I’ve visited Lamington National Park more times than I can remember, certainly dozens of times, and I’ve clocked up many hundreds of kilometres on and off the trail network. Every time we’ve driven up to that plateau on the MacPherson Ranges, we’ve felt like we’re entering a different world. Under the rainforest canopy our stress and our various quotidian concerns reliably slip away, which I guess is why we keep going back.
As long as I can remember I’ve felt gratitude for the vision of those men and women that worked to protect and preserve those ancient forests, but until reading through the Binna Burra archives on a recent visit I had no idea that one of the two men most directly responsible for the establishment of the National Park was a BGS Old Boy Romeo Lahey (1903).
Romeo was born in Pimpama in 1887, and attended BGS from 1901 to 1903. The family business was timber, and Romeo grew up with a deep appreciation for the value of trees, but not only in an economic sense. In 1915, in a paper for the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia he wrote, “only a very stolid, soulless sort of human creature can go unmoved among big trees”. Anyone who has stood beside a 700-year-old Brush Box, or a 2000-year-old coppicing Antarctic Beech, will understand the sentiment.
Romeo was writing as part of an intense four-year campaign to establish the National Park. He had effectively been passed the baton by Robert Collins, a previous local member, who was inspired on a visit to the USA by the gazetting of Yellowstone and began working to establish a National Park here, even though there was no legislation to allow it. Collins had campaigned for decades, had seen approval for the National Park granted and then quashed due to opposition from new local member J.G.Appel, and had all but given up when Romeo took up the fight. Romeo was tireless, writing letters, hiring halls to host dances to raise awareness, putting on “lantern slide shows” and riding his horse from farm to farm to gather signatures for his petition. At the same time, Appel was advocating for agricultural settlement in the area.
Romeo was in a hurry because Australians were fighting a war on the other side of the world, and he wanted to go. At the State Election in May 1915, the Liberal Government was defeated, and a new Labor Minister for Lands, John Hunter, was appointed on 1 June. He was presented with Romeo’s petition, and approved the new National Park. Romeo enlisted in the 11th Field Company on 26 July, and 19,000 hectares of the new National Park was gazetted on 31 July.
Romeo served in France and Belgium, was wounded in 1916, and returned to serve at Messines, Passchendaele, the Somme, Villers Bretonneux and in the final push on the Hindenburg Line. His brother Noel (1910) served in the same Company but died of wounds after Messines, and his brother John (1911) served in Egypt and at Gallipoli, as well as in France and Belgium.
After the war, Romeo married Sybil, and together they had three children. He worked as an engineer as well as in managing family businesses (including the saw-milling business), he was a joint founder and builder of Binna Burra Lodge, and he helped found the National Parks Association of Queensland, serving as its president. He died at home in Yeronga in 1968.
Interestingly, Romeo wasn’t in favour of naming the park after Lord Lamington (Charles Cochrane-Baillie), Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, and only found out about the name on his return from the war. Cochrane-Baillie had visited the future “Lamington Plateau” after hearing Robert Collins address the Royal Geographical Society in 1896 as part of the earlier campaign for the Park; the Governor was (and still is today) remembered by locals for shooting a koala during his visit. In 1915 Romeo had wanted the park to carry the local Yugambeh name that the area has had for time beyond memory, Woonoongoora. Maybe one day it will.
Postscript: Since writing this article I’ve been devastated to see Binna Burra Lodge burn down in the bushfires that have caused so much damage throughout Queensland.
Dr Michael Forrest '87
President, Brisbane Grammar School Old Boys' Association