Peter O’Reilly and his brother Vince ran O’Reilly’s Guest House on the Lamington Plateau for nearly 50 years. While he never really considered an alternative career, Peter doubts he would ever have found a job which offered so much pleasure, enjoyment and diversity.
Peter’s son Shane now heads up the tourist resort, and Peter hopes the business remains in the O’Reilly family for years to come.
Here he remembers his years at O’Reilly’s, the good times, the hard times and the funny times, the O’Reilly Family.
O’Reilly’s build retreat from the ground up
Guests arriving at O’Reilly’s
Peter O’Reilly yearns for the good old days. He admits he may be a little sentimental but he says his years spent living at O’Reilly’s guest house on the Lamington Plateau were the best of his life.
He moved there with his family when he was 11. He and his brother Vince grew up with a National Park for a backyard, spectacular views every way they looked, and thousands of hectares of diverse natural habitat to explore. In 1955 Peter and Vince were invited by their parents, aunts and uncles to take over the day-to-day running of the property.
They accepted the challenge and set about putting their own mark on the popular tourist retreat. Their first task was to replace some of the older buildings, which had stood since the early 1900s when the site was first settled by the O’Reilly family. The new structures were wind-proof, which was a welcome improvement given the strong gusts which hit the guesthouse at its 3,000 feet high position.
Both brothers soon married women who they met on the mountain.
Marriage and mountains
Peter’s first wife Karma was holidaying at O’Reilly’s with her sister. This girl from the city didn’t flinch at the comparatively remote and hard lifestyle, and soon she was happily ensconced on the mountain.
“You don’t appreciate it at the time but it would have been hard for her,” says Peter. “We lived in a cold bloody house in the hills.”
Together they had five children, while Vince and his wife Lona had 10 children. Karma passed away in 1996 and Peter has since married his second wife Annette, who he also met at O’Reilly’s. Annette was attending one of Peter’s annual and much-loved Bird Weeks. Guests who shared a common interest in birds used to flock to O’Reilly’s for a week dedicated to bird watching and bird lectures, delivered by some of the country’s foremost bird experts.
Peter says it was events like these which made a visit to O’Reilly’s unique and much-cherished for so many guests, in spite of the sometimes less than luxurious conditions.
“When Vince and I took over we were very keen for the place to go ahead,” says Peter. “It was a very homely place in the 1960s. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s people were very accepting of conditions. They had been through tough periods, through the war and no matter what it was like they accepted it, they had a great capacity to enjoy themselves.”
Guests didn’t flinch when they discovered that their accommodation had gaps in the walls which let the cold breeze in. They didn’t seem to mind sharing a place at the communal dinner table, nor did they mind the 25-metre hike to the outside, shared toilet facilities. In fact Peter suspects it was these ‘adventure’ elements which made a holiday at O’Reilly’s so sought after.
“People still come back and say ‘It’s still got that good feeling’ and I’m always pleased to hear that,” he says. “Things had to change, there is a much higher standard now than there ever was during our time. In our time the lights used to go out at 9pm because we were operating off a generator (electricity was installed in 1968), there were no self-contained units and the toilets were down the hill about 25m away. We always told guests to bring a torch for their stay.”
“Quite often the wind was blowing. We had a big open fire place in the communal lounge and the guests would have to go from there out in the cold to their room. We used to put a brick in the fire and wrap it in a bag for the guests to put in their bed except occasionally the bag would catch fire and the whole lot would be thrown out the window. People used to put up with that in that era, I don’t think they’d be lapping it up now. People still tell me, ‘oh but we had the greatest time’. It was a great era.”
In the early 1970s Peter and Vince built O’Reilly’s first self-contained units, which featured private toilets and shower facilities.
This was in response to changing needs of guests who now preferred more private accommodation. However, many of the old-time O’Reilly traditions continued. These included campfire nights and sing-a-longs at Luke’s Bluff, and packed lunches featuring none of today’s gourmet delights. Back then packed lunches were much more basic, but still well-received by guests. They featured billy tea, butter, bread, tomato, cheese, onion, meat, jam and honey.
“We gave them lunch and a billy in which to boil tea,” says Peter. “These days you wouldn’t be allowed to boil a billy in a national park. It was just a wonderful experience for people, sometimes the billy would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. I kept that going for years, there was a lot of pressure to change that but I wouldn’t. I believed things like the packed lunches and walks to Luke’s Bluff to watch the sunset and communal dinner tables were some of the things which attracted people to O’Reilly’s year after year.”
“People got to know each other because they shared a table together, that’s changed now, society has changed. We wanted people to come and enjoy the national park and enjoy the experience.”
One of Peter’s proudest achievements was the creation of the treetop walk through the rainforest canopy. He created the walk on a shoe-string budget and it continues to be a popular drawcard for day trippers today.
“Really that was a great step forward for us,” he says. “We really constructed it out of our heads drawing on a lot of volunteer labour.”
These days O’Reilly’s is a very different place again.
Three generations of O’Reilly’s
A new era
Peter’s son Shane took over in the early 1990s and has overseen significant development in the form of strata-titled mountain villas, a day spa and a winery. Peter is happy to let the next generation of O’Reilly’s guide and develop the resort to suit current times, just as his father allowed he and his brother to do. But Peter hopes no one forgets the hard work and tough times which the original O’Reilly settlers experienced during those early years.
“I just imagine what my aunts and uncles went through setting the whole thing up and then having to step back and let two young fellas take over,” says Peter.
“We had to do the same with our kids because if you’re going to stay on and say, ‘This is how it should be done’, then they’re not going to hang around taking advice from you. They have got more of an idea about what people want in today’s market than I do.”
* Peter O’Reilly documented his family’s history in his book The Spirit of O’Reillys, The World at our Feet. The book is available for purchase at www.peteroreilly.com