Ch.12 The Rock Bush Retreat

There has been a beautiful tract of forested land sitting, waiting, unused up on Mt Byron, behind Mt Nebo. Its fate had seemed sealed as an off-peak load generating facility (a hydro dam) as designated by Powerlink which had resumed the land for this purpose. This land is shrouded by rainforest trees that hide babbling freshwater streams and cool waterholes. It is a quiet, secluded spot and houses all manner of birds, plant-life and animals native to the area.

Travis – Mentor Spring 2003

Finding the property

So it was, that, when Chris Johnson was shown the property in 2003 while doing some signage work for Powerlink, he was astounded and immediately saw great potential in the site for use by Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (Queensland). Chris ultimately envisaged the site as a prospective retreat space, workshop space, healing area and function hire space for MHWA(Q) and others.

Powerlink had considered demolishing the on-site house which was somewhat derelict due to vandalism and had become a safety risk. After some negotiation, on November 3, 2003, Powerlink and MHWA(Q) entered into a lease for the land for a 3-year term at a nominal rent (if demanded). For its part, MHWA(Q) committed to the ongoing care and maintenance of the property and bushland. The lease was to be renewed on a 3-yearly basis with the short lease time avoiding any stamp duty. Chris Johnson’s dream was coming into reality. The lease continues.

The Rock property showing the boundaries and location of amenities.

Access to the land, which had been surveyed as 56 acres 3 roods 10 perches (just under 30 hectares), was through another leasehold and an adjacent landowner. Initial access to The Rock site was via an easement off Mt Byron Road near The Hollow Log. Crossing paddocks and creeks for a few kilometres, locals called it McQueen’s Road (in part) and Hayes Road (in part) . As a result of deterioration of this track close to the final destination, a new access track was created off Stirlings Road in late 2011 making for much shorter and easier entry to the site.

Some background about the property

The last owner of the land prior to resumption by Powerlink was Kerry Hayes. Late in 2022 Kerry, supported by his mother Thora, wrote of their recollections and memories of the time

The 56-acre block bounded by Byron Creek and including Diana’s Bath was originally one corner of a large cattle property covering a vast swathe of the valleys and rolling hills extending to the southwest. Stories of the rock pool in the mountains occasionally circulated amongst the kids at Somerset Dam Primary School. When he was 17 years old, Kerry Hayes, one of the kids who had grown up at Somerset Dam set out to find it. Scrambling over the rocks downstream from Diana’s Bath, he felt the deep connection that the place has evoked in so many people and dreamed of building a home there. It took some 13 years of getting to know the owners of the property, mustering and working cattle with them, but eventually they agreed to allow him to buy that 56-acre block.

Kerry’s mother Thora, in particular, was enchanted with the potential for creative expression offered by the unique and huge stone formations and she – with the help of two fellow teachers from Ithaca TAFE College – became the driving force behind the design and construction of much that was created there.

The cave was the first project and that began with drilling and blasting to shape the supporting rocks and expand the space. The expansion involved only the large rocks on either the side of the cave with the overarching roof rock remaining untouched. The visitors to the site would camp in the cave while they went about their tasks. It’s hard to imagine now but when that was completed there was a fully equipped kitchen with a combustion stove where bread was baked and leadlight windows in the stained timber wall sealing the back of the cave

The cave in the early days of the Hayes ownership

Later, the road was constructed to the top of the rock monolith overlooking Byron Creek and work began on the pole house. It’s a simple multi-level pole design cantilevered out over the void and built almost entirely from timber, most of it from trees felled on site albeit with a whimsical roll away roof opening to the night sky. There was a fireplace and piano, sheep skin rugs on the polished floors, and plants and artworks on the walls.

In those days the families who built the cave and pole house regularly spent weekends there driving from Brisbane over the forestry tracks from Dayboro or Mt Glorious. They were days of children’s echoing down the gorge from the pools and languid evenings of elaborate home-cooked meals, music and slow conversations.

For several years in those times there was one magical weekend each year in the warmer months when the Caxton Street Jazz Band drove up from Brisbane to perform on the cave stage. Campfires flickered across the flat and picnic rugs covered the slope in front of the cave.

With little by way of funds or knowledge available to them, the work in the cave took more than 3 years to complete. At one stage a local farmer advised on blasting the rocks. Thora recalls 120 blasts being utilised. There was plenty of assistance offered with bobcats used for clearing rubble some of which found use as a retaining wall in the kitchen space and on the retaining wall for the terrace. As there was always enough head room inside the cave there was no drilling or excavation of the overhead rock.

Cold room circa 2003 – long unused

At one stage an old cold room was moved to the site and used for some accommodation. It was set up with a roof, water tank, a single bunk and a desk and became a temporary base camp. Its location was in the vicinity of the current container. Kerry fondly remembers quiet study time there while a university student.

Just near the container is the remnants of a flat-top stump that was used as a dining table with other stumps around it used for seating.

It was also Kerry who built the Pole House on the creek site (Byron Creek) in 1984 (according to the date written into the concrete pad of the water tank next to the house). It was quite a complex construction with extensive assistance from Thora’s Ithaca TAFE cohort.

In 1986 Powerlink chose to resume the land, along with surrounding cattle properties, (Kerry Hayes was the only non-cattle farmer) for future use as a pumped-storage power plant. Kerry and Thora prepared a comprehensive portfolio of the property in order to obtain a decent price from Powerlink. Kerry and Thora rented the land for 3 years afterwards and were very sad to ultimately leave it.

Mick Earle, who inspected the site in 2003, commented years later: I am a chippie and I have a real appreciation for how and where the pole house was placed hanging precariously over the edge of that rock face.

Tim Easton, a builder, visited the land late in 2003 at Chris’ request to appraise renovation prospects of the Pole House: One of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen, he proclaimed.

Over time the house had fallen into dereliction and disrepair, especially after a previous lessee, Victim of Crimes Association, vacated their lease. Vandalism ensued and Powerlink considered the house was quite unsafe and planned to demolish it.

There is a story that most of the kitchen at the far end of this photo, including a stove, sink and bench was thrown off the balcony into the gorge below.

Addressing the vandalism of the Pole House was an early priority. Chris Johnson and Oliver Bergel negotiated with Powerlink to supply a lockable gates at the commencement of the easement near the Hollow Log and some 50 or so metres from the Pole House on its access track. This was to inhibit unauthorised entry and possible further damage to the house.

Tim Easton along with Chris and Oliver, set about rectifying the vandalism, including refurbishing and fixing the roof during a number of working bees.

Naming The Rock

According to Kerry Hayes, reference to the property as The Rock is attributed to the large rock that forms a roof over the cave space (now known as The Rock Kitchen). The name has persisted through the time of involvement MHWA(Q) and Mens Wellbeing. Over the years there have been additions to this space making it amenable for catering to large groups of users of the site.

The Rock Kitchen and terrace with large rock providing a roof

Pathways to Manhood connection

Pathways to Manhood was an Australia-wide group which conducted Rites of Passage camps for early teenage boys. Arne Rubenstein was the North Coast NSW convenor based in Mullumbimby. Andy Roy, Stephen Halsall, James Baird and others trained in Sydney as Pathways facilitators.

In July 2002 Ross MacRae participated in a Pathways to Manhood Rites of Passage camp with his son in northern NSW. He and two other fathers on the camp discussed prospect of a SEQ venue for the camps.

Ross had participated in MKP (ManKind Program) and Real Man activities. His strong desire to guide boys in life led him to become involved with the Pathways program. In 2003 he underwent training with Pathways and became a camp facilitator at camps in Sydney, Mullumbimby and subsequently, The Rock.

It seems that for Pathways SEQ group the task was finding a suitable SEQ venue for Pathways camps whereas for MHWA(Q) it was all about finding a function for this newly acquired asset. Andy Roy suggested that MHWA(Q) would be a good mob to manage the space with Pathways to be a user of the space. So there became a mutuality of purpose to ready the site for Pathways purposes. Along the way there may have been a clash of ideology at times however progress was made towards that outcome.

Getting the Rock into shape

Ross recalls a Pathways Dreaming meeting (Greg Warren’s term) in late 2003 where the Pathways SEQ team held a visioning weekend to work out if a camp could be held at the property. The team, comprising Ross MacRae, Greg “Ghost” Warren, Greg’s sons Jesse and Brendan, Andy and Caitlin Roy, Matthew and Juliet Middleton, Barry and Denise Dale, Chirone Shakti, Max Witsen, Tamsin Scott and Stephen Halsall, were all on board in sorting out what facilities were required. The initial list included: toilets, staff quarters (bunkhouse), roundhouse, kitchen and dish washing structure, fire circles, pathways and tarpaulin covered open space. Additionally, the house, due to the poor condition and state of disrepair, needed to be made safe and habitable.

Ross felt that with a mapped-out vision, he could steer the project and readily offered to do the work which he would fit around his four-days-on/four-days-off firefighter job while accompanied by his dog, Jed, a Staffy. Ross’ son, who became a carpenter, also gave a helping hand to the work.

One of the first tasks was to obtain a cheap container which was then located near The Rock Kitchen and continues to be used for storage of various goods and materials for activities at the site. A roof was readily erected over the container for protection and to collect rainwater into an adjoining tank.

Greg Warren described Ross as a fire-fighter, builder and all-round massive influencer in the early days. Using his building contacts Ross was able to access donations of a wide range of materials, tools, machinery (bobcat and excavator), from a variety of sources that were very willing to donate to such a worthy cause as the Pathways camps. In particular were trusses for the Facilitators Hut (later called the Bunk House) from Northside Trusses as well as timber, a ton of cement and thousands of dollars of goods from Don Slater at The Fastener Place in Morayfield and water tanks for the Pole House and Bunk House donated by a tank company.

A cast of many, along with Ross, Greg Warren and Mick Earle, carried out construction of the drop toilets, kitchen shade cloth, kitchen handrails, and the kitchen wash-house.

The Round House design was found and developed by Jesse Warren and built mainly by Ross, Jesse and Mal Ryan. Trees were cut to provide building materials. Ross found a stand of bamboo in the middle of the forest which provided material for the uniquely designed Round House with its self-supporting roof. Over time this structure has become a sacred space for ritual and ceremony.

Another significant structure is the circle of sitting stumps called the Fire Circle which was installed (with great effort) near the Rock Kitchen. It has become a place of significance for meeting, ceremony and ritual on a variety of occasions

At a meeting between Chris Johnson and Arne Rubenstein in 2005 an agreement was negotiated for use of the site by SEQ regional Pathways group for conduct of the Pathways to Manhood camps. The Pathways Foundation were not interested in the logistics of a venue but were willing to hire the site. For the SEQ locals it was how good to have this in Queensland. The first camp got underway in July 2006 and was run on a wing and a prayer, but was a resounding success according to Greg Warren.

With his horticulture background, Trevor Ozanne was ever alert to problem plants. He has observed that:

Because most of the 30 ha site was never cleared, the original vegetation seems intact. Weed problems have been introduced when cattle were allowed to wander through, and the lantana would have been dropped in as seeds by the native birds. Working bees utilised a number of “lantana controllers”, including machete-wielding David King, to curb the weed’s encroachment on the more public areas for the safety of the clientele.

Madeira Vine and Cockspur Vine are also evident and require monitoring of their incursion on the site.

Ongoing additions, upgrades and shaping of the site

In March 2009 Oliver Bergel and helpers constructed a cob oven outside the kitchen. In recognition of Chris Johnson “finding” the site and his vision for its future utilisation by MHWA(Q) Oliver scratched the following into the top of the oven dome:


It has become a well appreciated asset of The Rock.

Oliver Bergel standing by his good works ….. the new wood-fired pizza oven he and a few hearty men built at The Rock.

It has been said that men are inclined to show love through acts of service.

Thank you, Oliver!

From Mentor, Autumn 2009

John Dash (part of the Pathways SEQ crew) donated $10000 directly to Pathways in order to construct an undercover eating area (Dining Hall) next to the kitchen. This money was then funnelled to MHWA(Q) and the task of construction coordinated by Oliver Bergel and Chris Johnson with support of various members of both the Pathways and MHWA(Q) communities. Construction took place over three weekends in June, July and August 2010 with a portable mill used to mill timber on site. Pathways was subsequently given two fee-free years use of The Rock venue.

In January and February 2012 working bees organised by Chris Johnson were held to build a shower block alongside the Bunk House as well as transport and assemble double bunks for both the Pole House and the Bunk House. Due to some heavy rain in the preceding weeks some cars were bogged and the bunk beds had to be off-loaded and ferried to the site. Andy Roy and his two boys carried out this task. Completion of this project thus allowed for 40 men to sleep with some comfort and with another 10 men camping meant that the site could accommodate and feed 50 people. At this time tables and chairs were provided to the recently completed Dining Hall.

The Open House is an impressive structure and a replacement to a previous bush structure that was compromised by termites. Tim Easton coordinated its construction with the help of about 20 volunteers over a 4-week period around March 2017. It provides a good deal of ready shade and shelter for meetings. The names of Trevor Ozanne and Robert Ah Hoon are carved into one of the 200mm diameter posts in recognition of their funding of the project.

Following deterioration in the condition of the timber exterior of the Pole House, Tim Easton in February 2019 completed painting the exterior assisted by two friends from Brisbane Bushwalkers who had the necessary rope skills to undertake the job. This task was funded by Robert Ah Hoon who has been a most generous benefactor of The Rock.

In 2020-21 Mens Wellbeing won a grant of $32,500 from the Gambling Community Benefit Fund through the efforts of Daemon Singer. This enabled both the replacement of a large shade structure at The Rock Kitchen and a substantial upgrade of the solar power systems on the site.

During 2021-22 Mens Wellbeing benefited from the generous support of businesses who appreciate our work for the community. Evakool of Caloundra have given very competitive pricing on two large 12 volt chest fridge/freezers now being used at The Rock, and SolarMart of Maleny have provided exceptional advice and support for the hardware needed to upgrade the solar power systems at The Rock.

Working bees

As time went by there were many working bees to advance development of the site. These hubs of activity were fun occasions often with family involvement according to James Baird.

From 2006-2010, Pathways SEQ community held many working bees to continue building and sustaining the site. This function and responsibility transferred to Mens Wellbeing in 2010 when the Pathways Foundation underwent change in its operational and management structure. As a result, many Pathways SEQ community members withdrew their involvement from the organisation. This situation saw the establishment of Powerhouse Programs by Andy Roy and Stephen Halsall which, amongst other activities, commenced conducting Journey to Manhood rites of passage camps for teenage boys conducted in a similar vein to Pathways to Manhood camps.  

Over the years working bees have continued on a regular basis under the guidance of the current “Custodian of the Rock” undertaking maintenance, repair and upkeep of the space as well as preparing for usage by the various users. These custodians have included Chris Johnson, Greg “Ghost” Warren, Tim Easton and Charles Buffett who have each expressed their passion for the site through their extensive efforts.

The task list for the June 2022 working bee organised by Charles included: restocking firewood for Rock Kitchen, Camp area and Pole House, mowing, brush cutting, cleaning gutters, road repairs, oiling the creek stair handrails, and more.

In April 2021 after some 15 years of life the Round House met its demise largely due to rotting timbers. Under the guidance of Charles with a team of helpers from Mens Wellbeing and MKP the structure was replaced on the weekend of 8-10 October 2021. The construction is a reciprocal roof design (as was the previous one) which provides a self-supporting circular roof. The existing wall post stirrups (concreted into the ground) and roof tarp were re-used as well as the central opening roof cover. New treated logs were used for the wall posts and roof beams giving a further life expectation in excess of another 15 years.

Men from the Centre for Men Australia (CFMA) and the ManKind Project Queensland (MKP) have long been a part of the working bees out at the Mens Wellbeing property known as The Rock (because they love the property as much as we do and they hire it on a regular basis), plus there has always been a cross pollination of members who move between our respective organisations.

Users of the Rock

Apart from many working bees where repairing, constructing, reshaping, care-taking, and weeding activities took place, The Rock has been utilised by a wide variety of visitors whilst under the stewardship of MHWA(Q) and Mens Wellbeing:

  • Pathways to Manhood Rites of Passage camps for teenage boys conducted by the Pathways Foundation;
  • In 2007 & 2008 there were weekend gatherings to give those experienced in men’s work the opportunity to talk, engage, and be with other men in a powerful nature space. “A time to take stock of who and where you are as a man,” was the theme;
  • Journey to Manhood Rite of Passage camps for teenage boys conducted by Powerhouse Programs
  • Mens Wellbeing and MKP (ManKind Project) staged a “Helvetii” (a confederation of tribes) over weekends in October 2012 and February 2013 to discuss a greater community identity;
  • Koala ecology research was conducted under the guidance of Bill Ellis from the University of Queensland School of Agriculture and Food Science;
  • In 2015 the first annual Bedrock weekend gathering presented by the Mens Wellbeing Elder’s Circle and has continued annually;
  • Bonding sessions for Manshine and Manhood Organising Committees;
  • Executive Committee planning weekends;
  • AGMs for Mens Wellbeing;
  • Forged – a Younger Men’s Rites of Passage conducted by Centre for Men Australia;
  • Men’s Soul Connection retreats conducted by Soul Paths;
  • Breath Connection retreats conducted by Dan Hanson;
  • Bushwalking groups;
  • Home schooling group;
  • Some MW members seeking personal retreat and solace.

The Rock site has been in demand due to its uniqueness, its back-to-nature feel, and its remoteness. Its popularity resulted in hiring income in excess of $15,000 for the financial year ending 30 June 2021. These funds are treated as consolidated revenue available to support all aspects of the organisation’s activity.

Over the lifetime of The Rock much of the effort involved in obtaining the right to access the site, the building and development of the site and the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of resources onsite have been contributed by numerous organisations and many, many more individuals doing their bit to build such a wonderful community resource. Mens Wellbeing and its benefactors have contributed the majority of funds to establish the site at different times. Pathways and Powerhouse Programs have maintained the container asset register which over the years depreciates, wears out or is used and in turn replaced.

Esteemed Visitors

Dr Warren Farrell, noted American author of The Boy Crisis and The Myth of Male Power was hosted on a visit to The Rock by the Mens Wellbeing Elder’s Circle and was initiated as an honorary Elder of Mens Wellbeing. Dr Farrell had been the keynote speaker at the 2013 Australian Men’s Health Forum’s National Men’s Health Gathering held at the Brisbane Convention Centre in October. Mens Wellbeing was the host agency for the gathering.

Early in 2020, Auntie Edna of the Jinibara nation accompanied by Jason Murphy, visited The Rock by invitation along with Mens Wellbeing Elders Warren Huck and Mike Mee as an initial endeavour to forge a connection with the local indigenous custodians of the land. The intention of the visit, organised by Michael Wearing of Maleny, was to explore a partnership between the Jinibara people and Mens Wellbeing focussed on The Rock space. Additionally, Jason’s cousin, BJ Murphy, has visited The Rock for a working bee. The interaction continues.

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