English-style walkers bar, with an open fire and comfortable armchairs and a library of reading about the region.

Friends of Binna Burra volunteers have been busy planting 3000 fire-resistant and drought proof plants throughout the 35-hectare property, bounded by Lamington National Park.

There are plans for 13 new “Wild Houses,” four of them up and running by Christmas, tiny houses on trailers that can be placed in locations to give guests a sense of privacy and seclusion in their rainforest surrounds and moved in case of emergency.

The site of the historic Lodge and slab huts is still a flat and empty space, but for a large, temporary Geodesic dome which houses an exhibition on the fires, while the masterplan to rebuild the Lodge and accommodation is finalised and fund raised. To that end, Binna Burra has released its first public share offer since 1934, inviting anyone touched by the Binna Burra spirit to purchase a minimum of 500 shares at $1 a share. The number of shareholders has grown from the original 97 to nearly 1000 and $800,000 has been raised so far.

Steve calls Binna Burra Australia’s first crowd-funded eco-tourism venture, and a social enterprise with an environmental focus. This is far from your average tourism venture, more like a club than modern capitalism. The youngest shareholder is Steve’s three-month-old grandson. The eldest was until recently Joan Bourne, a long-time Binna Burra regular, who snapped up $15,000 worth of shares shortly before her death at 100 years of age in June this year.

“This is a place to think long term, it’s about stewardship and custodianship. It’s not about profit,” says Steve, whose passion for Binna Burra is palpable. “None of our shareholders rely on Binna Burra for a living. It’s not a motivation for the shareholders. That makes it quite unique as a culture.”

But, Steve suggests, it is also a time for generational renewal, to entice a younger generation away from their screens and devices and introduce them to the wonders of this sub-tropical, rainforest paradise.

Before the current issue offer, most shareholders were over 70, Steve says, yet Binna Burra founders Arthur Groom and Romeo Lahey were relatively young men when they first fell under the region’s spell and conceived of a bushwalking holiday camp here back in 1933.

Grooms Cottage, the original home of the Groom family, survived the fire

Post bushfire

Post bushfire

“Arthur Groom was 24 when he had a vision. We need to attract 20 somethings, we need visionaries to be a part of this place,” Steve says. “My sense is that as we lay the foundations of the next 86 years of Binna Burra, we would be wise to engage the inputs of the millennial generation to encourage new and bold conversations with people who have the enthusiasm, energy and skills to initiate technological, social and environmental change for the betterment of Binna Burra and the Lamington National Park.”

Steve has formed a Facebook group, Millenials of Binna Burra plus Gen Z, or MoBBZ for short. A group of Griffith University architecture students have undertaken industry case-studies at Binna Burra to consult on the development of a new eco-science centre to appeal to a younger generation. Other Griffith University students across finance, marketing and operations have been granted internships. Simple things like the addition of USB charging ports in the new safari tents reflect this eagerness to cater for a younger generation for whom a fully charged phone is a pressing necessity.

Binna Burra has also developed a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) to better acknowledge the region’s Indigenous heritage, in consultation with Burleigh design studio Relative Creative, and its Indigenous director Tristan Schultz. The area’s Indigenous name Woonoongoora is being introduced into common usage. On the first anniversary of the fires, a traditional smoking and healing ceremony was held by representatives of the Yugambeh language group.

Yugambeh family groups, the Wangerriburra, Birinburra, Gugingin, Migunberri, Mununjali, Bollongin, Minjungbal and Kombumerri clans shared language, ceremonies, celebrations and trade here. Evidence of their lifestyles has been found in various parts of the park, including the ‘Kweebani’ (cooking) cave near Binna Burra. It is believed a traditional pathway passed through the southern section of Lamington National Park.

Steve Noakes has pinned his hopes on Binna Burra’s long-term recovery on what he calls “solidarity tourism”, drawing on the goodwill of thousands of holiday makers and bush walkers over decades who have formed strong connections to the place. As an example, Dulux Paints donated paint, equipment and labor to the reconstruction effort after enjoying a management meeting at Binna Burra before the fires. Tesla has donated two charging stations for the expected rise in electric vehicles. He’s been buoyed by the number of visitors who have come to share their own stories of Binna Burra.

For months, Steve’s “office” was a fire pit outside the one, original, old stone cabin that survived the fires, where the bushfire exhibition was first staged. Steve would sit and boil a billy and yarn with anyone who felt the need to talk about their connection to Binna Burra and the impact of the fires as a kind of informal therapy.

“We had a video playing about the bushfires. People walked in and walked out in tears,” he says. “People just wanted to express some form of solidarity. They just came along to touch base and be connected to Binna Burra. This was a really good spot to make time for them. I’d usually have my meetings here around the campfire. A number of people told me their mum and dad met each other here.”

Binna Burra Bus and the Blitz 1948

Arthur Groom and Romeo Lahey 1938

Binna Burra original cabins

The scale of the reconstruction effort required to keep Binna Burra running is staggering. It cost $35 million and took the best part of a year just to stabilise the cliff face and rebuild the single road into Binna Burra. To rebuild the lodge and accommodation is estimated to cost another $20 million.

A planned new feature, the Via Ferrata, Italian for “iron path”, is to be constructed at Binna Burra. Steve describes it as a “Harbour Bridge style climb on the side of a cliff”. At a cost of $2 million, with the help of a Queensland Government grant of $1.3 million from the Attracting Tourism Fund, the Via Ferrata allows visitors to traverse a sheer cliff face along a series of metal cables while safely harnessed. Steve received news their grant application had been successful the day before fires swept through the place.

Griffith University has become lead university partner of Binna Burra, which provides an ideal learning environment, an outdoor classroom for a wide range of disciplines, from architecture to eco-tourism, environmental science and conservation to Indigenous studies. Griffith’s Centre for Tourism prepared a case study on the bushfire preparedness and recovery of Binna Burra. It found Binna Burra’s staff training and emergency procedures were critical in the safe evacuation of guests and staff and avoiding loss of life. It’s handling of job losses was also praised.

“Staff management was a critical issue. A core management team of six managers and three grounds staff/maintenance were retained. For the remaining 57 staff, Binna Burra Lodge organised a meeting to inform them of the situation. A ‘Staff Transition’ event was organised where 155 jobs or training opportunities were on offer to staff. Counselling services and financial advice was offered. All staff were able to find alternative jobs or training,” the report found.

Binna Burra has become something of a touchstone for disaster preparedness and response. “Every week I’m doing a seminar somewhere about the case study of Binna Burra,” says Steve.

Staff are back up to 35 now and could reach 120 when fully operational, says Steve.

For all its idealism, its focus on community and environment and heritage, Binna Burra still needs to pay the bills to create a viable future. “We need to get the month-to-month trading in the black … Our focus is to run a profitable trading business.”

They’ve incorporated a separate not-for-profit Binna Burra Foundation and an now working on getting Deductible Gift Recipient Status under Not-For-Profit and Charities laws, which means donations are tax deductible. Additionally, the publicity generated by the bushfires and recovery effort mean the Binna Burra brand has never been stronger. The future, Steve believes, is bright.

For all the masterplans and community consultation and grant applications and working bees, it would seem remiss to come here and not experience what draws people here in the first place. I can’t drive back down the mountain before immersing myself in the stunning rainforest environment at the heart of the Binna Burra experience.

Alone in the forest, gazing up at huge strangler figs and ancient arctic beech trees, serenaded by the gentle symphony of forest sounds, it is impossible not to fall under the same spell cast by this environment for millennia. That spell has renewed and replenished countless souls, from the original Indigenous inhabitants, to returned servicemen and women, pioneer bushwalkers and rock climbers to modern holiday makers. Now we all have the opportunity to help Binna Burra renew and replenish, by visiting, booking a holiday, making a donation or buying a parcel of shares. Nature lovers in 100 years’ time will thank us.

Find out more about the Binna Burra share offer.

The project to build the Teahouse Deck, Amenities, and additional Safari Tents and powered sites is proudly supported by the Australian and Queensland governments under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.

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