Walking into camp after a long but beautiful day on the trail, I’m faced with a difficult decision: to retrieve my camera from my daypack to capture the incredible views across a natural amphitheater, or accept the flute of sparkling wine offered by smiling lodge host Ricky Van Zwieten. The light will be better later on, I convince myself.
A five-day, 37-mile guided hike through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests, Queensland’s Scenic Rim Trail is the latest addition to the Great Walks of Australia — a collection of guided treks in the nation’s most extraordinary wilderness areas. First delayed by 2019’s deadly bushfires, then by the coronavirus pandemic, Queensland’s first luxury multiday hike quietly opened in mid-2020. While in-the-know hikers have been lining up to book it ever since, the experience is arguably becoming more scenic, as the rain forest continues to recover from the fires, which affected some parts of the trail.
“When we first started, there were a lot of sections that were in grayscale,” explains Hayden Goldstraw, one of two guides leading our party of 12 along the trail in Main Range National Park, one of more than 30 national parks and reserves comprising the Gondwana Rainforests. “I’ve been surprised by how quickly the forest has bounced back.”
Low Impact, High Comfort
The mountainous region of southeast Queensland, known as the Scenic Rim, is home to four of the 30-odd national parks that comprise the ancient Gondwana Rainforests. Tracing a ridgeline in Main Range National Park, the Scenic Rim Tail is linked by a renovated farmhouse and two state-of-the-art eco camps. The result of seven years of planning, the off-grid eco camps are as low impact as they are luxe, complete with chic shared washrooms accessorized with eco-friendly amenities, and huge louvered doors in each cabin that open onto a private deck overlooking the rain forest.
“Sustainability underpins the entire experience,” says Claire Baguley, Spicers’ sustainability, product, and design manager. “We tested four different showerheads, just to make sure they did what it said on the packet, because every single liter is critical for us.”
The five-day Spicers Scenic Rim Trail begins with a night at Spicers Hidden Vale, a heritage country lodge just over an hour’s drive southwest of Brisbane. But the physical trail, which takes four days to hike, is also publicly accessible, as part of Spicers’ agreement with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Park camping rates are just AUD $6.75 ($5 USD) per person per night. With public campsite facilities limited to composting toilets and rainwater tanks, it’s a markedly more adventurous undertaking.
On the first afternoon of the Spicers’ experience, hikers visit the multimillion-dollar Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre, a partnership with The University of Queensland, to learn about local wildlife conservation. A koala-spotting bushwalk following the visit enjoys a high success rate, thanks to the radio collars fitted to a local population for research purposes (we spotted two).
Koalas, a species vulnerable to extinction well before Australia’s Black Summer, have returned to the fire-ravaged bushland near the trailhead, a short drive from Hidden Vale. In early 2020, our ascent to the ridgeline through a nature reserve would have been bleak; now, the bursts of bright green epicormic growth on the charred tree trunks and the thickets of pioneering plants brighten the way.
The first day on the trail is also the steepest, but with our overnight bags shuttled ahead along backroads by lodge hosts each day, the experience is manageable for walkers ages 15 and up with a reasonable level of fitness. With group sizes capped at a dozen, it’s an intimate affair.
After a night of gourmet food and free-flowing wine at Mount Mistake Farmhouse on the edge of Main Range National Park, our group sets off on the heels of our guides. The landscape changes abruptly, blackened bush giving way to the verdant oasis of Gondwana. Towering rain forest trees are carpeted in neon mosses, furry lichens, and vibrant orange fungi. We peel off for a little shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the Japanese concept of embracing the healing powers of nature. Breathing in the rain forest air, I instantly feel my cortisol levels drop.
The trail also provides a window into Australia’s pioneer history, when 19th-century “timber getters” arrived to harvest Gondwana’s prized red cedar. We pass the remains of a jinker (a wheeled trailer) and a winder, a giant winch used to lower logs down the ridge. Neatly curled on top is an exquisite (and harmless) diamond python, warming its beautifully patterned body on the rusting metal.
The timber getters’ history is hardly the only one to tell here. At a lookout across a magnificent natural amphitheater, Goldstraw tells us the story of Multuggerah, an Aboriginal warrior who led a resistance army to defend the Jagera nation against British settlers in a series of conflicts known as the Battle of One Tree Hill, one of the largest battles of the frontier wars, the mass killings of Aboriginal people that occurred across Australia. Beginning with an acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians past, present, and emerging, the guided hike encourages visitors to pay respect to the continuing connection between local Aboriginal people and these lands.
We spend the night at the nearby Amphitheatre Eco Camp, an elegant complex of double and twin sleeping cabins linked to a central lounge and dining pavilion, where Van Zwieten serves up another three-course feast showcasing local produce. Weaving past stunning lookouts and lush waterfalls, the hike to the Timber Getters Eco Camp on day three is arguably the most scenic. However, the trail also passes through areas where the wildfires penetrated Gondwana, likely more deeply than ever before — a sobering example of the impact the climate crisis has on the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems.
Beyond the Trail
After hiking down to Cunninghams Gap for one final night at Spicers Hidden Peaks Cabins, you can opt to shuttle back to Hidden Vale via helicopter. But instead of heading straight back to the city, it’s well worth spending a few more days exploring this hidden corner of regional Queensland, which is full of stories of regeneration and innovation.
The Black Summer fires may have destroyed the historic main building of Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park to the southeast, for example, but watching the sunrise over the forest from my room in the Sky Lodge, Binna Burra’s now-reopened modern wing, proves that this iconic retreat is still a superb place to stay. Most of the park’s hiking trails have now reopened, and lodge chairman Steve Noakes is hoping to unveil Australia’s first via ferrata climbing route by the end of the year.
In the valleys below, the fertile farmlands of the Scenic Rim produce some of the state’s finest produce — and wine. O’Reilly’s Canungra Valley Vineyards, The Overflow Estate 1895, the Scenic Rim Brewery, and Kooroomba Vineyard and Lavender Farm are just a few more must-stops on the unofficial Scenic Rim food and drink trail. You can also sample camel feta at Summer Land Camels, a uniquely Australian sustainable farming initiative. And thanks to new Gold Coast-based tour operator Kiff & Culture, the cellar doors and restaurants at Tamborine Mountain are now even more accessible.
With tourism icons like the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest to compete with in Queensland, it’s easy to understand how the Scenic Rim has stayed under the radar. Though now the region has been crowned by a luxe hiking experience with so much to teach us, perhaps we should all be lining up to visit.