Months of torrential rain, a 400-day fight to free a friend from prison, an orphaned baby wallaby, and three luxury tents to be stitched and welded. This was the journey to Nightfall.
Nightfall Wilderness Camp is serene.
It’s three luxury safari tents are nestled harmoniously in a Lost World paradise and the babbling headwaters of Christmas Creek play their soundtrack. The iconic world heritage Lamington National Park rainforest provides the artwork. There is no excess, or as owner Heidi Ross puts it, “no fake plastic bits”. It comes as no surprise that the boutique back-to-nature experience is proving to be exactly what people are looking for. The accommodation is booked out well into 2016.
But the tranquil oasis that Heidi Ross and her husband Steve have built is the calm after the storm. “Our journey hasn’t been a simple one,” Heidi told me, before undoubtedly proving this was an understatement. “When we started to build, it started to rain. Within the first four months we had all of our annual rainfall. Within eight months we had almost double our annual rainfall.” The record wet season meant heavy machinery wasn’t an option, and so Steve and his team of volunteers hauled the 180kg tent frames onto site themselves.
Everything else man-made at Nightfall is also from the hand of its owners. Heidi, who was born in Uganda, stitched the safari tents which she had envisaged would be similar to the tentage accommodation she had grown up around in Africa. She had once sewed a tent for her Southbank market stall and figured this would be no different. Steve had worked in construction so he took care of the welding. “There’s a bit of a saying that life sets you up for the things that are to come and I think that’s very true for us,” Heidi said, ever the optimist. “It was do it ourselves or get a million dollar mortgage, and we couldn’t get a million dollar mortgage, so we just said ‘Yep, we’re going to do it’.”
Almost immediately after the rain stopped, Heidi and Steve battened down the hatches at they faced the next storm – the arrest of good friend and Australian journalist, Peter Greste in Egypt. Once a journalist herself, working for the ABC out of its London office, Heidi was on the case. She had been Peter’s best man at his wedding; Peter’s mum Lois made her wedding cake and his dad Juris made the tables for Nightfall. Heidi ended up running the successful Free Peter Greste international media campaign for 400 days. “It got a little convoluted in there,” she said, again understating the enormity of her effort. “Nightfall was slowed by all of that but that can make for a richer product too, because you have time to think. Well, you’re supposed to have time to think. You have time to evolve! We haven’t had time to think that much.”
While Heidi and Steve were juggling Nightfall’s first “guinea-pig guests” and relentless calls from over 350 journalists across the world, their staff grew by one orphaned baby wallaby. Lillypilly was under Heidi’s constant care, even attending a press conference in Brisbane. Heidi laughed as she remembered how she had to convince an American journalist that this wasn’t “normal” in Australia. Lilly stayed on for a while as Nightfall’s concierge, but has since moved on to start a family of her own. Mister the Jack Russell remains in charge of guest relations.
As Heidi and Steve’s focus returned fully to Nightfall, the camp took root and blossomed in the Gold Coast hinterland. As it grew, there were always two main considerations – eco-sustainability and a unique point of view. Despite being the first luxury camp of this kind in Queensland, Heidi and Steve knew they would not be the last, and so they were determined that their details would define them. “For us it’s about individuality,” Heidi said. “Nightfall is not a hotel or a resort, it’s an experience. We wanted it to have a feel where when you walk in you go ‘Wow’. And then you continue to go ‘Wow’.” They have succeeded.
“Nightfall is not a hotel or a resort, it’s an experience.” Heidi Ross,Nightfall owner and host
Inside the canvas walls of the architecturally artisan tents are “layers of understated luxury”. Atop the king-sized beds are linen cushions from Reinventare, delightfully soft linen sheets from Cultiver, Scandinavian style towels from Linum and Luna Gallery’s delectable mohair blankets. There is the option of soaking in a vintage tin bath or luxuriating under the copper rain-head shower. A fireplace rotates in the centre of the tent. With timber floors underfoot and the option to raise or lower your walls, this is a level of luxury and comfort that camping has never known in Queensland. “Very often you wonder if you should just compromise and go with the normal chrome taps,” Heidi admits. “But I’m very glad we didn’t.”
Nightfall’s unique experiences don’t end with its homely designer decor. At night, Heidi and Steve begin the process of lighting 101 lanterns and spreading them around the creek beds so that guests can make the most of their natural setting. “We serve a three course fire-cooked meal on the rapids; we call it Dining on the Rapids, and with the lantern flames flickering against the water it’s quite stunning. It’s actually reduced quite a few people to tears,” Heidi proudly admitted. “We are not chefs by any means, but we use as local as possible but otherwise organic, fresh, seasonal produce and I think good food combined with fire cooking really brings out some incredible flavours.” Nightfall does not offer a menu – instead your likes and dislikes are taken into account well before you arrive so that a meal is personally crafted. The fresh and organic feasts can also be delivered to your tent as a Butler’s Basket, pre-prepared for cooking on your private BBQ or warming on your kitchen hotplate. Proving that they are the ultimate hosts, Heidi and Steve even wine-match your meal. And there’s an espresso coffee machine.
During the day, Nightfall guests can do as little or as much as they like. Adventurers can take on the 3 hour round trip in old growth rainforest to find the historic Westray’s Grave and Stinson wreck-site, or chase panoramic views with a hike to the tip of Buchannan Falls. Back at camp there is the option of a massage, private yoga and one-on-one beauty therapy in your tent or on the creek. Heidi recommended that one of the greatest delights on offer is simply to stop. “We’re so programmed to keep doing things that actually one of the hardest things is just to do nothing. Just to absorbs what’s going on around us.” I can think of no better place to stop, switch off and absorb.
While Nightfall has all of the romantic trappings of a private getaway, the camp just as readily cultivates a connectedness between like-minded guests. One of Heidi’s favourite experiences is when the communal tented lounge is “rocking with laughter” as guests huddle around the open fire in Winter. “We get all of the money organised and over and done with two week before you’re booked in, so by the time a lot of people arrive they already know the dog’s name, and they greet you with a big hug. They aren’t afraid to go to the fridge and help themselves with a drink or help out chopping the carrots or picking the veggies out of the garden. We just really really enjoy sharing the space.”
And Heidi and Steve genuinely do share the rainforest with their guests. “We live in a tent. I finally, in my forties, get to live in a tent and I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to a house,” Heidi laughed. “Hopefully I’ll never have to. There comes a point in many of our lives where we just get a bit overwhelmed by all of the clutter and all of the crap and all of the busyness so we’ve stripped all of that back.” Nightfall was built to Ecotourism Australia’s Advanced Eco-Tourism Certification criteria. “We minimise our waste, produce our own power, collect our own water and grow our own food,” Heidi said. “We actually live that sustainable life that we spruik about.” It was the clean water of Christmas Creek that attracted Heidi and Steve to the camp site initially and they intend on keeping it that way. “[Nightfall] has got views, but you can get views anywhere. You can’t get water that is so clean that you can drink it anywhere.”
“We live in a tent. I finally, in my forties, get to live in a tent and I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to a house.” Heidi Ross, Nightfall owner and host
Listening to Heidi’s passion for a sustainable carbon-neutral lifestyle makes it clear why the camp will only ever accommodate three-couples at any time despite being solidly booked. It is without a doubt a full-time job creating a fully-serviced experience for guest while also treading lightly on the largely untouched paradise. “People always ask why we don’t just build more tents, but that’s not what it’s all about,” Heidi said. “If you build more tents Nightfall becomes normal whereas now it’s intimate and very personal.”
At its core, Nightfall Wilderness Camp is a soothing remedy for when life is too easily filled by too much. Heidi, as someone who knows how to thrive with nature, puts it perfectly: “Really, what do you need? You need shelter and it needs to be shelter that feels good on the soul. Of course it needs to be functional too, but a 60sqm tent does that easily.”