Salt Magazine logo
Salt tagline


Falling in love with Mary

autumn 10


HAVE YOU MET MARY? Smelt her crisp, untainted air or felt the rich, fertile earth between your toes? Plunged into her calming waters as she pushes you downstream or spoken to her people who are ‘proud as punch’ to be a part of her?

Mary is one hell of a fighter. She has recently won her biggest battle to date by convincing the Federal Government that the $1.8 million Traveston Crossing Dam project would threaten the livelihood of her most fragile wildlife residents – the Mary River Cod, the Giant Barred Frog, the Cascade Tree Frog and the Coxen’s Fig Parrot.

I meet Mary over a sticky, stormy weekend in late February. My husband and I decide to trace her from the south starting at the Crystal Waters village and ending in the sleepy, rural town of Amamoor.

The Mary River is the lifeblood of the valley, weaving and curling like a serpent across the earth. The map shows that we’ll catch glimpses of her throughout our journey ducking across Crystal Waters, fringing the road before Kenilworth and intersecting our travels at Gympie.

The Mary River serenades us at the entrance to the Crystal Waters village. I peer down into her waters, my reflection returning my stare, and then Mary distorts it as she moves north. She is one of the few rivers to flow northwards in Queensland where she escapes into the ocean at the Great Sandy Strait near Maryborough. At this point she doesn’t resemble a river – more like a slender stream with a motley coloured river stone bottom.

Visitors to the Crystal Waters Eco village will enter at the Village Green, which is a central park-like area where residents and visitors congregate to enjoy the kids’ playground, Chai Mama’s coffee shop or perhaps the village markets on the first Saturday of every month. To our delight on this particular Saturday morning the local organic sour dough bakery is open, where bread maker Les Bartlett has a fierce reputation for making exceptional dough. He and his partner Lesley Halliday are residents of the Crystal Waters Eco Village, which was established in 1987 and was born out of the principles of low impact and sustainable living.

If you’re a visitor and arrive mid-week don’t expect too much hullaballoo. But on the weekends there will always be a warm loaf of organic bread (on a Saturday), a cup of chai and a local Crystal Waters resident to natter with.

Driving towards Conondale the cicadas scream for us to wind down our windows and listen to the full throttle of their chant. We pass rusted farm machinery that sits immobile in paddocks, suspended in time. Monolithic fig trees stand statuesque in grazing paddocks.

I’ve been told that you could stick a walking stick into the ground here and it will grow. The earth is rich like dark chocolate and its no wonder farmers hold onto their land for generations.

We creep through Conondale, a one-horse town with a general store, public swimming pool and school. It’s noon and the air is quickly turning to soup and the bruised clouds in the distance resemble pieces of a puzzle threatening to join to make a storm.

We head north, driving deeper into the valley where we find ourselves flanked by the Conondale Range on the western side and the Blackall Range on the eastern side. The recent rain has been kind to the farmers and paddocks are swathed in knee-high grass that tickles the bellies of grazing caramel-coloured cows.

Eight kilometres before Kenilworth, we take a left-hand turn on to a gravel road that leads to the Charlie Moreland campground within the Kenilworth State Forest. Happy campers sprinkle the open, grassy camping area, which is dotted with soaring, pearl white ghost gums. Acting as a moat on one side of the campground is Little Yabba Creek with lovely swimming holes that beckon us to wash away the stickiness of the day.

As a keen horse rider, I’m delighted to find at the end of the campground day yards and wash down facilities for horses and trail riders. For mountain bikers, walkers, horse riders and 4WD enthusiasts the Kenilworth State Forest has more than a weekend’s worth of exploration.

We make a quick stop at Bellbird Creek Tea House, where owner Pete Cussack tells me that the series of S-bends before reaching his café is every motorbike rider’s dream. It’s a common day trip for bikers from Brisbane or the coast who will continue to ride through Kenilworth and either loop back through Mapleton along the Blackall Range or go further north through Eumundi.

Kenilworth is a charming, colonial-style town with a well-appointed art gallery in the main street, a two-storey country pub on the corner and real estate offices advertising tree change properties in their windows.

First stop is Kenilworth Country Food – better known amongst locals as the Cheese Factory – which was established in 1950 by the Kraft Corporation to produce bulk cheese. It closed down in the 1980s but two employees re-opened the factory in 1990 with the help of a local businessman and it has been making cheeses ever since.

Despite the factory looking tired and a little bit worse for wear, the taste of the sharp cheeses and creamy yoghurts make up for the poor appearance.

We have lunch at Nana McGinn’s cafe, which is owned by Leanne Keogh who moved from the heart of Caloundra eight years ago to live in the Mary Valley. Her timber deck is dotted with lunchtime diners slouching in comfortable deckchairs shaded by giant umbrellas. They make all their food from scratch, from the jams to the thickly crusted homemade bread. We try the delicious, coconut-laced lumberjack cake served with a freshly whipped dollop of cream on the side.

Before we leave, Leanne shares her favourite swimming spot on the Mary River: “Take Moy Pocket Road and it’s the first bridge, Mary Pickering Bridge – great swimming spot.”

We head for the river. At this particular crossing, the Mary River is swollen and fast-flowing from the recent rains. I tentatively step into her tea-stained waters, the river sand gritting between my toes. I catch my breath from the unexpected coolness.

I submerge myself from top to tail and instantly feel refreshed and invigorated. I’ve now been baptised by the Mary River with a deeper understanding of why the community fought tooth and nail to protect their valley’s lifeblood.

With wet hair still dripping, we pull into Kenilworth Homestead, which is on the outskirts of Kenilworth. The property is open to the public and there are a variety of accommodation options including camping on the banks of the Mary River to bunk rooms and B& B accommodation. Owner of twelve years Paul Barber explains that on the Easter weekend they have up to 1000 people staying on the property to enjoy their Easter celebrations, which includes a band and a trick horse riding demonstration by his daughter.

We visit the two swimming holes on the Mary River, which are available to guests and are dotted with families. Mothers wade in the shallows, adolescent kids kayak up and down the river and a boy swims across the river to launch himself off a tree rope.

With Kenilworth a reflection in our rear-view mirror, we drive towards Imbil where the pancake flat grazing pastures give way to heavy, forested hills with spring-fed dams sitting in their elbows. The road carves its way around the mountains, revealing a spectacular view of the lush valley below and the dramatic Kenilworth Bluff, which protrudes against the landscape.

Just after 3pm, as we reach Imbil, the sky finally gives in to the heavy clouds. Imbil is the largest town of the valley, which originally grew out of a robust timber industry and still has one of the few remaining hoop forests in Australia. We drive over the railway, which dissects the immaculate town in two, and I’m reminded of The Valley Rattler that departs from Gympie and visits Imbil as well as its hinterland compatriots Dagun, Amamoor and Kadanga every Wednesday and Sunday.

We drive over six Yabba Creek crossings before we reach the biggest drawcard for visitors to the region, the Borumba Dam also known as Lake Borumba. The man-made dam was constructed between 1960 and 1964 and was built across Yabba Creek. It has a surface area of 500 hectares and at full capacity holds 33,300 mega litres.

The dam creates a magical vista surrounded by emerald green mountains and woven scrub that marches to the water’s edge and is swallowed by the mass of water. I understand why fishing enthusiasts, boaties, water skiers and canoeists use this water mecca as their weekend playground. Graeme Rummler, the owner of the local fishing, camping and boating supply shop in Imbil says fishermen catch anything from golden to silver perch, Australian bass, yellow belly to saratoga.

Overnight visitors can camp below the dam wall in a well-maintained grassed area or three kilometres up the road in the Borumba Deer Park where there is a choice of camping on the banks of the Yabba Creek, caravans or self-contained cottages.

After Imbil comes Kandanga, which is the headquarters to the No Dam Information Centre, and is unfortunately closed by the time we reach the tiny town.

Here, house gardens spill onto the street.

The Kandanga Pub is a quintessential Australian pub and late on a Saturday afternoon there are two locals nursing their golden ales at the bar. Every Wednesday and Saturday, the Platform Markets are held at the railway station for a couple of hours to coincide with the coming of The Valley Rattler.

Next stop is Amamoor, a sweet little town that has an old-fashioned general store where lolly jars line the front counter. It sells everything from a hammer to a bag of sugar. In August, the town swells to gigantic proportions with 60,000 jeans-wearing, boot-scooting country music folk who descend on the village for the National Country Music Muster.

On the road again and we’re compelled to slow down to a snail’s pace while we read a sign attached to a boat that is sitting on a hay feeder in the middle of a paddock. The sign reads ‘Gone Farming. The Dam is Dead. Long Live the Mary.’

We both chuckle and admire the farmer’s sense of humour.

Long live the Mary.


The bushranger hold-up held at the Imbil Station every third Sunday of the month is an absolute hoot, the kids will ‘wow’ and ‘ahh’ at the guns that spurt paper and smoke into the air and adults will love the quirky humour of the volunteer actors.

Ian Harling of Ride on Mary hires bikes for $30 and kayaks for $40 and provides a pick up and drop off service and maps to all the local bike tracks and rivers. Kayakers are expected to float past kingfishers, lungfish, platypuses and wallabies.

Lasting Impressions Gallery is a beautifully appointed art gallery in the main street of Kenilworth. Owner and curator Kaye Cathro has a trained eye for displaying interesting artists.

On April 3, Kenilworth presents their local produce to the Sunshine Coast in a one-day cheese, wine and food festival. The famous Cheese Rolling Contest begins at 9am and will entail contestants rolling cheese along a grass pitch and through different obstacles.

words & photos kate johns







To view this article in our online magazine please click here: Falling in love with Mary