Arthur Groom was a visionary man whose dedication, ideas and drive led to the creation of the Binna Burra Mountain Lodge. A plaque at the entrance to Binna Burra dedicated to Arthur says:
‘To a man who loved and understood the bush and found his happiness sharing it with others’.
Arthur’s son, Tony Groom, says this short sentence sums up his father’s life. Arthur Groom’s legacy and passion for nature lives on in Tony and his brothers Donn and Richard. Tony Groom reflects on his father, Binna Burra and the legacy of Arthur Groom.
Arthur Groom’s passion for Binna Burra
NATURALIST, author and Scenic Rim tourism pioneer Arthur Groom was an adventurer from an early age.
He grew up on a cattle property at Julia Creek, where he gained a respect for the land and learned the meaning of hard work.
His family later moved to Brisbane where he took his first job as a journalist for the Brisbane newspaper.
“He was an adventurer,” says Tony. “One of my favourite stories – I guess it’s true – dad and his family lived in this house on the side of Hamilton hill and he and his brother Jim decided to sail to America. They got in an old bath tub and launched it into the Brisbane River with a cooked leg of ham and a ruler to help them navigate. They got a fair way down the river but some way or other they got dragged back.”
Arthur’s journey to Binna Burra began with a trip to the neighbouring O’Reilly’s Plateau where he worked as a guide. During a long walk he discovered the peak where Binna Burra now sits and tried to interest the O’Reilly family in establishing another camp there. But they were already committed on Green Mountain, and so Arthur decided to do it himself.
His early vision was to create a place where people could stay and experience the beauty of the Lamington National Park. This place was not to be a five-star, luxury resort, its entire focus was to be on helping visitors appreciate the natural wonders which surrounded them. In a 30-page document titled, The Development of Brisbane’s Scenic Rim, Arthur shared his very firm views on this matter:
“The parasitical habit of useless formality must never be allowed to creep in along the Scenic Rim,” he wrote. “It is from formality that the average city dweller is fleeing and too often jumps from the frying pan of grinding civilization into the fire of expensive holiday formality. The very, very few who would demand the extreme height of luxury and brass-button service along the Scenic Rim are those who would shudder at the grandeur of its scenery and expensive buildings and furnishings, formalities, and service luxuries will never alter their outlook. “The experiment carried out at Binna Burra is worth noting. There, the policy has been liberal good food, comfortable beds in rustic timber cabins, cleanliness, and plenty of personal service and every possible assistance and explanation in sight-seeing at moderate and inclusive cost.”
It was a formidable combination.
Arthur teamed with engineer and road builder, Romeo Lahey and together they formed Queensland Holiday Resorts Ltd, a company which offered shares to anyone who was interested. The initial offering attracted small donations – times were tough and the world was in an international depression. In order to generate more interest Arthur and Romeo organised a month-long holiday camp atop Binna Burra in December 1933.
Meals and tents were included in the offer. Directors of the company decided if the idea was well received the venture had a future. Response was immediate and the 40 available places were booked out in days, prompting the directors to raise the number of places to 80. But Christmas brought with it incredible and ferocious storms which drenched the mountain top and hammered the camp with gale force winds.
The storm brought more than eight inches of rain, prompting Groom to consider disbanding the camp. But one female guest exclaimed: ‘What! Close the place down? I’m having the time of my young life. It’s just what I’ve wanted to do for years and years. Don’t be so difficult.’ Binna Burra Mountain Lodge grew from there. Later Arthur met and married Marjorie, the sheltered daughter of a Methodist Minister who was holidaying at Binna Burra with her sister.
“Poor mum,” says Tony. “When she saw this handsome charismatic man she fell for him. It didn’t work too well in the end, he was devoted to his job.”
Marjorie and Arthur had three sons, Richard, Tony and Donn, but they separated in 1948. Marjorie and Richard moved to Brisbane, while Donn and Tony stayed on the mountain with their father.
“I stayed here for some reason or another, I was never too sure why,” says Tony. “When I moved to Brisbane for high school all three brothers were together again.
“Dad did try to be a good father but he was just never there. Suddenly he would think, ‘I had better do something fatherly.’. Once he took us out to Murwillumbah for the day but I had this horrible teacher at school who tore strips off me the next day for taking a day off school. I had assumed that dad had told the school we wouldn’t be there but hadn’t.”
It is typical behaviour of a creative dreamer. Arthur was always writing, be it letters, books, articles for publications.
“Dad was a visionary, he was an entrepreneur, he was a creative man, he took photographs, he wrote books, he was a journalist,” says Tony. “He and Romeo were a good match, dad was a dreamer and a visionary but probably impractical, while Romeo was an engineer and practical.”
When Tony was 14, Arthur died of a heart attack, the sad, premature end to a lifetime of heart troubles. His heart condition was hereditary and had prevented him from going to war to fight for his country, something which he felt very bad about. In order to ‘do his bit’ for Australia he developed a bush survival training program for soldiers, showing them how to test plants, berries and wild fruit for toxicity.
“First you had to take the fruit and rub it on your arm, then on your lip, then on your tongue, then if it hadn’t caused any reaction you could take a bite. “His method for teaching soldiers how to live off the land anywhere in the world was very successful. Those soldiers came to Binna Burra to do this course. The army was so grateful that they provided a cook for the Lodge to cater for all the soldiers. I remember there were soldiers all over the place, one of my earliest memories is being thrown like a ball around a circle of soldiers. He felt really bad because he couldn’t go to war.”
Tony takes over
In the years following his death Binna Burra Mountain Lodge continued to operate but business was not good and was at risk of collapse.
And that’s how at the age of 21 Tony found himself following in the footsteps of a father he barely knew. It was a strange situation to be in, for a man who freely admits his father was an absent dad.
“We didn’t see much of dad, he was really wedded to the job,” says Tony, who now lives just metres from the place which sapped so much of his father’s time. “He was a typical absent father, gone before we got up in the morning, home after we went to bed. He was a man with a passion… in those days there was nothing here, the roads weren’t here – nothing – so you had to have passion to do what he did. We weren’t cranky about it, we realised what he’d done in that time, you can’t do everything, you can’t be a wonderful father, a lodge builder and everything else.”
Yet Arthur’s passion became Tony’s passion when his father passed away before his time.
“The place ran down for the next seven years after dad’s death,” says Tony. “The managers at the time didn’t understand what it was there for and the board decided they were going to close the Lodge. I was at the shareholder’s meeting and someone said, ‘Why don’t you go and run it?’. I had very fond memories of the place because I grew up here but I wasn’t a businessman, I couldn’t read a balance sheet, but I knew what the place was here for. Dad had always said, ‘All you have to do is give them a hot shower, a good bed and a good feed and let the park do the rest.’”
And in the early days of Tony’s leadership that was all he could afford to do. On his first night in the job there was just one guest, who offered to leave the ship which was obviously sinking. Tony begged her to stay and slowly but surely he and the committed but small team of staff built Binna Burra Mountain Lodge into the place which his father had always envisaged it should be. After months at the helm, the business turned around and Tony was able to undertake much needed renovation and repair works, replacing old buildings and improving facilities.
“The 1970s and 1980s were a boom period for the lodge, we renovated the old buildings, built new ones, built the teahouse, I just had a good team,” says Tony. “I was young and full of energy, I didn’t worry about taking a holiday for years.”
Along the way Tony met his wife Connie, a nurse who applied for an advertisement for a Lodge hostess. She had previously stayed at Binna Burra and when Tony saw her application he didn’t hesitate in employing her.
“We didn’t become an item until a couple of years after that,” he says. “I had just got a job as a weather observer in Antarctica and I went to Melbourne for training and we began this crazy courtship.”
They went onto marry and run Binna Burra successfully, along with their two children Lisa and David. Connie passed away in 2007 but Lisa and David continue to live at Beechmont. Lisa is now a member of the Binna Burra Board, and also runs an international tour company which leads walks through some of the world’s most spectacular national parks. Tony’s grandchildren are now growing up on the mountain and he hopes they will continue the Groom family involvement in the Lodge.
When Tony returned to Binna Burra he convinced his mother to come with him. Initially it was difficult for her but she soon threw herself into mountain life and Tony says her days living close to him and his family were the best of her life.
“Binna Burra is still run by the company which my father and Romeo Lahey founded with 650 shareholders,” says Tony. “Eventually I left as manager but stayed on as Chairman of the board and then our own tour company got so big that I resigned as chairman which was like chopping my right arm off, I thought it would be awful but it was fine.”
One of his proudest achievements while manager at Binna Burra was being able to fulfill his father’s dream of expanding the National Parks status to include the entire ‘Scenic Rim’ so oft-mentioned by Arthur. Prior to doing this National Parks status extended only to tiny pockets of land, with the threat of development looming over the remaining undeclared land.
But achieving this was by no means an easy feat. We produced this very beautiful document and we wanted to present it to the then Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen personally,” recalls Tony. “We went to his office and during the meeting I dragged his press secretary Allan Callaghan aside and said ‘What I really want is to get Joh out in the bush, camping for a night, no media.’. He said, ‘I’ll fix that and he wrote it in his diary.’.”
During those years of excess in Queensland it was unlikely that Sir Joh spent many of his nights camping in the rugged bush, but he didn’t complain about the mission. Tony’s aim was to help the Premier see first hand the stunning natural landscape which had captivated his father so entirely.
“The party included 3 members of the Scenic Rim Association, the press secretary Allan Callaghan, his private secretary Stan Wilcox, his pilot Beryl Young and Sir Joh, who flew the plane for most of the trip,” says Tony. “We flew around the Rim and he saw it all from the air, that’s what impressed him. We landed and spent the night in the bush, there was a howling wind and I stayed awake all night worried that a tree was going to fall on him. I thought we’d have to call it the ‘Joh Bjelke Petersen memorial National Park. But it didn’t worry him, he slept perfectly and agreed to extend the National Parks status across more of the McPherson Range and the Great Dividing Range. It’s quite a thrill to fulfil your father’s unfulfilled dreams.”