Years ago I was in the South of France on an overcrowded beach not far from St Tropez. Every now and again, a young man would walk along, rather like an ice cream seller in a cinema, shouting what sounded like, 'banya pommes: banya, banya, banya; pommes, pommes, pommes'. It could have been 'Ban the bomb' or 'pain aux pommes', but I never found out because I never bought what he was offering. Bizarrely, I remembered him as we drove to the Bunya Mountains for a long weekend.
This National Park is Queensland's oldest, dating from 1908. It has both wet and dry rainforest, open eucalypt woodland, and grassy interruptions known as 'balds'. Deep in the forest you'll find the world's largest stand of Bunya Pines, with their distinctive domed tops, as well as rare and threatened plants and animals. We saw creatures we've never seen before on our Oz travels.
Conifers are thought to have replaced big ferns about 200 million years ago. The mountains are much more recently formed – 30 million years ago – and are the remains of a shield volcano. Lava flows cooled into basalt, which was eroded into the fertile red soils of the South Burnett.
The Bunya Pine produces cones the size of footballs that contain edible seeds called nuts. The Aborigines of the Bunya Mountains and the Blackall Ranges to the northeast used to invite many other Aboriginal peoples to join them in celebrating the Bunya nut harvest. These 'Bunya festivals' could last a while: they provided a chance to meet up with old friends, sort out disagreements and share stories. Young Bunya nuts would be eaten raw while mature ones were roasted over a fire and the kernels ground into a meal that was then used to bake cakes. Nut roasts were the main source of food rather than hunted animals.
The last Bunya festival was held sometime in the late 1800s, when white settlement was invasive enough to interfere with Aboriginal pathways and practices. With settlers came timber-getters keen to get their hands on red cedar and other tall trees in these mountains.
The National Park is in a remote part of the Great Dividing Range, about three hours from Brisbane. We took a slightly less obvious route than the quickest, via Dalby. Turning off the Warrego Highway* on to the Brisbane Valley Highway, we coffeed in Fernvale, 8km south of the Wivenhoe Dam and one of the towns whose names I associate with the Flood earlier this year. There's a wide main drag bordered by traditional Queenslanders as well as commercial outlets.
My route took us up the western shore of Lake Wivenhoe via Esk to join the D'Aguilar Highway to Yarraman. Landslides severed this road where it climbs the Balfour Range after the Big Wet last summer and major roadwork continues. Traffic is currently held for half-hour stretches in each direction prior to single-lane access through the massive landscaping operation.
If you look carefully you will see an Aussie bloke baring his chest when he spotted me taking the picture above. Hmm.
Yarraman stands at the top end of the New England Highway, which we briefly took south as far as Maidenwell. There we gave a lift to a thin man who had lost his driving licence and was walking to Kingaroy, which was far enough away when our ways parted to render him thinner still. For us, a steep and winding road climbed up to the Bunyas. It was unsealed for a few kilometres but is fine for those without a 4x4.
At the eastern end of the National Park is the Dandabah visitor area. Red-necked Wallabies, used to campers and trampers (bushwalkers), hang out there. They're small-scale and pretty and soft-furry.
We chose to walk the Scenic Circuit, which is 4km long and estimated to take one hour 20 to complete. Needless to say, it took us much longer, but for the best of reasons. We realised from the outset that there was more bird activity than on any previous forest walk. We not only heard Eastern Whipbirds and Green Catbirds but saw them, too. The Whipbird is a very vocal yet elusive creature, but I saw one sitting on a branch and could clearly see its throat moving while it was whipcracking away. The Catbird's extraordinary cry – a cross between a cat yowling and a baby wailing – was all the more striking as one sat directly above me on the path. In our very own Bird World we also saw Satin Bowerbirds (a male and his hareem, below), Yellow-throated Scrubwrens, a Red-backed Fairy-Wren, Rufus Fantails (below but one), a Pheasant Coucal (below but two), Australian King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas.
In the creeks and pools we spotted the enormous tadpoles of the Great Barred Frog, whose fairly loud 'wark' we mistook for an Aussie bloke nearby. In fact, there were few other walkers, to our delight.
Some Bunya and Hoop pines were massive, and one Strangler Fig so huge the track passed through it.
Beneath the towering pines were many varieties of fern, vine and Strangler Fig tangles, and familiar (European) stinging nettles as well as Stinging Trees.
Other watery delights included the Festoon Falls and what looked suspiciously like autumn leaves.
We stopped for lunch at Pine Gorge Lookout. Here, as well as fine views over Bunya domes, was a 'bald', a naturally occurring grassland of temperate plants preferring cool conditions – it was about five degrees cooler up on the mountain than down in South Burnett – butting right up to the forest. Balds were once more numerous, but many were overrun by trees in the second half of the 20th century. This may have been because traditional Aboriginal land management techniques such as regular burning ceased during that time. In addition, some areas have unfortunately been built on by selfish view-seekers with a bob or two. All in all, the balds are now considered an endangered regional ecosystem.
There are rare grasses in these meadows: one blue grass grows only in the eastern Darling Downs. The open outlook offered far vistas to the northeast.
Although we were staying almost an hour away – north of Kingaroy on the Booie Range – we were drawn back to the Bunyas the next day, this time for a walk on the western side of the forest, starting out from Burton's Well.
Here the forest was mainly eucalyptus and was more open and sunny beneath the canopy. But we missed the fern-filled creeks and wondrous birdsong, and had to conclude that this walk was not as interesting as its wetter counterpart in the east. How glad I am that we persevered to the Ghinghion Lookout, however. By then the woodland included cacti and the stunning view induced a Leichhardt moment**.
Basking on the wooden lookout platform was a Monitor Lizard. We didn't want to disturb him – he was so relaxed – so we waited patiently for our turn on the platform. Eventually he wanted to be on his way: we stood aside so he could make his escape.
As you leave the National Park headed for Kingaroy, the landscape constantly evolves. Grass Trees dance in formation; blueish eucalypts contrast with their greener neighbours; spring flowers and smart grasses create colourful borders; and remnant Bottle Trees stand proud on the plains. A Dingo pup stood in the middle of the road as we came down the mountain.
The Queensland Government's park guide to the Bunya Mountains describes Bunya Pines as 'an age-old symbol of nourishment and of coming together in harmony'. Apparently, the tree symbolises home for many Australians, Queenslanders in particular, and even features in the foyer of Parliament House in Canberra. The largest remaining stand of these majestic trees is certainly a special place.
Post script: ticks (rather than leeches!) can be a problem in the Bunya Pine rainforest. They attach themselves to skin by burying their mouth in it, causing irritation and disease. So, apply insect repellent and wear a hat even though you're not walking in the sun. Make sure you check each other for ticks after your walk.
* Do not be confused: as with many main roads in Australia, the Warrego Highway has several guises – the Darren Lockyer Way (after recently retired Brisbane Broncos and Australia rugby league captain), the A2 and the 17
** see That man again, November 2011
This post was last updated on 6 December 2011