Ramblings in the Bunya Mountains

Getting there

The Bunya Mountains are the remains of an ancient volcano that rose out of the surrounding plains. Today they form the northern edge of the Darling Downs and are home to a relict rain forest that escaped the logging of the 19th century. Now protected by Queensland's second oldest national park (established in 1908), these slopes have the world's largest population of bunya pines, a species of Araucaria that can reach 45m in height and produces cones that can weigh over 6kg (take a very strong umbrella if walking beneath a tree during the cone-drop season).

View over bunya pine slopes to the plain beyond



Red-necked wallabies

Bunyas in silhouette

The edge of the rain forest

The Bunya Mountains National Park is only a couple of hours drive from Brisbane, which makes it a favourite weekend getaway for the urban dwellers - a cool escape from summer heat and humidity. We arrived on a Friday from the north, having just visited Carnarvon Gorge and, although it was still winter, weekend accommodation was hard to find on-line. However, we were lucky to get a comfortable apartment on the edge of the Park at Dandabah, where our neighbours included the local mob of red-necked wallabies. It was an excellent base from which to explore the different forests of the mountains and see the mighty bunyas up close in the wild for the first time.

Barker Creek Circuit plus (10.5 km - 280m ascent - 280m descent)

I opened the door and stepped outside - is this really Queensland? The sun was shining, but a glacial wind chilled my bones and I retreated back inside. Thus, the fair Nello and I headed off for our first foray into the Bunya Mountains wearing beanies and jackets, barely a day after we finished our walk in the Carnarvon Gorge in shorts and shirts.

It was but a short distance from our accommodation to the start of the eastern walks in the Bunya National Park and we left the open green clearing to quickly disappear into the dim light and quiet of the dense Bunya rain forest, surrounded by tall trees, vines and lianas, ferns and, of course the majestic trunks of the bunya pine. At least here we were protected from the wind, though the temperature remained distinctly cool.

A group of big bunyas

Into the deep shade of the rain forest

The massive trunk of a big bunya

Bunya pine high above the forest canopy

We were following the broad and smooth track of the Barker Creek Circuit, but not for long - at a junction we diverted to the Scenic Circuit, which took us downwards alongside a small creek to reach the Festoon Falls, now a dry season trickle over the dark grey rock. The track continued, following a contour across the steep slope beneath the dark canopy of rainforest giants and big bunyas, with their scaly smooth bark and the distinctive radiating silhouette of their canopy. Through the tree trunks we could glimpse a deep and lush green valley, thickly interspersed with bunya and hoop pine.

Twin giant bunya pines

A clearing near Pine Gorge Lookout

View over Pine Gorge

All of a sudden, the light brightened as we reached the edge of the rain forest and found ourselves in the grassy clearing of Pine Gorge Lookout, where we were greeted by a broad panorama from the textured green-shaded mosaic of forested slopes in the gorge to the distant lowlands in the east.

The track then meandered through more open and drier eucalyptus forest before returning to the cool moist shade of the rain forest, where we followed another creek back up, past dark frog-croaking waterholes and babbling cascades to the Tim Shea Falls. We had now rejoined the Barker Creek Circuit, following it as far as the junction to Barker Creek Lookout.

Bird's Nest fern in the canopy

A shady forest creek

Tim Shea Falls

Here again, we made the detour to leave the darkness of the rain forest and bunya, and reach a clearing where their lesser relative, the hoop pine grew. The lookout offered a somewhat obscured view over the lowlands to the north east and a view backwards towards the 120m drop of the Big Falls - probably spectacular in the wet season, but dry today. Still, it was a good place for lunch - sunny and out of the wind.

Deep in the rain forest

Bush turkey in the wild

Hoop pines near Barker Creek Lookout

Rejoining the Barker Circuit for the last time, we followed it around past the clearing above the not so Big Falls. Looking across to the forest slopes beyond, the umbrella-like profiles of the 60m bunya pines reached high above the rest of the rain forest canopy - impressive.

The green mosaic of rain forest

A grassy opening in the forest near Big Falls

Bunya pines soaring above the canopy

On the Barker Creek track

Paradise Falls

Then it was back into the deep green of the rain forest to follow a creek up its valley to Little Falls, more attractive than its bigger namesake with its pretty forest glen plunge pool, and up to the taller Paradise Falls, still a trickle, but soothing as it tinkled over a vine-covered rock face.

Looking 40m up into the canopy of a bunya

Another rain forest giant

Masive buttress roots

The pool at Little Falls

A couple of switchbacks brought us to the the top of the gully and the start of a more gentle and direct route back to the trail head. Here the forest seemed more open, sunlight occasionally penetrating and dappling the ferny floor.

The majestic bunyas became less dominant and other rain forest giants became the stars - those such as the red and white cedars with enormous buttress-roots and the knotted aerial roots and pseudo-trunk of the strangler figs, who start their life clinging to a host tree for support, only to eventually engulf it and become forest giants themselves.


Profile of a bunya

Between two bunya pines

White cedar being engulfed by a strangler fig

An old log-cutters cottage

Eventually we descended past yet more majestic bunyas to emerge onto the green grass clearing (and icy wind) at the trail head. I had enjoyed the ramble beneath the forest, but it is very difficult to adequately describe or even to photograph. The three-dimensional character, varied architecture and mystical atmosphere of rain forest can only be discovered by visiting it for oneself and the Bunya Mountains are a great place to start.

Westcott - Cherry Plain Track (9.5 km - 190 ascent - 190m descent)

It was another sub-zero night in the Bunya Mountains, so we were in no hurry to start our planned walk - besides it was going to be a relatively short stroll to explore a different side of the Bunya Mountains, the drier western side to be exact. So, it was 11am by the time we set off, as a band of billowing grey-edged cloud rolled in.

A jumble of rain forest vines

We drove the short distance to the Westcott Picnic Area and left our car to walk quickly up the narrow asphalt road that cut through the sub-tropical rain forest to reach the next picnic area - Cherry Plain. Here we left the road to follow the winding foot track back along the western perimeter of the Bunyas.

Heading out to Cherry Plain

Heading almost due west at first, we descended out of the rain forest and into a drier eucalypt forest, more open but with some elements of rain forest understorey. At a junction, we continued straight on to the Cherry Plain Lookout - following the edge of a deep valley cutting into the main range. Through the trees, we could catch glimpses of the cliffs below and the plains beyond, which was about all you could say for the "lookout" itself, a somewhat overgrown bend in the track.

Prickly pear invader

Never mind, we continued on through the forest, now drier and more open with little hint that it adjoined thick rain forest. It also lacked the silence of the dark rain forest, as the wind rustled the leaves of the more open trees and a more abundant bird life twittered in bush and canopy.

It was great to hear the occasional call of the whipbird that seemed to accompany us for most of the walk - so symbolic of the Australian bush.

Looking down into the forest

Prickly pears, invaders from the plains, were becoming more common as we turned off the track to head out to Bottle Tree Bluff, as was trackside rooting by feral pigs. I had hoped to see a bottle tree up close at the bluff, which wasn't the case, but this was the spot for views out over the western lowlands - it was impressive to see how the Bunya Mountains rise steeply out of the flat country around them. Nonetheless, in the absence of bottle trees, we decided to rename this lookout "Pig and Pear Point".

View from Bottle Tree Bluff over the western slopes of the Bunyas

Leaving Pig and Pear Point, we retraced our steps to the junction and began the long meandering walk along the western slopes of the mountains. The track had picked a contour and followed it religiously in past gullies and out past more rocky bluffs, beneath a forest of varying composition, sometimes rain forest, sometimes eucalyptus, often with bits of both.

The steep slopes of the Bunyas

Track around a drier bluff

The plains beyond

The walking was pleasant enough, with the occasional glimpse of the plains beyond, until it reached Koondaii Lookout, where a grand vista opened out beyond the bluff walls of the mountains to the fading plains beyond - a good spot for a late lunch.

Panorama of the western plains from Koondaii Lookout

All that was left now was a zig-zagging climb back up into the rain forest to reach Westcott picnic area and our car. Our brief exploration of this side of the mountains was over and it was fascinating to see how dramatically aspect can affect the vegetation.

One last stroll amongst the dark gullies and
rain forest giants of the Bunya Mountains

Bunya Mountain sunset

We returned to our accommodation on the wetter eastern side at Dandabah for one last short walk in the dark shade of the giant bunya pines - the weekend crowds had already packed up and were heading back to Brisbane and we could walk alone in the half-light solitude of the rain forest. After all, this was the reason for coming here and this was the memory that I wanted to take away.