Taking you from rainforest to volcanic plateau in a few paces, Australia's new walking trail winds through one of the world's oldest and most diverse landscapes
Australia’s tiger snake is the third most venomous snake in the world. I didn’t know this when I was a mere footstep from treading on one on Queensland’s newly opened Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk, or I might have been a bit more flustered. Neither did I know that tiger snakes, according to my companion, park ranger Kerri Brannon, “can be a bit aggro”.
After a few moments the slender young male, sluggish in the cool mountain morning, slid off the path to sulk in the undergrowth. But it wasn’t to be my last Indiana Jones moment on this three-day hike.
Queensland’s six officially designated Great Walks are sited in some of the state’s most beautiful regions. All are accessible multi-day hikes with campgrounds or accommodation at the end of each day’s walking, and offer easier or shorter options so walkers can tailor their route. But what makes each of these walks truly great are the awe-inspiring landscapes they traverse – and the 54km Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk is no exception.
Completed in March 2008, the trail connects two national parks, Lamington and Springbrook, on Queensland’s south-eastern border with New South Wales. Just two hours’ drive inland from brash Brisbane – Bris Vegas to its detractors – Lamington National Park is a place so ecologically significant that it has Unesco World Heritage status.
The last part of the drive is uphill, for Lamington is more than a kilometre above the coast and contains a portion of the world’s largest stand of sub-tropical rainforest. Up here more than 900 plant species, 200 birds and 60 mammals thrive, not forgetting the 100 different reptiles and amphibians.
What makes Lamington special is the way its different habitats – dense rainforest, airy eucalyptus woodlands and even patches of grassland – interlock and interact. “Many specialised plants and animals only live here,” said Kerri, “it’s all about the altitude.” Wildlife-lovers in Lamington tend to behave like children in a chocolate factory.
The park’s altitude has another effect: no matter how hot and steamy it is on the Gold Coast, it will be 50% cooler in the mountains, which makes for comfortable walking conditions in Australia’s late summer. You can walk from east to west, but you’d be going uphill for most of the way – better to start in Lamington National Park and finish in Springbrook. So with that in mind, I pulled on my boots outside O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat at the trailhead and set off.
The sun had yet to warm the chilly mountain air and filaments of mist filtered through the vines, caressing the buttressed tree roots. It seemed primeval – because it is. The forests here date back hundreds of millions of years. They were part of the ancient continent of Gondwana, before Australia broke apart from Antarctica and South America. These cycads, Antarctic beech and hoop pine were once dinosaur food.
On day one we followed the well-travelled Border Track from the Green Mountains side of Lamington to Binna Burra, where another lodge has cabins and space for camping. This 21km section is the highest stage of the walk and skirts the edge of Queensland’s border with New South Wales; from the viewpoints you can see Mt Warning, the first place in Australia to receive sunlight every morning, and named by Captain Cook to alert sailors to the dangerous offshore reefs.
The walk started innocuously enough, with an encounter with a gaggle of unperturbed brush-turkeys, drawn to O’Reilly’s lodge to scavenge food scraps. But in general, unless you have sharp eyes or endless patience, encounters with birdlife on the trail tends to be in audio rather than visual. Paradoxically, this makes the birds easier to identify. Does it sound like the crack of a whip? That’s a whipbird. A rifle shot? That’s a riflebird. You get the idea. And if you hear a car alarm or mobile phone, that’ll be an Albert’s lyrebird, an elusive but accomplished mimic.
One easy sighting is the bowerbird: they build elaborate nests to woo females close to human habitation, relying on people for their decorations.The satin bowerbird, for example, only furnishes his bower with blue knick-knacks: bottle tops, scraps of plastic or paper – if it’s blue, he’ll have it. But drop a yellow flower into his bower and he’ll remove it in a flash.
Possums, too, aren’t concerned about nearby people, and at night a powerful torch can pick out the flash of eyes of mountain brushtail possums and the smaller ringtailed possums in the trees.
After a while we turned off the Border Track and joined the riverside Coomera Falls circuit, itself one of Australia’s most enjoyable day-walks. Here I met Rusty and Nev, two park rangers who put their backs into constructing the Great Walk. Nev helped build the 700m-high staircase on the Walks’ final stage, lugging 900 40kg concrete slabs uphill while being assailed by leeches. Rusty, laconic under his bush hat, explained some of the area’s history: “Some parts of the trail date back to the Depression labour of the 1930s and the 1940s when unemployed men and war veterans who found it hard to adapt to civilian life went into the woods to help re-adjust. They’d fill backpacks with rocks from the creek and carry them along the trails. It was hard, dangerous work – there were no safety harnesses in those days.”
You can see why they spent so much time and effort at Lamington – it’s an enthralling, beautiful place, with constantly shifting habitats. One minute you’re ducking under arm-thick vines in rainforest, the next watching out for tiger snakes in montane heathland or crunching through twisted scrolls of eucalyptus bark. As Rusty said, “in a world full of technology, it’s good to be immersed in nature for a few days.”
My first day ended at Binna Burra mountain lodge, but the natural history lesson continued on the second section of the walk, which connects Lamington National Park with its eastern relative Springbrook. An intense fragrance in the air turned out to be patch of lemon tea trees. A lattice of roots around a tree trunk was a strangler fig, imperceptibly killing its host over decades. There was also time for a geology class. The Great Walk passes between Turtle Rock and Egg Rock, the latter being a rhyolite plug in the vast, 23-million-year-old volcano that created this plateau.
The route then leaves Lamington and descends gently through logged forest and cattle meadows, which is where my second Indiana Jones moment occurred. Strung across the path at head height, one after another, were 3.5m wide spider webs, each patrolled by a golden orb spider the size of my hand.
No sooner did we reach the valley floor than we started the steep climb up Nev’s 900 steps into Springbrook National Park. This is another World Heritage area, an ancient landscape sprinkled with 500-year-old cycad trees. But man has had as much influence on the land as volcanic power, as ranger Michael Hall told me: “Aboriginal people burned the woods to create open spaces for hunting, leaving forest for shelter.”
Controlled burning is still an essential tool for defending the fragile eucalyptus forests from encroachment by the voracious rainforest plants. Once fire has cleared a space, it’s a starting gun for new life to race upwards to the light. “Some forest likes a light burn every ten years,” added Michael Hall, “other forest prefers a crowning fire up to the canopy of the trees every 100 years. A crowning fire can produce 100,000 mega watts of heat per metre – imagine 100,000 single-bar heaters in a single metre, that’s how hot it is.”
Michael was pointing out more plants and trees on the final day’s route past Purling Brook Falls, Springbrook’s crowd-pleasing 100m-high waterfall, when his eye was caught by a movement on a branch above us. After three days of prehistoric plants, millennia-old landscapes and deadly wildlife on
this fascinating walk, he’d spied one more little brown bird. “It’s a spotted pardalote,” he whispered. “I haven’t seen one of those for 20 years. Now that is special.” And so is Queensland’s latest Great Walk.
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