Last updated 16 February 2021
Connect with nature in Lamington National Park
I have hiked various trails inside World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park, from the age of a complaining teen to now in my mid-50s as I leave behind the daily stresses of life by escaping in nature which conveniently happens to be close to home. In August 2019 I traversed the famous Border Track. Four weeks later destructive bushfires tore through the Binna Burra side of the Park destroying the much-loved historic Binna Burra Lodge. Twelve months later, I returned to the Gondwana Rainforest to check in on my treasured paradise.
This is an extract from a long-form feature story I wrote during 2020. It was published in the 2020 summer edition of Wild Magazine #178
A fiery weekend
On Friday the 6th of September (2019), the air was dry and hot on Binna Burra Mountain, the humidity sat at a miserly eight percent. The usually lush forest surrounding the heritage-listed Binna Burra Lodge was parched. Volunteer fire crews had been battling spot fires burning since August 31st after teenagers thoughtlessly discarded cigarette butts into the dry tinder. By mid-afternoon the winds from the west-northwest gusting up to 90 kilometres an hour, fuelled a fireball that rushed down the range, moving a staggering four kilometres in 10 minutes. Locals described the sky being an eerie shade, an apocalyptic mixture of light purple and dusty orange. Ash tumbled from its inky depths, swirling, spinning, scattering on the houses and rainforest below.
When the staff working at Binna Burra Lodge felt the heat blow up the valley, at 3.30 pm they made the call to fully evacuate the lodge, which was 100% occupied. Staff who lived locally had evacuated earlier in the morning to be with family and friends, ready to defend their properties.
By Saturday,18-metre-high flames ripped across the tops of the bone-dry eucalyptus trees in Beechmont, a small mountain hamlet located between the Lamington Plateau and Mount Tamborine in the Gold Coast Hinterland. Fires continued to burn in multiple areas around Binna Burra and down the Numingbah Valley towards Springbrook. Fire trucks were unable to access Binna Burra because of fallen trees. Planes dropped water from the air. The wind picked up momentum on Saturday night and by Sunday morning, Binna Burra Lodge and eleven homes in the Beechmont community were destroyed.
On Sunday morning a Greenpeace helicopter flew over Binna Burra, landing near Groom’s Cottage which survived intact. Nature tour guide Lisa Groom and her father Tony Groom, one of three sons of original Binna Burra owner Arthur Groom were the passengers. They made the solemn walk up the road towards the Main Lodge. The stone chimney was the only surviving structure where the lodge had stood for 86 years. Some sections of the ashen rubble were still smoking. Greenpeace unfurled a banner across the lawn in front of Groom’s Cottage. The simple message: “Climate Emergency.”
The historical and much-loved Binna Burra Lodge was the first tourism structure to be destroyed in the extraordinary 2019 Australian bushfires, which burned across the country on an unprecedented scale.
(According to ABC News between September and March more than 12.6 million hectares across Australia burned.)
Return to Lamington
Clouds hang low in the mountains shrouding the jagged peaks of the Scenic Rim in a misty veil. Senses are stirred. Memories, too. Childhood memories.
My childhood was interspersed with long walks in nature. They may not actually have been far in distance, but on little legs and with a short (ish) attention span they felt long. I have memories of family adventures. My parents, the initiators, my two brothers and I the reluctant tag-alongs. Growing up in Brisbane, we explored trails on Mount Tamborine in the Gold Coast hinterland, wandered through Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny before looking out over the craggy peaks of the Glass House Mountains, and took Sunday morning strolls through D’Aguilar National Park close to Brisbane.
As kids, we failed to appreciate the majesty of our surroundings. These outings were ‘just’ an adventure in the bush, usually associated with a fair amount of whinging.
“Do we have to go?” But reluctantly we went, bribed with the promise of an ice-cream reward afterwards (the simple pleasures.)
These walks, however, were transformative.
The essence of forest bathing
As a kid, I didn’t know of shinrin-yoku. I doubt many in Australia at the time, child or adult, had ever heard of the concept.
“Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest, breathe in the natural aromatherapy, and taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers in a stream. Lie on the ground. Do all these things and you will feel a sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense – a state of mind.”
Excerpt from the book “Forest Bathing” by Dr Qing Li.
Dr Li, a 54-year-old physician and President of the Japanese society of Forest Medicine, suggests by allowing nature to enter your senses – via your ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet – you unlock the power of the forest. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku – shinrin means “forest” and yoku means “bath” – forest bathing. Li’s research indicates there are health benefits associated with shinrin-yoku, including reducing blood pressure, lowering stress levels and boosting your immune system. I’m with Dr Li on this. I find forest bathing therapeutic, whether walking through a forest or bushland, it calms my mind and leaves me with a sense of contentment.
As a nine-year-old, while I never consciously thought about shinrin-yoku, I did practice my own form of it. During walks I would stop regularly, to stare upwards without stumbling. Through my young eyes I thought those lanky straight tree trunks reaching skywards, their tips touching the blue expanse, were soldiers, standing guard. I always felt secure and safe in their presence. Many decades later, as I’m walking a forest trail inside Lamington National Park (no longer as a reluctant tag-along) I find myself stopping, shifting my gaze to the tops of these towering giants, seeking out those interconnecting leafy fans which mesmerised me as a child. Although my shoulders are now much higher from the ground, these ancient trees appear taller, growing as they clamour with their neighbours for rare pockets of sunlight.
I breathe in that familiar fragrant rainforest smell. The combination of damp soil mixed with vegetation and decaying timber triggers childhood memories of ambling along Lamington’s well-trodden paths. Not that nature aesthetics were of interest to me as a kid. My recollections of Lamington are of the dinner bell ringing at Binna Burra Lodge announcing mealtimes and the brightly coloured friendly birds flocking to the plates of bird food purchased at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.
The Border Track – Binna Burra to Green Mountains
In August 2019, four weeks prior to the fires that would soon reduce the sections of the park to ashes, I returned to Lamington again, this time with a group on a two-night, three-day trip with walking adventure company, Life’s an Adventure. On the first night, after walking the Dave’s Circuit trail, we stayed at the historical Binna Burra Lodge, blissfully unaware we would never see the lodge again.
On the second day, we walked the Border track to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. Of the park’s 150 kilometres of maintained trails, this 21.4-kilometre track dubbed the ‘backbone’ of Lamington’s walking system, travels up the McPherson Range crossing the New South Wales and Queensland border several times. It is one of the park’s oldest trails, following the original route made in 1863 by surveyors Francis Roberts from Queensland and Isaiah Rowland from New South Wales. Their job was to establish an ‘intercolonial’ boundary line for early settlers (landholders) to know which ‘colony’ they had to pay rent to for their pastoral leases. With an average completion time of around six-seven hours, our intention was to reach O’Reilly’s in time for sunset cocktails.
Just over halfway, we stopped for lunch on the park’s highest peak, 1195m Mount Bithongabel. The clear day offered vistas overlooking the north eastern corner of New South Wales. In between overgrown trees, I glimpsed the patchwork of the Tweed River Valley below and the misshapen tip of Mount Warning, the remnants of an ancient shield volcano that erupted repeatedly 20-23 million years ago. To the east were ocean glimpses, and to the south, Byron Bay. Wary of the hour and the ground yet to cover, we continued our gradual descent, before weary legs propelled us into O’Reilly’s in time for dinner, followed by a glass (or two) of red relaxing in front of the library’s fireplace.
What makes Lamington National Park so special is the history
The traditional custodians of the Gold Coast and its hinterland were a family of Aboriginals belonging to the Yugambeh language people. The custodians who lived closest to where the Park is now—the Birinburra, Kombumerri, Wangerriburra and Migunberri People—believed the mountains to be sacred. For thousands of years, the Yugambeh People hunted and gathered food from the area; in the early 1900s, however, European colonisation sadly displaced them. The Yugambeh Museum and Research Centre in Beenleigh endeavours to maintain Yugambeh cultural awareness and preserve their unique language.
In 1878, conservationist Robert Collins began a campaign to designate the region around the McPherson Range a protected scenic area. In 1911, four years before the Queensland Government signed papers affirming national park status, eight O’Reilly men—five brothers and three cousins—purchased land on the range’s northern slopes, planning to clear it for dairy farming. Younger brother Bernard O’Reilly describes the landscape in his book, Green Mountains (published 1941):
“The blocks were sprawled across the rugged top of a high volcanic plateau; the soil was bright red, deep and rick enough to support a lavish rain forest; giant trees stood together thicker than the pillars in a cathedral with an undergrowth of tangled vine where every step has to be won by the chop of a brush hook.”
These pioneering O’Reilly’s possessed an indomitable spirit, carrying all food and equipment 16 miles up the range, on a bridle path over which only the hardiest of mountain horses could travel. Much of the kit was carried on the men’s backs to lessen the chance of losing it over the cliffs of the steep escarpments. The brothers spent a few years clearing parts of their land Bernard O’Reilly described “as a green wall over a hundred feet high, as definite and almost impenetrable as the ramparts of a medieval city.” After three years of hard labour clearing their blocks of land, the O’Reilly’s faced another battle. Lobbyists who were keen to avoid potential conflict with private landlords inside a National Park were pushing for the O’Reilly brothers to sell their land to the government. The O’Reilly brothers successfully held onto their land and four years after the official establishment as a park in 1915, Herb, Luke, Mick and Bernard O’Reilly were appointed honorary park rangers, with the unique status as private landholders within a national park.
Tom O’Reilly instigated the building of a ‘proper’ guest house. He saw the opportunity to capitalise on the steady stream of nature lovers making the precarious journey up the mountain. From Easter 1926, when the O’Reilly Guesthouse officially opened, visitors have continually made their way to this side of Green Mountains, as the western section of Lamington is known. In 1955, second-generation O’Reilly brothers, Peter and Vince, took over the running of the guest house; now Peter’s son Shane manages the family property, along with other O’Reilly family members.
On the northern side of the range at Mount Roberts, Romeo Lahey and Arthur Groom purchased 178 acres of native land (without access). In 1933, they founded Binna Burra Mountain Lodge. Beginning as a tented site, they charged visitors five shillings a day, and provided accommodation, food and guided walks. Permanent log cabins were added in 1939, to accommodate up to 54 guests. And the intentions for Binna Burra were the same as for O’Reilly’s Guesthouse—for people to stay and experience the magic of Lamington National Park.
*The opening photo of me at Elabana Falls and photos of me sitting in the tree and peering up at the giant Brush Box was taken by Andrew Rankin. Unfortunately, photo credit for Andrew was not acknowledged in the story in Wild Magazine.