High above sea level on a mountain in Lamington National Park, nestled in the spectacular forest, is Binna Burra Lodge — a heritage-listed lodge, which has welcomed guests since the 1930s. Thanks to the vision of its founders, Romeo Lahey and Arthur Groom, generations of nature lovers continue to enjoy the most extensive remnant of subtropical rainforest in Australia. The Lodge has been awarded the internationally recognised Green Globe Certification for ecological sustainability, and it is the perfect getaway destination for those wanting a truly intimate experience with nature. We spoke with Dean Hogg, one of the multi-skilled staff members of Binna Burra, who shared some of the history of the Lodge, as well as his knowledge about the local bush food. (www.binnaburralodge.com.au)
How was Binna Burra founded?
Binna Burra has been here for about eighty-two years now, a long time in Australian history terms … that aspect of Australian history. The first camp was in 1933. It was pretty simple. It was just a canvas tent camp down on the lawn, and there wasn’t much else around, really. It was dairy land for dry cows, and both Romeo Lahey and Arthur Groom came up here separately and realised that Mount Roberts — where we are — was a great place to have a lodge or a campsite, something to bring people from all over to share what Lamington National Park has to offer. It was all about recycling and using whatever they could that was on the property, on the land — tallow wood and other trees … stringy bark, red cedar. It was also about using staff and workers — timber cutters — from the Lahey Sawmill in Canungra, which was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, softwood sawmills in Australia. A lot of the workers came up here to work at Binna Burra from the 1930s onwards, and through that period the first row of cabins were put up. They’re all local tallow wood, and they had red cedar and stringy bark shingles. And during that time what is now the reception had been brought up as well — it was an old boarding house from the Lahey Sawmill. It had been parcelled up, brought up a cable system and put back together up here. So, that shows you the sort of recycling they wanted to do. But they had to do it, too, because they didn’t have a great deal of money. So, they thought, ‘Okay. How are we going to get some money to make this dream come about?’ And they thought, ‘Shareholders. Let’s sell shares in the place.’ So, that’s what they did and it is still the case to this day: there are over 800 shareholders, and a board of directors, so no one family or person owns Binna Burra. That’s the way we work. And over those eighty-two years there’s been a spirit of essentially giving people a comfortable place to sleep, hearty food and plenty of it — good fresh food — and letting the forest do the rest. That was Arthur Groom’s motto; that would have been Romeo Lahey’s motto, as far as the forest was concerned; and that is our motto today.
And what is your role?
I am Guest Activities Supervisor, and guest activities covers so many different things, from the flying fox, abseiling, guided walks, working with university groups and school groups, giving presentations here in the library … You may have seen me helping to check people in, so it is a concierge role as well. Anything to do with the guests’ enjoyment of the park itself. I’ve been here for five years.
We’ve heard you are passionate about bush food.
Yes, most definitely. Bush food has become more popular over the last, say, five decades or so. Before then it was considered an Aborigine food for many, many years. But more and more people have realised it is delicious. It is delicious, it is out there, you can follow the seasons looking for that bush food, and once you get some together you can create some new flavours as well. That’s what I love.
So, tell us about some of your favourites.
I like some of the bush foods that have a bit of sweetness to them, because I have a classic western tastebud setup — lots of salts and sugars. And a lot of the bush tuckers don’t have those flavours. There’s a lot of tart and there’s even bitter out there, which we’re not used to. So they’re new flavours. I like the sweeter with the tart, like various plums or a black apple that we get in the forest, which is really similar to a plum. It has flesh like a plum and, if you can get them nice and ripe, they are really yummy. They have seeds in them as well that, when you click them together, make a metallic sound, and the Yugambeh people from this area and other areas would use those seeds to decorate necklaces and that sort of thing. So, those sorts of fruits would be my favourites. Also, there are aromatics: things that can be used to flavour something else.
What are the bush foods you’ve foraged for us today?
The bush foods I have today are mostly the aromatics, and they even verge into bush medicine, as well. So, we get things like purple mint bush, mountain pepper bush, aniseed myrtle … smells and tastes exactly like licorice or black jelly bean. These plants grow all over the grounds.
When Binna Burra first started there was a real English country garden sentiment, but as the years went on the gardeners thought, ‘No, we need natives and, even more so, we need endemics, things that are just Lamington.’ We’re moving towards that. We do still have some that are outside Lamington, like the aniseed myrtle, but I didn’t have to go more than one hundred metres in any direction to collect these.
Which bush fruits grow in the area?
Well, there’s one at the moment called the bush apple, which is a type of lilly pilly — it gets to the size of a big twenty-cent piece, and it is very tart and astringent, but some people love that flavour. It just sucks all the moisture out of your mouth, but my daughter, for instance, eats them like normal apples. Some people love them. There are lots of lilly pilly; purple cherries; purple flax lilies, which are flowering at the moment, so they’ll fruit soon; blueberry flax lily — a lovely little fruit, an aerated crispy fruit with tiny little black seeds that are quite crunchy like a poppy seed, on the inside. What else? Lemon aspen fruit; a bit later on we get walking stick palm fruit — they’re quite sweet, they taste like a pomegranate or, if there’s a lot of water in the soil, they taste more like a watermelon. We’ve just finished the fruiting of wild ginger, which was used by the Yugambeh people to keep their mouths moist if they were on a walk. Obviously they couldn’t carry water like we do now; so, walking along the trails, they’d see the wild ginger and eat that instead. You use it like a lozenge — you know, roll it around in your mouth, give it a bit of a chew — and the juice is very lemony, zesty and gingery. It is really lovely. So many fruits, I could go on and on. There are leafy green vegetables. There is short-leaf spinach, which tastes like walnut. It is related to stinging nettle, a cousin of stinging nettle, but is has no stings on it. A long-leaf spinach. What else can you eat? The pennyworts and things like that that look similar to a nasturtium. There are just a few.
How did you come to learn about bush foods?
When I started here I knew nothing. I’d come from a hospitality background in five-star hotels, managing pubs and restaurants, and managed Kathmandu for years. But I lived on the mountain and knew the guys here. When I was looking for another job they said, ‘Well, there’s a guide position. Do you want to try out for that?’ You have to learn on the job. We’ve got people who work here who know a lot. There’s a fellow, Chris Duncan, who was a ranger for years. He’s the head gardener now, so he knows a lot about plants. We learn a lot from him. I go to him as a mentor and say, ‘Okay, I’ve found this plant. I can’t find it in the book, what do I do?’ Or, if I’m lazy, I say, ‘Tell me this plant’, and he’ll say, ‘I know that’s in the book. Go and have a look yourself.’ So, that’s how we learn. On each walk, there are almost a thousand different plants. The biodiversity is huge, so on each walk there might be something new. We’ll just take a leaf or take a photo, come back and try to identify it and remember it. It is good fun, a great job and definitely a lifestyle.
Is there a typical day or do you mix it up?
Generally speaking it will be an eight-hour shift, either a morning shift or an afternoon shift that starts about two. We help out in each of the other departments. Tonight I’ll help out in food and beverage, I’ve done reception today, I changed a wheel on the truck so that’s maintenance … a bit of everything. That’s the way the place works and it always has — everyone just mucks in.
Arthur Groom used to call it his Binna Burra experiment and it feels like that. It is a wonderful place to work.