Most people heading to Queensland opt to drive the well-known Sunshine Coast, but you should head inland to find ancient landscapes, remote gorges and some of Australia’s rarest wildlife...
The instructions couldn’t have been clearer: “Turn left, follow the path down to the river and you should find them in the second pool along the boardwalk.” For a moment, I stared at the national park ranger waiting for his face to break into a ‘just joking’ smile.
I’d wanted him to shake his head, whistle theatrically through clenched teeth and suggest a hike – lasting at least a day – that would plunge me into some of Queensland’s toughest bush. Instead, my quest for a wild duck-billed platypus had been efficiently curtailed into a step-by-step guide. I’ve had hazier directions to international airports.
Feeling slightly ridiculous in hiking boots and snack-laden backpack, I left the visitor centre at Broken River in Eungella National Park and followed the ranger’s instructions. A pair of kookaburras cackled hysterically from a nearby ghost gum as I clomped confidently along the boardwalk, refusing to hold the handrail as if that might, in some way, lend a certain pioneering edge to the venture.
When I reached the second pool, I felt a small frisson of excitement. The water’s surface was smooth and flawless, like green satin unfurled beneath the riverside trees. There were no ripples or telltale trail of bubbles, no ‘plop’ of a diving platypus. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so easy after all… Duck-billed platypus (Shutterstock)
But suddenly there they were. Not one, but two of Australia’s most enigmatic and elusive creatures floating a few feet from where I stood. The first thing that struck me was how small the platypuses were – just 30 or 40cm in length. At first glance it looked like someone had chucked a pair of old brown slippers into the river. Then the fun began. No sooner had I swung my binoculars onto a platypus than it would duck-dive underwater, kicking frantically with webbed feet and wriggling its bill from side to side in an ungainly descent to the murky depths of the river. You never knew where it might pop up next.
A few days earlier I had waited with baited breath each time humpback whales performed a similar vanishing trick in the waters of Hervey Bay. My journey north from Brisbane via the Bruce Highway had been chokka with equally classic Queensland treats: the Sunshine Coast, Fraser Island and a jaunt to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
By the time I reached Mackay and realised that I needed to start heading back to Brissie, however, I had decided to shun the ‘default’ coastal route in favour of a more convoluted inland loop, one rich with the promise of duck-billed platypuses, echidnas, sugar gliders and other – supposedly – evasive Aussie critters. This would take me though southern Queensland’s remote gorges, spectacular escarpments and ancient landscapes: hidden gems away from the well-excavated Gold Coast.
Sugar and space
To be honest, backtracking along this alternative route wasn’t entirely tempting. Sections of this road are so long and relentless that the highway department has resorted to putting up road signs designed to keep drivers focused – and awake. ‘No kids, you are not nearly there yet,’ japed one, while another posted a trivia question (‘What is Queensland’s national flower?’) with the answer 15km later. The long drive to Eungella National Park (William Gray)
But this inland route back to Brisbane does have the advantage of joining the dots between some of Queensland’s lesser-known national parks, starting with Eungella – home of the platypus – just 80km beyond the suburbs of Mackay.
To reach Eungella (pronounced ‘young-g-lah’), I burrowed west into the sugarcane farming country of Pioneer Valley. It was harvest time and huge ‘cane crushers’ roved the fields chewing up the crop.
Hawks and kites wheeled overhead, swooping on hapless insects and lizards flushed out by the advancing machines; kookaburras squatted on telephone wires while large flocks of white egrets and cockatoos rose and fell above the sugarcane stubble like loose laundry. This was harvesting on an industrial scale. There was even a narrow-gauge railway laid out among the fields. Small electric locos hauled long trains, wagons piled high with sugarcane. Pinnacle Pub (William Gray)
I stopped at Pinnacle Pub, a local watering hole renowned for its pie and chips. It was hot – despite being a winter’s day in mid-August – so I sat outside on the covered verandah. A cane harvester devoured a field nearby, filling the air with mulch.
I spent several minutes picking the fallout from my mushy peas until a farm worker rolled up in a battered Land Cruiser. His hair and clothes were so full of sugarcane debris that it seemed overly fastidious to fuss over a bit of extra fibre in my food. We exchanged ‘G’days’ and I crunched through the rest of my lunch before driving on towards Eungella.
Sugarcane monoculture gave way to subtropical mayhem as I entered the Finch Hatton Gorge section of the national park. Named after Henry Finch-Hatton, a farmer and gold miner who settled in the region during the late 1800s, Finch Hatton Gorge is the antithesis of Pioneer Valley’s farmland. Rainforest trees, palms and ferns drew a green veil behind me as I drove deeper into the park, fording several tea-coloured creeks before the gravel track was finally snuffed out by a wall of vegetation.
Eungella National Park protects one of Australia’s longest stretches of subtropical rainforest. Numerous walking trails probe this leafy wilderness, but none are more rewarding than the 2.8km Araluen Falls track. In just a few strides I was completely enshrouded in a muted arboreal cocoon.
The techno whip-crack call of an eastern whipbird sounded from a palm-choked ravine to my left, while brush turkeys sifted leaf litter on the shadowy forest floor. The trail climbed gently for half an hour, weaving between moss-fuzzed boulders before reaching a lookout above the waterfall. Araluen Falls (William Gray)
But it’s the large clear pool beneath Araluen Falls that attracts the attention of most hikers who visit there. Wild swimming doesn’t get much better than slipping into the cooling waters of a rainforest rock pool deep in platypus country, floating on your back and gazing up at the jungle canopy.
As I explored more of Eungella National Park – driving high into the Clark Range and staking out the deceptively tranquil pools at Broken River along with their iconic inhabitants – I decided that it couldn’t be a bad life being a duck-billed platypus.
’Roos, roads and rain
Kangaroos, however, seemed to have a much tougher time of it. Heading southwest on the seven-hour drive between Eungella and my next destination, Carnarvon National Park, you couldn’t fail to notice the roadkill on the Peak Downs Highway. I shuddered each time a road train – one of the Outback’s ubiquitous triple-trailer trucks – thundered past, its ‘roo fender’ gleaming defiantly at the business end of 200,000kg of steel and testosterone. This was Skippy meets Mad Max in the most brutal sense.
At 270km, the Peak Downs Highway links Mackay with the mining community of Clermont. Eungella’s dense subtropical rainforest was replaced by scant eucalypt woodland, with a heat mirage jellifying the road ahead; clouds piled themselves in serried ranks across the huge dome of cobalt-blue sky, while the earth took on the rusted look of the Outback. Wolfgang Peak, from Clermont (William Gray)
Approaching Clermont I was jarred from the mesmerising monotony of the arid plains by the Peak Range – a cluster of 30 million-year-old volcanic plugs, including 572m-high Wolfgang Peak, which jutted above the gum trees like a worn tooth, half decayed and forgotten.
I pushed on south towards Emerald, stopping to refuel the car and grab another bottle of iced coffee – staple drink for the long-distance driver in Australia. “Try not to arrive after dusk,” the attendant told me. “There are lots of ’roos around when you get near Carnarvon.” Eastern grey kangaroo (Shutterstock)
Turning off the A7 Carnarvon Highway, with 40km of gravel track to go before reaching the national park, sunset was swamped by a colossal thunderstorm. Rain machine-gunned the windscreen as lightning flared across the clouds slumped over the tablelands ahead. The thunder was so loud I could hear it above the slosh of wet gravel beneath the car’s wheels.
Peering through the deluge, I tried to focus on the road. Without warning, a kangaroo bounded out of the long grass to my left. I yanked the steering wheel, felt a thud and glanced in the rearview mirror to see the myopic macropod nose-plant in the road, push itself upright then totter away.
When I finally arrived at the park’s Takarakka Bush Resort, the sodden wallabies were a sorry sight. Dozens of them loitered around the tents and cabins. It looked as though they were waiting for a chance to nip inside, out of the rain.
Entering the gorge
“It’s beautiful when it’s raining – it brings out the colours and the wildlife.” Nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of my bushwalking guide, Phil Porter, the following morning as we set off through light drizzle towards Carnarvon Gorge. Echidna in Carnarvon gorge (William Gray)
We followed a sandy trail beneath spotted gums, their trunks glistening blue and grey, like molten wax. Raindrops sparkled in yellow wattle flowers and clung to the fur of whiptail wallabies browsing nearby. Phil pointed out king ferns and cycads – living relics from the time of the dinosaurs – and explained how the sandstone now exposed in the 200m-high cliffs of Carnarvon Gorge was deposited in a huge river delta during the Jurassic Period.
Like Eungella, Carnarvon is an oasis in the semi-arid heart of Central Queensland. The 160 sq km gorge section of the vast wilderness park is not only a refuge for rare plants and indigenous wildlife, but is also a sacred, spiritual place. Our 10km hike through the gorge followed in the footsteps of the Bidjara and Karingbal people. Crossing a Carnarvon creek (William Gray)
Carbon dating of campfire charcoal deposits on the floor of Cathedral Cave – one of the key sites on the gorge trail – has revealed that Aborigines have visited this place for over 3,500 years. Their rock art adorns the walls of the towering wind-eroded overhang, a head-spinning montage of hands, boomerangs and nets stenciled in yellow and red ochre.
Even more spectacular is the 62m-long ‘Art Gallery’ where over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils and freehand paintings record generations of ceremonies and gatherings. Phil teased out some of the gems from this artistic treasure – evil spirits, fertility symbols, weapons, a clutch of emu eggs, a sand goanna scurrying across the rock face… Much of the art, he told me, related to Mundagurra, a creation ancestor who lay dormant underground, her belly full of all the animals, ready to burst open and populate the land. Carnarvon's rock art (William Gray)
As we retraced our steps back through the gorge, crossing and recrossing Carnarvon Creek over 30 times, we glimpsed some of Mundagurra’s progeny. Swamp wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos foraged beneath Carnarvon fan palms, their flouncy fronds unfurling above tall, straight trunks. Pied currawongs, parrots and cockatoos circled around the natural amphitheatre of the gorge, and we even spotted an echidna bumbling along the forest floor, poking its snout under bits of wood on a quest for ants.
One last stop…
I could easily have spent a week or more in Carnarvon, wildlife watching, walking and winding down but, after three nights, the road to Brisbane beckoned. A quick glance at my map, however, revealed at least one green blob between Carnarvon and my final destination.
Unfortunately, the drive to Bunya Mountains National Park was a washout: seven hours of torrential rain, endless cattle country and drive-through towns. I stopped briefly in Roma to visit The Big Rig, but I couldn’t get fired up about a visitor centre celebrating Australia’s oil and gas industry. My mind was still wandering Carnarvon Gorge, delving into the Aboriginal Dreamtime – the creation myths and stories that had fuelled the artwork in the gorge. View from Mount Kingarow, Bunya Mountains (Shutterstock)
When the Bunya Mountains ghosted out of the clouds ahead, it was almost a relief to drive into thick forest, burrowing once more into a subtropical tangle of trees and ferns. It suddenly dawned on me that I had been travelling in Queensland for over a week without so much as a glimpse of the coast.
Driving the long way back to Brisbane had involved an occasionally monotonous road journey, but it had shown me there was much to discover beyond the Bruce Highway; the journey inland takes you deeper through layers of recent and ancient history; a story written in stone. Red-browed finch, Bunya Mountains (Shutterstock)
Driving on through the riot of Bunya’s hoop pines, red cedars and strangler figs, my thoughts turned to possible wildlife sightings. King parrots and red-necked wallabies shouldn’t be difficult. But, having already crossed platypuses off my tick list at the start of the trip, I really hoped to finish it by spotting a sugar glider – that exquisite little marsupial with a knack for flying so gracefully through the forest. Perhaps the national park warden would have a few tips on where to find one…
Make it happen...
The author travelled independently, booking rooms directly. For a package, try Australia specialist Bridge & Wickers
; a tailor-made 15-day Queensland self-drive costs from £3,585 per person, including Heathrow-Brisbane flights, vehicle rental and pre-booked B&B accommodation on the Sunshine Coast (Culgoa Point Beach Resort) and Fraser Island (Eurong Beach Resort) as well as Eungella’s Broken River Mountain Resort, Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge and Altitude in the Bunya Mountains. A 15-day motorhome self-drive costs from £2,290 per person including international flights. Getting around
Car rental is available in Brisbane from all major companies, including Hertz
from around A$400 [£194] per week for a compact SUV (2WD is fine). Brisbane to Mackay by bus takes 16 hours and costs about A$220 [£97] one-way with Greyhound
Daytrips to Eungella NP with Reeforest Adventure Tours
cost from A$300pp [£145]. A five-day camping safari in Carnarvon NP with Sunrover
costs from A$940pp [£454] from Brisbane. Accommodation
Built in 1933, Eungella Chalet
has fine views and en suite rooms from A$90 [£43] per night. Takarakka Bush Resort
offers studios from A$210 [£101] per night and campsites from A$30 [£14] per night. The Bunyas
is close to the trails in Bunya Mountains and has two-bedroom apartments from A$140 [£67] per night.
Main image: Eungella National Park (William Gray)